The Foreign Service Journal, October 2023

60 OCTOBER 2023 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL FCS VP VOICE | BY JOSHUA BURKE AFSA NEWS Contact: For many of us, this time of year brings a new beginning—perhaps a new assignment, a new country, a new school, or maybe a new boss or new colleagues. There is a lot of “new” these days in the Foreign Commercial Service. We have new leadership, as the deputy director general (DDG) baton has recently been passed. Our new DDG has one of the toughest jobs in all of government: trying to fill the big shoes and steadfast leadership of his predecessor. This season also brings us a new career development and assignments officer; we’re lucky to have him in this important role. I know he is working hard with leadership to ensure that all of us are made aware of our assignments before the winter holidays—that’s a gift we’re all eager to unwrap! As you know, we also have a new AFSA VP—I’m truly humbled and honored by the opportunity to serve in this role. My gosh, do we have a lot of work to do. “We” is the key word here—I’m going to need a lot of help from all of you to be effective in this role. Thankfully, Jay Carreiro is still serving, from Germany, as our part-time representative. To complement all the new, FCS is fortunate to have exceptional and stable leadership. With Arun Venkataraman at the helm, and A Season of Newness guided by Ike Umennah’s ever-wise counsel, we have a front office team focused on advancing the administration’s agenda and improving the day-to-day operations of FCS. After decades of underinvestment in staffing, technology, and process improvement, day-to-day operations present the greatest challenge currently facing the Foreign Commercial Service. Despite recent recruitment efforts—like a renewed and welcomed focus on improving diversity in FCS—it seems like we’re losing officers faster than we’re able to onboard them. Our colleagues in the field are feeling the effects of so many vacancies. Nearly one third of FCS Senior Foreign Service positions overseas are currently vacant—all in geostrategic locations. At the same time, FCS has loaned out three of our most senior leaders to other agencies. But demands from clients, HQ, or the Secretary of Commerce do not stop when we have vacancies. Work piles up, days get longer, weekends and leave get shorter, and burnout becomes inevitable. Speaking from personal experience and observation, overworked and overstressed officers do not help our mission or our nation. On the contrary, fatigue and stress from overworking lead to conflict, burnout, poor decision-making, and physical and emotional health issues. To be clear, managers and organizational cultures that restrict leave, demand weekend work, or disallow overtime for untenured officers are contributing to the current mental wellness crisis in the Foreign Service. How would the Fighting Irish ever hope to compete for a national championship if they only played with eight fatigued players on the field? (Lifelong Notre Dame fan here.) How can FCS hope to compete without a full team on the field and when our bench is empty? Thankfully, the vast majority of our colleagues love their work. We get to support American companies overseas, strive to bring peace and prosperity to the world through commerce, and solve real-world challenges with U.S.-made technology! Our jobs are fantastic—when we get to do our jobs. But what percentage of time do we actually spend working toward our mission? My guess is less than 60 percent, and I hope to collect data from colleagues to test my hypothesis. I’ll be sending out tools to help estimate a work breakdown structure that will help us track our time. More to come. We’re fortunate to have a strong FCS leadership team. While areas of divergence may appear in time, AFSA and FCS management agree that to have an effective Service, we must take care of our people. New leadership in key positions can help our collective cause. There is energy and a hopeful spirit that comes from new beginnings. For all of us in new roles, or with new relationships to cultivate this season, I would like to invite you to embrace the concept of “shoshin,” a Japanese term for the beginner’s mind. Having a beginner’s mind means you approach the world every day with fresh eyes. It means you look at every situation you’re placed in as if it’s the first time you are seeing it. This skill takes practice, but in doing so, we can break the cycle of spite and retaliation, and be the change we wish to see in our Foreign Service. n AFSA and FCS management agree that to have an effective Service, we must take care of our people.