Archives for August 2012

Communication Failures in the Foreign Service

I harp on a number of points in this blog, especially how important it is to improve your writing.  The goal is to communicate ideas and thoughts clearly and succinctly in your Personal Narrative  and during the oral assessment.  Don’t blather.  Say it, mean it and shut up.

Good, open communication is key to any large organization, be it the State Department or IBM or the European Union.  I found in my career at State that communication breakdowns within a U.S. Embassy overseas cripple not only our efforts to persuade foreign governments but also to run effective, high-morale Embassies.

Scott Gration is the “worst ambassador” at State

Scott Gration, former Ambassador to Kenya

Take the case of Ambassador Scott Gration who recently resigned his post in Nairobi.  The State Inspector General released its assessment August 10 of Gration’s performance in Kenya.  Over and over, the IG highlighted his failings in very un-diplomatic prose:

—  The IG called Gration’s leadership to be “divisive and ineffective.”

— “The Ambassador has lost the respect and confidence of the staff to lead the mission.”

— “The Ambassador’s greatest weakness is his reluctance to accept clear-cut U.S. Government decisions.”

Press reports that followed simplified the findings, branding Gration the “worst ambassador in the State Department.”

An ally of President Obama and a darling of the higher-ups at the National Security Council, Gration ended up scorned and pilloried for many reasons, chief among them was bad communication.  He lied to Washington, he dissed his staff and he refused to meet with important Kenyan officials.  Ironically, Gration grew up on the continent and speaks fluent Swahili.  But just because you know the language doesn’t mean you’re a skilled communicator.

For what it’s worth, Gration never understood or tried to understand the State Department culture.  For two years as Sudan envoy, he was a sole proprietor in a sea of LLCs.  Besides contradicting State policy on Sudan, he botched completely one of State’s most important outreach and communication efforts.   He failed – really, refused – to speak with Congress.  Big mistake.

Finally, Gration has hurt the reputation of political appointee ambassadors in the Foreign Service.  Sure, some of them have been duds, but there have also been many career officers who have failed.   There will always be fools in Front Offices.  Political appointees who follow the lead of Mike Mansfield and Walter Mondale, past ambassadors to Japan, will do far better than those who fight the system and denigrate their officers.  Also, political ambassadors bring much-needed fresh blood into the Department.  So while Gration was destroying the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, two other political appointees on the continent – Alfonso Lenhardt in Tanzania and Don Gips in South Africa – were showing their excellent skills at communication and leadership as well as boosting morale and empowering their staffs.

Best Strategy — Don’t Study

There are plenty of FSOs who say they never studied for the Foreign Service Exam. They just took it and passed it. No sweat, no worries.

Of course, they’re lying and for years I was a liar too. I honestly never thought I’d prepared for it. I never cracked an econ text, learned about a Gantt Chart  or brushed up on the U.S. Constitution. But as my 13-year-old says – I am a big, fat liar.

The truth is I did study. I just didn’t think of it as studying. And for more than 50 percent of you, it’s the easiest and best way to prepare. Better still, you’re already doing it.

Here’s my plan:

• Read The Economist every week;

• Read a good U.S. daily newspaper (e.g., sNY Time, Washington Post, LA Times) every day. I suppose you could read the Financial Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zietung or Le Monde Diplomatique, and the FT continues to scoop U.S. papers on Washington news.  But you need to read the American dailies for the big dose of U.S. culture — theater, museums, art, books, etc. The foreign papers do not. The Economist does more and more provide the U.S. culture scene, and I’ve completely given up on Time and Newsweek. They’re not quite sure what they are – People Magazine or The Huffington Post – and doing neither well.

• Read ”good” and “bad” books. Yes, continue reading Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev (but only the Constance Garnett translations). And partake in the so-called baddies — Stephen King, Robert Parker, John MacDonald, Janet Evanovich… The good stuff will help your writing. And the bad stuff will teach you about pacing, action and how to capture an audience. You’ll need to do both in the Foreign Service.

• Further still on writing and grammar, few people read writing books and fewer still consume grammar texts (sorry, Grammar Girl). But you will have to if you’re going to pass the English Expression section of the FSOT.  I suspect the Department still uses the English Expression test as the easiest and fastest way to cut the number of applicants from 20,000 to 2,000.

• Further still on writing: read a couple of good journalism books. No, not the blowhard tales of anchormen who saved the world, but books that will make you better reporters. Always write quickly, clearly and succinctly. If you do that, I don’t care what cone or track you are and in what bureau you’re working, your work will be seen and read. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Department of Defense is an oral organization and the Department of State remains a written one. On journalism, if you can find it, read John Chancellor’s The New News Business: A Guide to Writing and ReportingThe News Business. I don’t know if it’s still in print. It’s a basic book, but one that will help you improve your writing and drive the academic or business jargon out of your drafts. Remember, write for your reader – not for yourself.

