To: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
From: A pro bono consultant
Re: Your leadership of the State Department
I have reviewed your job performance for the first hundred days as CEO of the Department of State. You clearly face some challenges to make American foreign policy great again. Your rapport with the rank and file appears to be under stress, your interactions with clients has been a tad inconsistent, your efforts at thought leadership have not always been clear and your branded content appears a bit unfocused. To be fair, this problem is hardly unique to your department, and you have achieved one crucial management goal: avoiding the worst-case scenario.
Bloomberg and NPR report that you’re hiring an outside consulting firm to better gauge how your employees think they can improve the organization. This sounds like
part of an ongoing trend good, but to be honest I’m a bit worried about this move. As Bloomberg notes, there’s an elephant in the room with regard to your effort to solicit feedback:
The State Department plans to cut 2,300 U.S. diplomats and civil servants — about 9 percent of the Americans in its workforce worldwide — as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson presses ahead with his task of slashing the agency’s budget, according to people familiar with the matter.
The majority of the job cuts, about 1,700, will come through attrition, while the remaining 600 will be done via buyouts, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the decision hasn’t been publicly announced.
It’s really hard to improve staff morale and gain reliable staff feedback when you’re downsizing. And as Politico’s Nahal Toosi notes, it’s not like your initial job performance has boosted morale:
Morale is plunging among the U.S. diplomats and civil servants who work for the secretary of state. Many are aghast at President Donald Trump’s desire to dramatically slash the State Department’s budget and Tillerson’s apparent agreement. Some State staffers are eyeing the exits as malaise grips the department — and before expected organizational restructuring. And just about everyone is seeking clarity from the new administration about its foreign policy objectives.
Even before bringing in any outside consultants, you have managed to create a climate where any competent employee has an incentive to seek an outside job. You are alienating the very people who could make Foggy Bottom great. This is not a good environment for any kind of management rightsizing.
I’m sure that the firm you’re bringing in — Insigniam — will provide some useful feedback. Of course, they claim the ability to “alter ‘things’ at a molecular level,” which sounds a little weird. They also claim “to help organizations operate dynamically, with leaders at every level engaged, performing, and innovating,” which sounds more generic but not exactly confidence-boosting.
So, to sum up: in your first hundred days you’ve mostly managed to create new challenges for yourself without addressing the pre-existing challenges.
In advance of your speech this morning to the State Department about your future plans, let me offer some pro bono advice. Here are five easy steps to improve both your job performance and to wring more dynamism out of your department
1) Learn how to be a political manager. In interviews, you keep talking about going on a “listening mission,” which sounds great. The problem is that you’ve already alienated most of your rank and file so much that stories like this one leak out: “Tillerson was taken aback when he arrived on the job to see how much money the State Department was spending on housing and schooling for the families of diplomats living overseas, according to one person familiar with his thinking.”
This kind of sentiment just makes you look callous an uninformed, as Politco’s Toohi explains:
Staffers were told they could not, for now, fill empty jobs with the qualified spouses of diplomats — a long-running State initiative — because Tillerson aides “think it’s a ‘jobs program.’ ”
“They’ve got it exactly backwards,” the diplomat said. “These are not jobs we’re creating to give spouses and partners work. They are jobs we desperately need filled, and we’re saving the U.S. government money and improving morale by hiring spouses.”
This is a bad look for America’s chief diplomat. As much as you want to run Foggy Bottom like Exxon, maybe it’s time you realized that these are two very different organizations that require different skill sets. So either hire a competent deputy or learn how to manage bureaucrats better. Oh, that reminds me…
2) Staff up. All the press reports indicate that you have no intention of making more political appointments until after your listening tour of the building. But as the New York Times’ Gardiner Harris explains, “no other department in the federal government is as dependent on political appointees, or as paralyzed when the appointment process freezes.”
Let me suggest that you walk and chew gum at the same time. Start making political appointments even as you engage in your strategic review. The more political appointees you have, the better you will be able to communicate the president’s vision. Rank-and-file employees will also have a better sense of your plans if there are more political subordinates to engage. Diplomacy is an awful lot about credible signaling; without trusted lieutenants, your ability to signal is compromised.
3) Have your political appointees learn, how you say, diplomacy. Can I just offer up one example here? Let’s take what your spokesman R.C. Hammond told the New York Times:
“The first step was to find out where the Titanic was, and then it was to map out where everything else is,” Mr. Hammond said, likening the department’s organizational structure to a sunken ocean liner and its seabed surroundings. “I think we’re still in the process of mapping out the entire ocean floor so that we understand the full picture.”
Pro tip: having your press spokesman comparing your organization to the Titanic is a sure-fire way to extinguish employee morale. So maybe have your appointees be aware that employees are listening.
4) Stop thinking of the State Department as a private firm. Your natural inclination is to import ideas from your experience at Exxon. As Daniel Gross notes at Slate, however, there are hard limits to doing that:
The State Department’s operations have to be staffed by American citizens — from the top regional bosses (ambassadors) to the middle managers (attaches, consular officers, program managers) to the service staff (security). Which is decidedly not how American companies do it….
Here’s an instance where the norm in corporate America simply can’t be the norm in government. You can’t hire foreign nationals to be the public face of your foreign operations, or to run them. As a matter of policy, you literally have to be a U.S. citizen to work in the foreign service. It’s possible to outsource the conduct of foreign policy to the military. But it’s impossible to outsource the business of the State Department to cheaper foreign workers. If Tillerson is seeking to save money on his payroll, the only think he can do is simply fire people and reduce staffing levels sharply across the board.
5) Offer up a coherent strategic vision. I get that you’ve been busy trying to ingratiate yourself with the president and forming the Axis of Adults to even think about something like a strategic vision. Still, if you’re going to keep your most talented staffers in a disruptive environment, you’re going to need to give them a mission statement that inspires them. Your speech to State Department personnel three months ago was a good start, but it was only that.
One of your few political appointments to date has been director of policy planning Brian Hook. I’ve seen him in action — he’s really smart! Might I suggest having him draft a more ambitious foreign policy speech from you? Offering up a mission statement more capacious than “Make America Great Again” or “America First” or “I Love Dictators!” might help to boost morale and inspire your greatest asset at State, which is your human resources. It would have the added advantage of showing your unit that Jared Kushner isn’t in charge of everything related to foreign policy.
Good luck with today’s speech. I hope the listening tour generates useful feedback. I would much rather you get informed emails from your subordinates than the surprising number of angry emails about you that I have been receiving from state.gov accounts. Remember, however, that the best way to boost the morale and performance of your team is to give them guidelines that enable them do their jobs.And the better they can do their jobs, the easier yours will become.