Achieving meaningful change requires a fundamental shift in the Department of State’s handling of its most important asset: its people.
BY CHARITY L . BOYETTE
The first half of 2020 forced all of us to reconsider what we previously “knew” to be true. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted nearly every element of life, work and play, revealing fault lines in the American public many suspected existed only on the fringe. One of the deepest of these fault lines erupted following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many other fellow citizens, demonstrating yet again the devastating reality of institutionalized racism.
As the collected voices of protestors grew louder, Americans across the social, economic and political spectrums were forced to reckon with their own—often unrecognized or unacknowledged— biases, prejudices and assumptions that enable the systems keeping significant portions of our population in perpetual second-class status. For members of the U.S. Foreign Service, that introspection was often visceral and shocking, as current and former colleagues shared deeply personal accounts of racist treatment by their fellow citizens, employees of other agencies and—most shamefully—their colleagues in Washington and missions abroad.
In the midst of this reckoning, several past and present members of the foreign affairs community—inspired both by the courage of the colleagues who volunteered their experiences and the fervent desire as representatives of the United States to do better, to demand better, to be better—began to collect ideas for reforming the Foreign Service to address the processes that perpetuate inequity, hamstring efforts to diversify the workforce and block the diplomatic corps from benefiting from the wide range of backgrounds, experiences, capabilities and cultures found in the American population.
Reading through the many proposals offered up on social media threads, it was clear that achieving meaningful change requires a fundamental shift in the Department of State’s handling of its most important asset: its people. To meet the challenges ahead, the Foreign Service and its officers must prioritize management tradecraft in hiring, tenure, promotion and assignments decisions to be able to set—and meet—aggressive goals to strengthen itself through diversity.
Management, as a skill set, is far too often ignored in favor of leadership or dismissed as an automatic corollary to technical competence. The latter is a frequent problem in all industries; it is assumed that the ability to do a task well also confers the ability to manage other people who do that task. A significant body of study exists disproving that theory, but it continues to thrive, including in the Foreign Service.
Among the reasons for its perpetuation is the frequent conflation of management and leadership, which happens when the characteristics we expect our “leaders” to display are actually examples of good management— namely, thinking strategically, facilitating organizational change, setting goals and amassing sufficient resources to achieve them. Ask any FSO to describe the best officer they’ve encountered during their career, and, inevitably, the attributes are more practical than esoteric, with descriptors like “fair,” “goal-oriented” and “pragmatic.” Because good managers move the organization forward, they are always leaders; unfortunately, however, the reverse is not necessarily true.
The absence of a management mindset in designing and implementing the systems that support the people and practices of the State Department is most apparent in the process of selecting new officers, awarding tenure and promotions, and making officer assignments; and a direct line connects the continuing struggle to diversify to this deficiency. “Management skills” as a category does not factor into the Foreign Service Officer Qualifications (the “13 Dimensions”) used to select new FSOs; the closest thing to it, “Initiative and Leadership,” focuses exclusively on the officer’s own ability to “assume responsibility,” “persist” and “influence,” with no expectation of directing, enabling or improving the performance of others.
With this narrow scope, it is not surprising that many officers view success solely in terms of their own actions, a mindset that is reinforced through the development of the employee evaluation reports (EERs) on which tenure and promotion decisions are based. Used to following the EER narrative formula of explaining “what I did, and why it mattered,” many officers are understandably challenged by shifting to “what we did, and how I facilitated that” at later points in their careers.
The bigger problem, for many, is that those team lead roles often start much earlier. While the majority of first-tour officers are assigned to busy consular sections with multiple levels of supervision, a fair number are called on to manage teams straight out of their A-100 orientation course, either due to the nature of their position or an unexpected need once arriving at post. General services officers (GSOs), for instance, often supervise large teams of locally employed (LE) staff, and decisions of which officer to assign to that role at entry level are usually driven more by existing language skills or the ability to meet training timelines than inherent management capability. Yet these are the people who have direct responsibility for the parts of the “FS life” that tangibly affect every overseas officer, including housing, travel and maintenance services—activities for which real management skills are essential.
Performance management is one of the most difficult—and critical—responsibilities of every organization. Even the best candidate selection system will yield employees who struggle to excel in the abilities necessary for a successful career. The department’s approach to performance management, however, is so haphazard, inconsistent and lacking in independent measures as to render it useless as a tool for evaluation.
The EER, on which all tenure and promotion decisions are based, contains only three narrative sections: one is completed by the employee, one by the employee’s direct supervisor (the “rater”) and a third by another evaluator (the “reviewer”) who is generally the rater’s supervisor or another senior-level officer. The lion’s share of the writing comes from the employee, who provides a brief description of their work during the rating period; objective evaluation of one’s own performance is not the goal. While both the rater and reviewer statements are expected to evaluate the employee, those assessments are inherently subjective in nature and too often focus on future potential rather than recent performance.
“Management skills” as a category does not factor into the Foreign Service Officer Qualifications (the “13 Dimensions”) used to select new FSOs.
