I began my career in 1969 as a secretary and took the oath of office as U.S. ambassador to Kenya in 1996. I started by “taking care” and ended up “taking charge.”
According to leadership stereotypes, women should stay in the first category. My history tells me different. A variety of jobs, skills development and experiences helped me do both.
These are the lessons I learned throughout my career.
Useful Behaviors I Learned as a Secretary
“Don’t let anyone know how smart you are,” I was told while searching for jobs after college. That was hard for me. I had a degree, fluent French language skills and cross-cultural experience thanks to childhood in the Foreign Service. My career as a secretary lasted less than three years. Here’s what I took away:
- Competent technical skills – typing, shorthand, telephone reception – serve me well
- By anticipating others’ needs, I gain autonomy
- Time management is a useful skill if you want to get a lot done
- People respond nicely when you are pleasant
- When I was no longer learning, it was time to move on
Lessons I Absorbed as a Management Trainer
In 1971, I answered an ad for a travel coordinator at a program responsible for training government-funded legal services attorneys. Within four years, I was standing in front of mostly male lawyers training them in management skills.
- The right culture can bring out our best work
- Most important trade craft skills included
- public speaking
- managing groups
- problem solving
- My competence grew as I mastered the content and context of my work.
- I could assert myself and challenge unacceptable behaviors. The sun would still rise the next day.
- Helpful colleagues make a big difference
Understanding Management as a Service Provider
After a decade in the training field, I joined the Foreign Service in 1981. I spent four years in management jobs. During assignments in Senegal and India, I learned to “do things right” by running administrative functions smoothly. My gender made no difference to Americans because I was, after all, providing services with a smile. Some local officials took umbrage. “I can’t believe the U.S. would send a woman to do this job,” said one. My skin grew thicker. This is what I learned:
- Management is about getting things done efficiently, on time and with predictable results
- Deadlines are short-term, control is important
- Goals, teamwork and accountability get results
- Managers “do things right”
- American style management fits some cultures, not others
Learning About Leadership From Leaders
After two overseas assignments, I returned to training. As head of Executive Development at the Foreign Service Institute, my job was to devise management training for all mid-level foreign service officers. Economic and political policy colleagues scoffed at the idea of management. So, we focused on leadership. We interviewed senior officials in leadership positions about what they did when they were leading effectively. Here is what we learned from these conversations:
- Leadership is about vision and change
- The focus is outward
- Thinking is long term, influence is critical
- Goals, teamwork and accountability get results
- Leaders “do the right thing”
- Styles of leadership vary with people and cultures
Exercising Leadership as a Deputy
In 1989, I was offered the job as Deputy Chief of Mission, which is the number two job in the embassy chain of command. I learned that if I did not assert leadership, no one was going to see me as a leader.
- I was expected to demonstrate both trade craft skills and management effectiveness.
- Modeling behaviors of diplomats I admired increased trade craft skills, while a management background helped me to assert myself confidently
- I realized I had to be hard as nails to confront people who tried to diminish me
- That meant addressing the problem straight on while treating the person with respect because we had to work together the next day.
- Growing my confidence through “self talk” and visualization enlarged my comfort zone
Several executives of other agencies, often older and higher ranked, could not resist attempts to diminish me when the ambassador was out of town. One changed an organizational chart by moving my position from number two to three. I told him he could change the chart or watch as I advised his visitors of the errors. Another announced in staff meeting that he would ask a male subordinate to represent the ambassador at a local men’s only club since he was not in country and I was…. a woman. We had an offline discussion during which I gave him corrective feedback.
Behaviors that Served Me as a Senior Bureaucrat
I entered the senior Foreign Service and a three-year assignment as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs in 1993. I dealt with issues of conflict and conflict resolution; peacekeeping; human rights; disease; refugees; democracy and women’s issues across 46 sub-Saharan countries.
My position got me to senior policy-making meetings. It was up to me to learn how to influence. Here is what helped:
- I communicated clearly the essence of complex issues
- People with the best information were those closest to the issues; representing their views worked
- Inter-agency policy meetings demanded preparation and strategies to be heard
- Leaving work at a regular time, no matter the crisis, gave me the energy stay resilient
- I managed crises task forces so well, I ended up directing many
Taking Charge as an Ambassador
I took the oath of office as U.S. Ambassador to Kenya in 1996 with an entry strategy and leadership plan. In my first meeting with the largely male senior team, I laid out expectations
- Call me Ambassador or Madame Ambassador in public
- I’m a short woman and don’t need to be diminished further
- I don’t hold grudges so feel free to give me feedback
- I am giving myself permission to ask many questions
- A physically and psychologically safe workplace is a priority I want to share with you
To make good on that pledge, I alerted the Department of the vulnerabilities of our Embassy building for two years. The Department was doing more with less. A colleague advised me to stop “nagging.”
On August 7, 1998, al Qaeda operatives detonated a pickup truck filled with explosives next to the embassy. Over two hundred people were killed, thousands injured. American rescue teams were delayed and for two days our Kenyan and American community served as its own first responders. Then the rescue teams, FBI agents, security and support groups arrived. All at the same time.
A colleague offered to resign because things were out of control. Another was about to blow his stack. I marched into the large, chaotic and noisy control room. My husband called “ATTENTION” in his military voice. I did not even have to think about what I was going to say.
“Take a good look at me. I am the Ambassador. Nothing happens here unless I say so. If I am not here, this is the Deputy Chief of Mission. What he says goes. Now get yourself organized.”
I had to take charge in order to take care of my people.
- Where are you spending most of your time – managing or leading?
- What skills do you want to develop to be a more efficient manager? Effective leader?
- Which skills and experiences served you well? What advice would you give others?