What is your best advice when it comes to work?

My story worth for this week – What is your best advice when it comes to work?

The simple short advice is not to do what you love rather to learn to love what you do. Don’t follow your passion, since passion is likely to be short-lived and not likely to be something others will pay you to do.

I understand that some people will see my advice as limiting. I see it completely the opposite. Completely the opposite. It is liberating. Rather than being the in thrall to our passions, we choose and create choices. None of us is “self-made” but we have more to do with what we become than anybody else, so it is better if we act on that.

Young & dumb
I didn’t follow my own advice at first, mostly because I had not yet developed those ideas and was unbelievably stupid. I just didn’t think much about the future. I just found myself in college and I credit my parents with getting me there. They just assumed I would go to college, so I did w/o much thought. I adapted to college but what was supposed to come after, I thought not much about. I didn’t “follow my passion”. I just drifted into studying history because it was interesting, and I could get good grades.

Going nowhere in particular to being nowhere at all
I stayed on this road to nowhere in particular until I realized that it was going nowhere at all. I decided that the quickest way to get on track (I won’t say back on track, since I was never on track) was to get an MBA. My biggest challenge was math. I disliked math and math seemed to dislike me. MBA required calculus and statistics.

Mathematical secret
It was then that I learned a secret of math – it requires more persistence than intelligence. I applied the same methods to math that I had applied to studying Greek – just keep going. I perceived that I could develop competence before I developed comprehension. It is counter-intuitive but there are some things you can understand only AFTER you can do them. This is analogous to learning to love what you do rather than doing what you love. It fits together and applies to many things in life and work.

Out of my depth
I was way out of my element when I got into the FS. FS had lots of unspoken rules. I didn’t know any of them and I didn’t know who to ask, so I observed and read books. This leads me to my next piece of career advice. You need to learn not only what to do but also how to behave. All organizations have culture and we all need to learn how to move in that culture.
All my career, all my life I have felt like I didn’t belong. They call it imposter syndrome. I used to fear it, but I have come to embrace it. My belief now is that if you don’t sometimes feel like an imposter, it is because you are one. My career advice is to embrace it earlier than I did. Understand that you are often playing at levels you think are beyond you, but they are not.

Never complain, never explain
My penultimate piece of advice comes from the FS of older generations. They used to advise “never complain, never explain and never apologize.” Of course, never say never, but there is wisdom in the general paradigm. There are reasons to complain, but don’t you just dislike chronic complainers? Explanations can be useful, but people who constantly explain to justify themselves are never respected. I believe in apologizing when I have done something wrong, but not to wallow in it and to move on to the next step quick as we can.

Nobody is out to get you
My final advice is maybe more an observation. Most of my career I thought the “they” did not appreciate people like me and would not promote me. We all feel put upon from time to time, sometimes most of the time, and we rarely feel treated fairly. If all of us think that, maybe none of us is right, or all we have done is rediscover the human condition. Despite its “obvious” dislike of people like me, the FS promoted me to very high levels. Maybe “rebels like me” are not very rebellious after all. What we do is normal, expected and maybe even useful. So, my final advice is to enjoy life and career. You are doing better than you think and it really doesn’t matter that much in the long run anyway. Get over it.

Sic transit gloria mundi – it seems like a threat, but it can also be a comfort.

How to get promoted

How to get promoted is a big question during this time when our FS reports are due. I think I can give some insights.

Let me “establish my cred”. I was on promotion panels twice, both times the career make or break transition panels to senior FS. I have also been on reconstituted panels twice. Beyond that, I retired at MC. Unpack that, since both factors are important. Getting to MC meant that I did okay in my own career and being retired means that I can speak more freely than if I worried about impressing or annoying the powers that be.

No old boys’ network
First let me say that the old boys or old girls network is not a factor on promotion panels, at least it was not in my experience. I did not know most of the people whose files I read, and nobody tried to exert any influence at all on me. Whether or not you get promoted, you cannot blame or credit a “fix,” at least it did not happen in my experience.
Related to that is that usually all that I knew about the candidates was what I read on the reports. If I knew the person well, I recused myself from the vote, as did others. I was pleased to note that in those cases, my panel colleagues came to the similar conclusions I would have.

The benefits of ignorance
We did not know in advance how many people would be promoted. Our job was to determine who should be promoted and put them in a rank list. This is good. It takes away the temptation to push someone over the line, if you do not know where the line will fall.

