Friday, November 23, 2018

About Those Fancy Work Parties

"Pin-striped-suit-wearing cookie pushers." "Shmoozers extraordinaire." "Professional partiers." We've all heard the diplomat stereotypes. Well, now that I'm over halfway through my first tour in this career, I hate to break it to you: these parties aren't what they seem. (Plus, if you're thinking about joining the Foreign Service for its reputed party value, I highly recommend you reconsider options in the private sector instead.)

When I do attend a social function the U.S. Embassy hosts as part of my job, it turns out to be a lot of actual work. How? Well, imagine you're at a party, except you have to show up early and stay late. Then, replace all your friends with important work contacts. Even if your friends from work are there, your responsibility is not to get distracted talking to them at the expense of the other guests. Then, talk to dozens of people and try to remember all their names and what they look like and where they work and who their spouses are. (The next time you see them, they'll probably remember everything about you and you'll smile awkwardly as you struggle to recall if you've ever seen them, let alone had a conversation.) Be on guard for compromising or overtly political questions, and hold the official U.S. government line on every issue regardless of your personal views.

At least there's food and drink available, right? Well, you may not get a chance to eat between working the room and being nervous about staining your clothes or using the wrong utensil, so you might wolf down a granola bar in the bathroom before the event starts or heat up a canned soup in the microwave when you get home (late on a weeknight). At the end of the night, when you've collected a massive pile of business cards, try not to think about how you'll have to go into the office to painstakingly enter them one by one into your contact management system and then follow up with the most relevant ones.

In other words, what I'm trying to say is that there's a huge difference between a reception or a party where you have to work and one you attend just for fun. My sense (admittedly from an entry-level perspective) is that if you're doing your job right as a diplomat, you're not kicking back and enjoying most receptions. You don't let your guard down, throw back too many drinks, or risk doing or saying anything that would reflect badly on the United States. Instead, you listen, reinforce the talking points, build relationships with key contacts, and make sure the guests are having a good time. And, honestly? I wouldn't have it any other way. We wouldn't be very good stewards of taxpayer dollars if we blew them all on a good time. We've got a job to do, so we should work hard at work parties and play hard on our own time.

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Power of USG Alumni

One of the most important components of public diplomacy work, in my view, is maintaining and managing relationships with USG (i.e., U.S. government) program alumni. When we talk about USG alumni, we are often referring to exchanges, or (usually all-expenses-paid) programs where we send people to the United States (or, less commonly, a regional hub of some sort) for specialized training, knowledge sharing, and cultural exposure. Fun fact: technically, I'm a USG exchange alumna myself (Critical Language Scholarship - Salalah, Oman 2012)!

I always look forward to the opportunity to meet up with USG alumni for work, hear feedback about their exchange experiences, and find out what they've been up to since. Recently, my colleagues and I caught up with some of these alumni in Eldoret and Kapenguria, way out in western Kenya, as well as on the eastern coast in Mombasa. (I've scattered a few Tweets on our outreach around this post.) A few examples of alumni we met on just my past week of travels:

  • A youth leader founded an incubation hub that has already facilitated the launch of about six innovative startups
  • Someone who leads a disability rights and training center was just appointed to local government to advocate for the equities of persons with disabilities
  • A group of women work in their community to fight terrorist radicalization and recruitment among their youth with strategic dialogues
  • Someone used her exchange connections to donate technology to a health organization that serves 1,000 youth in need of medical and psychosocial care every month*

The U.S. Department of State has so many types of exchanges - literally hundreds. You can see a list of exchanges, including ones you might be eligible for, here. We have exchanges for professionals, athletes, musicians, youth leaders, women in STEM, students, government representatives, and so many more. Some of the most prominent ones we offer to Kenyans are the many variations of Fulbright and the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), with options to go to the United States via the Mandela-Washington Fellowship or to go to the Regional Leadership Center in Nairobi.

USG alumni often go on to serve as heads of state, CEOs, humanitarian leaders, top researchers, and other key global leaders. (You can see a few of their stories here.) We put a lot of time and energy into the selections process, considering a variety of factors including who would benefit most from the program and excel in an American context, who would have the biggest impact in their home countries when they get back, who is likely to honor the terms of their visa, and more in addition to the specific requirements of the particular exchange.

I'm consistently blown away by the quality of these individuals and the amazing work they're doing in Kenya. Thanks for letting me share why!

*The first photo of this post is spray paint art done by one of the talented beneficiaries of this youth health center, who has now made it to college.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Hosting and Halloween-ing

We were delighted to host my A-100 colleague E for the weekend - the same one who hosted us so memorably in Uganda. We first took her to the classic Nairobi National Park, where we saw water buffalo:

A crocodile who blew bubbles at us but thankfully didn't come any closer:

A family of three rare rhinos:

A pair of black-backed jackals, which we hadn't seen before:

And a few classics, like this tower of giraffes (TIL that a group of giraffes is called a "tower"):

Then, we took E to the Nairobi National Museum. It features a lot of natural history, including plenty of taxidermy.

