By Stacy D. Williams
Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the subsequent global reckoning on systemic racial inequality, the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) held two bureau-wide virtual town hall meetings to enable WHA colleagues to share their thoughts and insights. As a result, WHA’s Diversity and Inclusion Council recognized that more diverse voices needed to be heard and pivoted its programming, renewing the bureau’s commitment to recruiting, developing, and retaining a diverse selection of entry- and mid-level officers within the Department of State.
Today, WHA is offering new professional development programs, designed and spearheaded by the Diversity and Inclusion Council, to support and develop personnel. Based on the findings gleaned from town hall discussions, WHA launched three novel mid-level professional development programs in 2021.
First, the WHA Next Gen Fellows program meets three times a year, bringing together 15 Foreign Service generalists and specialists, Civil Service employees, and USAID staff at the Foreign Service-03 and General Schedule-13 salary levels to discuss leadership, management, strategic policy priorities, and thematic issues with Department and interagency principals, practitioners, and experts. Fifty-one speakers, including four career ambassadors, engaged the 2021 cohort of fellows across three sessions on the following topics: WHA luminaries and Department leaders; the Military, Homeland and Interagency; and Environment, Economy, Health and Development.
Another central component of the WHA Next Gen Fellows program is for the fellows to get to know one another and become a cohort that offers peer-to-peer support throughout their careers. The inaugural fellows cohort has since paid it forward by mentoring the second cohort of fellows, whose formal sessions lasted from February to May 2022. Soon after the launch of the WHA Next Gen Fellows program, Embassy Mexico City developed and launched a similar program called Leadership Lab, for mid-level staff within Mission Mexico furthering WHA’s investment in the next generation of leaders.
Second, WHA partnered with the Foreign Service Institute’s School of Professional and Area Studies to re-conceptualize the weeklong WHA Deep Dive course which had been paused for four years. In July 2021, 20 individuals at the FS-02 and GS-14 salary levels, with prior experience in the region, engaged five Department keynote speakers. These participants gained insights from 19 panelists on a range of topics including social movements, politics, and the outlook for a future hemispheric agenda. Participants also honed their leadership and management skills under the mentorship of 12 senior Department officials through interactive, scenario-based workshops that focused on the critical issues of security, climate change, and migration.
Third, in 2020, WHA sought to develop a formal sponsorship program for its employees, modeled on how large private sector enterprises often prepare mid-level employees for upward mobility. WHA launched the Senior Threshold Sponsorship program pairing individuals at the GS-15 salary level and members of the senior executive service, and individuals at the FS-01 salary level and senior Foreign Service officers to provide 12 participants with executive-level sponsors to offer frank feedback, and in other ways help them to become competitive to cross the respective seniority thresholds. While the program does not guarantee officers will cross the respective thresholds—as those decisions are taken by Foreign Service promotion board panels and the Office of Personnel Management—the program seeks to proactively encourage and better prepare employees for the next level.
After developing and launching these series of professional development initiatives, WHA’s Diversity and Inclusion Council turned its attention to strategically changing the culture, with an intentional focus on retention at all levels. It developed and began piloting a program at three WHA domestic offices and at a large, a medium, and a small post to help new arrivals not just perform well, but personally and professionally thrive.
To model institution building, domestic deputy directors and overseas deputy section chiefs, are empowered by bureau leadership to welcome newly arrived entry and mid-level officers and serve as a sounding board. From the very first day a new team member arrives at post or at the office, WHA seeks to put into practice the eighth component of the 3 FAM 1214’s Management and Leadership Principle: “Value and develop people—empower others by encouraging personal and professional development through mentoring, coaching, and other opportunities.”
Also through the program, mid-level managers will introduce the full range of resources within the Department so that new employees know where to go to deal with equal employment opportunity issues, conflict management and resolution, Bureau of Medical Services’ support for mental health and wellness issues, among other topics. WHA will finalize a comprehensive SharePoint site, available to all WHA employees, that provides a full range of information on the offices responsible for managing these issues to include Foreign Affairs Manual references, pertinent links, a list of employee organizations, and required online training. WHA is striving to model that the responsibility for building great teams includes looking out for one another both personally and professionally.
With these innovative approaches, WHA is establishing working environments that are designed to build and sustain strong, diverse teams—now and well into the future.
Stacy D. Williams is deputy director in the Office of Haitian Affairs and chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Council in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.