The Foreign Service Journal - April 2014 - page 17

APRIL 2014
Bring Back the Powell Fellows Program
The department effectively cancelled
the only vehicle that sought to identify,
train and mentor our future leaders.
Tyler Sparks joined the Foreign Service in 2005, and has served in Malawi,
Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Ecuador, where he currently serves as deputy politi-
cal counselor. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not
necessarily those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.
n an April 2013 article in
The Atlantic
“The White House’s Secret Diplomatic
Weapon,” author Nicholas Kralev
said that his research had suggested
that the State Department has a specific
weakness in not adequately “identifying
promising young Foreign Service officers
and nurturing them to become strong
leaders and top-notch diplomats.”
Unfortunately, he’s right, as practically
everyone agrees, including some of the
department’s top leaders. In spite of this,
in 2009 State effectively canceled the only
vehicle—the Powell Fellows Program—
that sought to identify, train and mentor
our future leaders.
Here’s why we should bring it back.
Identifying Leaders
As an organization, we face a number
of challenges in identifying mid-level offi-
cers with the genuine potential to be our
future leaders—or in Kralev’s words, our
“next Bill Burns.” Those challenges range
from the bureaucratic, such as a broken
evaluation and promotion process, to the
cultural: ingrained biases against critical
employee evaluation ratings and a dis-
proportionate fear of nepotism.
As if these faulty building blocks were
not bad enough, we also fail to be proac-
tive about recognizing talent within our
ranks, and then working to ensure that
we both keep that talent and make full
use of it. While the task of identifying
future leaders has links to issues such as
evaluations and promotions, it is a funda-
mentally different problem given the
Foreign Service’s rank-in-person system.
In that respect, our challenge in some
ways mirrors that of the military.
Former Secretary of State Condo-
leezza Rice is among those who have
said the Foreign Service could learn from
the U.S. armed forces. “They actually do
career planning with their people,” she’s
quoted as saying in the same
article. Rice adds that early in enlistees’
careers, the U.S. military identifies indi-
viduals with the potential to rise through
the ranks, and gives them a series of
experiences to get them ready. Similarly,
retired Ambassador Cameron Munter,
quoted in the same article, says that mili-
tary brass “look at the captain and major
levels and pick winners.”
Instead of following an organized,
methodical process to “pick winners”
while they are still at mid-level, we
push off any sort of career development
process onto our officers themselves.
Moreover, our helter-skelter assignment
process, which is completely divorced
from our evaluation process, forms the
crux of our career development system.
Obtaining each assignment you desire
relies on a combination of your intan-
gible “corridor reputation” and your skill
at lobbying for that position.
Nowhere in the process do we stop to
identify nascent leaders—not who will
fit into which next assignment, but who
has shown the potential and capacity to
be an ambassador, assistant secretary or
even under secretary 15 or 20 years down
the line.
While the military faces challenges of
its own related to training and retaining
talented leaders, they are still well ahead
of the Foreign Service. We do not have
programs to ferret out and cultivate our
best and brightest, much less to prepare
them to become our next generation of
leaders. But we used to.
The Powell Fellows
In 2005 the department began what
was, for State, a new and innovative
approach. Run jointly out of the Secre-
tary of State’s office and the Foreign Ser-
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