• And E.B. White’s The Elements of Style (4th Edition)The Elements of Style.  Goes without saying. You could also try Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (10th Edition)    I had Williams as a professor in college. He treasures good writing and it shows in his book. However, now in its 10th Edition, the book has a textbook’s sky-high price — $20+. Even worse, the Kindle Edition costs $24.19. I mean really…

• Finally, if you graduated from college with a liberal arts degree you’re way ahead of the game. If you studied art or English or history, put up with your parents’ jabs and barbs about how you’ll never make a “real” living, you can taste the sweetest revenge by landing one of the best, most prestigious jobs in the country. A liberal arts education is finally worth something! Seriously. It is tailor-made to help you take and pass the Foreign Service Exam. If you didn’t take economics course, well, The Economist (1-year auto-renewal)The Economist should help, but you can always pull out a copy of Samuelson’s text on Microeconomics (Microeconomics (Mcgraw-Hill). Read and understand that and you’re golden. Those without liberal arts degrees, bless you, but you’re going to have to crack the books. I’ll go into that in a future post.


A life lived without passion is no life at all.

Passion is what sets apart the mediocre and excellent Foreign Service Officers.  This is true also in business, schooling, and indeed life.  How you do things has an impact on what you do and how well you do it.

I once had a boss in the Foreign Service who played favorites, picked on staff members he didn’t like and had serious anger issues.  It was a horrible time for me and for the Mission team.  But I did learn something from him.  First, obviously, that a good manager – open, trusting and honest — will get a better performance from his staff than a nasty, self-serving screamer.  And this boss was a screamer.

But he once said, “I’d rather have an officer with weak drafting and language skills but who was eager and passionate for his work than the brilliant officer who had little interest and excitement about his job.

“I can teach the former how to write better, how to speak the language with more fluency, how to develop networks of contacts, how to analyze the political situation, etc.  But managing the former is so much more difficult, even if he is the best Officer in the Foreign Service, because I can’t teach someone to be passionate and excited.”

Remember this as you take the Foreign Service Officer Exam, especially in your Personal Narrative.  Equally important, the FSOs administering the Oral Exam, especially the group exercise, are looking for professionalism, teamwork and smarts.  But they are also looking for the spark of passion.  This will set you apart.


Is the Foreign Service Right for You? Answer These Four Questions

  • Can you take orders?
  • Can you put U.S. Government policy before your own?
  • Can you handle life overseas?
  • Can you take out the trash?



1. My first boss in the Foreign Service was a wonderful guy – open, smart, fair.  He showed me the ropes, taught me how to be a good consular officer and instructed me in the ways of the Foreign Service.

He taught me two important things:

  • the Foreign Service is a hierarchical institution and your boss is your boss, whether he’s a fool or a saint, and
  • the Foreign Service is nearly identical to the military except you don’t wear uniforms.  If you think it isn’t as strict (or at times constricting) as the Armed Forces, you’re going to “crash and burn.”  He passed this wisdom to me in 1989, when I was on my first tour in Ecuador.   It hasn’t changed. I don’t care if you’re a boomer, a Generation Xer or a Millenial.  Can you take orders (even stupid ones)?  Ask yourself that.

Note: In a later post, I will share what I’ve told FSOs and others I’ve mentored over the years – pick your next assignment not on region or language or responsibilities.  Pick it because your boss is a good manager.


2. During my career, the U.S. Government has approved policies that I didn’t agree with.  Remember your job is to represent the United States to the government, citizenry and others in your host country.  Your job is to explain and defend U.S. policy whether you support it or not.  Your personal feelings don’t matter.  You may think so and your mother may think so, but you’re overseas to represent the United States.

There have been some who could no longer agree with that core precept — and they’ve resigned.  I remember at least two FSOs who quit over our policy in Bosnia.  I’ve heard that many quit in the 1960s to protest our policy in Vietnam.  (The Dissent Channel is a way to object to a policy at your post that you think is ill-considered or downright dumb.  It is used rarely, but deserves a fuller discussion in a later post)

For what it’s worth, I disagreed with the USG’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and for I considered to be excesses in the Global War on Terror.  Still do.  I had a choice.  Accept the policy and move on or give in and do my job.  I gave in.

