Building the Deep Bench

President's Views


I wrote in my very first column of the joy of receiving members of the 183rd A-100 class at AFSA headquarters, in my first act after being sworn in as president in July. Their excitement and enthusiasm about their careers was contagious.

Recently, I shared lunch and a considerably more somber conversation with members of the 185th A-100 class. They are ready to serve, but concerned.

Their concern: that the recent surge in demand for entry-level consular adjudicators will lead to back-to-back consular tours that will distort their career paths and hinder their development into well-rounded Foreign Service officers.

One thoughtful member of the class followed up with me in writing, describing the impact of the “present crushing demand” for consular staffing and urging expanded use of the limited non-career appointment (LNA) adjudicator program.

The current A-100 class, he wrote, “consists of 93 members, all of whom will serve in the consular section during their first tour. It is highly likely that a majority will serve their second tour in the consular section, as well. Of those 93, only 20 are actually consular-coned officers. If the desired end state is well-rounded officers, the remaining 73 individuals are being put at a disadvantage.”

AFSA agrees that the desired end state is well-rounded officers. In fact, a key purpose of the Foreign Service personnel system is to produce a deep bench of experienced, seasoned leaders year after year.

How are those leaders produced? Primarily through a series of varied and increasingly responsible assignments. The rule of thumb is 70-20-10: that is, 70 percent of career development comes from a carefully thought out series of assignments; 20 percent from mentoring; and 10 percent from formal training.

On-the-job training, through assignments designed to master the core business and develop a leader, is not just nice to have if circumstances permit. On the contrary, it is the primary means by which the Foreign Service develops the next generation of leaders.

The training acquired through assignments is the primary means by which the Foreign Service develops the next generation of leaders.

A consular tour—for all officers, of every cone—is an important step in mastering the core business of the Foreign Service, including leader development, a signature strength of Consular Affairs. That said, when the one or two years of consular work slip to four, five or six years, we are putting career development at risk.

AFSA recognizes the short-term challenge of filling a sharply higher number of entry-level consular adjudicator slots and will engage constructively with department management to address it.

As the principal advocate for the long-term institutional health of the Foreign Service, AFSA will insist that solutions to the short-term challenge give due weight to the long-term well-being of our competitive up-or-out Service.

Here is the good news. The current staffing challenge pales in comparison to past challenges and can be easily overcome—without sacrificing access to the varied assignments key to career development.

Let’s do some quick math. Workload projections indicate that 600 entry-level consular adjudicators are needed this year. About 365 positions will be filled with new entry-level officers, leaving a gap of 235 positions.

How does filling 235 LNA positions in cities like São Paulo, Guadalajara and Shanghai stack up against past challenges?

As deputy coordinator for Iraq in January 2007, I found myself with less than a year to get more than 600 trained civilians to Iraq, then experiencing horrific violence. It was the largest deployment of civilians to a war zone since the Vietnam War, and we filled every position.

To my new colleagues in the 185th A100 class, I say: Fear not. You joined a strong, resilient organization, one that has faced down bigger challenges in the past. Count on AFSA to advocate ceaselessly and effectively for a career path that ensures that you too can develop into the seasoned, well-rounded leaders the Foreign Service needs.

Ambassador Barbara Stephenson is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.