Breaking Away from “Born, Not Made”

Speaking Out


Speaking Out is the Journal’s opinion forum, a place for lively discussion of issues affecting the U.S. Foreign Service and American diplomacy. The views expressed are those of the author; their publication here does not imply endorsement by the American Foreign Service Association. Responses are welcome; send to

The Department of State’s Diplomatic Readiness Initiative hiring surge from 2001 to 2004 included active recruitment for specialized languages and experiences. The expanded hiring should have been matched with relevant changes to our organizational culture and accompanying systems like promotions, education, evaluations and assignments. Unfortunately, it was not. It is often said by department leaders that great diplomats “rise to the top” and “hard work is rewarded,” but it isn’t clear how a person’s efforts will deliver promotions and opportunities. In fact, what allows some to rise over others?

Director General Carol Perez’s recent personnel reform efforts have sounded the alarm, highlighting the need for a new organizational culture. But her endeavors alone will not right the ship of State so long as our community continues to act on our antiquated thinking, and our personnel systems do not fully capture or keep pace with the diversity of our people. The rigid institutional identity underlying these systems—which can be summed up as a belief that diplomats are “born, not made”—remains pervasive.

This organizational culture is preventing the State Department from realizing the full potential of the wide spectrum of people that make up our department, including not only the ethnic, racial and religious diversity of our colleagues, but also nontraditional structures such as international or interagency marriages, single parents, divorced tandem spouses and second-career professionals, among others.

The situation, perpetuated now by mostly outdated systems, is unlikely to change unless we are aware of our outdated views of the traditional workplace and break with this arcane thinking. It is incumbent upon each of us to recognize that diplomats should be made with experience, mentorship and training, and that it is essential that the department modernize the personnel systems on which we rely to ensure they reward talent and merit (not simply years of service).

Training: Ready, Set, Diplomat

We describe ourselves as learned, and the Foreign Service Act of 1980 explicitly directs the executive branch to develop a corps of well-prepared officers, “representative of the American people” and “informed of current concerns and trends in American life, knowledgeable of the affairs, cultures and languages of other countries.” If the department’s role is to conduct foreign policy, it would stand to reason that continuous education is important.

Yet although we pride ourselves on being smart, we do not hold education in high esteem. Many among us have fondly referred to learning the art of diplomacy as “on-the-job training.” A more accurate descriptor is “learn as you go.” Newly arrived staff at a post, including first-tour officers, are lucky if they receive notes handed over by their predecessors. The majority of training (not education) a generalist receives throughout their career is in foreign languages or technical skills (e.g., budgeting and contracting).

Mandatory leadership training for mid-level specialists and generalists is given for three weeks over a normal career of more than 15 years, and our orientation courses for new Foreign Service generalists and specialists last six weeks and three weeks, respectively. Civil Service foreign affairs professionals receive just a one-week orientation in most cases.

Modules in some of these courses focus on leadership development, including a new leadership capstone project in A-100. There is also a separate “One Team” course for newly hired employees that brings together various employment categories to learn about the department’s mission, culture and history. These are steps in the right direction, but are not nearly enough to develop the corps of leaders the department needs at every level.

Specialized skills courses in, for instance, negotiations, crisis management and public speaking taught by experienced officers are only infrequently available and not required. These are skills that should be taught, not learned ad hoc on the job.

By comparison, a Marine Corps officer receives 2.5 years of initial training, including learning the culture of the institution, followed by additional training throughout their career.

At State, employees can take rotations and assignments outside the department, but doing so sometimes comes with a cost. For some FSOs on detail assignments, promotion is delayed because the panels, reflecting State culture, do not view learning as part of our work. Attending long-term education programs in some cases even carries a negative stigma. Often, it seems, detail assignments and long-term training are viewed as resting sites for returnees from high-stress posts and as last resorts for undesirable officers lacking onward assignments.

Without a more significant investment in education, we are abdicating our responsibility to prepare the next wave of diplomats. While we have been hiring from a much wider scope and breadth of backgrounds and education, our failure to invest in education undermines retention and sets up the next generation of diplomats to be less effective.

Promotions: A Departmentwide Writing Contest

The recently renamed Global Talent Management Bureau (previously HR) brought thoughtful changes to the evaluation process in recent years by making the form shorter and granting employees a greater say in their self-evaluation. However, for all the changes, it remains subjective. Unlike the pass/fail Civil Service evaluations or the private sector’s various metrics-based evaluations, there are few quantifiable criteria or comparable data for the promotion panels to use.

Moreover, promotion panels are not a trained, professional cadre of evaluators; rather, they are a jury of our peers, with their own widely differing biases, standards and criteria. Research shows that objective rules tend to be applied rigorously to out-groups (those who are different from “us”), but leniently to in-groups (those who share commonalities), and that this effect is more pronounced when review criteria—for example, the core precepts—aren’t clearly specified or taught.

It is very likely that our promotion and awards systems are accentuating biases that are slowing down promotions for some over others. For instance, according to a 2019 study in Frontiers in Psychology, research shows that women are often hired based on their accomplishments, while men are hired based on their potential. If Foreign Service evaluations are supposed to be an assessment of future potential, how might this affect advancement?

