Category Archives: Outside the Box

Insider Quote: Top State Dept Official on Doing Less With Less

“People talk about doing more with less… [...] What we are going to have to look at is doing less with less.”

Quote from top State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity
in State Department cutbacks won’t affect work in Iraq, Afghanistan
Stars and Stripes, Published: March 24, 2012

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Filed under Afghanistan, Budget, Iraq, Outside the Box, Quotes, State Department

State Dept Sponsors Online Tag Game: Locate “Jewel Thieves” and Win $5,000

The Challenge: Locate and photograph five “suspects,” members of a mock gang of jewel thieves in five different cities in the United States and Europe

When:  Saturday, March 31. Contest begins at 8:00 am, local time, in each of the respective cities. The contest will start in Bratislava and Stockholm at 8:00 am Central European Time, or 2:00 am US Eastern Time.

Where: Washington, D.C., New York City, London, Stockholm, and Bratislava

Below is an excerpt from the tag challenge presser:

The 2012 Tag Challenge calls on technology enthusiasts from several nations to set their sleuthing skills loose on a mock gang of jewel thieves in an international search contest to take place Saturday, March 31.

The social gaming contest will have participants use technological and social resources to locate and photograph five “suspects” in five different cities—Washington, D.C., New York City, London, Stockholm, and Bratislava—based only on a picture and a short description of each one.

The first person to upload pictures of all five suspects to the Tag Challenge website will earn international bragging rights—and a cash prize of $5,000.

The fake suspects include Freddie “Four Fingers,” who is a demolitions expert. Originally wanted for his role in an audacious heist to steal a Faberge egg from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg by firing it from a 19th century Tsarist cannon in an adjacent showroom and onto a waiting motorboat in the Baltic Sea. [Really? A Tsarist cannon?]  The ringleader thought to be a resident of Bratislava, Chuck Lytton is known for his audacious plans and schemes. Apparently, this one once trained a band of indigent marathon runners to divert the route of the Olympic flame for sale on the black market.  Another suspect, called a technical expert is Teresa Bay who was arrested in 2001 for counterfeiting Starbucks gift cards in an attempt to amass one billion reward points, redeemable for the “Grandissimo” VIP status that entitles its holder to unlimited coffee.

The press statement quotes Gary Anderson who served as the first Director of the Marine Corps’ Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities praising the tag challenge saying, “It is ‘out of the box’ thinking at its best.” He also said that, “This experiment could give us new insights on tracking terrorists and finding missing children.”

Marion Bowman, formerly a Deputy Director in the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy said: “It has become increasingly obvious over the past few years that open source information, especially in an age of social networking, can be at least as valuable as classified information.”

The organizers? This is what the website says:

“Tag Challenge was conceived and organized by a group of graduate students from six different countries, the outcome of a series of conferences on how social media could be used to improve transatlantic security. Funding and support were provided by the US State Department and the US Embassy in Prague, in association with the Institute of International Education.”

I can’t tell from browsing the website how many graduate students from which different countries worked on this project. And besides the prize money of $5,000, there is no way to tell upfront how much is the total cost of this online game.

The tag challenge website is here:  http://www.tag-challenge.com/

Contest rules are here: http://www.tag-challenge.com/about-the-contest/contest-rules/

 

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Filed under Outside the Box, Social Media, State Department, U.S. Missions

Facts Are Strictly Optional, destroying civilization since 1997 is back to do some more destruction

Michel of Facts Are Strictly Optional, one of our favorite bloggers came back to the blogosphere this week to our utter delight (thanks J. for the heads-up!).  Welcome back, girl!

