Diplomats Acquire Unique Skills. Are They Applicable Elsewhere?

The ability to gather, analyze, synthesize and communicate information clearly is their best asset, former Foreign Service officers say.

Patricia Haslach (center front) served as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 2013 to 2016 and is now a principal at a consulting firm. Photo by U.S. Embassy Addis Ababa via Flickr.

Thomas J. Miller spent nearly three decades in the Foreign Service, but he didn’t experience culture shock until he left the service and moved back to the United States in 2005 to run a large nongovernmental organization (NGO). The shock had to do with organizational culture. The State Department is “very hierarchical, and you have many levels above you,” he said in an interview. On the other hand, NGOs have a “much flatter structure,” and everyone feels they should have a say in decisions. “That was a bit of a shock for me. It’s hard to manage,” added Miller, a former ambassador to Greece. But “don’t expect the culture to adapt to you — you have to understand and adapt to the culture.”

Diplomacy is a unique profession, and diplomats spend their careers, which often last decades, acquiring and polishing skills that — on the surface — can hardly be applied to other fields. Nowhere else does one need to write diplomatic cables, deliver diplomatic demarches or represent and speak for an entire country.

As the economic counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan during and after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Patricia Haslach was tasked with delivering a tough message to the Ministry of Finance: Unless the government in Islamabad stopped funding the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan and cut all terrorist financing, it would face American military power. Having “built personal connections with them in prior meetings over copious cups of green tea” made the task less daunting, said Haslach, who later became ambassador to Ethiopia.

Although many diplomatic duties and responsibilities are foreign to other professions, former Foreign Service officers who went on to hold prominent positions in the private and nonprofit sectors said that several skill sets they honed as diplomats have served them well in their post-government lives. In interviews, the most frequently mentioned were communication, analytical, negotiation and leadership skills. Many career officers retire before they reach 60, either by choice or because of the Foreign Service’s up-or-out personnel system, and take jobs in business, think tanks or other NGOs.

Diplomats’ ability to gather, analyze, synthesize and communicate critical information clearly and concisely is their most important asset, the former officers said. “It’s crucial in the private sector to distill large amounts of information — seemingly unconnected — into a core, key issue for the company,” said Kurt Amend, who held senior executive positions at the defense contractor Raytheon for 12 years, following 23 years in the Foreign Service. He recalled advice he received from a “seasoned diplomat” early in his career: “When something happens overseas, describe it succinctly for officials in Washington, clearly explain why you think it happened, what it means for U.S. interests and what, if anything, we should do about it. I carried that framework with me from post to post and from one assignment to another,” Amend said.

This applies to both written and oral communication, the former officers noted. “Writing is one of the things that the Foreign Service does above average, with a style that combines a small amount of flair in narrative with good analysis,” said Keith Mines, who spent 28 years in the service and currently heads the Latin America program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Whether diplomats convey information to Washington in cables and memos or brief senior officials from abroad or in person in meetings or phone calls, busy policymakers expect to learn the most important and consequential information in no more than a minute or two, the former officers said.

They added that well-trained diplomats understand how their host-government works, how its leaders think and make decisions, and they know the key players both inside and outside the government. “The strategic thinking and power analysis we learn in the Foreign Service are highly valued when you move into the NGO world,” said Michael Klosson, a former ambassador to Cyprus and former vice president of the charity Save the Children. “A lot of what we do” — in both diplomacy and the nonprofit sector — “is trying to persuade others of a particular point of view,” he noted. “The ability to put yourself in others’ shoes, understand where they come from and move them toward your position is a valuable skill you learn in the Foreign Service, which I found incredibly helpful when putting together international coalitions at Save the Children.”

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Haslach, who is currently a principal at the consulting firm Brooch Associates, pointed out the importance of listening in interactions with foreign counterparts. As a diplomat, “I learned to start meetings with simple pleasantries,” she said. “Americans tend to want to get down to business immediately, and this can be counterproductive in many cultures where you are expected to ease into business. By having patience and listening to your interlocutor, you can build a connection, and sometimes even trust,” as was the case in Pakistan, she added.

Leadership in a multicultural environment, which is critical in diplomacy, is key to working in internationally focused NGOs and multinational companies as well, the former officials said. “You have people with skills, and you want to ensure that they are fulfilled and working well together,” Klosson said. “Most people need to know that someone cares about them,” so you have to create an “environment where they thrive.” Mines noted that officers in the political and economic career tracks “don’t always come with the skills to manage budgets and personnel, which in the nonprofit sector are really scrutinized.”

Miller faced a challenge managing the first NGO he ran after leaving the Foreign Service, Plan International, which worked in 66 developing countries to improve children’s lives. Even though the organization had programs worth $500 million, it lacked disaster-response capabilities, a crucial deficiency that could cost it dearly, especially in countries more vulnerable to natural disasters or instability. Miller’s effort to build such capacity “got a lot of pushback” from members of the NGO’s international board from a certain country. “They were long-term board members who had a lot of power and came from a very rigid society” that deplores flexibility and bending the rules, he recalled. From Miller’s perspective, just because Plan International had never had disaster-response capabilities didn’t mean that it shouldn’t develop them. Those “board members were of the opinion that things were fine the way they were,” he said.

That episode tested another essential skill set Miller had honed in the Foreign Service: negotiation and conflict-resolution. His experience as the State Department’s special coordinator for Cyprus negotiations in the late 1990s helped him deal with the board members resistant to change — even if Cyprus remains divided to this day. “I succeeded eventually, but it was very difficult for me,” Miller said in reference to creating Plan International’s disaster-response capacity. He was later president of the United Nations Association of the United States, another NGO.

At the State Department, Amend led negotiations with foreign governments on Status of Forces Agreements, which govern the U.S. military presence in other countries. At Raytheon, which produces weapons systems and military and commercial electronics, he helped negotiate contracts with customers from around the world. Being able to “develop and manage those negotiations successfully was always value-added to the process,” he said. Career diplomats’ impressive language skills are a bonus to their communication and negotiation abilities, the former officers said.

Foreign Service officers are generalists who gain broad experience across subject matters and world regions, but few develop deep expertise in a single field. Amend said it so happened that his last few assignments in the service focused on defense and aerospace, and it was logical for him to work in that industry after retiring from the government. He advised his former colleagues considering post-government careers to pursue posts and assignments in their remaining years in the service “that would offer substantive knowledge and experience” in an area in which they would like to work after diplomacy, and to “develop and refine their skills.”

“The generalist nature of the Foreign Service doesn’t always provide an easy bridge to many places,” Mines said. “If one wants to make a jump” to think tanks, for example, “you would need to work on the same issue for years. Humanitarian organizations, on the other hand, need good field managers and Washington policy people, and human rights organizations similarly are more prone to generalists, although from a perspective of a regional and linguistic focus. In any of these, the key is to orient at least a few Foreign Service assignments to the topic or region in question and be geared to it long before retirement.”