The Foreign Service Journal, April 2024

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | APRIL 2024 31 national Women’s Forum, I focused on “executive presence” at State and undertook to better understand how our organizational culture shapes perceptions of competency and what it takes to look, sound, and behave like a leader at the department. Working with Executive Women at State, we organized a series of workshops attended by more than a thousand participants who reviewed how acting with con dence and demonstrating good judgment and preparedness—both for a meeting’s audience and its substance—positively a ect outcomes and everyone’s ability to contribute. is topic really resonated with people, and we all bene ted from discussing how to lean into executive presence at State. Yet, it was clear from audience feedback that the experience of many—honestly expressing their views if they did not align with those of their leadership, showing up to work as their authentic selves, or otherwise challenging the status quo—was a risky endeavor best avoided. Given promotion statistics and experiences on the job, audience members questioned whether employees who don’t t the mold in one way or another were fairly assessed and perceived as deserving of promotion to the highest ranks—even if they prepared fully and succeeded in strengthening their executive presence. I have to believe this circumstance is shaped in part by bullying behaviors that disproportionately target people perceived as other, di erent, and less worthy of sitting at the table. Set Operational Norms of Respect If we’re ever really going to end the behaviors that employees continue to report as a major concern, leaders have a responsibility to “set the table” and create operational norms of respect, humility, inclusion, and empathy. Even when we are busy. Even when the issues are urgent. is is not something leaders must do to be “nice”; it’s something we do because it helps draw out good ideas, retain the best people, and protect those among our teams who may be more vulnerable to toxic behavior. I count among my greatest mentors those bosses who understood this and brought out the best in me. I shamelessly borrow from their playbooks as I continue to develop my own competency in this area of norm creation and pay their investment forward. I also rely on verbal and nonverbal feedback from my team and mentees to gut-check how I’m doing at setting that table. In my current assignment, I have the honor of serving as ambassador to Oman. I have been entrusted by the president and the Secretary of State to lead and care for a fantastic team dedicated to advancing our national interests here. I am determined to foster an embassy workspace and culture where inclusion, candor, and mutual respect are the norm, and where we all ourish by denying bullying behavior the tacit permission it requires to persist. Lessons Learned Here are a few leadership lessons learned that I share in the spirit of the resolution I made at my desk years ago: Be self-aware. Take the time to consider and convey what successful communication looks like at meetings you lead. Often, we hit the ground running and don’t make the time to set up our teams for success in working with us. Convey clear expectations so everyone on your team understands how you prefer to receive information and how you expect them to communicate with you and one another. In our hierarchical organization, the norms you establish will trickle across and down. Set an example. Be the change you want to see. Really listen to people and what they are trying to say, and put yourself in their shoes. Imagine where they are coming from and how intimidating or di cult it might be for them to brief in an unfamiliar environment. is is a core tenet of servant leadership: Never interrupt when people are attempting to make a point. Also, when someone briefs you, thank them. Indicate that you have listened and absorbed what was just said. is goes double if they have initiated a di cult conversation, challenged your beliefs, or provided honest feedback—all gifts of trust that are increasingly rare and valuable as you enter positions of greater authority. Context matters; none of our interaction with sta happens in a vacuum. It’s important to explain the reasoning for your decisions and trust that your sta will understand, whether they are related to policy, budget, or personnel. In a vacuum, absent rsthand data from you, people will make assumptions about your intentions. It is vital that senior leaders keep their nger on the pulse and hold their middle managers accountable for table setting, because members of your team will assume that tolerance for bullying or toxic behaviors they experience from peers or direct supervisors may on some level channel your tacit acceptance. Give constructive and speci c feedback and do it privately ... Ninety-nice percent of the time, a public situation is not the place to give negative feedback to an employee. But if we have feedback to give, I believe we are on the hook to deliver it, as uncomfortable as it might be. A mentor once pulled me aside after a meeting to give me feedback on a briefing I had delivered and ways in which I could strengthen my presentation. I am forever grateful to that person.