According to M, her blog appears to be “EXTREMELY helpful to a lotta people’s college papers,” Chinese readers, and escort services. I’m sure they are all pleased that she is not missing in action anymore.  But apparently, there are others, especially those with quite a limited reading fare, who are simply just upset about her online presence (excerpt below with the author’s permission):

One commenter, “Zack” is dismayed that I could potentially really be a USG employee representing the U.S. of A abroad — in fact, he is disgusted that our government would let me work in it’s hallowed ranks and can see why our government and the whole country is basically a mess.  Although Zack has a point, I would just like to note that if Zack thinks this blog is what is wrong with our government and our country, I really have to recommend he branch out and do some other reading.  However, after thinking about it for a while, I realized that Zack is right.  This blog  IS exactly why our country is a mess and our foreign policy is a total disaster.  Zack is right.  It was me.  I have thought up every bad decision this country has ever made since 1997.  My bad.  Sorry America.

“Facts are Strictly Optional – destroying civilization since 1997″was a tag line created by one of the blog’s followers. Makes for a great post title, too, so we borrowed and tweak it, sort of. Anyway, give her a visit here and help us welcome her back.

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A new personnel specialty: the "expeditionary diplomat"?

Udairi Range, Kuwait (Feb. 18, 2005) - A Helic...Image via WikipediaWe don’t know what you’re hearing about the still missing QDDR, but word has it that the “office for the coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization (S/CRS) will continue to exist but will not be designated as the lead State Department agency for crisis response.”  Would that make S/CRS, the red headed step-child of Foggy Bottom?  Remains to be seen.

In any case, we have posted previously here about a recent Prism article by Marc Grossman in NDU‘s Prism (Diplomacy Before and After Conflict | September 2010). In that same article, Ambassador Grossman also writes about State’s S/CRS and floated the idea of creating a “new personnel specialty: the “expeditionary diplomat.” Below is an excerpt:

One way for State to further support the S/CRS effort would be to consider creating a new personnel specialty: the “expeditionary diplomat.” Washington’s diplomatic personnel have, of course, always been in one sense expeditionary; the majority of the Foreign Service is deployed abroad the majority of the time. But the post-9/11 diplomatic experience, and especially the effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, means that State needs to be more explicit about the expeditionary nature of some of its future diplomatic work and should prepare a small but significant number of people to serve successfully in the hardest places at a moment’s notice.

Experience with the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, the lessons learned with S/CRS, and the example of diplomats who have pursued careers in the toughest posts should lead State leadership to conclude that this is a step worth taking. The first requirement would be advanced training, some of it provided by DOD and some by the Central Intelligence Agency, for those entering diplomats who believe they want to pursue this special career path. These entering officers would make an explicit choice and understand that an investment in their extra training would require their service in hard places, just as we now ask diplomats who take the hardest languages— Chinese or Arabic, for example—to serve more than one tour using their skills. Since these expeditionary diplomats will not need to meet the same age and physical requirements as special operations in the military, the State Department could allow people to opt in and out of this “special force” during their careers as long as they have the proper training. This would allow flexibility across the institution and encourage those who desire or whose family circumstances might change over time to participate as well. The department would also need to make sure those taking this career path are recognized for a career beyond the norm for Foreign Service and are promoted and rewarded.

Ambassador Grossman’s entire article in the September issue of Prism is available here.

In Guidelines for Nation Builders (Strategic Studies Quarterly ♦ Fall 2010), Ambassador James F. Dobbins (lead author of the three-volume RAND History of Nation-Building and Occupying Iraq: A History of the Coalition Provisional Authority) has this about reconstruction:

The term reconstruction, when used to describe the reform of postconflict societies, conveys the sense that physical rebuilding of homes, factories, roads, and power plants destroyed in the war is the prime need. This is misleading. Even more than infrastructure, nations emerging from con­flict need better institutions. In most cases, these institutions need to be refashioned, not just rebuilt, since it is the old institutions that will have failed in the first place. This is as true in the economic sphere as in the po­litical. Novelty, however, is not necessarily a virtue. Institutions should be refashioned with an eye to local history and culture as well as to efficiency if the changes are to secure broad and enduring acceptance.

As regards physical infrastructure, the intervening authorities should give priority to fixing those related to security, health care, education, power, water, and sanitation in an effort to raise these services to some­thing approaching prewar levels. The focus should be on emergency re­pair, not new investment.

