Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Diplomatic Life: Proving Conventional Wisdom Wrong

I’m breaking my own schedule in this series of posts; first, by coming out early with a post instead of the approximately weekly schedule I posited at first, and secondly, taking a detour from the walk ‘back through time’ I planned at the outset. The reason for the first is, when an idea blossoms in my mind, if I don’t write about it right away, it bugs the crap out of me, making sleep difficult, until I put words on paper. I’m taking a side trip because the idea that has been bugging me spans several of my diplomatic assignments, and has been the source of one of my teaching points in the leadership and mentoring sessions I do; don’t allow conventional wisdom and urban legends to dictate the paths you take in your personal and professional life.

The idea which has been nagging me came about as I was doing research on the sequel to my novel, The White Dragons, a story of Foreign Service life and the bureaucracy and politics of Washington in 1975, just after the end of our presence in Vietnam. In The Dragon’s Lair, picks up where the first book left off, with the main characters dealing with the fallout of the events in the fictional country of Dagastan. Because it’s set mainly in Washington, I’ve had to do a lot of research on events and atmosphere of DC during the summer of 1975. During that time, I was still in the army, and stationed in Korea, so it’s been fascinating to look up things that I had only a nodding familiarity with, such as the construction of the Washington Metro system which began in 1969, with the first segment opening in 1976.

As I was researching, events in my early Foreign Service career, which began in 1982, kept popping into my mind, that seemed to bear on the dilemmas my characters were facing, and I’d like to share them, because they show how conventional wisdom can often be completely off base.

Let me first give a little background that will hopefully make my story a bit easier to follow. I retired from the army in 1982, at the rank of major with 20 years of service, including two tours in Vietnam, two tours as a unit commander, and several staff assignments, including unconventional warfare plans officer for the Combined Forces Command in Korea, and assistant public affairs officer for 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg at Ft. Bragg, NC. The grade they gave me when I entered the Foreign Service was FS-5, which is roughly equivalent to an army first lieutenant. So, I not only took a substantial pay cut, but was effectively demoted two grades.

The following is the Foreign Service rank breakdown and military equivalency at the time I entered in 1982:

FS-6  - 2d lieutenant
FS-5  - 1st lieutenant
FS-4 – captain
FS-3 – major
FS-2 – lieutenant colonel
FS-1 – colonel
FE-OC – brigadier general
FE-MC – major general
FE-CM – lieutenant general
FE-CA – general

The grades FS-6 to FS-4 were basically junior officer grades, FS-3 to FS-1 were the middle levels, with FS-1 later being treated as effectively a Senior Foreign Service Officer. The last four are Senior Foreign Service. An OC is counselor, MC is minister-counselor, CM is career minister, and CA is career ambassador. The latter two are restricted to only a very few individuals who have served long at some of the most senior positions in the service.

Now, back to my story. During my first tour, one of the mid-level officers at Guangzhou, China, where I was a consular officer, in a meeting with junior officers, remarked to me that coming in at my age (37 at the time) I was pretty much restricted in my promotion potential, and would likely end my career as an FS-2, or if I was extremely lucky, might snag a promotion to FS-1 just before retirement.

At the end of that tour, James Hall, who was the deputy consul general, had been promoted and selected to be the first consul general in Shenyang, China. He asked me to come to Shenyang to head the consular section despite the fact that I was not a consular officer (I’d come in as an administrative officer) and was not tenured. The job sounded fascinating, so I applied. There was a lot of push back. A senior administrative officer at the embassy in Beijing said that if I took the job, I’d risk not being tenured, and would, if I didn’t follow the traditional pattern of assignments for administrative officers, sabotage my future promotion chances. Thankfully, the ambassador and DCM supported my assignment, and James Hall did some magic with the consular chief’s job description, giving me administrative duties. The personnel system held its nose and let the assignment go through.

Now, you might be saying at this point that I was crazy. I’d knowingly taken an action that could not but have negative consequences for my future prospects. Of course, if you’ve read the first few posts in this series, you know I didn’t destroy my chances at promotion. I was tenured on time, and promoted administratively to FS-4 while in Shenyang, and to FS-3 just before being posted to Chiang Mai, Thailand for my one and only administrative assignment in a 30-year career. From Chiang Mai, I took a job that was graded one rank lower than my personal rank; another move that those who subscribe to conventional wisdom said was foolish. But, I did that job for two years, got promoted to FS-2, and went from there to be deputy chief of mission in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where I was promoted to FS-1.

I even made it into the senior ranks. Foreign Service Officers are eligible to retire at 50 with 20 years of service. I hit 50 with 13 years. In order to be promoted into the Senior Foreign Service, you have to apply for consideration; a process called ‘opening your window.’ If you’re not promoted after six boards, you’re retired. I opened my window when I turned 51, reckoning that if I didn’t make it, I’d retire at 20 as an FS-1, which is not a bad career when you think about it. But, to my surprise, in 1989, when I turned 54, I was promoted to FE-OC, and in 2005, while serving as diplomat-in-residence at the University of Houston I got my promotion to FE-MC. That was the year I turned 60, and with a mandatory retirement age of 65, I knew that was my last promotion. But, I wasn’t upset. After all, I’d proved beyond a doubt that conventional wisdom was out to lunch.

That has been one of my main teaching points to those I mentor – scores over the past fifteen years. You can’t let conventional wisdom dictate the direction you chose to take in life or your career. At the end of the day, you are the captain of your ship and the master of your own fate.


Stay tuned next week as I get back on track.