What Tillerson got right—and wrong—in his speech at State

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers remarks to Department of State employees upon arrival at the Department of State in Washington, U.S., February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - RTX2ZCUA
Editor's note:

Rex Tillerson made a good first impression in his first speech to his new colleagues at the State Department last week, writes Tamara Wittes. He got a number of points right, but also missed a few important beats. This piece originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

As is traditional when a new secretary of state starts work in the Harry S. Truman Building, department employees gathered in the C Street lobby to hear directly from their new boss. Rex Tillerson made a good first impression. He avoided President Donald Trump’s error at the CIA by pausing for a moment of silence at State’s wall honoring colleagues lost in the line of duty. He made clear to the staff that he values and intends to lean on their expertise, and he offered three Scout-worthy principles to guide his leadership: accountability, honesty, and integrity.

The full transcript of his remarks is here; I found four key aspects worthy of focus:

1. Like a boss. Tillerson is clearly an experienced leader and manager of people, and this can benefit the State Department “bigly,” as Trump might say. Too often, State has been led by bright stars and big personalities who focus more on their own diplomatic engagement (abroad and with the White House) than on effective leadership of the organization. Ensuring more effective stewardship of the organization was the reason Secretary Hillary Clinton instituted a new, full-time deputy secretary of state dedicated to management — a position that the Trump administration has eliminated.

Colin Powell was beloved by State Department employees because he understood that an effective operation demands effective operators, and he invested in training and improved facilities for his workforce. Tillerson’s remarks reflected a similar sensibility, and included a promise both explicit, and unexpected from a political appointee to government bureaucrats: “If we stay focused on the work before us, I promise I will work to ensure you achieve your own personal success and your professional satisfaction in what you are doing.” That private-sector commitment to talent management is a great approach to bring into government, especially to nurturing the incredibly high-quality U.S. Foreign Service. If he carries through on that promise, Tillerson may well earn the lasting loyalty of his troops.

2. There is such a thing as too much security. Tillerson’s remarks emphasized mission security, a topic that must have featured heavily in his consultations with the Republican leadership of Congress (which spent much of the last four years obsessively investigating the Benghazi tragedy). Said Tillerson, “The safety of every single member of our State Department family, regardless of where he or she is posted, is not just a priority for me. It’s a core value, and it will become a core value of this department.”

The Diplomatic Security officers and the management bureaus at State, who have spent the years since Benghazi under a microscope, were doubtless dismayed to hear the future tense used in that sentence. For their part, many Foreign Service officers already chafe under the increased security measures put in place since the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, concerned that a risk-averse approach to diplomacy makes it increasingly hard for them to see what’s really going on in the countries where they serve. Tillerson will have to find a way to balance the real risks to his missions and personnel abroad with effective American diplomacy, especially the public and commercial diplomacy that brings societies around the world into closer contact with America. Indeed, the new secretary will quickly find that his department’s major programs to advance people-to-people engagement are severely compromised by the new executive order on travel.

3. Dissent isn’t disloyalty. The only moment of Tillerson’s remarks that troubled me was this passage: “One of the great challenges and thrills for the State Department staff is deciding how to confront changing conditions in every corner of the world. And I encourage all of you to use your natural and well-developed skills to adapt to changes here at home as well. I know this was a hotly contested election and we do not all feel the same way about the outcome. Each of us is entitled to the expression of our political beliefs, but we cannot let our personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team.”

If Tillerson meant this nudge to his team to “adapt to changes here at home” as a reference to the dissent memo submitted over the recent executive order on immigration and refugees, it was a big misfire. The memo was signed by more than 1,000 people—that’s something between 13-15 percent of the core (“generalist”) Foreign Service. By any yardstick, the memo was an unprecedented message from the department’s professional policy experts that, in their view, the policy chosen runs contrary to American interests. If Tillerson intended to suggest that he sees professional dissent on policy as an expression of political opposition, then he deeply misunderstands the function of the Dissent Channel and the charge his Foreign Service officers hold in serving their country. To retain the trust of his workforce, as well as to stay true to his department’s mission, Tillerson should quickly make explicit his understanding that dissent memos like the one he now must answer are in the highest tradition of service to the department and the country.

Even if he wasn’t referring to the dissent memo, this section of Tillerson’s message was, in my view, a flub with consequences for a senior manager. State Department officers, as the new secretary recognized, serve faithfully under administrations with wide-ranging policy views and political bents. Many of the officers he addressed this morning carried out their duties and diplomatic work to support George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq—despite violent disagreement with the policy. Many of them left their families for a year or more to serve risky tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, in consequence of policy decisions they had little part in making. Like their military colleagues, State Department and USAID officers coming back from these posts suffer from PTSD and other lasting scars; some, as he noted, make the ultimate sacrifice. By the way, these same officers served loyally even as President Barack Obama committed what many of them consider a cardinal sin of diplomacy, by failing to live up to his own words warning Bashar Assad against chemical attacks on civilians in Syria.

Thus, for Tillerson to suggest, as he did today, that State Department employees are suffering from a malaise of political discontent that they need to get over, is to disrespect their clear record of service and sacrifice regardless of politics. A moment of silence in front of State’s memorial wall does not mitigate that disrespect, and Tillerson’s chiding was a wrong note in an otherwise hopeful start to his leadership of the Department.

4. Efficiency isn’t the goal. Finally, Tillerson made clear that he intends to lead change within the Department to improve efficiency: “As Secretary, I will deploy the talent and resources of the State Department in the most efficient ways possible. That may entail making some changes to how things are traditionally done in this department. Change for the sake of change can be counterproductive, and that will never be my approach. But we cannot sustain ineffective traditions over optimal outcomes. I will gather information on what processes should be reformed, and do my part to make sure we are functioning in the most productive and efficient way possible.”

It’s an intriguing signal of his intention to be a hands-on manager and to pay attention to process—which, in my view, is a great advantage for anyone in government service. But Tillerson’s statement also demands an understanding of what “efficiency” means in the diplomatic sector. In business, efficiency can be measured by productive output relative to investment, and by the amount of profit or loss a company passes on to its owners or shareholders. No such easy metrics are available for diplomatic work; indeed, it’s not even clear that efficiency should be the highest value. Achieving a peace agreement quickly, for example, is insignificant if that agreement quickly breaks down; lasting peace is much more important even if it takes years to produce.

Even in monetary terms, Tillerson’s emphasis on improving efficiency flies in the face of facts. The State Department and USAID’s budget is about $54 billion, less than 1.5 percent of the federal budget, making it perhaps the most “efficient” investment the United States makes among all its efforts to advance national security and grow the U.S. economy.

When Tillerson looks at the long-term shortfalls in his department’s budget and personnel, he’ll be amazed at how such an under-resourced organization, staffed by such a thinly stretched workforce, manages to accomplish so much. Secretary of Defense James Mattis noted in his opening memo to the Department of Defense that he sees the State Department as crucial to his own priorities—the same reason that Secretary Robert Gates argued passionately for a boost to State’s budget. If Tillerson doesn’t look at the numbers and then lobby the Office of Management and Budget, along with Congress, to bring in more funding for operations and foreign aid, he will betray his reputation as a CEO who knows what it takes to win.

There’s another way Tillerson could learn from his counterparts at the Department of Defense: Kori Schake’s book State of Disrepair, published in 2012, draws on her experience working at both State and Defense to illustrate how the military’s investment in leadership, proper resourcing, and learning after-action lessons could be mirrored at State to improve the projection of America’s civilian power abroad. I would put it at the top of Rex Tillerson’s recommended reading list.