Paradox of skill
I was proud to be among good colleagues on the panel and of the FS colleagues whose reports I was reading. We really have a great group. There are more people who should be promoted than there are places for them. I think this leads to the “paradox of skill.” When everyone is really good, skilled at the highest level, random events play a bigger role. In our job, that tends to be something happening at post. Of course, the job you have matters a lot, but if there are no particular opportunities to shine, you cannot shine. These are unpredictable as international affairs. Consider officers who were in East Germany or Eastern Europe when the wall came down in 1989. They were likely assigned and went through language training a few years before. They looked forward to interesting jobs, but nothing like the chances they had. On the other hand, you might be assigned to a happening place that becomes suddenly sleepy after the crisis. There is nothing colder than ashes, after the fire is gone.

We all know careerist who try to get in on the action. They rarely do well, since they either arrive late to the party or show up after everybody has gone home.

So you have to be very good at your job and you have to be lucky. No surprise. The good news is that you have chances similar to everybody else.

You are not unique
One more macro consideration before I get into a few specifics. Almost ALL FSO think of themselves are unique or “a little bit of a rebel,” and most of us fear that “people like me” are not the kind to get promoted. I used to say that and I believed it, but the FS kept on messing with my worldview by giving me good assignments and promoting me. I had no connections coming in and there was/is nothing special about me. The system does not always choose the best and the brightest, but it is fair.

A few specifics
The things “they” tell you about EERs are mostly true. You have to be careful in how your write, emphasizing outcomes and explaining how you helped make it happen. You cannot be very modest, but don’t push it too hard. The best that any FSO can hope to be is necessary but not sufficient. You did not make anything happen, but you may have facilitated it. It is hard to balance you, them and the environment when talking about accomplishments.

Nobody much cares about the hard time you had or how hard you tried. Challenges met and overcome make a difference. Never complain about why you couldn’t do something. You would be surprised how many people waste valuable space telling panels about their troubles and what they would have done but did not. Those sorts do not get promoted.

Low ranking not the end
One serious criticism I have of the panels is the need to “low rank”. In each group, the panel needs to identify a certain percentage of low ranks. This might make sense except for the means. You have to find something specific in more than one EER. This is harder to find in EERs that you know are bad. Bad performers often know they are bad, so they fight hard to take out specific criticism and they never criticize themselves. You can tell that they are bad performers from the narrative, but you cannot find specific hooks. Otherwise good performers might let a criticism go or even include it in their own honest comments. Those are the ones we can find.

My point of view might be influenced by my own experience. Let me share it as a lesson. I was low ranked because they found that I was sometimes disrespectful of superiors. I made no secret of this, even wrote about it myself. I considered it a good thing in the right circumstances. I suspect that the panels did too, but they could find a specific criticism and they hung me on it.

Was my career in trouble? The NEXT year, the next panel promoted me to Senior Foreign Service. So, I was at the bottom one year and near the top on the next, with almost the same set of EERs and likely with some of the same competition. Be careful, maybe more careful than I was, but don’t worry too much.

BTW – if you are low ranked, don’t complain to colleagues. Nobody knows about it and it does not stay in your permanent record, but if you tell other people about it, they might think you are a loser. It becomes self-fulfilling. You can talk about it, as I did, when you are safely clear, but don’t insult the alligators until you have crossed the river.

Not always bad to be obtuse
Finally, just don’t take things too seriously. In the EER that got me promoted to MC, I wrote that the panel should promote me because “I increase the intelligence of any group I join. I like to think it is because I am so smart, but I suspect that it is because I am so obtuse that colleagues need to explain it several times and it makes them think it through again.” I got promoted. I don’t doubt that the panel members laughed a little, but it did stand out.

The Study of Leadership

Who should you trust to write about leadership? Academics generally can write more eloquently and more persuasively than practicing leaders, but can they appreciate it as well? There is no such thing as writing history as it really was. All history is a creation of historians, or the storyteller, who decides what to leave in and what to take out of the story. The historian also imposes a paradigm on the account. The paradigm is not the whole truth. It cannot be. It is a simplification, a model that we can understand.

A good model includes as much detail and nuance as possible w/o becoming so complicated that it is incomprehensible, and a good historian puts events in context that makes them meaningful while keeping to the basic truth. It is a tall order.
I recently finished a couple books with leadership in their titles and cases of leadership as their themes.

