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What makes a good diplomat?

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

I ponder that question sometimes, for different reasons. Sometimes because I wonder what else I would be doing if I weren’t a diplomat. What skills do I have? It’s common for diplomats to say: glad I’ve got this job, because I don’t have any hard skills.

But mainly for the central thesis of this blog I ask myself what makes me and my colleagues diplomats. What do we do that perhaps other people, less trained and experienced in diplomacy, can’t do? What’s our ‘skillset’? What’s in our ‘toolbox’?


Learning multiple languages is probably the most famous skill diplomats have (along with cocktail drinking). I would agree that it’s an integral part of the job, and it’s no cakewalk. Learning to speak a language fluently in 6-12 months (depending on the language) takes a lot of effort and there are no shortcuts: you either pass or fail the exam. If you fail, you need to retake it and you won’t get tenure until you pass. Even if you pass on the first try, using the language in real life can be a shock.

If you’re a new consular officer, it means conducting a hundred or more interviews in that language every day. People you interview may have different accents, or refuse to answer. Or they may hide something that forces you to ‘question’ them in a way that strikes just the right balance between a friendly chat and a clever interrogation. When you’re higher up in the Foreign Service, it means conversing with and persuading counterparts that include ministers and directors; not an easy job in general, let alone in a newly acquired language.

You’re lucky if you already speak a foreign language when entering the Foreign Service. You can also try to avoid learning multiple languages by only applying for assignments in the same world language—like Spanish, French, Russian, etc.—but that limits your career options. Besides, the Foreign Service tends to reward people who learn tough languages, like Arabic or Chinese. Most careers involve learning two languages or more (I already learned three, but two were on a voluntary basis when I was the spouse of an FSO).


Writing is a highly valued skill in the Foreign Service—far more than being good with numbers, or having technical skills. Writing comprehensively and convincingly has always been key to the profession. It’s how during all of the wars and crises in the past 247 years the U.S. government learned who their allies and enemies were, what they were up to, and which options they had. This has led to an incredibly high standard of writing in the Foreign Service. Everything that’s written and transmitted to Washington should be so good, and so useful, that even the Secretary of State enjoys it, and can use it to make foreign policy decisions.

The State Department demands that written cables and reports are as good as any journalism. It should always be written for a large audience and withstand the test of time. Many of us obviously aren’t that good (yet)— you only have to read my blog to know that! That means everything is ruthlessly edited and re-written until it finally meets the bar we have collectively set for ourselves. It also means that good writers are revered—they tend to be political officers, who arguably get the most practice. They boast about who has read their work, and how high up the chain their cables went. Washington regularly sends congratulatory notes to good writers.

Getting information—fast

All diplomats in the U.S. Foreign Service start out as consular officers, interviewing 120+ people every day. Many of these interviews are fairly simple, but definitely not all. Even in the toughest cases, the time you have to get to the bottom of things is extremely limited. There are very few exceptions to the rule that an interview should take only a few minutes. It doesn’t really matter how crazy someone’s personal or legal situation is, or how difficult they behave. You have to go fast while maintaining impeccable judgment and following all the laws—you can easily get in trouble if you don’t.

When you’re a political officer, or economic or any other type of officer, you’re still constantly involved in gathering information—usually not for some carefully planned long-term project but because someone higher up needs the information NOW. And you can’t just go on Wikipedia to find answers. Like an investigative journalist on steroids you hit up your contacts and make new contacts in all the right places. A lot of this groundwork—maintaining contacts in key ministries, companies and organizations—is done by the local staff, who know a lot more about their country than we do. Still, diplomats are responsible for compiling and presenting the information to their supervisors, which may go all the way up to the White House.

At the beginning it surprised me that we get relatively little training in this. In the consular context things can get intense very quickly. How do you acquire the right techniques to question someone about their illegal border crossing, or the circumstances of their arrest? The consequences can be big; you have to determine if someone is banned from entering the U.S., sometimes forever! The answer to this dilemma was put succinctly by a colleague recently: “we have an apprentice-type learning situation around here.” This can pose a problem when you’re in a really small post where you may not have many people around you to learn from, which is when you go ahead and do something about it (see next section about independency).


