Sunday, July 12, 2020

What I Wish Someone Told Me Before My First Tour

Not too long ago, I did a blog post on just some of the conflicting advice I've received in the Foreign Service. Now that we're preparing to move to our second post, I thought I'd do a post summarizing some of the most important things I wished I'd been told before my first tour. I wanted to write this down while it's still relatively fresh, and hopefully it'll help some other ELO (entry-level officer) out there.

In no particular order, here are those things that took me by surprise, that I wished I had known sooner, or that I am so grateful someone told me before I left:

  • Save digital copies of the rosters of all the training you do prior to departure (and after that) for your records. (I didn't do this with some of my classes and regretted it later.) It's amazing how easy it is to forget people you were in training with even just a few years ago. That list can help you remember the name of someone you bump into in the hallways of FSI or another office in the future, or it can assist in networking. For example, if you're a Political Officer interested in a certain post, you can see if someone from your Political Tradecraft course went to that post, reach out, and see if they have any helpful insights as you're bidding.
  • Err on the side of looping people in on everything. New people seem to get in trouble way more often for not cc-ing someone than over-sharing work information. Always cc your supervisor and everyone in the chain of command if the communication is between you and someone senior and let them tell you if they don't need to be informed of the details. Think of it this way: you never want your boss to be surprised in a high-level meeting by information they could've learned from you. Sometimes, senior officials will skip the chain of command and come right to you with a request, but those situations are no exception. Inform your higher-ups: it protects you and them.
  • There is an official Department of State Style Guide, but some things are more rigid and others are a bit of a free-for-all. This can be very irritating for grammar nerds and sticklers. For example, there is absolutely no consistency in using the Oxford comma, but all official documents must have the horrifyingly outdated two spaces between sentences. (If you are as disturbed by that last rule as I am, be prepared to find the vast majority of your colleagues passionately defending the wretched double space.)
  • The welcome kit isn't as bad as everyone says. (I know this is controversial, but... Yeah, I said it!) Everyone told us the quality of the items post provides in the "welcome kit" you use until your own stuff arrives is terrible. So imagine our surprise and delight when we discovered the welcome kit dinnerware at our first post was a perfect match for the set we actually owned! Our standards may be lower than average, but even the towels and sheets folks warned us about were just fine. (The exception to this are the kitchen knives... They truly are so bad I pack a chef's knife in my suitcase now.)
  • Read up as much as you can on your post and office before you get there. This includes the Integrated Country Strategy for that country (available online), the most recent OIG report (also available online), or documents specific to your office. In my case as a Public Diplomacy Officer, I read (internal) PD-specific annual strategy documents prior to my arrival in Nairobi.
  • Follow your onward post's official social media pages, read recent press releases or statements on the Embassy website, and pay close attention to (A) the issues that tend to come up most often and (B) the language the Embassy chooses to use in public messaging. This is excellent background for everyone--notjust PD Officers--to have. Some Public Affairs offices will even let you sign up for their curated email media newsletters prior to your arrival. I did this for my first tour and showed up much more well read on current events than average.
  • As soon as you arrive at your first post, set up as many internal courtesy calls as you can. If your work includes building relationships with external contacts, your team will usually help arrange external courtesy calls for you. Meanwhile, it's on you to do the legwork to meet people internally on your own initiative. At the suggestion of an excellent boss, I sat down for 15 minutes one-on-one with every American and local staff person in my office (~15 people) to learn more about their portfolios and where I fit in with them in my first week at post. I took a ton of notes that made very little sense to me in the moment but served as an invaluable reference guide in the following weeks. I also did versions of these courtesy calls with other offices when we had to work together and I wanted to learn more to help me collaborate across the interagency: I ended up sitting down with peers in USAID, the CDC, and the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture, and Defense. It helped a lot.
  • Make sure you create an EER folder in the cloud or in your email inbox somewhere where you can start recording accomplishments throughout the year that will provide useful fodder for your EER. When you start out, you will probably put stuff in there that seemed important at the time that you later realize isn't that special. That's okay: it's better to have too much content to pull from than too little when EER time rolls around. (I actually did this the first time I drafted a Tweet for the Ambassador. Little did I realize at the time that later that would become a daily responsibility of mine, but I sure was proud of that first Tweet!)
  • Your mileage may vary on the Embassy social scene. As a newbie, I felt like I was fed this narrative of the Foreign Service feeling like a family and Embassy communities being very tight-knit. That is true at some posts and less true at others. It also varies wildly based on the family and social composition at your post: for example, are you a teetotaling family at a post full of singles who like to go to wineries on the weekend? It can even come down to where you happen to live: housing pools are often luck of the draw. We and several other friends I talked to from my A-100 did not feel very socially integrated into our Foreign Service communities at our first posts. (I shared what we learned about making friends abroad more generally here, in a separate post.)
  • Drinking is a huge part of U.S. Foreign Service culture as well as global professional diplomatic culture. If you don't drink (or don't drink much), expect comments and have polite but firm responses ready.
  • Age is an EEO-protected category for older people (over the age of 40), which means if you believe you've been discriminated against on that basis you can file an EEO complaint (more on that here). There is no EEO protection for ageism against young people, and that's reflected a bit in the culture. For example, I saw two equally skilled officers with similar rank get very different tasks delegated to them even within the same office, with the younger one obviously getting more of the administrative or grunt work. I've also heard colleagues complain about a supervisor by saying things like "No wonder they're so terrible, they're only in their 30s! They have no idea what they're doing." Thankfully, most people in the Foreign Service don't think that way, but enough do that it seems like all young people encounter that mindset at some point.
  • You'll learn a ton on the job. Plenty of people go to post without training that might seem absolutely critical to a new person (and it certainly doesn't hurt), but once you're at post you will figure out everything you need. I felt nervous about filling in an Information Officer (i.e., Press Attaché) job because I never received any IO training, but I was reassured by all of my coworkers that it wasn't necessary. I'd learned everything I needed to be successful in that role on the job already.
  • There are so many Foreign Service-related Facebook groups, no one could possibly keep up with them all. Check out a few and see which ones (if any!) you find the most interesting or useful and then just forget about the rest.
  • Your first tour really does fly by (for most). There will always be a special place in my heart for Kenya and Embassy Nairobi and I can't even imagine having spent my first tour anywhere else. Enjoy it while you can!

I hope this list had information that was helpful or new to some folks, particularly brand new officers who haven't been to their first tour yet! And please feel free to offer any additional advice in the comments below.

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