Monday, June 22, 2020

Conflicting Career Advice in the Foreign Service

Every Foreign Service Officer has heard a great deal of conflicting advice on how best to advance their career, and most after a while form their own strong opinions. Here are just a few examples of things I've heard from more experienced diplomats:

  • If you don't inquire about a job at an Embassy by August that bidding season, you must not want the job. / If you inquire about a job at an Embassy before August, you must not be doing much of your current job.
  • We almost always use first names right away in the Department. / It is rude to address someone you haven't met by their first name.
  • Your statement in your EER should contain two well-developed examples only. There's not enough space to do more than that well. / Your EER should include many examples covering every aspect of your job. You don't want them to think you neglected any of your responsibilities.
  • You should focus on honing your expertise and building contacts in a "home" regional bureau. / We're generalists! You should dip your toes in as many bureaus as possible.
  • It will hurt your career to spend too much time studying single-country languages. / Language study time won't affect your career. Who cares exactly how many tours you've done?
  • You have to go back to Washington for your third or fourth tour. And make sure you return every so often. / Go to Washington whenever it's best for you; plenty of Foreign Service rockstars don't go back frequently or at all.
  • Ops (i.e., the Operations Center) is the best tour you can do for your career. / Ops doesn't give you the skills or bidding opportunities people say it does.
  • Try to serve outside of your cone. We're generalists! / Try to stay in your cone as much as possible. That's how you get promoted.
  • Play up your pre-Foreign Service experience. It can help you stand out. / Nobody likes it when people make it all about their pre-Foreign Service experience. We all came in at entry-level here.
  • Excellent language skills are critical to being a good diplomat. / Language skills are separate from what makes someone a good diplomat.
  • Don't speak up in meetings. / Speak up in meetings.
  • Explain you don't drink coffee, tea, or alcohol for religious reasons so it doesn't seem rude when you refuse. / Don't explain your religious reasons for not drinking coffee, tea, or alcohol because it makes people uncomfortable.
  • Check to and respond to emails on nights and weekends. That's part of public diplomacy. / Don't perpetuate the lack of work/life balance in public diplomacy. Insist someone call you if it's urgent and otherwise it can wait for the next workday.
  • If a member of the public harasses you, be nice. You're representing America. / If a member of the public harasses you, stand up for yourself. You're representing America.
  • Wear a suit jacket every day. / We're at an Embassy and you're a woman. You don't need to dress so formally.

The list goes on (and on and on)... It can be really challenging as a junior officer to try and figure out what is right and wrong in an institutional culture that doesn't come with any sort of handbook. Regarding the comments above, I've distilled a few hard-and-fast rules myself that I'm now going to impose on others through this post:

  • Bid on jobs that you're genuinely interested in rather than ones that fit any kind of 20-year strategy, or so I've learned from many who only went for something because they thought it would guarantee them a promotion or the perfect follow-on assignment. Most of them came away disappointed with that choice. At the same time, those who went for things they're truly passionate and excited about more often ended up doing great work, after which the connections and opportunities followed anyway.
  • You do need to serve in-cone (i.e., in your main career track) to get promoted, but there is a still a lot of pressure for non-reporting officers like me to do at least one tour in a political or economic job. If you ever want to be a DCM (i.e., Deputy Ambassador) or be competitive for other high-level, generalist positions, it wouldn't hurt.
  • No employee should be told to tolerate harassment for professional reasons. Part of representing America is representing our values with strength and courage, even when it's not what someone else wants to hear.
  • Always have a suit jacket (preferably one with usable pockets) on the back of your chair and dress shoes at your desk at a minimum at work. You never know when you might need it unexpectedly. Once, I was expecting a casual day at my desk wearing a cardigan when I was tapped to accompany the Ambassador to a meeting with external contacts. Thankfully, after I frantically messaged a number of women at the Embassy, my friend who worked two floors up was able to spare me her jacket for the afternoon. I didn't make that mistake again.
  • There is no one path to the top. That conflicting EER advice I received above came from two excellent officers whom I respect and look up to, and I ended up writing my EER somewhere in between what they each said.

A lot of the rest is honestly just using that good judgment and emotional intelligence we were hired for and deciding how to adapt to our environment (cultural, political, interpersonal, etc). Some of the above can be chalked up to rookie mistakes, but to be frank a sizeable portion is just a matter of opinion. So it's okay if you were mistaken or if you heard from a previous boss to do things one way and your new boss wants the exact opposite. By the time I'm in one of those higher-level roles, I hope to remember just how confusing it can be and to be sympathetic when they do something wrong. After all, it's always possible someone else told them to do it that way first.