The Foreign Service Journal, April 2023
40 APRIL 2023 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Contact: email@example.com | (202) 841-7744 FAS VP VOICE | BY LISA AHRAMJIAN AFSA NEWS Cultivating the Next Generation of Ag Leaders As Dr. Benjamin Hooks, for- mer executive director of the NAACP, eloquently stated: “If you think you are leading and turn around to see no one following, then you are just taking a walk.” From violent geopolitical conflicts to internal chal- lenges, Foreign Service officers often face serious obstacles at home and abroad. Given that FSOs in all agencies tend to be a high-performing bunch, we have high expectations of our leaders. Watching them deftly navigate seemingly impossible situations with poise, principles, and human- ity inspires us to rally behind them, and to step into their big shoes one day. A per- ception of less than stellar leadership can demotivate and fragment an organization instead of uniting it. In FAS, we are very skilled at, for example, analyzing wheat production, sup- ply, and distribution, and articulating how agricul- tural innovation will help a country’s farmers adapt to climate change. However, acquisition of the soft skills that are necessary to be a true leader—which boil down to both strength and empathy—may not occur as naturally. Especially since many of our current Senior Foreign Service (SFS) officers plan to retire in the next few years, AFSA applauds FAS’ recent focus on developing its future cadre of leaders. Earlier this year, the agency launched its third semester- long leadership course for mid-level officers, which includes a 360-degree assessment and multiple coaching sessions. This well-regarded pro- gram will pay dividends as those FSOs rise through the ranks, and it should continue. Since executive leadership is a journey and not a destina- tion, FAS should also align with the State Department and require its senior officers to take the Senior Executive Threshold Seminar, paired with executive coaching. In addition, as we embark on collective bargaining agreement renegotiations, AFSA is evaluating the pre- requisites to cross the SFS threshold. Currently, FSOs in Class 1 are required to have been assigned and served as the most senior agricul- tural officer in an overseas office and as a supervisor or management official in Washington, D.C. Neither eligibility criterion has an explicit time require- ment, but FSOs must have also served in Class 1 for at least one year. They may then open their window for entry into the SFS in hopes of flying through it within a 12-year period. AFSA does not envision changes to the overseas head-of-office requirement: it’s essential, and FSOs have ample opportunities to meet it. However, as I’ve explained in this column previously, supervisory positions can be hard to come by in FAS Washington, especially since we don’t have many FSO- designated positions. This can lead to FSOs having to take lower-ranked positions or delay their eligibility for SFS, which is neither fair nor in the agency’s best interests. Historically, some FSOs have checked this box by serving in a qualifying posi- tion for only a few months, or by sharing supervision of one administrative staff member at HQ. This does not appear to meet the spirit of the requirement, which is intended for FSOs to gain substantive experience in a broader agency context while encumbering a rela- tively senior position at HQ. At the same time, AFSA agrees that experience supervising Americans and serving in a relatively senior position at HQ should be prerequisites. However, we think some changes to the HQ service requirement would provide some flexibil- ity, for both the agency and FSOs. One solution could be to require that FSOs serve in a Class 1 or 2 HQ position or as the AFSA vice president and manage an American anywhere in the world. Many FSOs would satisfy both requirements at the same time by serving in a supervisory position at HQ. However, they could also accomplish this via two separate roles: (1) manag- ing FSOs overseas, and (2) serving in a nonsupervisory HQ position, e.g., as a senior adviser or as the AFSA vice president (in my humble opinion, an important role that FAS has a hard time filling). Serving in a hardship post, while a norm, should also be an explicit require- ment for eligibility into the SFS. All prerequisites should have a one-year minimum. AFSA looks forward to thoughtful discussions with FAS and its FSOs about the prerequisites that unlock the elusive window to our most demanding and sensi- tive roles, and ensuring the agency provides ample opportunities to meet them. FAS and AFSA have a shared goal to ensure that we are cultivating not just strong export numbers, but also effective leaders with cohesive teams behind them to achieve our agency’s priorities. n AFSA looks forward to thoughtful discussions with FAS and its FSOs about the prerequisites that unlock the elusive window to our most demanding and sensitive roles.
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