Management 101: Don’t Let the Shit Float Up

Tips on How to Get Promoted in the Foreign Service.  If you can live with yourself…


More often than not, these guys (and most were men) did nothing of the sort.  And when I got back to Washington, first serving as a DAS in a functional bureau and later in a regional bureau, I was thrown under the bus by my so-called protective bosses.

I’d ask, “What happened to backing up my decisions, taking the heat for my decisions or arguments in meetings?”  The manager would typically stammer, hem and haw, and say something on the order of, “you’re in the big leagues now.  It means taking ownership for your decisions.  Trust me it won’t reflect badly on you.  In this building, no one makes decisions so someone who does is eventually valued.”

Bullshit.  The State Department has a thousand ways for the managers to cover their asses, and only one way to make a decision.  It’s easy to duck your responsibility — write an action memo to your boss or better still to your boss’s boss.  Pushing them to make the decisions.  As you’d expect, most of those came back with copious notes and no decision or the third box.  The first box is “yes,” the second box is “no,” and the third box is the principal’s response, which in so many words was “Don’t expect a decision on this from me.  Either send it to the Deputy Secretary or rewrite it to make it ‘less committal’ or better still spike it.”

No sour grapes (well, maybe a few), no unhappy camper, no respect within the building (but tons outside, where decision makers are actually admired)  To be honest, Washington, or at least the State Department runs more on non-decisions than true “yes” or “no” decisions…  Or wait until the crisis happens and then someone has to make decisions, usually at the highest level.  It is the essence of Edmund Burke’s conservatism.

In the Foreign Service, you will get promoted if you stay away from decision making..  You will get promoted if you don’t/don’t make waves.  You will be nailed and beaten down if you disagree with the higher-ups, even if they haven’t made a decision. You make a decision on something it’s your ass flapping in the wind.

Trust me, and forgive me my bitterness.  I still consider working as a Foreign Service officer the best job in the world, and certainly in the U.S. government.  It’s just with the passage of time, I see things more clearly.  And occasionally, just a few times, it irks me.

Pick your assignments carefully; pick your bosses very carefully  But that’s the subject of my next post.

Cheers and good luck,

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