The Foreign Service Journal, December 2023

20 DECEMBER 2023 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL meeting and tell his new team that the local country team members would always be more experienced than he was, and he relied on them to guide him in his daily work. I was speechless when I heard this. I found myself wondering, Is this guy for real? While most of us start a new job trying to prove ourselves to those who don’t know us, this guy comes in doing the complete opposite! Yet, clearly, doing so has worked in his favor. Constructive Feedback and Corridor Reputation Many interviewees expressed gratitude to past supervisors who gave them constructive feedback. They acknowledged they had blind spots and were grateful to supervisors who had been willing to point them out so they could change. Getting constructive criticism, I believe, played a role in keeping the unicorns humble. If all an officer ever heard was that they were perfect and great, wouldn’t that get to the person’s head sooner or later? I suspect constructive feedback is harder to come by nowadays. In the Foreign Service, an officer’s “corridor reputation” is everything. What people say and think about you matters and may determine whether you get the plum assignment you want or not. As a result, some officers are afraid to give honest, direct feedback because they are afraid it will be used against them. The Foreign Service world is an unpredictable roller-coaster ride. Your subordinate today could be your boss tomorrow. When dealing with difficult colleagues, it may feel easier to just put up with them until one of you changes assignments than to confront them head-on. On top of this, in recent years USAID has implemented multisource ratings (MSR); everyone from your subordinates and peers to higher-ups gets to rate you—anonymously. People are surprisingly brave and honest in their feedback under the veil of anonymity. MSRs are an integral part of the package that the promotion boards see. I would be surprised if there were any supervisors who didn’t think about their own MSR ratings just for a hot second before they moved forward with giving a subordinate some constructive feedback. Let’s be real about that. If we can all start from a place of accepting that none of us is perfect, that we can all find something to improve on, and that feedback is a gift, we can create a culture where it’s easier to give and receive feedback. Let’s encourage humility so we remain open to improving our performance and becoming the kind of leader our agency needs. Promotion as a Goal? Another big discovery is that the majority of promotion unicorns had no “approach” for getting promoted quickly, because promotion was never their goal to begin with. They were motivated by intrinsic factors, though they did acknowledge some external factors that helped them succeed. These are as follows: • Lifelong learning. The individuals I interviewed love continuously learning, on the job and outside the job. • Diverse professional experiences. Unicorns think outside the box when looking for professional opportunities; they are not afraid of trying new things or changing backstops. • Mentoring. Unicorns credit good mentors among past supervisors and front office individuals with guiding them toward success. • Writing skills. Unicorns feel confident they know how to write about their skills and accomplishments in a compelling way. • Ability to link everyday work to U.S. government policy. Unicorns are confident in their ability to convey the impact of their work to Congress and the interagency. • Hardship service. Unicorns often serve at hardship posts where there were more stretch opportunities to have greater responsibilities. All of these factors contribute to fast promotions. One Disturbing Trend While conducting the interviews, I did uncover one disturbing trend that is the antithesis of humility: I heard complaints about egotism among new officers from several unicorns and USAID staff with roles supporting FSOs who had cited the importance of humility in their success. Some of the more recent recruits, they observed, want to be ambassadors and mission directors yesterday. They are in such a hurry to climb up the career ladder, they risk destroying the ladder itself in their haste. Take your ego out of the workplace and refocus on the needs and objectives of your team and agency.