Retired diplomats and diplomats on their way out of the Foreign Service have mentioned to me that the State Department doesn’t really care about you. That you better shape your career according to your own needs and desires, because in the end it’s a faceless bureaucracy. This is probably true.
Foreign Service officers change positions every few years, so things are always in flux and offices become unrecognizable quickly. Once diplomats retire, all but the very best are probably forgotten immediately. And unless you stick around in Washington DC, you won’t see many of your former colleagues again.
This is a bit depressing and it's why I think it’s generally good advice to shape your own career—to think about the here and now instead of some “reward” ten or twenty years down the line, like a big promotion or something. On the other hand, there are some great benefits to working for a face-changing institution where everyone is either coming or going, including: you don’t really have a boss.
Illustrative point: I signed up for an office exchange months ago and, as I jetted off to Chennai today, nobody told me the office is closed tomorrow. There were at least two people who knew I was coming but because they’re not really in charge of me they forgot to tell me about the inclement weather. My supervisors in Mumbai had no idea what was going on either—all they knew is that I’m “out” for a week. So here I am, having a relaxed day at the Hyatt in Chennai.
All in all, I think there is something rather freeing about this situation. I’m only a junior diplomat but even now I have no real boss. When I worked in the private world I had real bosses and some of them were truly awful. They saw it as their role to tell me what to do all the time and they weren’t good at it—they started a company or ran a division that I happened to fall under but they were not good managers, nor did they have any training to be managers.
In the State Department it’s a common refrain that we don’t manage well. There’s a frequent comparison with the military and we come off badly. But from what I’ve seen of consular work, and especially in bigger consulates with lots of managers, it’s not bad at all.
Foreign Service managers are quite skilled and diplomatic for the most part and, most importantly, they don’t micro manage because they're too busy for that (doing the work for their managers). And they don’t have a lot of power over your career unless you truly mess up. As long as I show up for work and perform well, there is nobody breathing down my neck. Everyone is in charge of their own career and there is a camaraderie in that. I just get a pat on the back every once in a while, which suits me just fine.
Being a junior officer is a bit like being in school; if you’re not one of the problem children they don’t really care what you do. Though with consular work ‘performance’ is narrowly defined. You either do the right amount of visas, and you do them properly, or you don’t.
But again, it’s not your manager who defines or decides what good work is, like it is in the corporate world. Rules and best practices are set by a large legal structure by many people over time, who are way higher up than your manager, and you can challenge any part of it if you have some ground to stand on. I view my managers more like valued colleagues because they have more knowledge and experience than me. And the managers I don't really respect? I just count down the days until I transfer to a different unit, which is never more than a year.