“Leadership” by Doris Kearns Goodwin is a classical narrative history by a renowned academic historian. She considers of the leadership challenges of four presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson. She knows them well from studying them for her lifetime. She worked briefly with Johnson himself. She is a superbly credentialed historian, with no significant experience as a leader. Stanley McChrystal in some ways is the opposite. He is a trained and experienced leader w/o significant academic credentials. His book, “Leaders: Myth & Reality,” is not as good from the academic point of view. His narratives do not seem to flow as well, and the book could have been edited to about half its length w/o losing meaning. His method is based on the classic historian Plutarch and features paired biographies in categories of geniuses, founders, politicians, reformers, heroes & zealots, and so a broader field than Goodwin’s. He also is more concerned with the environments, constraints, uncertainty and even random chance that leaders face.

McChrystal’s narrative is less concise and focused because he is less skilled at academic writing than Goodwin, but also because he is accounting for more variables and more complex interaction among them. I think this points to a fundamental challenge for those looking to understand leadership. Those that do tend not to write, or at least do not write as convincingly, and those who write do not do.

There are notable exceptions. Churchill, Caesar and Thucydides leap to mind as practitioners who wrote clearly and compellingly, but many of the most influential writers of history and most of the “system builders” like Hegel, Marx, Spengler, Toynbee or more recently Howard Zinn, never led as much as a Johnny detail.

I suppose it is a question of how much we can know and how much we need to know. Many great leaders never studied the “science of leadership” and maybe that is good. Leadership often tends to be situational and maybe the particulars of the circumstances are more important than the general. Stories of great leadership tend to include lots of hindsight insights and myths. Maybe this is okay too. Some of these stories are be inspirational or didactic.

Leopold von Ranke, the “historian’s historian” emphasized that history should be told “the way it happened” and we should not give up rigor, but maybe we need to consider within the limits what can be known about the way it happened and what we have the capacity to understand and use.

FDR tour 1 – The ecology of leadership

Franklin Roosevelt was the most consequential president of the 20th Century and our United States would be very different w/o him. Studying FDR is one of my hobbies. He was a fantastically complex and interesting character. He broke all the rules of leadership and yet did it better than anyone else in this century. I have read dozens of books featuring or actual biographies. Of course, I have watched Roosevelt on “The American Experience” and the Ken Burns’ series. So I thought it was time to see his house at Hyde Park.

On the drive up from Virginia, we listened to the audiobook “FDR” by Jean Edward Smith. I listened to it before but it was good to hear it again and let CJ hear it for the first time. There was a lot to this man but here I want to address a particular part of his personal leadership style.

Roosevelt was a tree-loving conservationist. You can certainly perceive this when you look around his estate at Hyde Park. He planted thousands of trees and even described himself as a tree farmer. The Civilian Conservation Corps was his favorite creation. I think that his appreciation of trees, soil and water influenced, permeated, his leadership style. He took an ecological approach to policy. He tried things, adapted the good parts, abandoned the bad ones and tried something else, i.e. try, observe, learn, and try again. It was an evolutionary process of variation and selection. FDR admitted that he did not know what outcomes would be. He commonly violated the ostensible rules of leadership by assigning many people to overlapping or even the same tasks and then letting them adapt to each other and to developing needs. Moreover, he understood that he needed to let things develop and not over control. He chose good people and usually let them do their jobs, but he was not indolent. He was monitoring the system, in an ecological way, i.e. not concerned with the details of the things but the seams and relationships among them. As a tree-loving conservationist myself, I think I recognize this style and its origins. Maybe I am reading too much into this, projecting too much, but it makes sense to me. FDR’s style is the indirect, development-systemic oriented logic of the ecosystem.

One side note – FDR started working on conservation from his first term in the NY Senate. He got appointed to the fish and game committee and reworked the rules. But he lost a fight with the timber industry when he tried to regulation timber cutting on private land. It was good he lost. His intentions were good but his understanding was flawed. Roosevelt introduced a bill in 1912 (The Roosevelt-Jones bill) session that would make it illegal to cut trees smaller than a certain size. In this, he was extrapolating from what they do with fish. You let the little fish go so that they can grow into big fish. Trees do not work like this. Some trees are just small and will never get any bigger. They are small for genetic or competitive reasons, but either way it is wise to cut them. Beyond that, you may need to clear largish areas – big trees and small – in order to create proper ecological conditions for particular species.