 

Well, so what do you think of that?  Training from DOD and the CIA (how about the Corps of Engineer?). 
We get the idea of training on milcraft and spycraft, that would help make the civilians “hardy” in the dangerous world out there but who is going to train these new diplomats with the skills needed in reconstruction and nation building efforts? And emergency repairs?
   
We’ll have a related post on the Provincial Reconstruction Teams and State leadership on this issue shortly.

 

 

 

 


 

 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 

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Filed under Ambassadors, Foreign Service, FSOs, Outside the Box, PRTs

Blue Energy Ambassadors Held Powwow in Paris

Lots of get-togethers going on these days. Yes, you probably do this in spring/fall overseas because summer is the traditional transfer and R&R seasons. Or maybe not.  Over in Europe, I understand that there was a big do organized by the US Ambassador to Paris, Charles Rivkin. 

US Ambassador to Finland, Bruce Oreck blogged about the event:

“[A]n unprecedented gathering hosted by the U.S. Ambassador to France, my friend Charles Rifkin, to accelerate the implementation of  energy efficiency technology and sustainability practices in U.S. Embassies.”

“This two day event brought together business leaders, representatives from Washington D.C., senior management from over 20 U.S. Embassies and 9 U.S. Ambassadors.  There were some serious power lunches there to help lay out a series of next steps – implementations with real metrics.”

He also writes that “I hope soon to announce a major undertaking at our Embassy that could be a pilot for similar projects around Europe and beyond.”

(L to R) United States Ambassadors Speckhard (Greece),
Solomont (Spain and Andorra), King (USUN),
Rifkin (France), Oreck (Finland), Stroum (Luxembourg),
Beyer (Switzerland), Eacho (Austria) and Barzun (Sweden)
Photo from Ambassador Oreck’s blog

There are some 40 ambassadors in the EUR bureau. Although apparently participated by senior management from 20 embassies, only nine ambassadors were in attendance at this event. What is most striking to us is — only one of the nine ambassadors in attendance is also career diplomat.  That’s Ambassador Speckhard who is posted in Greece (and previously a DCM at US Embassy Baghdad).  What’s up with that? Did somebody mess up the invite list?


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Filed under Ambassadors, Foreign Service, FS Blogs, Outside the Box, Political Appointees, Technology and Work

Why can’t we have T-Hackers stay ahead of potential breaches?

Metal detectors at an airport

Clark Kent Ervin, the former inspector general of the State Department (2001-2003) and of the Department of Homeland Security (2003 to 2004) who is currently the director of the Aspen Institute’s homeland security program recently wrote an op-ed for NYT excerpted below:


“Perhaps the biggest lesson for airline security from the recent incident is that we must overcome our tendency to be reactive. We always seem to be at least one step behind the terrorists. They find one security gap — carrying explosives onto a plane in their shoes, for instance — and we close that one, and then wait for them to exploit another. Why not identify all the vulnerabilities and then address each one before terrorists strike again?

Since the authorities have to succeed 100 percent of the time, and terrorists only once, the odds are overwhelmingly against the authorities. But they’ll be more likely to defy fate if they go beyond reflexive defense and play offense for a change.”

It’s hard to argue with his point, for we clearly are reactive.  It’s as if our enemies have found our magic buttons, and they know exactly which button would get the desired reaction.
On December 2001, shoe-bomber Richard Reid made an unsuccessful attempt to blow up American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami with PETN as explosive.   According to Wikipedia, pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) is one of the most powerful high explosives known, with a relative effectiveness factor (R.E. factor) of 1.66. It is also used as a medical drug to treat heart conditions.
Soon after that, we all had to take off our shoes, get wand screenings and pat downs at security points in our airports and at airports overseas. Shoes have become weaponized; they might as well join those box cutters and a whole lot of items now enshrined in the list of prohibited items when we fly.  Some funnies and some not so funny stories here
In 2006, the transatlantic aircraft terrorist plot to detonate liquid explosives carried on board at least 10 airliners travelling from the United Kingdom was discovered which resulted in chaos on how much liquids one can carry onto commercial aircrafts.

