Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Diplomatic Life: The Importance of Education Throughout Your Career

Okay, here I am again; out of sequence and taking another detour in what was to be a simple series of blogs about my career in the diplomatic service done in reverse. But, I keep getting these stray thoughts about things that cross several of my assignments, or that seem to highlight some issue that I consider important, for instance, my previous missive on defying conventional wisdom. Well, today’s brain storm is about the importance of education as a lifelong process, so hold on to your seats, because this is one that I feel very, very strongly about.

When I joined the Foreign Service in 1982, after 20  years in the army, I was fully indoctrinated in the military practice of getting training and additional education at every opportunity. One can spend nearly half a military career in training. It’s not only encouraged, in order to be promoted or to be competitive for the plum assignments, it’s essential.

Then I find myself in the Foreign Service, and the first thing I encounter is an attitude that, other than language training and certain technical (called tradecraft in our jargon) courses, training is not a good thing. In fact, it’s a bad thing, because it means you’re not getting rated or noticed for doing the ‘real’ work of an American diplomat – out there issuing visas, running a motor poor, processing travel vouchers, negotiating treaties, delivering demarches, and the thousands of other tasks that we get up to in the field. And, I won’t even get into the mind-numbing tasks we’re required to do when we’re on domestic assignment in Washington.

Needless to say, this struck me as strange. How does one remain competitive in an ever-changing, highly complex world without continually refreshing the foundation of one’s knowledge? Apparently, the view in the Foreign Service was (is), you’re educated when you pass the exam and we hire you, so you don’t need any more. Talk about an ostrich with its head buried deeply in the sand. You know, of course, when your head’s in the sand, another part of your anatomy is exposed.

Knowledge, information, whatever you chose to call it, has a relatively short shelf life. That which we learn in the classroom is often obsolete by the time the ink on our diploma is dry. In today’s fast-moving, technological age, that obsolescence comes on at light speed. To expect that the knowledge gained in a college classroom ten years ago is still fully relevant in today’s world is not only foolish, it’s dangerous.
At any rate, I paid no attention to those who told me from time to time that my constant attendance of courses at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and my vying for long-term training, was a waste of time and wouldn't really help my career. Every time I came back to Washington for an overseas tour, I tried to get a course or two beyond the mandatory tradecraft or language training. During my one and only State Department domestic tour (as a special assistant in the Office of Defense Trade Controls) I attended a course at FSI at least every two to three months; courses like Negotiating Strategy, Congressional Relations, and even an early morning course in French. How anyone could think this is a waste of time for a generalist Foreign Service Officer is beyond me – but, there were those who thought so.

In 1996, at the end of my tour as DCM in Sierra Leone, I was selected for training at the National War College. I turned down a second DCM job to take that training. I learned later that several people had in fact done the opposite: turned down the training for another bite at the job apple. How foolish, I thought. The jobs will be there when you come out of training, but the training opportunities don’t always come along, and what an opportunity. A year interacting with senior military and civilian government colleagues in an academic environment where we were encouraged to think seriously about our professions in a global context. In addition, I made contacts that served me well professionally for the rest of my career. Oh, and I got a chance to visit the Taj Mahal as part of an area study trip – how neat is that!
With my War College Area Study Group at the
Taj Mahal in India in 1997.

After the War College, I was assigned as the first US Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. A historic tour, and one that didn't hurt my record one bit. After that tour, I was offered the chance to attend the Senior Seminar. Again, there were those who thought this was a mistake. Another year out of the work loop so soon. Not a good idea, especially as I’d been promoted into the Senior Foreign Service during the tour in Vietnam. Again, I ignored them. Another year of writing, reflection, networking, and gaining a better understanding of the world, my country, my government, my colleagues, and myself. For a professional, where’s the downside in that?

Well, this is getting a bit long, so I’ll wrap it up here. The moral of this story is, if you want to be a true professional, totally competent in your field, enjoying the adulation of your peers, the confidence of your subordinates, and the respect of your superiors and the public, it’s not enough to be merely technically competent. You must be constantly refreshed and updated in the foundational knowledge of your profession through a career-long (no, life-long) program of professional education and training.

Your humble servant, signing off until next time.