Quote of the day/week/however long

"Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does."
~William James

Monday, August 23, 2010

Planning Outside the Box

Once upon a time a clever and very successful DCM gave Madam some advice. 
The subject was Careers with a capital C, and he said two things that she has found to be extremely useful in the ensuing years.

First, he said, it's okay to not share others' ambitions.  You might feel weird or wrong if your A100 classmates salivate over, say, an extended tour as political counselor in Brussels or ambassador to London or Tokyo, while you hunger for a DCM-ship in Ulan Batar or econoff in Ouagadougou.  But you aren't wrong.  Just as one FSO's hellhole is another's paradise (and vice versa) one's dream job is not another's.   It's okay to want what you want.

Second, no FSO's professional journey is straightforward.  Look, the DCM said, for steps that will be fulfilling in themselves and will also carry you obliquely toward your goal, that dream job.  Move to the right bureau or to the same area of the world; find a job that will get you the language; get training in that subject or one closely related; read up; tell your boss what you want (if he or she is trustworthy); volunteer to fill a gap or to go there to help if a disaster occurs.  If you can, go there simply as consular cannon fodder very early on.  It is extremely common for an ambassador, DCM or counselor to have three tours in his or her favorite country:  as a JO, at mid level, and for that final dream job.  Such progression gives an alert and professional officer a markedly superior understanding of the place and its people; it also introduces the officer early on to local fellow worker bees whom he or she will meet later as equals at the peaks of their own careers.

What this all means is simple:  know your objective; be patient; gather the tools, the expertise and the reputation for professionalism; luck favors the prepared mind.  So does the broadest possible thinking and planning.

Happy Hunting!!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Yes, Go!

Continued from yesterday ...

But you've done nothing but visas for three years.  How will you show what you can do out in the world of grownup FSOs?

Let's count up a few possibilities:

- You interviewed an average of X visa applicants per day for Y days, with patience, courtesy, and efficiency, never losing sight of the importance of your work.

- During six months in ACS you met with police, immigration and local officials, speaking The Language exclusively during all these encounters.

- You were an integral part of a team (not "led the team" unless you did) of officers and local employees.

- You referred Z cases for investigation.  Q percent of those proved to actually be fraudulent, a higher percentage than any other officer's.

- You tweaked the appointment system to save every visa applicant at least 30 minutes at the embassy.

- You handled the case of an American citizen's suicide with sensitivity and tact.  The family wrote a letter to the Ambassador thanking you by name.

- You rearranged the intake/221g/reapplication process to save time by reducing the passing of paperwork back and forth from four times to two.

- You faced every crowd every day with energy and professionalism, knowing that you represented the US to these people, and were in a large part responsible for their opinion of your country.

- You knew that consular work, for all its stress, repetitiveness, and apparent lack of direct relationship to that senior political counselor job you covet, was an essential part of your apprenticeship, and you welcomed the rigor, the discipline and the challenge as well as the reward of knowing you did your job well.

- Add specific, personalized, true details as you can.   Find a balance between clarity and modesty, and stick to it.

- Remember that the quiet girl with whom you share a cubicle could be Bill and Hillary's niece who just wants to be loved for herself but will remember every Hillary joke she heard, and who told it.

- As in a resume', if you find yourself writing lots of "I" sentences, go back and edit for the "understood I":  drop the "I" and start the sentence with an action verb.  Such as, solved the long-standing case of a missing American; worked with PD to  introduce the I-160 through press releases and TV spots; was an integral part of the NIV team that processed the most NIVs in 2009 with the fewest system rejections ... you get the idea.  And you can probably write them to make them more catchy and compelling.

For the diehards who still dare to scoff at the work they have done for the past few years, final advice:  shut up about that, and get a clue.  Did you really miss the entire point of your baptism by fire?

Remember, you don't know which office director, which DAS, which COM is a consular-coned officer, or just loved his own baptism by fire in Addis or Manila, remembers it with delight, and will be permanently put off by any hint of a sneer.

And remember that word gets around.  A second tour officer who shows that she thinks she is too good for the visa line will be remembered by those she least wants to be remembered by, probably permanently.

Now go forth and conquer the world.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ready, Set, Go

Not long ago it was correctly said that, despite the explosion of electronic communications (email, cell phones), 70% of business communication was still face to face.  Madam has not seen any recent statistics, but whatever is going on out there in the rest of the world, in the Foreign Service that is doubtless not so any more, if it ever was at all.

For all ELOs who thought you had a job when you got here, it's time to go job hunting.

And here, from the collected wisdom and experience of many mid- and senior-level FSOs, are a few ideas for a successful hunt.

First and most important, research, research, research.

Make sure you understand what the job you are considering really entails, not just the job title, which can be very misleading.  Ask your CDO, ask your classmates, lunch friends, your boss, the DCM.  Someone will know someone who had that job before, and can describe it to you.

