Friday, July 27, 2018

Making Friends Abroad

Making friends abroad is hard. One of the most difficult things about being a diplomat in general is being far away from home - including friends and family. It's not easy to try and start over again in a new place with new people every few years. Now that we're halfway through our first tour in the Foreign Service, I'd say we've learned a few things.

I think of three main categories of friends that a U.S. diplomat has here:

  • Other U.S. Embassy folks: There are hundreds of colleagues here to befriend, whether you work with them directly or not. This is even easier if you live in a large housing compound with a lot of U.S. Embassy neighbors or if you have kids going to an American school.
  • Other expats: The form I've usually seen these friendships take are social connections across the Western diplomatic corps or private sector American expats.
  • Locals: Of course, there are white Kenyans and Indian Kenyans, but I primarily think of this group as black Kenyans (as they are the overwhelming majority of the Kenyan population).

Just as there are different types of friends, there are different friend philosophies. Some of the U.S. diplomats we know only ever socialize with Americans. Others boast that all their friends are other expats and that they aren't "stuck in the American bubble". Still others spend most of their free time with Kenyan friends, which many feel is the best way to learn about Kenya's country, culture, history, and more.

So where do we fall? To be honest, our friends in Kenya span all three of the categories I mentioned. From the beginning, we made a lot of local Kenyan friends from church, which includes expats but has a vast majority of Kenyans. It took us a while (about six months), but we also eventually found our groove with Embassy friends as well. As for other expats, we've made a few "random" friends and bonded over shared interests (such as food).

One year in, we feel much more comfortable socially than we did when we arrived. In the beginning, to be honest, we struggled. We weren't sure if we would ever have a friend we could just call to hang out with here or that anybody would ever invite us to do something on the weekend. Thank goodness, that phase is over! Now, our bigger concern is all the people we have to say goodbye to as they leave this year and the rest that we'll have to bid farewell to when we leave next year.

A lot of these things won't change from post to post, but other things will. For example, I think we have it a bit easier in the sense that there's no language barrier for most of the people we've met here, since English is widely spoken in Kenya and especially Nairobi. I also think the longer you stay somewhere the easier it is to put down roots and become more socially integrated. We're completing a two-year tour now, so a one-year tour would be harder in that respect but a three-year tour would be easier.

At the end of the day, despite the challenges, these experiences have really helped us grow and learn. Now we can look forward to having the friends we've made here becoming people we look forward to reuniting with and visiting again, no matter where they are in the world!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

What's an EER (and How to Write Your First)?

I just finished my first EER! So... what's an EER? It stands for "Employee Evaluation Report" and it's exactly what it sounds like: a performance evaluation. (If only it was as simply as the photo above!) Like performance evaluations everywhere else, it's an opportunity to highlight an individual's strengths and weaknesses. Unlike performance evaluations everywhere else, it's pretty much the single determinant of our promotions - we don't get an interview or personal statement or anything for those.* It's also what they use to decide whether to tenure an entry-level employee, which means you pass your trial period and become a full, mid-level diplomat.

All Department of State U.S. Foreign Service folks (to my knowledge) have to do EERs once per year. (It may be more frequent in special circumstances, such as if you worked for one boss for only six months before he or she transfers.) The employee, his or her supervisor (i.e., the rater), and someone above the supervisor (i.e., the reviewer) all get to weigh in on this document.

For tenured employees, these annual EERs are all due at the same time in April. This actually makes for a pretty strange phenomenon where everyone kind of freaks out about their EERs through March and April and spends many hours with their doors closed drafting and revising and editing theirs and others' EERs. For untenured newbies like me, we do our first EER one year after arrival at our first assignment, which is why I've just done mine way after "EER season" is over.

For those readers who are actually in the Foreign Service, I thought I'd also condense some of the best advice I received that I feel really helped me with my first EER (and that I didn't find obvious, like "check your spelling and grammar"):

  • Compile accomplishments the whole rating period. Some use a desktop folder or a Word document, but I prefer an email folder because all of my biggest work is recorded in my email anyway. Either way, recording the concrete accomplishments you want to highlight throughout the year makes it much easier than trying to remember what you did over the last 12 months when EER time rolls around.
  • Read as many EERs as possible. Ask mentors and peers you respect to share previous EERs with you (especially ones they did right before getting promoted so you know they were successful) so you can get an idea of how they can look.
  • Balance "I" and "we" throughout the statement. You need individual and team accomplishments. Leaning too heavily on either side isn't helpful.
  • White space is your friend. EER panels read a ton of these, so you definitely want to help them read yours with white space: at least a line in between paragraphs.
  • Find out what your rater and reviewer want. Some bosses want bullet points, others might ask you for an outline, and others might want a full draft they can edit into something in their own voice. Many want to know what each of you three should focus on highlighting to make the best overall package.
  • Include context. The first thing that jumped out at me when I started reading others' EERs was the context of their time in that country or their work. An introductory paragraph or even statistics can add a lot to highlight why what you did matters in the specific context where you operate.
  • Connect what you do to U.S. foreign policy goals. This one cannot be overstated. There needs to be a clear, logical connection between what you did and what the United States is actually trying to do, policy-wise.
  • Think about the six precepts. Those six precepts that form a part of the evaluation in the Foreign Service hiring process are the same rubric used for EERs. You can see them here.
  • Watch the jargon, even the Foreign Service-wide stuff. A non-Foreign Service member of the public sits on the evaluation panel, so it may not be obvious to that person even that "PD" stands for Public Diplomacy. My boss and I thought everyone knew what Snopes was, as we referenced it in my EER - and even some Embassy folks didn't. When in doubt, a few words of explanation go a long way.
  • Have a real, actionable Area for Development. Nobody likes "fake" Areas for Development. It's like telling someone in a job interview that your greatest weakness is being too much of a perfectionist. Make it something that you can actually work on and set yourself up for success by making sure you can work on it the following year.
  • Ask people to read your EER. Get a range of people to read your EER, especially those outside of your job function or geographic region to make sure what you wrote makes sense to someone who isn't already familiar with your work.
  • Take the EER advice that works best for you, and leave the rest. I got some contradictory advice from people I look up to, mostly because EER styles can be so different. Some elaborate on one or two key points; others try to cover every aspect of their job requirements for that year. At the end of the day, do what works for you. (And, if you want even more EER advice, check out the post I wrote after my second year here.)

*Awards are included, but I'm told only the really big ones matter.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Happy 242nd, America!

Happy Fourth of July! Because it's an American holiday, we at U.S. Embassies around the world generally get to enjoy a day off today. Thankfully, our big National Day celebration for key contacts in Kenya was yesterday, so we can truly relax today.

This year, I was asked to co-lead the planning effort with a colleague. The work was a relatively natural fit for a Public Diplomacy (PD) Officer like me who had at least some Embassy outreach event experience (albeit much smaller and less intense). It was fun in a lot of ways: I got to work with many people from different sections and agencies I would have otherwise never met, developed event planning skills organizing a party many times larger than my own wedding was, and enjoyed seeing the culmination of all that hard work at the final celebration.

At the same time, it was stressful and exhausting. At the end of the day, the leads are responsible for every detail, including if something goes wrong. I worked long hours leading up to the event immediately following a week of long hours supporting a 60-person U.S. delegation's visit to Kenya. I'm so relieved to catch a break!

So today, I'm trying to take it easy: I had a burger with some Embassy friends (half of which I had to yield to an attacking hawk), booked a massage at the spa, and prepared my Arabic homework for my distance language class tonight.

Happy Independence Day to all! Hope yours is as good as ours!