This is a bit tricky, because I DON’T mean working or making decisions alone—that’s almost never advisable in the large, hierarchical bureaucracy the State Department is. What I mean is: you constantly need to generate ideas and act independently in situations where things are new and difficult. You may be lucky and have helpful colleagues, but generally nobody is holding your hand. While it may be true that there is no such thing as a stupid question, there simply isn’t any one person whose job it is to supply you with answers. When things get challenging you have to do some deep digging to find the right person to help you out.

You can’t expect your supervisor, or anyone else, to tell you everything you need to know for your job—that’s not how it works. You have to solve your own problems, and find a way to excel. You have to keep the higher-ups abreast of everything you’re doing so they’re never surprised, but they’re not your teachers. This can be infinitely frustrating when you want clear answers. What exacerbates (or created?) this situation is that officers change positions all the time, so half the time people just don’t know stuff. Our main skill is knowing how to find answers—not knowing the actual answers to everything, because that’s impossible. People with the most experience are typically the local staff. But you have to get to know them first, and generally build relationships with people across the mission so you can utilize them when you need them.

Independency is key to a successful diplomatic career. Once you’ve entered the FS, there’s no set career path. There’s only a goal: getting promoted regularly and ultimately making it into the Senior Foreign Service to become an ambassador or a Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS). There are many different ways to attain that goal. Part of it is checking boxes like ‘learning a language’ and ‘serving a hardship tour’ but that doesn’t give much guidance. It’s entirely up to you to select and apply for the right positions, among thousands of possible jobs, that get you the skills, experience and exposure that allow you stand out and get promoted all the way to the top. That involves hunting for high-profile projects and assignments, and mastering many of the broad skills described here.   


Managing people and resources—you hear it all the time. The State Department is a large and complex organization, unique in many ways, and it needs very good managers to keep operations, many of which are crucial for our national security, running effectively—and to change them on a dime when circumstances change.

Very few officers come in with management experience, so this is yet another thing we do by observing and learning. Plus a few weeks of dedicated training every five years or so. It’s not inconceivable that, after serving four years as a junior officer, I will supervise a team of 10+ people my next tour. In addition to being good at my job and setting a great example for the team, I’d be responsible for hiring and firing, bonuses, training, safekeeping important equipment and controlled items, distributing work, motivating the team, setting goals, writing evaluations, tracking metrics, liaising with other leadership, and lord knows what else.

I count my lucky stars I’m not a manager yet, because I know it’s coming, and it’s hard. Even people who are natural leaders, of which there really aren’t that many, have to work at acquiring the skills to be a good manager. Learning about the organization and practicing begins early, which is why the FS has long resisted (and is still partially resisting) bringing in managers who have not “grown up” in the Foreign Service. As in other organizations, learning the things you need to know and building the relationships you need to build takes time. Junior officers get the opportunity to do this by managing smaller projects, sometimes with staff and a budget, to practice. Your level of skill in management is a major predictor of how quickly and how far you’ll get promoted.


Honestly, I could go on about soft skills for a while. Skills like ‘the ability to innovate’ and the skill of ‘effective collaboration’ immediately come to mind when I think of our daily work. But I also think those skills are so universal that they don’t really need to be mentioned here. I can hardly imagine a job that doesn’t require the ability to work well with other people and improve processes and outcomes.

What makes diplomats different from most people is that they have to do an impressive amount of work in a completely new country, working with an entirely new team, and start over every two to three years. Even if you feel like you’ve ‘settled in’ after a year, your colleagues may rotate in or out, and leadership may change, and once again you’re faced with a new situation. There is some consistency in the type of work we do if we stick to the same career track but even that’s not a guarantee; I’m a consular officer in India now, but I could be working on the health issues in Nigeria next, or write a speech for the ambassador in Nicaragua about wildlife protection.

Change is the only thing that’s truly consistent and you don’t always have time to figure out how you’ll adapt. We know about a year in advance where we’ll serve next, so that’s nice. But a lot of other things change much quicker; for example, when a high-level visitor suddenly announces they’re coming in a few weeks and you’re working around the clock to prepare for it. Or when the local security situation changes and it’s too dangerous to go to work. Or when your supervisor suddenly leaves post and you have to fill their role. Or when a U.S. law changes, which changes key aspects of your job immediately (for example: who is allowed to travel to the U.S., or who qualifies for U.S. citizenship). And all of this may be happening while your spouse, your kids, are going through their own adaptation process of changing jobs or schools.


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