Try to find out who you will be working for.  Note, please, that working FOR someone can be very different than working WITH someone.  If you can, find someone who knows that person and can tell you what it's like to work FOR him or her.  The notion of Kiss Up Kick Down is alive and well in the Service.

Find out who will decide.  You're sure you don't know anybody who knows the person who will have the say on who gets the job you covet?  You would be surprised.  Hit the list above, and ask.  They might not know that person directly, but will certainly know someone else who does.  Then email the decision maker.

Three very short paragraphs is all you get, no more than three sentences per paragraph - and no run-ons, or cheating with semicolons.  Introduction, description, closing.  Like a good resume, it should leave the recipient with a desire to know more.  It should take no more than 20 seconds to read, should include lots of white space, and it should consist of:

- Introduction:  Where you are and what you're doing, what job you are interested in, why (you get only half a sentence for the 'why' part).

- Description:  What you bring to the job you want.  This is the place to put your education, your previous experience in and out of the Service, and no more than two or three of your proudest accomplishments and how they relate to the job you want.  And they do relate, if for no other reason than that they demonstrate your decisiveness, your grasp of complex regulations and how to apply them correctly, or your appreciation for how good customer service affects relations with the host country.  Note:  do not exaggerate, and for heaven's sake do not make things up.  Everybody knows almost everybody, and not only is this extremely easy to check, but a fib will give you a hallway reputation you might never shake.  For ideas, Google "elevator pitch" or "elevator speech."

- Closing:  Obliquely ask for the job, without asking directly or presuming that the recipient will respond to you.

Do not write the email and send it.  Doing so will almost guarantee that you will wake suddenly in the middle of the night in a white-hot panic of regret.  Write it, save it as a draft, review it tomorrow, run it past someone who knows the system and will tell you the truth.   Adjust as necessary.  Then send it, cross your fingers, and good luck to you!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How's that again? The Shortest Possible Guide to Effective Interpreting

Interpreting, translating – what’s the difference?  Most people tend to use these words interchangeably, but the interpreter translates orally, while a translator interprets written text.  In consular work, officers who are not fluent in the local language must sometimes depend on local employees for both skills, but interpreting is by far the most difficult to master.

Interpreters must be excellent, discerning listeners; they must be able to process and remember several sentences, and repeat them accurately in another language.  They have to possess excellent public speaking skills, and the ability to transform idioms, colloquialisms and other culturally-specific references into analogous statements the target audience will understand.  And they must be able to do this for speakers who are not trained to use interpreters, and so tend to speak in paragraphs, forgetting the interpreter.

Madam once watched a news broadcast of Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, making a statement.  He was slouched comfortably on a small stool; next to him sat a younger man, his interpreter.  As the ambassador began to speak, the interpreter sat up very straight, concentrating on the speaker’s face and voice, clearly preparing to accurately and completely render his boss’s Pashtun to Urdu.  But the ambassador spoke, and spoke, and spoke without pause.  The young man’s forehead creased, his hands tightened into fists, his back tensed, his eyes widened.  After well more than a minute, with no break in sight, it was the interpreter who broke.  He suddenly let out his breath, closed his eyes, opened his hands, and surrendered.  There was no way he could do that job, and he knew it.

Zaeef and his interpreter in better days

As consular officers, we cannot afford to leave our interpreters – our local employees – so dispirited.  After all, we need the information that the person we are interviewing will give us, and we need to pass accurate information back to him.  So here are the rules:

The officer:

It is you and the customer who are having the conversation.  The interpreter is not a member of that exchange.  Look only at the customer, glancing at the paperwork or computer screen as necessary, but never look at or speak to the interpreter.

Use simple, clear sentences; no convoluted, stream-of-consciousness, rambling.

Pause after every declarative sentence or two, and after every question, for the interpreter to catch up.

Wait for the whole response from the customer, and then wait for its interpretation.

If you want to consult with the interpreter about the possible veracity of the customer’s answers or for any other reason, get up and leave the window together, have that conversation, then return and resume.

Rinse, repeat.

The interpreter:

Stand or sit to one side, slightly behind the officer; your presence should be minimal.  Your voice is the officer’s tool.  You as a person are not there.

Translate only the exact words used.  Do not preface any sentence with ‘The consular officer wants to know…” or “He says that …” 

If the interviewee addresses you directly, continue to translate exactly what he says.  For example, if he says directly to you, in the local language, “Oh sister, please please help me,” what do you do?  You repeat, “Oh sister, please please help me,” in English.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


It is known as the American War, and the majority of citizens were born after it was over.  But its memories and ghosts survive, as do far more corporeal proofs that it occurred.

In nine years, the US dropped about two million tons of explosive ordinance on Laos, about 30% of which did not explode but remain in and on the ground, killing and maiming people - mostly children - and animals to this day.

On the other hand, Madam was recently approached by a perfect stranger who thanked her for the 1944 liberation of Paris.

There are forces at work that consular officers can at least partially overcome by treating all customers with efficient, pleasant and professional courtesy.  Among the easiest to overcome are rumors and anecdotes about abuse and disrespect of previous visa applicants.  Among the hardest are "Baywatch" reruns, and history.