My first picture shows Chrissy sitting with Franklin & Eleanor. The next picture is a wonderful oak tree in front of a hay field. FDR postulated that the hay field was cleared for a long time, even before settlement by the Dutch, because the oak trees, like this one, had developed that open branching structure characteristic of a tree growing in open conditions. The picture after that are a series of New Deal posters talking about conservation and the last picture shows a really big hemlock tree. You would almost never find a hemlock naturally growing in the open like that. This hemlock has been part of a garden for more than a couple centuries.

Let’s not meet about it

I have failed in my admittedly quixotic quest to limit meetings and protect time. My goal was to limit time spent in meetings, eliminate many meetings altogether and just say no to just being there.

I have learned (confirmed) to my sadness that in government, maybe any large organization, many people define their “work” by the number and duration of the meetings they attend.

We talk about saving time and say time is our most valuable resource. I listened to a podcast re (see link,) which actually provoked this post.

In truth, I have not been completely unsuccessful. I have learned to say “no” to lots of meetings. I think I have paid some cost, but what do I care at this stage of my career.
I ridicule most suggestions of “brainstorming” for example, especially when “brainstorm” is used as a verb, i.e. “let’s brainstorm it.” Brainstorming is a colossal waste of time. People substitute brainstorming for thinking things through. I can think of a few cases where brainstorming sessions produced some value, but I cannot think of very many. And I am sorry but there are some stupid ideas and it is not much use to “get them out there” except maybe to get them out into the open where they can be eliminated more easily.
But my ridiculing of brainstorming upsets brainstorm advocates. Some don’t tell me, but they are.

Returning to the main meeting topic, I had a very interesting case with one of my staff members, who was holding too many meetings. When I asked him to stop, he told me that “his bosses” expected of him. I pointed out that I was his boss and I didn’t want it. He stopped – I thought. I later learned that he had not stopped at all; he just stopped reporting back to me. What for, if the ostensible recipient of the results doesn’t want them? My belief is that it was just a way to seem to be busy, like doing a rain dance.

But I have learned a simple technique. I noticed that when somebody closes a meeting, it is customary to ask if anybody else has anything else to say. This question is often followed by a “are you sure?” and/or by additional comments. I have noticed that when the last person speaks, the best thing to say is “okay, let’s get back to work.” If someone really has something important to add, they will say so. Otherwise, head for the door while the opportunity is there. I have a variation if I am not leading the meeting. When the leader says “okay, let’s” I get up and make to leave. This often finishes the meeting w/o the request for additional comments.

In the link I included, the author talks about making it harder to set up meetings. Outlook makes it too easy. All you need do is send out those notices. I used to think it was rude not to respond at all, but now I just ignore most of them, since few of them really need me. They have no business asking me and I figure if they really care they will follow up.
IMO, many if not most meetings result from inability to make decisions. How often are you talking with a few people and somebody says, “let’s have a meeting to resolve this.” The correct answer is almost always “no”.

If you need more information, ask whoever is likely to have it. If a decision is within your portfolio, just make it. The cost of coming to the “right” decision with meetings and research often exceeds the cost of making the wrong decision and some things just don’t matter very much.

Anyway, I lost that long war against meetings, although I did manage to clear an areas that was, if not meeting free, was at least meeting scarce. This gave everybody more time to do real work and I think it was effective. I would discuss this with anyone who asks, but let’s not meet about it.

PS – I am not really against wasting time. Some wasted time is unavoidable. But I can waste time all by myself. I don’t need to call a meeting of a lot of other people to help.

Being too busy

One of my most valuable tasks as a leader, of my own life and of my organization, is setting priorities. Priorities mean NOT doing most things in order to concentrate on those of highest value added. I spend a lot of time and energy thinking of ways to skip steps, simplify procedures and get other people to do what I need to get done. As a result, things that used to take me days to do, I can now knock out in hours or sometimes I don’t have to do them at all. This is as it should be. Much of this happy outcome is the result of thinking about the process, i.e. not being busy.

There is an old story about a guy who is locked out of his house. He needed to get in quick and calls a locksmith, who tells him that he can solve the problem for $50. The guy agrees. The locksmith shows up, takes a look, thumps the lock with a little hammer. It opens and he asks for his $50. The guy doesn’t want to pay. “$50 bucks,” he stammers, “for thumping the lock? I want an itemized bill.” He gets it – $0.05 for thumping the lock; $49.95 for knowing how. We should strive to know more and do less.

