Thursday, February 11, 2010

This Embassy Front Office gets high marks but … one section suffers from “weak leadership”



The OIG Inspection Team gave the US Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia high marks for being a “successful engine of US foreign policy.” There are 6 pages in the report addressing executive direction and the performance of the Front Office.  You can tell that the inspection team was quite impressed with this crew and rightfully so. This post has been closed or evacuated four times in the last 15 years and still operates in the compound that was trashed and burned in 1999 and 2008. "Employees must cope with residual trauma from those events, plus cramped, inefficiently arranged, often window-less offices and highly inconvenient access to secure communications." Excerpts below:
The Ambassador and DCM have overcome enormous obstacles in making Embassy Belgrade a productive, successful engine of U.S. foreign policy. They have transformed Serbia’s interactions with the United States, while ably guiding the embassy community during a traumatic mob attack on the chancery, closure of the Embassy, ordered departure, and eventual return of American staff. The 2008-2009 period tested the Ambassador and DCM far more than is typical and they deserve great credit for inspiring their colleagues to produce impressive results and keep their spirits intact during this prolonged crisis.

The Ambassador’s success derives from his own considerable skills but also from the DCM’s counsel. From being a student through several postings in the region, she has developed unparalleled expertise in Balkan affairs. Her guidance enabled the Ambassador to make his messages resonate effectively in the Serbian psyche; indeed, the turn-around in public opinion about the United States has far more to do with messaging style than any change in U.S. policies. Furthermore, the DCM’s stature as a Balkan expert establishes her own entrée with the Serbian Government and elites, which enables her to act very effectively as chargé d’affaires in the Ambassador’s absence. The Ambassador expressed full confidence in the DCM’s abilities, and the inspectors concurred with his assessment.

The teamwork forged between the Ambassador and DCM and their complementary skills and personalities impressed the inspectors. As is typical, the Ambassador takes the lead in contacts with senior Serbian officials and other figures, and the DCM manages the Embassy, liberating the Ambassador to attend to the many crises in U.S.-Serbian relations. Their partnership goes beyond the typical, however, especially because the Ambassador trusts and draws so much from his colleagues, and because the DCM has so much substantive expertise to offer. Their frank, frequent exchanges also result from the Ambassador’s openness to hearing criticism, advice, and bad news as well as good, and the DCM’s ability to deliver it. She is able, in turn, to speak for the Ambassador without anyone in the embassy community doubting her authority. Additionally, the inspectors noted with approval the informal, collegial atmosphere prevailing during country team and other embassy meetings.

The Ambassador’s leadership style mirrors textbook models: he sets the strategic direction for the Embassy, building consensus among the staff; he then allows them to develop the best tactics for achieving their goals, free of micromanagement. He has the confidence to surround himself with strong people and adjust his thinking when warranted, based on their views; his openness motivates initiative and creative thinking from staff. The DCM develops operational plans that knit together efforts across embassy sections and agencies in a commendable manner.

The laudable practice of delegating authority depends on staff meriting the trust invested in them and the inspectors found two instances where the Ambassador and DCM had trusted senior staff but had not adequately verified their performances. In one case, the Ambassador and DCM adjusted their management style because the head of an important agency in the Embassy had difficulty cooperating with another agency and following the guidance of embassy leadership. The inspectors found, however, that the oversight mechanisms they put in place had not succeeded and needed further tightening. The inspectors counseled the Ambassador and DCM accordingly; they accepted this advice, and implementation will fall to the DCM in her role as chargé after the Ambassador’s departure. The Ambassador and DCM were also unaware that the management of the consular section was unacceptably weak, and they agreed they should have supervised the officer more closely. The inspectors do not wish to imply that the Ambassador and DCM should not have delegated authority as they did; their leadership methods are ideal for most employees. Rather, the inspectors advised the Ambassador and DCM that the cases of the two under-performers demonstrate that leaders must be alert to the need to engage and adjust where necessary because variations in performance can be substantial.

The Ambassador and DCM have distinguished themselves in their public outreach activities. Although not a Serbian speaker, the Ambassador worked so hard on his media skills and, with the DCM’s advice, on his messages that the inspectors heard him called charismatic, “the most popular man in Serbia.” He excels at delivering tough messages cloaked in positive tones. He has sought at least one interview or media appearance per week, reaching provincial audiences as well as elites. The DCM’s fluency in Serbian enables her to form personal connections with the Serbian public via live TV interviews, a notable accomplishment. She hosted an acclaimed event celebrating President Obama’s inauguration. Both officers also reach out often to exchange-program alumni, visitors to the Embassy’s eight outstanding American Corners, and other groups able to influence Serbian views of the United States. The Ambassador has used the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation to renovate potent architectural symbols of Serbia’s three major faiths: Orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Catholicism, and thus underline the importance of respecting diversity.

The only spoiler in this report seems to be the Consular Section where the report says “leadership is weak.” The report further states that “The consular section chief and the DCM have not been holding regularly scheduled meetings, yet the DCM holds weekly meetings with the other section chiefs. It is not clear how this problem evolved, since the consular section chief said she had asked for such meetings but apparently did not pursue the issue to conclusion. The lack of meetings is even more difficult to understand given that the DCM had counseled the consular section chief on leadership issues.”  

At the time of inspection, the embassy was led by Ambassador Cameron Munter, who arrived at post on 08/07 and Jennifer L. Brush, the Deputy Chief of Mission who arrived on 09/07. I understand that Ambassador Munter is currently Political/Military Minister Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.  He was succeeded by Mary Warlick, who arrived at post a couple of weeks ago.  Ms. Brush remains as DCM of the embassy in Belgrade but presumably will rotate out this summer.


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3 comments:

A Daring Adventure said...

I'm grateful to you for finding and posting the really informative articles that you do.

My husband and I are brand new to this and are to bid later this year for the first time (since Flag Day), and I always enjoy reading your articles about what's going on at different posts. I know for sure and certain that I'd never find this information on my own! So it's a blessing that you post these sorts of thing.

Thanks!

Consul-At-Arms said...

Considering that it was primarily the Consular Section which was trashed/burned, this appraisal seems a little harsh of that Section Chief.

diplopundit said...

@A Daring Adventure - welcome and thank you for reading along!

@CAA - I don't think this report made any specific mention of the Cons Section was the area primarily burned during these attacks. I wish it did to give a fuller picture of how the section leadership performed under such pressures.

I also actually would like to see the OIG revert to its old practice of listing down the members of the inspection team. They used to do that but not anymore. I'd like to see who's inspecting whom.