The Foreign Service Journal - June 2014 - page 9

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
|
JUNE 2014
9
Identifying Talent
Sorry, Tyler Sparks, but I am not
among the “practically everyone” you
assert subscribes to your view of how the
State Department should identify talent
(“Bring Back the Powell Fellows Pro-
gram,”
.
In the diplomatic service of many
countries, unless you attended the right
elite school, you’re doomed to
the slow track from the start.
What’s great about the U.S.
Foreign Service is that it pro-
vides opportunities for officers
to demonstrate ability at all
stages of their careers.
Trying to identify pre-
cocious talent based on
academic provenance,
personal connections and
early assignments (particu-
larly in Washington, where
one can hitch one’s wagon to high flyers)
would disadvantage those who, through
no fault of their own, got a boring job, a
weak boss or no support during an early
tour.
America is the land of second
chances, and multiple careers. Some
of our best diplomats graduated from
undistinguished universities or started
in completely unrelated occupations,
and not all were instant successes once
they joined the Foreign Service. It takes
seasoning to show true mettle.
When I read phrases like “the best
of the best,” I am reminded of the “whiz
kid” label given to Robert McNamara
and other commercial geniuses in the
Kennedy administration who were
young and smart, and were identified
as having high potential early in their
careers. They also took us into, and
failed to extract us from, Vietnam—and
we all know how that turned out.
Does anyone who has been on an
LETTERS
awards committee, or seen how various
accolades are handed out, and to whom,
in the State Department, honestly
believe there could be a fair way to
decide which 12 or so mid-level officers
out of thousands are the “star achievers,”
deserving of special access to a patron-
age network and private perquisites that
would favor them over their peers?
Mr. Sparks claims
that the military
identifies people “with
the potential to rise
through the ranks”
early on. I would argue
that grooming an (to
some extent, self-iden-
tified) elite of neophytes
is just as likely to give
you General George
McClellan—second in
his class at West Point
and plenty smart, but lacking the grit
to engage General Robert E. Lee in the
early stages of the Civil War—as Ulysses
Grant, who labored long in obscu-
rity after leaving West Point
(nowhere near the top of his
class) before proving that he had
the right stuff to grind the South
into surrender.
My point is, you never know
what people can really do until
they have been tried out, in vari-
ous jobs, over time. That’s how
real leaders should be identified,
and that’s the right way to “pick
winners.”
Having recently spent six
weeks on a promotion panel, I found the
process to be fair, balanced and largely
effective, though I freely admit that it
has flaws and (to paraphrase Winston
Churchill’s comment about democracy)
is the “worst system … except all the
others that have been tried.”
Before claiming that we have a “bro-
ken evaluation and promotion process,”
critics should first come up with a better
one.
S.R. Hankinson
FSO
Embassy Lome
The Social Media Emperor
Hallelujah! Someone has finally had
the good sense to point out that the
emperor has no clothes. Bob Silver-
in diplomacy (“Are Social Media Over-
rated?”) certainly struck a responsive
chord with me.
It could well be argued that Twitter,
Facebook, et al. are
virtual
communica-
tion platforms, insofar as largely vacu-
ous information thrown to the electronic
four winds is no more a genuine form
of communication than fast food is real
food.
But these so-called media do
accomplish one thing: They are a way
to conduct enough
outreach to satisfy
the bean counters
in Congress and
elsewhere, without
spending the time
and money neces-
sary to do real,
extensive evaluation
of the impact of the
full range of State
Department com-
munications.
Social media might yet prove to be
a useful tool in efforts to reach foreign
audiences. But the redirection of consid-
erable resources to a largely unproven
“tech-tool-of-the-day” seems short-
sighted and overly optimistic, at best.
Until the time comes when evaluat-
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