All successful people are busy sometimes, but if you are busy all the time, you are either not in control of your life and should spend more time trying to figure it out, sort of like glancing at a map before setting out on a cross country journey instead of wandering Neanderthal like until you stumble over a route. I suspect most people are not as busy as they say. As the article says, many of us derive status from appearing busy all the time. Not me. I am a man of leisure and proud of that. If I can get more done than in less time, that is how I want to derive status. I am content if people think my success is the result of dumb luck because working hard for meager results is just kind of dumb.
Competing to be the busiest
We don’t feel important, experts say, unless we have too much to do.

A legend in my own mind

A lot happened in Brazilian-American relations while I was here.  If asked to predict before I got here, even if asked to be extravagant, I would never have been so bold as to predict all the things accomplished in education and English learning.  The numbers are impressive.  Our English teacher exchange, for example, grew 54 fold in the time I was in Brazil.  This is not 54%, but 54 times.  By the time I leave, more than 20,000 Brazilian students will have gone to the U.S. on SwB.

I am in an unusual position.  Usually, I am trying to figure out what why we couldn’t get everything we hoped.  In this case I am trying to figure out my/our contribution to something so massively big that those unfamiliar with our operation do not believe it.  There was an interesting example last year when I reported about the increase in English teacher exchanges I mentioned above. I wrote to Washington that we expected to go from twenty to 490. My colleague in Washington thought I made a typing mistake and reported up 49.  Actually, I was wrong.  By the time I corrected the correction, our Brazilian friends had agreed to 540 and soon after that wanted to do the program twice a year, bringing the total to 1080.  The English w/o Borders program in general is expected to reach 7 million Brazilians over the next four years.  When you throw around numbers like this, it is no wonder people don’t believe it.

My analysis challenge is trying to figure out how much of the success over the past years would have happened without our contributions and how much my team and I did.  I have come to a nuanced answer.   We didn’t do anything in the sense of making it happen.  Our Brazilian friends did it.  American universities made the connections. Fulbright coordinated and IIE and Laspau made placements. But we facilitated all of them. We were necessary but not sufficient.  Necessary but not sufficient is not a satisfying answer.  This kind of ambivalence doesn’t look good on our efficiency reports and will not get the recognition we “deserve.”  Nobody gets promoted for being necessary but not sufficient. We prefer the illusion of control, but isn’t it better to be a necessary part of something really big instead of in complete control of something vanishingly small?

Why bother trying to figure it out at all if we are getting good results?  Results matter, but if you don’t study the process you cannot estimate to what extent those results came from your efforts, from what others did or from luck & serendipity.  It is always a combination but the mix matters.  You want to be able to duplicate success and avoid problems.  Unfortunately, much of our success cannot be duplicated. It was based on conditions which will not be present again. Ironically, our success altered the landscape in such a way that my methods are no longer effective. Knowing this is worth the time it takes to understand the process. Maybe I don’t exactly know what to do to achieve future success, but I know that I cannot continue to apply unaltered what worked so well the first time around. Knowing this is worth knowing.

This leads me back to my title.  As I get ready to finish in Brazil, I am feeling the usual mix of pride in a job well done plus the strange brew of simultaneously feeling humble at being so lucky, i.e. not deserving much recognition and feeling aggrieved for not getting much recognition. I didn’t say it was logical.  The more effectively you achieve something by working with others, the more others think it is simply natural and inevitable. Maybe it was. Maybe I am only a legend in my own mind. Maybe I just shouldn’t care.  I often joke that I need not worry since they cannot fire me and they will not promote me. That really is true.

Being necessary but not sufficient implies that you are part of a big team. There is often a distributed decision network at work and many members of the team are only vaguely aware or even unaware entirely of all the others. There are lots of necessary but not sufficient players.  My FS career is almost over. I would really like a big success to top it off, but I don’t think I can have one. If it is “my” success it won’t be big and if it is big I will share it with so many others that it won’t be mine. Good enough for me.  

Time & Money

These are the notes of a short presentation I will give at one of our conferences.

Nothing we do is rocket science.  My guess is that most people think they already do most of the things we will talk about.   But proper management is like diet and exercise. The principles are simple and well known, simple and well known, but not easy to do consistently and not much followed.

We worry about budget cuts.  Let me stipulate right here and now that money is important.  My programs might improve if I had more money, but maybe not.  It depends on how it is used. Ben Franklin said that time is money.  You can indeed sometimes trade one for the other. You might be able to buy a rush job.  But time is less flexible than money and I will talk more about using time wisely and well than I will talk about specifically saving money.  Time is our limiting factor because of how we work today.  Our paradigm is partnership, not patronage.  This means deploying intelligence to find points of maximum leverage and sometimes not contributing any money at all. 

