Bring Back the Powell Fellows Program

Speaking Out


In an April 2013 article in The Atlantic, “The White House’s Secret Diplomatic Weapon,” author Nicholas Kralev said that his research had suggested that the State Department has a specific weakness in not adequately “identifying promising young Foreign Service officers and nurturing them to become strong leaders and top-notch diplomats.”

Unfortunately, he’s right, as practically everyone agrees, including some of the department’s top leaders. In spite of this, in 2009 State effectively canceled the only vehicle—the Powell Fellows Program—that sought to identify, train and mentor our future leaders.

Here’s why we should bring it back.

Identifying Leaders

As an organization, we face a number of challenges in identifying mid-level officers with the genuine potential to be our future leaders—or in Kralev’s words, our “next Bill Burns.” Those challenges range from the bureaucratic, such as a broken evaluation and promotion process, to the cultural: ingrained biases against critical employee evaluation ratings and a disproportionate fear of nepotism.

As if these faulty building blocks were not bad enough, we also fail to be proactive about recognizing talent within our ranks, and then working to ensure that we both keep that talent and make full use of it. While the task of identifying future leaders has links to issues such as evaluations and promotions, it is a fundamentally different problem given the Foreign Service’s rank-in-person system. In that respect, our challenge in some ways mirrors that of the military.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is among those who have said the Foreign Service could learn from the U.S. armed forces. “They actually do career planning with their people,” she’s quoted as saying in the same Atlantic article. Rice adds that early in enlistees’ careers, the U.S. military identifies individuals with the potential to rise through the ranks, and gives them a series of experiences to get them ready. Similarly, retired Ambassador Cameron Munter, quoted in the same article, says that military brass “look at the captain and major levels and pick winners.”

The department effectively cancelled the only vehicle that sought to identify, train and mentor our future leaders.

Instead of following an organized, methodical process to “pick winners” while they are still at mid-level, we push off any sort of career development process onto our officers themselves. Moreover, our helter-skelter assignment process, which is completely divorced from our evaluation process, forms the crux of our career development system. Obtaining each assignment you desire relies on a combination of your intangible “corridor reputation” and your skill at lobbying for that position.

Nowhere in the process do we stop to identify nascent leaders—not who will fit into which next assignment, but who has shown the potential and capacity to be an ambassador, assistant secretary or even under secretary 15 or 20 years down the line.

While the military faces challenges of its own related to training and retaining talented leaders, they are still well ahead of the Foreign Service. We do not have programs to ferret out and cultivate our best and brightest, much less to prepare them to become our next generation of leaders. But we used to.

The Powell Fellows Program

In 2005 the department began what was, for State, a new and innovative approach. Run jointly out of the Secretary of State’s office and the Foreign Service Institute, the Powell Fellows Program selected a dozen or so mid-level Foreign Service officers and specialists, Civil Service employees at the GS-12 or GS-13 level and at least one officer from USAID, all of whom were seen to have leadership potential.

The selectees always included officers in Washington and overseas, and they were nominated by bureau assistant secretaries. A small committee made up of the Foreign Service director general, the Foreign Service Institute director and the executive secretary then vetted the nominations and proposed a slate to the Secretary of State.

Once the group was set—the first year saw 13 participants selected from 70-plus nominations—participants were brought together three or four times throughout the year for three days of training.

These sessions would feature high-level State Department leaders, including the Secretary of State, who would speak to the group for a minimum of an hour. The sessions focused on specific themes developed jointly by FSI and the department’s seventh floor, such as the workings of the interagency process or management challenges across the Civil Service-Foreign Service divide.

The organizers strove for an even split in the sessions between substantive policy issues and leadership practices. In total, the program cost about $50,000 per year, according to former FSI Director Ruth Whiteside, who was intimately involved in running it.

The organizers strove for an even split in the sessions between substantive policy issues and leadership practices.

According to former Powell Fellows, the program more than accomplished its goals, and created an alternative way for the department to recognize its star achievers. As one participant put it: “While promotions have a mandatory wait of at least three years, and State’s awards system is ineffective, the Powell Fellows program gave the department a useful and helpful way to, once a year, select the best of the best.”

Beyond the actual content of the quarterly training sessions, participants report that the program gave them an instant network of top leaders, which brought with it links and opportunities they would not have otherwise had. One told me that many of his colleagues had landed highly sought-after positions and opportunities at State and other agencies due to contacts they’d made during the program.

So what happened to the Powell Fellows Program? After three yearlong runs (2005-2008), it simply ended during the transition from Secretary Rice to Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton. One Fellow told me it “fell through the cracks” despite transition memos passed between the two administrations and Clinton staffers being briefed on the program.

Bring It Back

The State Department should bring back the Powell Fellows Program and, in so doing, should consider a few steps to enhance it. This might include increasing the size of the program, though the Fellows I’ve spoken with all point to the small group dynamic as crucial to the program’s success. But State could run three different “classes” each year, bumping the number to 36 participants a year.

The program could also give participants a more active role, along the lines of the Excellence in Government Fellowship. Each group of Fellows could tackle a specific project to improve a particular aspect of the State workplace—showing their capacity, as one put it, “to be current, not future, leaders.”

Another idea is to establish a mentoring program for Powell Fellows during the year following their participation in the program. Each would be paired with a senior department leader, and the two would meet throughout the year.

Regardless of whether changes are made, it is clear that the end of the Powell Fellows Program, and the absence of any initiatives to replace it, has left a significant gap. The program gave State flexibility in identifying its strongest performers, something it currently lacks. The program also gave mid-level officers something to strive for, and enhanced their skills, knowledge and understanding of what it takes to be a leader in the Foreign Service. And it did all that for just $50,000 a year.

The department needs to become more involved in the process of proactively identifying its future leaders—and then equipping them for roles of increasing responsibility within our organization. The Powell Fellows Program is one step toward accomplishing that admittedly daunting task. It worked before, and it can work again.

Tyler Sparks joined the Foreign Service in 2005, and has served in Malawi, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Ecuador, where he currently serves as deputy political counselor. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.