Imagine if you were breastfeeding or pumping milk the day those restrictions took effect? TSA says air travelers may now carry liquids, gels and aerosols in their carry-on bag when going through security checkpoints but “all liquids, gels and aerosols must be in 3.4 ounce (100ml) or smaller containers. Larger containers that are half-full or toothpaste tubes rolled up are not allowed. Each container must be 3.4 ounces (100ml) or smaller.” Somewhere, some not so nice folks are laughing.   

What are they going to think of next?
According to this report from Stratfor, when suicide-bomber Abdullah Hassan al Asiri attempted to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Deputy Minister of Interior Prince Muhammad bin Nayef  this past August, al Asiri who was described as a human Trojan horse activated a small improvised explosive device (IED) he was carrying inside his anal cavity. (Eww!)  PETN was reportedly the explosives used. The minister survived, the bomber did not.
Then on 25 December 2009, PETN was also found in the possession of Underpants Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 while approaching Detroit from Amsterdam. Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to detonate PETN sewn into his underwear, by adding liquid from a syringe.
In the aftermath of these recent failed attempts, especially the latter, it looks like we are now faced with the distinct possibility of 1) a full body security scan which uses high frequency radio waves to produce an image of the human body to determine if passengers are smuggling items (such as drugs, cash or diamonds) in or underneath their clothing or 2) a full body scan which uses X-rays that pass through the body to trace swallowed items. Here is a good article on what Spiegel Online calls “strip search scanners.”
What are they going to think of next?  What if they succeed in putting explosives in ….. um, never mind. 
Banks hire the best hackers money can buy to steal from them—and then show them the holes in their defenses; by compromising their systems, they are able to protect their systems.  Have we done that?  According to this September 2009 GAO report on aviation security, TSA has implemented activities to assess risks to airport perimeters and access controls but has not conducted vulnerability assessments for 87 percent of the nation’s approximately 450 commercial airports or any consequence assessments.  We’re talking just aviation here, what about the rest?

Why can’t we do the equivalent of hackers when it comes to terrorism and stay one step ahead of potential breaches? The thing is we can’t pretend to seal the holes in the boat when we don’t know where we are leaking.  Until we know which parts of “us” are vulnerable, we will always play catch up.  And while we are stuck with protecting ourselves for the next shoe-bombing or underpants assault, the enemy may have already imagined other more creative ways to do us harm. The attack may not even have to blow anything up — just throw us into chaos; at significant costs to our peace of mind and sense of security, and to the taxpayers’ pockets.

You’re going to start thinking Domani Spero has gone bat crazy …

Well, okay, maybe – but hiring T-hackers, for lack of a better word, would be no more expensive than what was already spent on security screenings since 2002, or the inevitable body scanners.  For all that expense and inconvenience, we only get the perception of security.  The shoe bomber was the reason we now take off our shoes at security checkpoints in airports but PETN is a plastic explosive that is not picked up by metal detectors. So… why are we  taking off our shoes, again?
According to another GAO report, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have invested over $795 million in technologies to screen passengers at airport checkpoints since fiscal year 2002. News reports indicate that the cost of body scan machines range from 175,000-250,000 each. 
How many airports are there?  According to the Airports Council International, the United States has over 19,847 airports based on the Department of Transportation’s 2007-2011 National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS). More than 3,364 of those airports are recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as being open to the public.  382 are Primary Airports, defined as having more than 10,000 annual passengers.

I don’t even want to do the math. My head already hurts.

See what I like about those T-hackers? A squad of dark rangers, brainiacs who can imagine the most dastardly attacks, the most unimaginable chaos and destruction, the dark days we do not want to see in the future – they could poke holes at our security portals and blankets now before a lone wolf or some real bad guys get lucky with poking around. 

  

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Filed under Learning, Outside the Box, STRATFOR, Terrorism

All the Things We Are – Are Not Learnable

The Thinker at the Baltimore Museum of Art by ...Image via Wikipedia

NDS at Calling a Spade a Spade has an excellent post on selecting a cone or career track in the Foreign Service.