It is time for my short digression, my suitable story. This one is about a guy who is locked out of his office.  He needs to get in immediately and calls a locksmith, who tells him that he can help him out, but it will cost $50.  The guy agrees and the locksmith shows up.  He takes a look at the lock and gives it a little tap.  The lock springs open, whereupon the locksmith asks for his money.  “$50, the guy protests, for making a little tap.  Let me see an itemized bill.”  The locksmith gives him what he asks.  The receipt reads: $.05 for tapping the lock open; $49.95 for knowing where and how to do it.

As I said, nothing we do is rocket science.  Our value added also comes from knowing where and how to do what we do.

We want sustainable programs.  Sustainable implies something that can survive WITHOUT our continued infusion of OUR resources, so I have been trying to avoid things that cost a lot of money and mostly succeeding.  Although has been said that some people have too much money but nobody has enough, I sometimes have enough money; I never have enough time.

Do important things – do the most important things.  This implies saying “no” more often than saying “yes.”

I once heard piece of music composed by John Cage in 1952 called “Four thirty-three”.   It is a three movement composition in which the musician plays nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.  The first time I “heard” this this I was not impressed.  When the musician told me that most people could not understand that “silence too is music,” I stood firmly with most people.

But the idea is not that nothing happens, but rather that listeners fill in the lacunas with their own thoughts and maybe become more aware of ambient sounds & other environmental factors.

I still don’t really appreciate this “music” but I do respect the idea that you can sometimes be doing a lot by doing less or doing nothing.  The spaces between are sometimes as important as the words or notes. 

Some of us think that if we are in charge and doing something, that nothing is happening.  This is probably true for bad leaders and poor managers, but it should not be the case for us.

This is my long way around saying that choosing what won’t do is as important as deciding what we will do.  Making the right choices does indeed allow us to do more with less, at least more of the right things. This is a simple concept, but not easy.  We have to cut good programs in order to have the time to do better ones.

Here are a few one liners

·         Pick the low hanging fruit

·         Do the easy things first

·         Don’t spend a dollar to do make a dime decision

·         Work through others

·         It may be better to be a small part of something big than a big part of something small

This last one is a big part of our success in Brazil. We played an important role in Science w/o Borders, an ambitious program to send 101,000 young Brazilians overseas to study in the STEM fields. This is much bigger and will have more lasting effects than anything we could have done on our own. It is not our program, but I believe that we were necessary, if not sufficient for its success. There are only two ways to get anything done. Success comes from a combination of pushing harder and removing barriers.  The mix matters. People often prefer to push harder, since it seems more active, but removing barriers is often more sustainable because it creates conditions where events naturally flow. It is like cutting a channel for water to run naturally rather than installing a pump to move the water.

So far, more than 15,000 students have gone to the U.S. on SwB program. It is an example of a true partnership.  Our goals and those of our Brazilian partners are perfectly compatible. Our job is to make their lives easier, to make it clear and easy to do what they want, what we all want.  A recent example is the acceptance in SwB of professional master’s degrees. It is the perfect SwB program, IMO, because it combines hands-on training with academic rigor. We worked to make information about such programs readily available to decision makers and make sure the pathway into American universities was clear and easy.  After the President of Brazil accepted the inclusion, the Minister of Education announced that 1000 slots would be made available, all for the U.S.  Why the U.S.?  Only the U.S. offers such degrees. We like a level playing field where we own the grass. Everyone benefits and we have a natural and sustainable system.

In the fields of education and English teaching, our Mission teams and those of our Brazilian friends work seamlessly together.  This remarkable achievement is based on trust and confidence.  Our friends know that they can come to us with questions and problems and we will try to find answers and solutions.  Beyond that, those connections can be and are made at the working level. Our connections are like Velcro, with lots of little hooks. We can do that because our people are energized.

Empower colleagues – This means what it says.  If I get a request or task, I try to put the most appropriate person in charge.  This may be an American; it may be a LES.  But I give them the task.  And this is the key point.   When they ask me whether I want to see it before the send it to Washington/DCM/Ambassador, my answer is often “no, just copy me.”  I usually don’t check it before it goes up. If I do check it, I pride myself on making few or no changes.  They know what they are doing.

