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Op-ed

The Foreign Service needs to make diversity a priority | COMMENTARY

When family friend Johnny Young passed away in July from cancer, we lost the rarest of individuals — a diplomat who reached the rank of career ambassador. Only 62 people have ever made it to the rank, the State Department’s equivalent of a four-star general. Making Johnny’s achievement rarer still is that he was one of only four African Americans in this elite club. His journey from grinding poverty in Georgia to four-time U.S. ambassador remains an improbable one. Decidedly “pale, male and Yale’' since its inception, America’s Foreign Service still has a long way to go to diversify.

While some progress has been made, a 2020 GAO report identified a drop in the overall percentage of African Americans in the Foreign Service, and significantly lagging promotion rates for all ethnic minorities. The lack of racial diversity at the top is also troubling — only 3% of the Senior Foreign Service are Black, 5% are Hispanic, and less than 4% are Asian American.

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President Biden has pledged to reverse this by making diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) a priority. The case for diversity is overwhelming, with research showing that the most diverse companies significantly outperform the least diverse companies, and that diverse teams are more innovative in responding to complex problems. Nowhere are the stakes for a DEI push higher than in the Foreign Service. Foreign Service Officers from the State Department, USAID and the Commerce and Agricultural Departments promote peace, support prosperity, combat poverty and disease, protect American citizens, and advocate for U.S. businesses. The Foreign Service clearly needs the best and brightest from every segment of society. A lack of diversity makes our foreign policy less effective and puts national security at risk.

How do we create what Roslyn Brock, chief global equity officer of Abt Associates, calls a “shoreline” of opportunities so that the Foreign Service and other international organizations can attract more diverse talent? It will take policy, programs, and people.

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Policy may be the easiest piece — one could argue sufficient protection in the law and executive policy is largely in place. DEI is a government-wide priority, and the State Department has its first-ever chief diversity officer reporting directly to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. However, we need to take a fresh look at old assumptions, using expanded outreach and analysis to identify practices that continue to affect the recruiting, retention and promotion of officers of color.

Regarding programs, we should ramp up the Pickering, Rangel and Payne fellowships, which attract historically underrepresented groups to the Foreign Service. The Fellows are enormously bright and talented young people who make significant contributions to diplomacy and development from the minute they start working. Unfortunately, we award too few: barely 100 fellows annually. We should look to award 10 times this number to young professionals of color.

Providing stronger support for all Foreign Service officers will be key to a more diverse diplomatic corps, and to helping the Foreign Service weather stiff job market headwinds like the ongoing war for talent and the coming “Great Resignation.” The Foreign Service should increase three types of employee support to better attract, retain and advance a more diverse officer corps: mentoring, sponsorship and coaching.

Mentoring has been instituted in the Foreign Service, but in a sporadic, patchwork manner. We should pair every new foreign service officer with an experienced mentor. Sponsors open up opportunities and personally advocate for promising officers to take on key positions and responsibilities. The majority white senior leadership needs to be identifying and sponsoring more high-performing officers of color.

Coaching, in a workplace environment, refers to someone who is professionally trained to help their clients overcome obstacles, maximize their full potential and reach their goals. Coaching gets results, with nine of 10 companies that have used coaching seeing direct business returns, and 96% of people who have used a certified coach saying they would do so again. State, USAID and other agencies have provided coaching to some senior leaders, but ensuring all Foreign Service officers have access to a personal coach would be a powerful source of career support.

Finding more “Young Johnnys” to lead in the Foreign Service is vital to our continued national security. By sustaining DEI as a policy priority, ramping up proven fellowship programs and investing in mentoring, sponsorship and coaching, we will develop and advance a new, much more inclusive and representative generation of Foreign Service leaders.

John A. Beed (john@liferamp360.com) is a former member of the Senior Foreign Service and chief partnership officer of LifeRamp Inc. in Annapolis.


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