I’m GREAT; I said so in my EER!

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The OIG just released its report on the Bureau of African Affairs. Number 1 on its list of recommendations? Leadership as in:

Recommendation 1:
The Bureau of African Affairs should make responsibility for leadership, team building, staff development, and morale as prominent as policy development and implementation in the work requirements statements of all ambassadors, deputy chiefs of mission, section chiefs, office directors, and deputy office directors and require that employee evaluations comment on performance in these areas with concrete examples. (Action: AF)

Excerpts from the report:

During the inspection, the OIG team polled AF staff at all levels to assess the performance of AF’s ambassadors in the field. AF office directors identified several embassies that had significant morale, performance, or leadership issues. However, these weaknesses were not reflected in the performance evaluations for the ambassadors at those embassies.

Senior Foreign Service officers, FS-01s and FS-02s, which include most of the ambassadors and deputy chief of missions in Africa, prepare the first part of their performance evaluations, as the Department requires. The following two segments are purportedly prepared by the rating officer and the reviewing officer. For ambassadors, the deputy assistant secretary normally writes the rating statement, and the Assistant Secretary writes the reviewing statement. In practice, most ambassadors prepare all three segments of their evaluations, including the area for improvement, and submit them for review (italics added) The raters and reviewers then change the text in “their” parts if warranted.

It appears that there is little opportunity or encouragement for country directors or desk officers to incorporate their actual experience with an ambassador’s performance or awareness of post morale into the final product. The preparation of performance evaluations for office directors follows a similar process, but since they work closely with the rating and reviewing officers, there is a better chance that statements from their supervisors will be more informed.

Given this process, it is not surprising that performance evaluations focus on successful high level visits, public relations efforts, and substantive knowledge, all admittedly important factors, rather than harder-to-quantify team building skills. Occasionally, the OIG reviewer noted that the discussion under leadership and interpersonal skills in fact focused on how well the ambassador dealt with foreign counterparts but never mentioned relationships within the embassy. For example, the OIG team was told of one ambassador who allegedly screams, at and belittles embassy staff in public on a frequent basis, but the relevant performance evaluation does not mention these much-discussed interpersonal and leadership weaknesses at all and, in fact, vaunts the ambassador for working well with the embassy team.

For office directors and their deputies, the performance evaluations show a similar paucity of comments about interpersonal and team building skills even when AF’s leadership knows that the rated employees demonstrate patterns of behavior that intimidate their subordinates. One desk officer commented that the supervisor’s lack of interpersonal skills had “shut down most of the staff” (italics added)

Promotion precepts for senior-level officers include: creating an environment that encourages innovation; encouraging staff to accept responsibility; motivating and inspiring; developing a sense of cohesiveness and implementing strategies to improve the workplace, morale and achievements of team members; and fostering a climate based on mutual respect. It is difficult to assess these leadership skills from afar, even when rumors about embassy or office morale filter upwards, perhaps valid but perhaps not. In order to evaluate leadership qualities, rating and reviewing officers need to solicit input from the field. This can be done in a variety of ways: when AF representatives visit the embassies for which they are responsible and meet with staff individually; by soliciting comments keyed to the promotion precepts from both domestic and overseas employees on their supervisors’ performance; and through the routine desk officer and country director interaction with personnel in the field. Most of the country directors know where ambassadors are, in fact, exhibiting strong leadership and team building skills or neglecting them.

Then there’s this:

An OIG review of performance evaluations covering the 2007-2009 timeframe confirmed that most of the evaluations did not discuss subordinate development at all or, at best, in a very cursory way. During OIG interviews in the bureau, AF employees rarely failed to praise their supervisor’s knowledge of the issues, but they also cited examples of those same supervisors’ shortcomings as communicators, mentors, or role models. Some supervisors are inaccessible most of the time, with doors closed, and rarely share information or seek advice from subordinates; others reach out only to criticize or communicate in writing rather than face to face; one or two so intimidate their staff that subordinates avoid interacting with them whenever possible.

Elsewhere in the report, the OIG says:

Leadership skills that have not been honed, tested, or evaluated in the Department will not emerge overnight when officers take over a management role at an embassy, particularly at a small and isolated capital where quality of life issues can be determined by the Ambassador’s own interpersonal strengths. AF does not have leadership skills as a cornerstone of its position descriptions, nor does it hold its supervisors to demonstrable standards for interpersonal skills and team building that parallel those for intellectual knowledge and policy savvy. The new Assistant Secretary has emphasized team building and valuing AF’s personnel in his first few days on the job, which bodes well for a renewed focus on leadership if that articulated priority is converted into positive action at all levels.

Just two things:

One – leadership is more than rank. If your staff gets intimidated to the point that they “shut down,” you’re a leader in a vacuum. You’re a shepherd with no sheep. You’re a band leader without a band, marching at your own desperate tune. You get the drift. Colin Powell says that leadership is the art of getting people to do more than what the science of management says is possible. That is, if the organizational capacity is 100 percent, good leaders take it to 110 percent. But you won’t get 110 percent if the staff is just looking forward to “surviving Ambassador X.” I’m not kidding, ask around the survivors.

Two – if you get performance pay award or get promoted because of your employee evaluation report (EER), that you wrote yourself on behalf of your rating officer and reviewing officer — do you congratulate yourself? Really? Wow!

And no one sees this as an ethical minefield serious enough that it needs redoing from scratch.

Related Item:
The Bureau of African Affairs: | OIG Report Number ISP-I-09-63
August 2009 | PDF