My colleagues also have authority to do many things autonomously.   If it is within their scope of authority, they need not ask permission or fear retribution.  I expect that they will consult with colleagues as appropriate.  I may suggest that they work with particular ones, but I try not to. If they are the most appropriate person to do the job, I presume that they know more about the details than I do.  It is presumptuous and arrogant for me to believe that I know better and it wastes a lot of time, mine and that of others.

Letting go is very hard in our State culture.  All FSOs are smart. We have the capacity to remember lots of things and this gives us the illusion of control as well as the inclination to substitute our judgment for that of others.  As leaders, our job is to create conditions where others can exercise judgment.  We all can buy into this in theory, but in practice it means that I will never be able to know all that is happening in my organization.  I don’t even try anymore.  This is not because I am lazy (well, maybe). It is because I choose to use my limited time to do things more important, more appropriate for my particular talents or position or using my time in places where my value added is greatest.

There is a story about the dictator of North Korea, Kim Il Sung.  According to the story, Kim knew pretty much everything and once when his engineers were building a dam, he immediately saw that they had not chosen the right location and made them move it.  You can see why the place works as it does, but there is a meta-lesson.  People evidently think it is a compliment to claim that the big boss would have the specific knowledge greater than his engineers.  We know that if that is true, you either have a horrible leader or horrible engineers, probably both.

It is hard not to want to seem to know more than we do.  We FSO don’t fear dismemberment or death as much as we fear being exposed as wrong or ignorant in front of our peers.  We hate it when an Ambassador or DCM or pretty much any of our applicable colleagues asks for details and we just don’t know.  The proper response is, “My colleague or partners are doing that.  I trust them to get it right.”  But are we comfortable with that answer?

We recently had a very successful visit by John Kerry.  The PA part was to set up a kind of science fair, highlighting our successful partnership with Brazilians in the STEM fields.  As usual, we had only a few hours to get going.  I relied on my Brazilian partners.  Only they could marshal and manage the resources we needed to make it happen on a Friday for a Monday program.   When Kerry’s team asked me for details of what would be done, I had to tell them I was confident that our partners would do great work.  When they wanted to do a final walkthrough, I had to tell them we could not impose on our  our Brazilian government partners to open and pay overtime on a Sunday.  When they wanted to make last minute changes, I had to tell them it was not possible.  I explained to them that their putative (I did not use this precise adjective) needs were my most urgent priority, but the key to success, both now and later, was maintaining and strengthening relations with the Brazilian partner. They would still be here after Kerry left.  To their credit, the team seemed to understand or at least did not stand in the way.

Our part of the visit worked perfectly.   In fact, it was outstanding, because our Brazilian partners came through, as I knew they would.  I am morally certain that if I had interfered more or facilitated more interference, it would have been less good, maybe even a failure.  The difference is that when I did what I did, I bought the risk for myself.  Had it failed, the failure would have been on me.  Had I done the usual, chances of failure would have been much greater, but blame would not affix to me.   I hope that John Maynard Keynes was wrong when he said, it is often better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.  But it is a risk we have to take.  It is not an option; it is our duty.

You might think that I have drifted from the idea of saving money and time, but I have not.  In the example of the visit, we saved time, money and stress.  I did not deploy scores of people for this visit.  We brought in no TDY. In fact, during the visit, we maintained previously scheduled a CAO conference. In other words, we handled the SecState visit, as we did a visit by Biden a couple weeks earlier, as business as usual that did not require extraordinary disruptions in our important priorities.  We really did accomplish more with less of our own time and money by relying on outside partners and maintaining a disciplined approach of matching appropriate resources to the need, rather than throwing all we had at it.

Up top, I used the analogy of diet and exercise.  We all know what to do, but often don’t do it. A VIP visit would be analogous to binge eating.  We sometimes lose our discipline when we are beguiled or intimidated by important people.   It is precisely at these times when we need to be stronger.

Let me finish with another story, only one last time. This is a story close to my heart.  As some of you know, forestry is my hobby.  I studied forestry in college and I own around 430 acres of forest land in Virginia.  They seem very different,  but forestry works a lot like public affairs.  Things take a long time to develop and you can never control all the variables.  In these complex and dynamic systems, results are often not commensurate with inputs, i.e. sometimes lots of inputs produce nothing, while little things can be decisive, but the key to success if understanding the environment, choosing the appropriate actions and then giving them time to develop in the way you know they will.  A truly well-managed forest often seems like it is not much managed at all.  It seems natural because we are working with natural systems. 