There was also a fascinating exhibit on Kenyan history. It included a broad range of artifacts, such as this hymnbook with English on one side and Kiswahili on the other.

A museum admission ticket included a pass to the on-site snake park, which we visited with the assistance of a guide. We definitely got attached to a certain chameleon friend featured in the first photo of this post and tried not to think about how his destiny was to become dinner for the snakes. They had some seriously terrifying snakes there, including green mambas, black mambas, savanna vine snakes, a variety of spitting cobras, and more.

We wrapped up the whole day with a local Halloween party thrown by a Nairobian socialite (a friend of a friend). We had a great time dressing up as Star Lord and Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy (which most people got). It may have been a crazy weekend, but one that proved well worth the effort.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Bidding Tips from an Incumbent

"Bidding" is the Foreign Service slang for the process by which U.S. diplomatic personnel search and compete for future jobs. I got to experience a unique perspective on this process recently when my job was reclassified from an entry-level position to a mid-level position. In other words, it became open for other people to bid on it so they can have it when I leave Nairobi next year.

This was my first time getting any kind of a look at this process, because when you're entry-level you pretty much go where they tell you to go (supposedly after they take into account your preferences, but your mileage may vary). As the incumbent, I was the first person interested bidders reached out to to get more information about the job and to ask more off-the-record questions like how life is in Nairobi.

It's an interesting position because I neither interview the candidates nor make the final decision, but I did pass along information on the ones who stood out to me (in both good and bad ways) to the decision-makers. Also, those who took the time to ask thoughtful questions from me got thoughtful answers that I hope helped them in their interview.

So here are a few tips I'd offer based on my very limited experience of one bidding cycle as an incumbent:

  • Do your research. There was a lot of confusion about my job because it became available for bidding very late in the game. As a result, I had told many people that my job would not be available. One persistent (in a positive way) candidate kept checking in with contacts in Washington and discovered before any of their competitors that the job would be available after all.
  • Keep emails short and sweet. Especially if it's a competitive job with a lot of interested bidders, the incumbent is probably getting a ton of emails. Keeping your emails concise is a relief to the incumbent and an advantage to you.
  • If you want the real story, get on the phone. Everyone has things they're not comfortable putting in writing, especially on work email. It's worth asking to speak on the phone: the incumbent might decline if the timing won't work, but if it works out you will get a much fuller picture of the job and quality of life at post. Plus, you will probably take up less time than a series of long emails would anyway!
  • Don't make your full pitch to the incumbent. The incumbent is not the final decision-maker. It's important to be professional, as the incumbent will likely talk to the decision-maker, but you don't need to detail all your qualifications for the incumbent.
  • It's okay to be out of the office while bidding. Quite a few candidates (including the one we offered the job) were out of the office while bidding for travel or other reasons. This didn't really matter. Just let all the relevant contacts know your personal email if they need to reach you that way (and preferably more along the lines of [email protected] than [email protected]). If you are going to do a call from home or from your hotel, though, make sure you find somewhere quiet with a good connection - not a busy street or a Starbucks or a family reunion.
  • Keep things professionally relevant. This is my personal opinion, but I found it off-putting to get a job inquiry full of personal details about the candidate's family and even pets. It's not relevant and it feels a little emotionally manipulative, almost as if you're hoping I'll develop an emotional connection to your family and subconsciously have a more positive impression. (The exception to this is if you're sharing that you're a tandem bidder and you and your spouse need jobs at the same post.)
  • You never know which part of the application is the most important. There seemed to be a lot of personal preferences and opinions regarding what should and shouldn't matter in an application. Awards, references, pre-Foreign Service background and all sorts of other factors varied widely in terms of weight in the eyes of different members of our team. There's no way for the applicant to know these preferences, so it's better to put your best foot forward on all fronts and not to assume there's a magic qualification that will get you on the short list.
  • Talk positively about previous tours. It was annoying to hear people say, "I've only been a ___" or even worse, "I'm just a ____". It implies they look down on those job roles and did not seek professional development in their previous tours. Two candidates could talk about their former jobs in extremely different ways, and the one who spins all of them as opportunities leveraged to gain valuable insight and hone skills they could use in my job was much more impressive.
  • Be honest about where we stand. Especially if that post is your top choice, let them know early and clearly - but don't lie if it really isn't. It can make all the difference.

All opinions here are my own based on my minuscule sample size of one, but I found the whole experience enlightening and wanted to share. I hope these tips were helpful, especially for my early-career peers. (I also hope someone enjoys the stock photo from the beginning of the post as much as I do!) Let me know in the comments below if you've had a different experience or another tip to share.