I defended what the United States was doing.  Many disagreed.  I was in Kampala at the time and some (many?) Ugandan government officials and fellow diplomats threw brickbats and mocked me for defending a bully. However, I toed the line, followed the approved talking points and kept my cool.  You have to ask yourself whether you can do the same. 

And don’t think you can simply tell folks that, “Well, the United States thought there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the war was a mistake or an error or a gross overreaction. I don’t support it.”  No way.  You signed up to work for the State Department and you don’t get to cherry pick the policies you like – renditions, predator/reaper drone strikes, water boarding.  Can you grin and bear it?


Congressmen and women, usually during election campaigns, love to criticize the “cookie pushers” in the Foreign Service who they say spend their days lunching with chums and nights waltzing from cocktail parties to soirees.  Frankly, their attitude is misinformed, even laughable.  It makes for a good soundbite, but little more.

During his or her first tour, even the most social FSO discovers that the lunches and especially evening receptions are incredibly dull affairs.  They are work, plain and simple.  You work a reception to squeeze bits of information and gossip from other diplomats, host government officials and other guests.  Occasionally the information you pick up helps to corroborate your thinking.  However, more than likely the tips are unimportant, pointless trivia.

Despite what Congress likes voters to believe.  If you’re working these parties, you will have 12-14 hour days.  Unlike your diplomatic colleagues, US diplomats arrive to work early and spend the full day on their normal jobs.  At the close of business, FSOs will head to these “parties.”  Depending on the social whirl of your posting, you will be attending these events three or four nights a week.  Although Political and Economic Officers tend to work these receptions, Consular, Management and Public Diplomacy Officers also receive invitations and are expected to attend.

Ask any FSO whether they like these events.  These affairs may seem glamorous from afar – on Capitol Hill or Main Street – but cocktail parties are work, important efforts to be sure, but holding little allure or thrills.

Likewise, if you’ve never left the United States, you may not like leaving behind the comforts that you expect – round-the-clock electricity, potable water from the tap, vegetables and fruits that need only to be rinsed, not bleached.  It’s very likely your will be pulling some tours in the developing world where life is challenging, even though you can afford household help and a gardener. You’ll weather frequent bouts of stomach troubles, thanks to giardia and amoebas, but there are more serious diseases too.

I contracted cerebral malaria in Zambia during my second tour – even though I was taking the then-recommended anti-malarials.  They finally cured the malaria using Quinine — the drug the Army used to cure my uncle’s malaria in the South Pacific during WWII!  I knew someone in Uganda who came down with West Nile Fever and was hospitalized for weeks.  Others react badly to the anti-malaria prophylaxis.  It’s not widely publicized but FSOs come into contact with strange infectious diseases that render them sick, battered or dead.  In the Developing World, the only thing more dangerous than disease are car accidents.

If you’ve visited London, Paris and Amsterdam and found them attractive as posts, well, there are more posts like Kinshasa, Bujumbura and Guayaquil.  Many FSOs like the tougher posts – there’s hardship differential pay (from 5-25 percent) tacked on your monthly salary.  But don’t expect the attractions – museums, opera, theater — of Europe when you’re in Sub-Saharan Africa or the “Stans” of Central Asia.

Peace Corps Volunteers, field employees of NGOs and military personnel all have an edge in roughing it over the typical FSO.  Think hard about living with chronic brownouts and a ready supply of anti-venom in the refrigerator.  It’ll save you a lot of pain and the Foreign Service a lot of money.


You’re a diplomat.  You’re the Third Secretary of the Political Section at the American Embassy of Upper Slobovia, damn it!  But when you start out you’re also the low man or woman on the totem pole.  Scut work falls to you.  It’s the hierarchy thing again.

As a junior officer (“entry level officer”) you will pull the all-nighters at the airport waiting for Senator So-and-so’s plane to take off.  You’ll be pressed into carrying visiting VIP’s luggage, gifts and purchases he made at the local souvenir market.  You will be ignored or lectured by said VIPs (although a few are genuinely nice people).  The VIPs will be late to meetings, early to the Ambassador’s Residence and ignorant of local customs (the sole of your shoe on the floor; not in the Sultan’s face, Mr. Senator.  Don’t shake the Muslim woman’s hand in this country.  And chat with the Foreign Minister first about his family, his farm, his health before you berate him and his country’s miserable human rights record.)

And all the blame will fall on you.  Suck it up, smile and count how many days you transfer to your next Embassy.  Where you’ll be Second Secretary and won’t have to endure this torture.  Ha!  It never goes away.  Can you deal with that?  Answer honestly before you take the plunge.  Everyone will tell you great things about the Foreign Service, and I do too.  But there are downsides and you should consider them as well.