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Diplomacy 101: Management Affairs

Diplomats in the US Foreign Service work in one of five career tracks. Even though they are called “generalists,” which means they can work on almost any issue during their 20+ year career, they have to specialize in something. The choices are consular, economic, management, political and public affairs.

The State Department has published a quiz, which is more or less a list of job descriptions designed for potential candidates to figure out which career track is best for them.

In this post I’d like to talk about the career track I’m currently closest to: management. I work in the embassy’s human resource department, which is an important part of the management section.

I’ve come to realize that management officers oversee more people than anyone else in the embassy and wear lots of different hats; they’re responsible for everything from human resources to maintenance, and from IT to finance. Needless to say, they’re always busy.

But before diplomats become management officers, they typically work as General Service Officers (GSOs) for a couple of tours first, or in another section overseeing only part of the vast management section.

What management officers do

Management officers oversee a number of different departments within an embassy or consulate, including finances, the cashier, human resources, information technology, the community liaison office, motor pool, facility maintenance, housing, procurement, shipping, and travel.

Depending on the size of the embassy different departments (or “shops”) are managed by other Americans—sometimes Generalists but mostly Specialists. The State Department hires Foreign Service Specialists in 19 different areas, and those within management sections include administration (HR and finance), facility management, and IT.

Being in charge of several departments, management officers are experts in the State Department’s bureaucracy, navigating complex government procedures. And they don’t just manage the embassy and other diplomatic facilities—they also take care of the people in diplomatic missions. So everyone knows who they are, for better or for worse.

Management officers play a huge role in the embassy’s morale. They’re responsible for many things that affect diplomats personally, like housing assignments, family member employment, shipping of household goods, personal mail, and so on.

Succeeding at helping people, and pulling off major events, can be very satisfying but because it’s impossible to make everybody happy management officers are always going to be scorned by someone. They deal with problems and complaints on a daily basis and the worst part is that most of them come from co-workers and peers.

No matter their chosen career track, all diplomats have to complete at least one consular tour at the entry-level (in the first four years). After that, a typical first job in the management section is working in General Services, which includes things like housing, procurement, and motor pool. General Service Officers (GSOs) typically supervise other employees right away. I knew a first-tour officer who managed 50 people in a post in West Africa.

At very large posts, like Mexico or Islamabad, junior and mid-level management officers work as Assistant General Service Officers, Human Resource Officers, Motor Pool Supervisors, Finance Managers, and Financial Management Officers. Note that these jobs overlap with Specialist jobs, which means that unlike other diplomats, management officers have to compete with Specialist Foreign Service Officers for jobs.

How do management officers advance U.S. interests?

It’s hard to imagine any diplomatic mission function without the input and support of the management section. Embassies are complex organizations that need really good people to understand and deliver the things posts need regarding personnel, procurement, event support, facilities, vehicles and much more.

The work management officers do is crucial to US foreign policy interests and goals:

without support services regarding travel, housing and shipping diplomats would hardly have time to do their jobs;

without a human resources department embassies wouldn’t be able to attract or keep good local employees—the 50,000 highly competent foreign nationals that are the hidden force behind all US diplomatic missions overseas;

without information technology support, secure communications of important information would be impossible;

and without experts on rules and laws (both American and local) diplomats would get into all kinds of trouble that would prevent them from doing their work effectively.

Who can become a management officer?

You don’t need a special degree to become a management officer. Like in other career tracks within the Foreign Service, diplomats learn the necessary skills after they are hired.

That said, management is perhaps a logical choice for diplomats who have prior experience with customer service, recruitment, contracting, or managing lots of people. Also, I’ve seen quite a few former military officers become management officers.

Management officers need to be excellent multi-taskers; to understand and work effectively within different cultures, customs and regulations; to be practical, focus on problem solving and be able to “get stuff done.”

I’ve heard people say that the management career track is relatively “easy” to get into compared to some other career tracks in the sense that it requires a lower Foreign Service Oral Assessment score to get hired. This may have been true during the 2010 hiring surge, when embassies and consulates were expanding everywhere and management officers were in high demand, but there’s no official source saying this is true today.

Management officers take the same entry exams as other diplomats, and the number of management officers in the Foreign Service is not (much) greater than officers in other career tracks like political or public diplomacy.

Being a management officer – what it’s really like

Management of embassy operations is not really a nine-to-five job, but that’s mostly because being a diplomat isn’t really a normal job. Management officers don’t often go to evening receptions and they may not have to answer many after-hours calls, but they do have to make sure someone responds to issues at all hours of the day, and during weekends, events and official visits.

Management officers have somewhat lower language requirements than their peers in other career tracks. They’re required to learn a foreign language as an Entry Level Officer, but in general fewer jobs require foreign language skills. On the one hand, this makes sense because they don’t interact with many foreign officials or with the public at large. On the other hand, they work with lots of local staff and it’s always good to know the local language—not only to know what colleagues are talking about but also to read contracts, websites, etc.

Mid-level and senior management officers typically manage dozens, if not hundreds, of local employees as well as a number of Americans. And the higher up they get, the more they become part of the embassy’s senior management. They’re involved in just about everything that’s going on in the embassy, and the Ambassador relies on the management officer for lots of different things.

Still, some management officers complain that they’re treated as janitors no matter how high they rise in the embassy hierarchy—supposedly by fellow diplomats who don’t have much affinity with management stuff and think management officers are only there to help them out with their housing issues and HR questions.

Where to find more information

Below are a few external links to help you find out more about the management career track for Foreign Service Officers:

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