The most significant change to the recruitment process in recent times is the requirement that you choose a career track at the time you take the Foreign Service exam. And until I worked a recent recruitment trip, I didn’t realize how big a deal this has become. The problem, of course, is that very few prospective FSOs have any clue about what work in each of those tracks entails.
[…]
My contention is that your choice of career track should depend primarily upon your personality type. Let me explain. In many parts of the world, if you do political or economic reporting, you may write some bang-up cables and does great liaison work. But at the end of the day, you send out your cable, and only God knows whether anyone ever reads it, especially if you work in Carjackistan or Tsunamia.

Read NDS’ Choosing a Cone (or Career Track or Specialty or Whatever They’re Calling It This Week)

I think briefly in the 90’s, the State Department did experiment with taking in entry level officers without preselecting their career tracks. I can’t remember now how long that lasted, or if an in-depth study of its impact was ever conducted. I knew of a couple of folks who wanted to be in the political cone and who were really unhappy when they ended up assigned to the consular and management cones. But I’ve lost track of them so I can’t say if they got out or were able to reconcile themselves to their bureaucratic fates.

I do think that the selection of career tracks ought to be driven by personality type but also strengths. Strengths with its three ingredients as Marcus Buckingham put it: talents (things you’re born with), skills (things you can learn) and knowledge (facts and lessons learned, including self-awareness). But State doesn’t necessarily recruit for specific skills or talents and only test job applicants on general knowledge. Its recruitment drive is to find well-rounded individuals that the organization can mold grow into successful representatives of the government.

But the notion of a well-rounded individual is a myth. The most successful people in the world are not conformist or cookie cutter-images of each other but unique individuals with edges and sharpness uniquely their own… Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Richard Branson.

Of course, in diplomacy, there is Richard Holbrooke, the larger than life character who is currently SRAP to the most turbulent part of the world. He is probably best known for the Dayton Peace Accords, but also widely known for his aggressiveness and short temper. Which made this British Ambassador mused “I have often wondered why precisely we Europeans cannot produce anyone like Holbrooke to lead our diplomatic effort with bravura and amusing confidence, plus ruthless bullying/intimidation.”

As an aside — Holbrooke joined the Foreign Service during the Vietnam War. I doubt if it surprised anyone that he did not stay put in the Foreign Service in order to climb the ladder of career ambassadorship.

In any case, perhaps the reason why Europeans cannot produce anyone like Richard Holbrooke is because there are things inherent in all of us that cannot be “produced.” Things that when absent, we cannot compensate by skilling-up or by training.

I once knew a public diplomacy officer, before it was called that, who was promoted up to become the chief of a branch post. He was a nice guy with a deep technical background but had no feel for connecting with the public and was under skilled in managing his small crew. He did his best – he gained experience, learned his lessons and he went to trainings. But no amount of experience or training could hide the fact that at most, he was a mediocre representative of the United States government in the field.

There is, too, former Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Say what you will about Secretary Powell’s speech to the UN in the lead up to the war in Iraq, but the fact is Colin Powell’s speeches are always delivered in near perfect pitch, always. And the Toast Masters had nothing to do with it. (If you missed his leadership lecture at the State Department, btw, check it out here). The US Army did not start with a blank slate with Colin Luther Powell in 1958. It honed what was already there.

This contrarian believes that all the things we are – are not learnable.


The self-improvement market in the US worth $11.06 Billion in 2008 would disagree. And so would the State Department’s Human Resource Bureau.

This is, of course, contrary to what we’ve been taught most of our lives – that we can be anything we want to be. That we can put in what was left out. And that turning square-peg people into well-rounded ones in perfectly round holes is a real possibility especially in a bureaucracy.

All the things we are – are not learnable. That’s not my excuse, just pragmatism. So thanks, but no thanks. I like my square peg edges.