According to, research on bias has also shown that replacing a woman’s name with a man’s name on a résumé improved the odds of the woman being hired by more than 60 percent. Similarly, a 2017 study published by Harvard Business Review noted that hiring rates doubled when names were made “whiter.” Why wouldn’t this apply to promotions, too?

Without a more significant investment in education, we are abdicating our responsibility to prepare the next wave of diplomats.

With raters and reviewers’ biases playing an outsized role in the advancement of our employees, how does even the best panel then take up the task of comparing one officer’s accomplishments during a crisis in a politically volatile country to another officer’s accomplishments maintaining a strong bilateral relationship in an economically and politically stable country?

More important, 90 percent of the evaluation focuses on accomplishments and less than 10 percent on areas for development. While feedback from panels routinely indicates that the area for improvement should not be a throwaway, using the space correctly nonetheless remains an exercise informed by rumor and potentially false assumptions (e.g., never list “interpersonal skills”).

This is not conducive to developing the skills necessary to advance in one’s career, nor does it help the department build a professional corps of expert diplomats; and it reinforces the “born, not made” mindset.

One way to expand on an already positive trend is to shift into name-redacted, gender-neutral evaluations and awards, as was done in the new Meritorious Service Increase process in 2019. The launch of online and classroom unconscious-bias awareness training is welcome, and should be made mandatory for everyone.

Evaluations can further evolve to include a score, so that the evaluation is less dependent on the rater’s and reviewer’s writing skills. We can also look at ways to make evaluations more concrete and link them to onward assignments.

Assignments: Who You Know, Not What You Can Do

Bidding instructions in 2019 urged people to consider their qualifications before bidding. It was a mixed message, because experience tells us that it’s not skills and qualifications that get jobs, but personal connections. This undoubtedly holds true for bureaus that employ centralized bidding processes, despite their claims to be open and transparent. Reaching the Senior Foreign Service and being hired into the Senior Executive Service require a well-rounded career, and this is a function of the assignment process and the accessibility of opportunities for professional growth.

When assignments are a crucial part of an officer’s education and development, it is easy to see how the belief that “diplomats are born, not made” is upheld. The culture of the department tells us the best officers will shine through and rise above the rest, naturally. Another way to put it: If you are good, you will get the best projects, the best jobs and the promotions. Yet reality has shown us that doing more work is not necessarily the right way to get promotions or good onward assignments, and the allocation of those opportunities is subject to the will of your boss and who you know.

A backlash against bad managers, “screamers,” who effectively manage their corridor reputations to their own benefit led to a revolution in the assignments process in 2006: the introduction of the online 360 evaluation. In theory, it would give voice to subordinates to help weed out those officers who were best at “kissing up and kicking down,” as we call it. It is welcome news that recently one more bureau joined the shared 360 platform.

That said, the current format for 360s is not much more than a digitized rumor mill and extension of the corridor reputation that is often manipulated, lacks Equal Employment Opportunity oversight and is unevenly applied across the department.

In the best scenario, the soon-to-be launched TalentMap could revamp the 360 bidding process as the first stop for bidders, with GTM offices reviewing name-redacted and gender-neutral résumés and conducting first-round interviews for all posts. Skills-based interviews with the same questions for all applicants that directly relate to the desired knowledge and skills needed could give hiring managers objective criteria to better match candidates with staffing needs.

Shifting to a preestablished rubric could have a lasting effect on abolishing the favoritism that may be the root cause of the department’s failure to be inclusive and diverse, as laid out in the Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan.

The Challenge: Now What?

This is our Department of State. We have a Director General heralding a time of change, and we have the power to reshape our institution to become more aligned with our modern world. As a department, we can acknowledge that becoming an effective diplomat is an active effort born of blood, sweat and tears.

We can foster professional growth in our community by mandating and rewarding educational opportunities, and agreeing that long-term training is work for which we should be evaluated and recognized. As a requirement for one’s own promotion, we can institute mentoring and professional development of one’s subordinates and peers—not only to improve their professional abilities, but to strengthen our department and community.

We can use our referent power to make the institution more inclusive, dynamic and effective. We can continue this conversation through the Director General’s open conversations and other dialogues within the department on how to best achieve these aims.

Most important, we can move away from vague definitions of good diplomacy in exchange for defined examples we aspire to replicate. We can identify rules and regulations in the FAM/FAH that preserve the biases that hurt our efforts to become an expert, professional diplomatic corps; and we can advocate for changes to these rules.

By collectively acknowledging and actively working to demand and create a new organizational culture—one where we acknowledge that diplomats are not born, but made—we are more likely to achieve the results we seek. In this manner, we are more likely to attract, retain and reward the workforce we both need and have promised the American people.

Andrea Susana Martinez Donnally joined the State Department Foreign Service in 2004 after six years as an international trade specialist with the Foreign Commercial Service. She has served in Colombia, Iraq, Tunisia, India and Cyprus, in addition to assignments in Washington, D.C. After joining the department, she married and now has three young children, a dog and a working partner.

Christina T. Le joined the Foreign Service in 2009 and has served in Mexico, Greece and Japan, as well as in Washington, D.C. She was president of the Asian American Foreign Affairs Association from 2015 to 2018. She was a co-recipient of the 2017 William R. Rivkin Award for Constructive Dissent and a National Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.