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Collected Words of FSO Career Advice

(Disclaimer & Credit: This was originally posted on "Life After Jerusalem", which IMHO, is the BEST Foreign Service blog on the Internet. With apologies to LAJ, this post is so good I just had to share it.)

Collected Words of Career Advice

This was sent to me by a colleague who got it from their CDO. I think there is some excellent advise here that I want to share with you.

State_Department_Seal  The Foreign Service, as one of my mentors once put it, “is an old, tradition-laden organization, replete with baroque forms and largely unarticulated expectations.” Unlike the military, the Service seldom passes on to recruits in any systematic fashion the attitudes and codes of behavior it lives by. Over the course of my career, I’ve collected words of career wisdom and Foreign Service insight from officers I respect and developed some thoughts of my own. I’ve gone through these and provide below a mix of tactical and strategic career advice I think is useful for mid-level political Officers. As always when I give you personal advice rather than professional guidance, let me caveat by noting that these are my subjective views. Other officers may have different views about what makes a good Political Officers and what are the keys to a successful Foreign Service career.

Be good at what you do. Be the go-to guy/gal for your issues. Know your stuff, be enthusiastic and reliable, and take appropriate initiative. Own your portfolio. Managers love officers who are genuinely interested in, and thus intrinsically motivated by, what they do.

o Corollary: Know your place. This is what the Promotion Precepts call “workplace perceptiveness.” We are not a Service of equals. As 03 and 04 officers, you have a lot to contribute and a lot learn. I’ve seen, and internally cringed for, junior officers who interact in meetings as if they were the peers of more senior officers. It’s the functional equivalent of that colleague in you’re A-100 class who made it a point to tell everyone he or she planned to be an Ambassador within five years. Deference communicates respect.

Your career success will be in direct correlation to your ability to establish and maintain good professional relationships. As one senior officer put it to a Washington Tradecraft course, “People not line charts” are the key to getting things done. Build a strong network of relationships: in your office, in the Department, in the interagency. Be nice to people. We are a small community; it may take a few years, but, trust me, what goes around very often comes around. For me the bottom line is this: Brilliant analysts, returned Peace Corps volunteers, Masters Degree holders from prestigious universities, skillful writers, former Fulbright Scholars, former Hill staffers…these are a dime a dozen in the Political cone. What will set you apart are excellent interpersonal skills.

Be the kind of colleague people want to work with. Skills and competence (especially hard language skills) and doing your job well are essential. But this is the floor, not the ceiling. I’ve attended bureau meat markets and hired people; what gets people jobs is their good personal and professional reputations. The most competitive officers (usually) are those you want to work with.

Keep perspective. I really like the first of Colin Powell’s Rules: “It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.” In my experience, it often does.

Be careful with e-mail. Think twice about putting sensitive stuff in e-mails, which can be discoverable and/or forwarded to others. Take a deep breath before writing, then delete, that zinging comeback to that offensive e-mail that that idiot sent you. Check your tone – what you think is simply a minimalist e-mail reply could easily strike the recipient as rudely terse.

No one cares more about you than you. As your trusty CDO, I come close, of course, but in the end, it’s on you to look out for you. The Department has a whole huge bureaucracy to advance its interests. Document things. Get stuff in writing. For example, when you are unclear on something that involves money – say, R&R travel – (1) check multiple sources, e.g., your supervisor and your post Human Resources Officer and your CDO to get the guidance you need; (2) get that guidance in writing, e.g., an e-mail; and (3) seek confirmation that you’re doing the right thing before you finally do it, if there’s any question in your mind. And if it involves money, you should question it thoroughly. Save financial- and personnel-related written communications, including travel vouchers.

Always carry a pen and paper. Be prepared.

Take responsibility. If you screw up, own it. This is not always the norm in our culture but it will pay off in the long run. It will likely make a positive impression and establish your integrity.

No surprises. Bosses hate, absolutely hate, to be surprised by things because they have bosses too, and nothing is worse than being caught flat footed in front of your boss. It might be painful to tell your supervisor that the memo will be late or that you forgot to get a loaner cell phone for the visiting Congresswoman, but better that then not to prepare him or her for the inevitable angry blast from the Assistant Secretary or the Ambassador.

Be good on process. Spell check. Have correct margins. Read preparation instructions. Check your e-mail in a timely fashion. Provide people with interim reports so they know where things stand. Return calls. Be on time for meetings. Be responsive to OMSes and Staff Assistants. These are little things that, over time, people will notice (and remember).

Have a good sense of humor. As our military colleagues would say, a good sense of humor is a force multiplier. And being able to laugh, especially at yourself, is what will keep you sane in the long run.

Don’t just point out problems, have solutions to offer. Most managers are busy and will appreciate your effort to reduce their workload.
o Corollary: Think and plan ahead. If you’re proposing a new initiative, what’s the roll-out strategy? For issue X, who are the stakeholders beyond the immediate Department officials, and what are their concerns – and what can be done to address them? Make friends and connections with those who know how much things cost, what the admin, HR, or legal issues might be. Be able to see a decision or choice through to the finished product, ideally from a variety of stake-holder perspectives.

Promotions: Work hard, do your best, do what you can to have a strong EER, and make sure that your eOPF is correct. Then let it go. If you get promoted, wonderful. If you don’t, give yourself 24 hours to grieve, then move on. Really. Don’t waste time trying to figure out what why you weren’t promoted (and why others were). You can tilt at that windmill all you want, but you will never find the answer and it will only make you bitter.

Remind yourself of your values, frequently. We operate in a very powerful professional culture whose values pervade our daily lives and affect our sense of self-worth, often without our conscious awareness. The culture tells you that “any job worth having is exhausting.” That if you’re really good, you should be promoted as soon as you are eligible. That you should avoid long-term training assignments and detail assignments. That asks you why would you want to go to “backwater” post X, which is off Washington’s radar. That you should of course prefer the stretch assignment in a job that'll make you unhappy to the at-grade job that you’d love. You need to be aware of this powerful cultural force and actively push back.

o Corollary: There are many different kinds of Foreign Service careers. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, multiple war zone assignments will be right up your alley. If you want a good life/work balance, you can do that too. If your eyes are on the ambassadorial prize, then you will want to Staff Assistant-NSC-Washington assignment it up to the top, quickly. If what really matters to you is that you have interesting assignments, that’s another course. Each track has a price you’ll have to pay: slower promotions; less time for self, life and family; health and safety risks. You need to know what you want, make your choice, and then be happy. Fend off the nagging “cultural” pressure that tells you that you should have made different choices. Remember who you are.