Further complicating the performance management process is the complete lack of objective, measurable criteria on which to base evaluations. EERs become a case of comparing apples to oranges (and mangos, bananas, peaches, too), even when the roles held by officers are relatively the same. As a result, tenure and promotion panels must infer officer competency; under these circumstances, the ability to write well becomes the most influential factor in rising to the top of the tenure and promotion lists. This allows insider knowledge, including coded language, to disadvantage officers whose abilities would otherwise distinguish them on a more level playing field.
There is a belief among FSOs that promotions reward good EERs and assignments reward good officers. Is that truly the case? The current open assignments “bidding” process suggests the opposite. For officers past entry level, the system of pursuing their next assignment is every bit as subject to bias and inequity as the tenuring and promotion processes. Officers identify upcoming vacancies that meet their preferences for role, location, language requirement and living situation, and then “lobby” for assignment to those positions. A common first step is contacting the incumbent to learn more about the duties and demands and then reaching out formally to the person designated to select the candidate.
What should follow is a structured evaluation and interview process, wherein candidates demonstrate they possess the necessary skills and experience to succeed in the new role in response to questions designed to evaluate thoroughly and objectively the candidates’ qualifications. Candidates submit references from former supervisors, colleagues and subordinates to provide additional context for their previous performance. Mission and office senior leadership, in consultation with each other and bureau stakeholders, assess bidders’ strengths and weaknesses, weighing them against the particular needs of the role, to identify the best person to fill the vacancy.
In practice, this rarely happens. Every FSO knows someone who received a “handshake” offer for an assignment without speaking to anyone about it, and they know of colleagues who were pushed out of contention by other FS members lacking the requisite grade, experience or practical skills. Decision-makers do not receive training on how to evaluate either the positions they fill or the candidates they interview in terms of identifying critical skills and abilities to ensure an effective match between the two, nor do they have any quantitative measures of the candidates’ performance.
The only “external” evaluations are the recommendations completed by former colleagues selected by the candidate. Decision-makers are, therefore, forced to rely on highly subjective material in selecting officers for assignments, including the favorable endorsement of the cadre of highly placed friends, former colleagues and senior leaders deployed by officers to lobby on their behalf. Compounding these problems is the fact that many decision-makers will themselves move on before or shortly after the new officer arrives, meaning they have no “skin in the game” in their own decisions.
Here, the lack of fundamental management skills can have far-reaching negative consequences for entire sections and missions. No matter how busy they are with other tasks, effective managers understand the criticality of having the right people in place; staffing decisions are among the most important actions they will take during their careers, and they prioritize them accordingly. Officers assigned to roles they are unable to fill successfully jeopardize the ability to meet mission goals, undermine morale and set a poor example for more junior officers to follow. FSOs empowered to make assignments must ensure they identify selection criteria objectively and base candidate evaluations on those standards instead of personal connections or gut instinct. The latter has been shown repeatedly to favor those who resemble the decision-maker, thereby inhibiting diversity at all levels of the Foreign Service.
For entry into the Senior Foreign Service, the department has issued (and revised) a checklist of requirements; interested officers must take personal responsibility for ensuring they meet the minimum necessary to put themselves forward for consideration. Why has State not taken a similar approach to tenure and promotion requirements, focusing on tangible, measurable skills? These “road maps” would provide raters and reviewers with tools to evaluate officers, while allowing tenure and promotion panels to compare apples to apples. Similarly, with quantitative data, FSOs who supervise others (including LE staff, whose performance and development are often severely neglected in favor of their FSO colleagues) can be evaluated on how well they manage their team members.
On a more macro scale, performance data provides leaders at all levels of the department with ongoing feedback on how well their workforce is executing the policies and projects that advance U.S. foreign policy, as well as gauging the engagement and satisfaction of that workforce. The importance of this last component cannot be overstated: Like all professionals, FSOs expect—and deserve—to be valued, respected and treated fairly. When those elements are absent, job performance suffers as officers disengage or separate from the department, imposing obstacles to policy execution and leading to an incalculable loss of the knowledge, experience and mentorship so critical to a profession that relies heavily on learning the job by doing it.
While training can enhance management tradecraft, it seldom instills the recognition of its intrinsic value effectively. The Foreign Service Institute’s financial management courses, for example, teach how to reconcile fiscal statements, not why reconciling them is necessary. Too often, FSI’s management tradecraft training prioritizes a hodgepodge of outdated tools over foundational skills in planning, executing and evaluating based on data, mission goals and a strategic mindset. These are the skills fundamental to every role, at every level in the Foreign Service, from the entry-level first-time control officer to the chief of mission rallying her team through a global pandemic.
Prioritizing strong people and project management puts the focus squarely on skills that advance the department and reflects the evolving realities of the 21st-century workplace. Incorporating good management tradecraft has the dual benefit of enhancing engagement while leveling the playing field for all officers. Strong managers empower their team members by ensuring they have the resources they need to execute their jobs, including materials, training, coaching and, when necessary, correction. Most importantly, they instill confidence that their team members will be treated fairly, evaluated on their contributions, valued for their inherent diversity and vigorously defended if the first three are threatened. The best performing organizations demand adherence to this mindset; as envoys of the American experiment, the professionals of the U.S. Foreign Service deserve nothing less.