By Yomaris Macdonald, Keith Easter, and J. Nathan Bland

A group of 49 Department of State Civil and Foreign Service employees is currently participating in a seven-month Harvard Business School (HBS) Executive Education Program as the first cohort of The Secretary’s Leadership Seminar (SLS): An HBS Executive Education Program developed for the Department. This pilot program was designed to develop a diverse group of emerging leaders at the Department to meet the challenges of tomorrow by taking innovative and collaborative approaches to address enterprise-wide issues. The SLS was made possible thanks to the generosity of philanthropist Howard Cox.   

The program set out to strengthen participants’ abilities to serve the entire organization by promoting management principles, enhancing participants’ understanding of the design and implementation of systemic initiatives and effectively managing change. Course work focuses on developing effective strategies to empower and motivate teams to achieve strategic goals and improve critical thinking and analytical and decision-making skills. The program is divided into two phases: a first module comprised of lectures, discussions and case studies, followed by the business impact project module, in which participants are broken into groups to complete capstone projects.  

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the program’s initial February 2020 launch and led HBS to transition its in-person fall education programs to a virtual platform. Participating in SLS is not for the faint of heart. Participants are expected to spend several hours a week reading and researching case studies, joining small group discussions, and attending a three-hour HBS staff-led lecture. The live, web-based lectures started promptly at 6:00 a.m. EST in Cambridge, Mass., which, depending on where participants are located in the world—from Guangzhou to San Salvador—made for a very early or very late day.    

By design, the cohort was equally composed of Civil and Foreign Service employees, including specialists and generalists. This diversity was the course’s “secret sauce,” enriching the classroom discussions and resulting in holistic solutions for the final group projects.

A business woman reflects while studying.

Candidates for the inaugural seminar were initially identified based on their time at the Department, their current grade, and, for Foreign Service, promotion to the FS-02 level in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Applicants were invited to submit a statement of interest detailing their vision for the Department or embassy of the future, their vision for the role of an enterprise leader in this future Department, and their demonstration of the Department’s Leadership and Management Principles.

“The first cohort of seminar participants have set a very high bar,” wrote HBS’s Faculty Chair Professor David Ager. “They arrive [at] each of our sessions prepared and willing to dig deeply into the discussion and ideas. They are generous [in] sharing personal experiences, which enrich the discussion and learning and relate them back to the work in the Department. The biggest reward for my colleagues and me is when we receive an email from a participant who has taken an idea or concept introduced in the program and experimented with it through their leadership.”

The investment of time is equally considerable throughout the business impact project phase of the seminar. Through capstone projects, the teams look to identify ways to improve Department operations in a wide range of areas such as: strengthening diversity and inclusion; developing knowledge management solutions for transferring officers; strengthening the use of data visualization; determining methods to strengthen our relationships with Congress, the American public, and other partners; and identifying more effective ways to perform activities that distract diplomats from core diplomacy and development functions.    

“Beyond the first-rate learning experience, what’s most rewarding is working with, and relating to, colleagues and peers at a whole different level,” said Lourdes Cué, a Civil Service employee serving as deputy director in the Office of the Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Global Talent’s Strategic Communications Unit. “I don’t think I came into the program knowing this would be one of the greatest takeaways.”   

Many Foreign Service class members likened the course to a second A-100 (orientation class).

A business woman works on a laptop while sitting in her home office.

“Perhaps the most lasting and unexpected part of the course has been the relationships I have made with many of my fellow classmates. Long after the course is over, I know I will be able to pick up the phone and call upon my SLS cohort colleagues for professional or leadership advice,” said Keith Easter, a supervisory special agent with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Office of Counterintelligence.  

The SLS assignments are in addition to the full-time responsibilities of each participant’s regular job. While current participants are strong advocates for the course, future SLS participants and their supervisors should be clear-eyed about the time and workload expectations before submitting applications.   

All tenured Foreign Service and Civil Service (GS and GG) employees at the FS-02 or GS/GG-14 level are welcome to apply for the second SLS cohort; applications are due April 2, 2021. Contact the SLS team with any questions by email.

Yomaris Macdonald, Keith Easter, and J. Nathan Bland were part of the first cohort of The Secretary’s Leadership Seminar.    

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