The Foreign Service Journal, May 2024

20 MAY 2024 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Speaking Out is the Journal’s opinion forum, a place for lively discussion of issues affecting the U.S. Foreign Service and American diplomacy. The views expressed are those of the author; their publication here does not imply endorsement by the American Foreign Service Association. Responses are welcome; send them to creates space for process improvement and upskilling. If you start carving out time for professional development each month, it is helpful to delegate the planning to a nonmanager. Managers tend to be very busy, and this can be a great developmental opportunity for members of the team. If a full day of professional development sounds like a luxury, start with half a day each month and assess the impact over time. And, yes, it’s also important to send people to training at the Foreign Service Institute. Formal training is a critical part of our development. However, it’s only one piece of the puzzle—and one that only a limited number of people can access when assigned overseas. PRACTICE #7 Use Individual Development Plans One major element of the Learning Policy is 40 hours a year of developmental time for every department employee, including direct hires, EFMs, and LE staff (where permitted by local law). It’s important to be strategic about how employees use this time. IDPs, which are also recommended by the Learning Policy, are a great way to do so. IDPs are widely used by the department’s Civil Service employees but have rarely been used in the Foreign Service. Let’s change that. An IDP is a nonbinding agreement between the employee and their supervisor that outlines the employee’s learning goals and planned developmental activities for the next year or two. The employee should create the first draft and then discuss it with their supervisor. The supervisor’s role is to ensure that the activities on the IDP align with both the needs of the organization and the developmental needs and goals of the employee. PRACTICE #8 Learn Constantly It is also important for managers to model a commitment to continuous learning. One way to do that is to establish a disciplined habit of professional reading. Read about leadership and/or become a devoted student of the issues you are working on (including the history and culture of the country where you serve). Another great source of learning is to reflect on—and derive lessons from— the biggest challenges you have faced, whether it was a major crisis, a huge management challenge, or a bad boss. Bad bosses can be phenomenal sources of learning. The lessons are painful, but they can be transformational if you reflect on them and commit to creating a positive climate for the people working for you. Sometimes it will be useful to seek outside leadership opportunities through volunteer work or hobbies. The first time I served in Washington I was in a nonsupervisory role. I missed leading teams, so I sought leadership opportunities outside of work. Leading in a volunteer context provides a whole different set of challenges, because you have no leverage over the other volunteers. I learned a lot about engaging people and the importance of asking them directly to contribute in specific ways. Finally, ask for feedback. We all have blind spots. As leaders we can have the best of intentions, but there is inevitably a gap between our intentions and our impact. Feedback is the only way to find out what that gap involves. What About Results? Ultimately, of course, our goal as leaders is to accomplish the State Department’s mission: To protect and promote U.S. security, prosperity, and democratic values and shape an international environment in which all Americans can thrive. How we do that matters. While it is tempting to take shortcuts in the interest of achieving short-term goals, investing in the development of the department’s next generation is the most sustainable way to accomplish our mission and creates an environment in which our own employees can thrive. Let’s work together to build a learning culture at State. n Investing in the development of the department’s next generation is the most sustainable way to accomplish our mission.