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Filed under Foreign Service, FS Blogs, Org Life, Outside the Box, Secretary of State, Special Envoys and Reps

HRC on John Bolton: Priceless

From CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS:

An outside the box smack-down, if there ever was one. Excerpts here. Full transcript later of CNN interview here. Fareed also hosted a “townview” with Secretary Clinton for CNN at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. The townview talked about corruption, the need for reform in Kenya, the post-election violence and the ICC, also DRC, Somalia, and lots of tough-love talk. The thing that ricochet around the world in a constant 24 news cycle — the 40 goats and 20 cows:

MR. ZAKARIA: Our time is limited, and I’m just going to end with one very specific question. This is a news report I saw while preparing for this town hall, and it involves a woman, a young woman, a very attractive young woman. A Kenyan city councilman says he offered Bill Clinton 40 goats and 20 cows for his daughter’s hand in marriage five years ago. (Laughter.) He is still awaiting an answer. And I thought on this occasion, you know, Mrs. Clinton, if you think about it – (laughter and applause) – if you think in the current global economic climate with asset values have gone down, your stock portfolio is probably down, your government has had – your husband has had to do a little bit of government work, take time off from the private sector, it’s not a bad offer. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, my daughter is her own person. She’s very independent. So I will convey this very kind offer. (Laughter.)

Full transcript here.

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Filed under 67, Foreign Affairs, Hillary, Outside the Box, People

Quickie: Senior Officers and Intellectual Leadership

Excerpts from USAF Maj Gen Charles J. Dunlap Jr.’s piece in the Spring 2009 issue of the Strategic Quarterly Studies. A must read not just for officers in our military but also for those aspiring for leadership roles in our civilian agencies, including our Foreign Service:

[I]t is imperative that those of us involved in formulating and executing national security policy educate ourselves broadly about our service and our agencies, about other services, and about national security matters writ large. Advocacy is not, however, a risk-free enterprise; it is an intellectual contact sport of the first order. Leaders should expect their views to be hotly contested. In many instances the counterpoints will be expressed thoughtfully and at length—but also unsparingly. Such exchanges nevertheless can be productive, because it is often through engaging opposing perspectives that truth can emerge.
[...]
The reality for senior officers is that their advocacy puts more than just the individual officer at risk. It is the family, as well as all of those within the organization who are looking to that person for leadership and mentorship, who will likely suffer if a penalty is to be paid.

For all the well-intentioned rhetoric about encouraging “out of the box” thinking, it is naive to believe that the “system” necessarily protects innovators or intellectual iconoclasts. Being “right” is no insurance policy either.26 In the real world, happy endings are not guaranteed. In his speech to the Air War College in the spring of 2008, Secretary Gates was candid about this truth.27 Using the legendary Air Force reformer Col John Boyd as a “historical exemplar,” the secretary eulogized Boyd’s contributions to airpower thinking while recognizing that he was “a brilliant, eccentric, and stubborn character” who engendered much resistance in the Air Force’s bureaucracy.
[...]
Leaders need to lead. In the case of generals especially, that sometimes means speaking and writing about doctrines which they find ill-serve the Nation by failing to fully utilize the capabilities of the whole joint team.
[...]
Why do I feel so strongly about this? In my nearly years of service I’ve experienced some terrible things—I can still recall, for example, the stench of rotting corpses in Somalia. Yet the most heartbreaking scene I’ve personally witnessed was at the Dover AFB mortuary. To see the bodies of young American Soldiers neatly laid out in their dress uniforms—but forever to be silent—is something that will haunt me forever. Do not we—all of us—owe such heroes our level best to try to find a better way?

The Contact Sport Senior Leaders Must Play (pdf)
Maj Gen Charles J. Dunlap Jr., USAF
Excerpted from Strategic Quarterly Studies

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Filed under Career Employees, Courage, Defense Department, Leadership and Management, Outside the Box

Video of the Week: Special Victims (of Exclusion) Unit

The producers of this video note at the end that the actors’ scripts are based on real events:

“This is not meant to suggest that this kind of culture exists everywhere,” the producers state at the end. “But elements of this culture exist in many areas and are huge Barriers to Innovation and Inclusion.”

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Filed under Career Employees, Org Culture, Org Life, Outside the Box, Video of the Week