The Foreign Service Journal, December 2023

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | DECEMBER 2023 19 SPEAKING OUT Yikee Adje is a USAID Foreign Service officer and executive coach who is passionate about helping members of the Foreign Service build strategic relationships for career advancement and working with teams to streamline their internal work processes to overcome the government bureaucracy for greater productivity. She is the author of DIPLOMATICALLY: A Guide for Creating Work-Life Balance in the Foreign Service (2023). Connect with her at linkedin. com/in/yikeeadje. E very year stress levels of Foreign Service employees are at an all-time high when they need to prepare their promotion materials. To play the game, we must look for ways to make accomplishments appear bigger and more far-reaching. We search for that powerful verb or adjective to make results stand out from the rest. Many take credit for as much as they can, even when it defies what is possible for one person to achieve in a government bureaucracy—let’s just put it all in and hope the promotion boards will buy it! Those who supervise an office may commit the unsavory but all too common act of taking credit for everything their unit accomplished and making it their own. Too many of us accept this as what we “have to do” to get promoted. Is it really? No, it is not. That is the surprising conclusion of the independent research I conducted recently on the topic of Foreign Service promotions. The Case for Humility Admittedly, the supercharged, highstakes, competitive Foreign Service career doesn’t naturally cultivate humility; in fact, it has a way of pushing everyone to become obsessed with the climb to the top. Yet there are countless studies highlighting the critical importance of humility in leaders. For instance, Jim Collins—the researcher, leadership teacher, management guru, and author of Good to Great (2001)—found humility to be one of the two common traits found in CEOs of companies that transitioned from average to superior market performance. My research brought me to a similar conclusion on its importance for advancement in the Foreign Service. I interviewed 14 “promotion unicorns” at USAID—FSOs who had flown up the ranks (from an FS-6 to an FS-1 in 11 years or less) from different support and technical backstops and are now serving in varying levels of senior leadership. While they noted myriad factors that led to their fast rise, I was surprised by one, in particular, that I observed with my own eyes—humility. I saw humility when interviewees openly admitted mistakes they made early on in their careers—or for some, more recently—and recounted the steps they took to change themselves. They acknowledged that the way they had done things was suboptimal; they heard the feedback given to them; and they pivoted away from doing things in the way that was most comfortable to them. Instead, they adopted a new way of working that pushed them outside their comfort zone. And they were willing to stay in that uncomfortable place for as long as needed to ensure that the necessary change happened. They did this for the benefit of their subordinates, peers, and the agency. I was floored by these revelations. A cynical part of me had gone into the interviews expecting to meet proud, possibly narcissistic, individuals who would flaunt how they had gamed the promotion system. That was not at all what I encountered. The unicorns shared with me their constant desire to be better and to learn from those around them. One explained that when he started every new post, he would convene a Promotion Unicorns and the Case for Humility BY YIKEE ADJE The supercharged, high-stakes, competitive Foreign Service career doesn’t naturally cultivate humility; in fact, it has a way of pushing everyone to become obsessed with the climb to the top.