Americans often feel they can fix just about anything by pulling up their socks and making some effort.  This tendency is considered both a virtue and an annoyance by our friends and neighbors.  But while lousy TV shows can be lived down and laughed off to some degree, history - both deserved and undeserved - cannot.

What can individual officers do?  Be mindful in everything we do, at every moment:  we can't carry our trash to the curb without someone reaching some conclusion about us.  Carry it well.  Realize that they judge us just as we judge them, by tiny gestures more than by headlines.  Realize that they might forgive far faster than we might.  Pay careful attention during area studies.  And hone that courtesy.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Ruminations on Creativity and Innovation

In a former life, Madam was once tasked with the fairly enviable responsibility of enlarging her work unit.  She interviewed several likely candidates and hired one, but the applicant who sticks in her mind after all these years is one that she didn't hire.  This woman came with a reasonable pedigree and education, but when the unit's work was described to her she shook her head and said, "I don't know if I could be involved in such work.  I am very creative."

Here is a near-rule that Madam has developed from this and many other experiences:  When someone openly describes him- or herself as creative, he or she probably is not.  This job applicant wore a number of scarves and had that thin, aesthetic, artistic look about her, but her conventionality was painfully clear:  she saw 'creativity' not as a continuum, but as a free-standing unit untouched and unaffected by the real world.  She could not see the application of creativity to that real world, except as art to observe, or to hang on a wall.  She could not imagine the innovative possibilities of the work being done (which, by the way, the successful candidate did, and leapt into with joy and with wonderful results).

Madam might be confusing creativity with innovation, but although one sounds all artsy and the other fairly plodding, to her mind these are not two separate things.  Creative thoughts are useless if they don't or can't lead to something material.  Innovation without creativity is just Lotus 1-2-3 version 6,734,321.

So the lesson for today might be, don't worry if you secretly would love to be considered 'creative' but don't feel conventionally so.  The proof of creativity is in genuine innovation, not in how many Indian pillows you might scatter on your sofa, or where on yourself you might glue a few sequins.  Go ahead and wear that Ann Taylor black suit or those polished black wingtips; behave yourself at meetings; learn to write cable-ese.  The proof will come when you suddenly think, "Hey, maybe we should try..."  And that kind of creativity is always welcome in the world, even, eventually, in this one.

Which leads to the second lesson on this subject.  This one can be very briefly stated, and was never explained better than by Howard Aiken, who said, "Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Learning the Language

While individuals might have personal complaints and frustrations about individual FSI programs - Madam herself has experienced mixed results, depending on the methods used to teach one language or another - the place as a whole is generally skilled and pretty reliable.  Go in intending to get a 3/3, and you will most likely come out satisfied, if stressed and exhausted.

For those who need a bit more, however, there are some outside resources that many don't know about but can use to good effect without buying a whole separate course like Rosetta Stone.  Here are a few:

Trading language learning with native users

The daily newspaper, as the language is written today about all sorts of subjects (not just pol and econ like most FSI handouts)

Local radio, for listening comprehension and all sorts of subjects:  joining is free

Plus, of course, finding small and varied ways to use the language as much as possible before leaving the US:

Monday, August 2, 2010

"My Card"

Last week Madam briefly mentioned dual-language business cards.  Today she elaborates, starting with a mercifully brief history lesson.

Before 9/11 made the idea of kindness to our customers and efficiency in their treatment blasphemously unpatriotic, there was a movement in the US consular world called "best practices."  These were ideas and processes that could be incorporated into consular work to increase, yes, kindness and efficiency.   Conferences were held to present such ideas and promote their use.  The CA web site displayed them prominently.

If you can find the best practices web page nowadays, many of these ideas continue to be good ones.  One of the best is 'the card,' which is still used at many posts and deserves to be used at all of them.

While the ritual business card exchange at the beginning or ending of a meeting seems mandatory, the cards themselves are only rarely used again.  But what if they were more useful?

Okay, maybe not THIS useful.  But some consular sections print up business-card-sized cards with information on them such as the post's web site, the NIV section or call center number, IV information numbers, ACS hours, how to make appointments, and the after hours emergency number if it is different from the mission's daytime number.  For good measure, cards can be printed on both sides:  English on one, the local language on the other.

Savvy consular sections not only distribute these cards at the service windows, but also give them by the handful to non-consular officers to distribute whenever a contact asks about visas or ACS.  They relieve our political, econ and management colleagues of the burden of  explaining - or avoiding explaining - visa processing.  And they do it using the 'give them something' rule, the one that says that courtesy often consists of not giving a person what he wants, but giving him anything he can use.  It saves our colleagues from having to wriggle out of long conversations about a contact's cousin's wife's maid's hairdresser who was refused a visa, and how unfair that was, and getting back to whatever they actually want to talk about.  And it guarantees that the information is accurate using the simplest and surest possible means, the written word.