Since 2005, I have had the pleasure of writing a quarterly article for Virginia Forests Magazine.  I think my most recent article applies to both of my professional passions – forestry and public affairs.

What I said to my follow forestry folks applies to us in public affairs and I will quote it directly.  “We are in a controversial business. Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, most (not some most) people misunderstand what we do. But our story is important and we should tell it with eagerness and vigor, not just to each other but to all who want to listen, and maybe even to some who don’t. Our narrative is not one of “leaving a smaller footprint” or “reducing damage.” Ours is the affirmative story or renewal and regeneration, of imagination, intelligence and innovation making things better.”

Changing leadership

Ambassador Shannon is the best ambassador I worked with in my entire career since 1984.  I know that is a bold statement, but I think he is that good.  I have worked with some good ones before.  Ambassador Dan Fried in Poland was the right man at the right time.  I also thought that Ambassador Robert Stuart in Norway was great. I have been lucky to never have had any really bad ambassadors.  This makes my career unusually blessed.  I have had a few near misses. When they are good, they are very, very good but when they are bad they can be horrid.

Not all my bosses have been equally good.  I have developed a system to take advantage of the variation.  I have heroes, people I try to emulate.  Of course, my ideal is a composite, since no one person can do it all. But I do have individuals I admire.  Besides great ones like Ambassador Shannon, I have had some great bosses.  Brian Carlson, my boss in Norway had an early influence on my career.  When I see someone doing something well, I try to see how I can adapt it to my reality and capacities.  There are some good things that I just cannot do and some that I can do only with some changes, but the idea is good.

But you need to have anti-heroes too.  If you look at the requirements for FSO promotion, nobody in the world is worthy; certainly I am not.  The real world is different, however.  You don’t really need to achieve the level of excellence talked about in theory.  In fact, it is dangerous to be too much a perfectionist.  If you don’t act until you are perfect you will never act.  This has the really negative effect of letting the lesser folks take you job. You have  a DUTY to get ahead if you are qualified to get ahead. Don’t leave it to the dogs.  

So what about the anti-heroes.  I will not name names here, but there are successful FSOs who I think are horrible ; not many, but a not insignificant number have reached the highest levels w/o deserving.  You have to pick one of these guys as your anti-hero.  The idea is that “If that clown can make it, so can I.” 

You need both kinds of role models: the first one gives you and idea of what you should be and the second one gives you encouragement that it is possible for you to make it.   

Anyway, we have some really great role models.  One of them is leaving.

Time enough

I think people work more hours than they need to, but you have to recognize that time on task is an important part of success. There is a perpetual discussion about time. Which is better, quality time or the quantity of time? The answer is a clear yes. Quality of the time you spend certainly is important, but the distinction is false.  It might be true that 20 hours of quality time is worth more than 40 hours of lesser time, but when you get into the big leagues everybody is bringing quality time. If you are putting your twenty hours or quality time against somebody bringing forty hours of the same, who wins?

When I was in the senior seminar a few years ago, I noticed that most of us successful people had in common that we had taken fewer than average days off either in sick days or vacation time.  Correlation is not causality.   It is possible that we were successful because we loved our jobs so much that we chose to take fewer days off and the time on task was an effect and not a cause of success. I suspect that feedback loop is at work.  Those who like their jobs spend more time on task, which makes them more successful and makes them like their jobs more … But the bottom line is that time on task matters. 

You may not succeed completely at everything you do, but sure cannot succeed if you don’t show up.

As I said up top, I think that many people work more than they need to. Time on task ONLY is not sufficient. There comes a point of diminishing and then negative returns on the time you spend on the job.  You need time to renew your energies, “sharpen the saw” as Stephen Covey says. This helps you bring that quality time to your job. You need time to renew your skills.  Here I am not talking about specific job training, which presumably is part of your ordinary work.  I read a lot about things tangential to my work.  This is where vision comes from. This vision thing may be more obviously important to higher-level leaders, but it is important to everybody, since everybody is leader of their own enterprise, which is the person him/herself. In the last couple weeks I read four books: “The Generals,” “Insurgents,” Conscious Capitalism” & the latest biography of Calvin Coolidge.  None of them were directly related to my work and none of them immediately changed my life, but all of them gave me ideas that gave me ideas that will change how I plan and behave at work.  

So I am firmly on both sides of this issue. You need to apply an appropriate amount of quality time to the things you consider important.