Best Boss Series: Tracey Jacobson, Former US Ambassador, USA

Tracey Ann Jacobson is a diplomat, leader, mentor and advocate. She recently concluded a 30-year government career including 14 years at the senior levels of the Foreign Service and three assignments as U.S. Ambassador. She plans to continue sharing her international and diplomatic experience with up-and-coming foreign policy professionals through mentoring and training.

What do you think are the prerequisite qualities of a successful leader.

A successful leader, especially one who has come up through the ranks as I did, must understand that her value is no longer in being the “doer” or subject matter expert — rather, it is empowering, motivating, guiding and evaluating the team under her leadership. The best leadership role models I’ve had shared several traits — passion for and expertise in the work (in my case, diplomacy), limitless energy paired with infectious enthusiasm, respect for employees at all levels, and a dose of humility.

When in your career did you find you really began to be an impactful leader and what gave you proof of this?

I became a supervisor early in my career and quickly learned that words, tone, and even gestures carry an outsized impact when you’re the boss — for good or ill. This is even more true at senior levels. As leaders, we have the power to build or destroy morale and enthusiasm with every interaction.   As I moved up the ladder, my biggest impact was bringing together diverse groups of employees with different backgrounds and expertise to solve complex problems.

Share with me your greatest leadership success/experience.

When I was sworn in as Ambassador for the last time, I told everyone that my approach to leadership was to surround myself with good people and bask in the reflected glory of their success. The standout stories for me are the ones when I was able to build a coalition of diverse stakeholders achieve a goal — for example, in Turkmenistan, working with local and international civil society, the U.S. Congress, and others to convince an authoritarian president to begin to improve his record on human rights and religious freedom.

Recall your biggest managerial challenge. Tell me how you handled this. What did you learn that you might do differently next time?

Because I served as Ambassador in relatively “new” posts in challenging environments, there was often a push from various agencies in Washington to increase policy and program staffing faster than the management (HR, budget, security, logisitics, etc) platform could safely and successfully accommodate. I had to be pretty disciplined in saying “no” to growth we couldn’t manage, and make allies of other agency leaders in lobbying for adequate management resources.

What vision or goal are you working towards in your career? What accomplishment would you like to retire with?

I have just retired from my first career as a Foreign Service Officer, during which I had the privilege to represent my country as an Ambassador three times. However, my proudest accomplishments are those in which I was able to give others a boost in their careers — for example, through my work as Deputy Director of the Foreign Service Institute mentoring employees from the entry level through Ambassadorial training. I have seen first-hand the benefits to our educational and professional exchange programs, whose many graduates are making a positive impact worldwide. I was thrilled to facilitate the start of a Peace Corps program in Kosovo.

Common opinion states that in order to succeed in business one has to be ruthless. A quick survey of world’s most domineering companies seems to support that view. Do you think it’s possible to be very successful in business and still be a nice/kind person?

I certainly hope so! I don’t think it costs us anything (other than perhaps some self-control) to give praise publicly and criticism privately. While promotions in the Foreign Service are competitive, the success stories that lead to them are inevitably the work of teams.

If you are looking to the long-term, which we should always do in diplomacy, we have to remember that a short-term “success” which damages relationships, can ultimately prove very costly.

 Let’s talk about managing pressure – how do you control your own emotions and temper when things don’t go to plan? Not lashing out on those around you is a skill – what are your tips?

I think that most of us have been guilty of this at some point, and I’ve been grateful to a couple of colleagues who had the guts and grace to call me on it.  As I moved into increasingly responsible positions I learned that self-care is a necessary investment in equanimity and professionalism — including basics like adequate sleep and regular exercise. It’s important to have someone you trust as a sounding board/early warning system — for me as Ambassador, this was usually a team including my deputy, personal assistant, and very patient spouse.

At times, we all hit a low point. How do you motivate yourself?

I tried to manage my schedule so that frustrating or fraught engagements were balanced with encouraging and motivating ones, for example, with students, civil society leaders, and women entrepreneurs.  Focusing on the core of the mission — representing the American government and people — was a source of inspiration and motivation to me for almost 30 years.

Why is personal development of the people you manage important to you?

I was lucky to have great mentors coming up and I know how encouraging and empowering that was for me. Towards the end of my Foreign Service career, my greatest sense of professional satisfaction came from watching those I’d led and mentored rising up through the ranks themselves.

Working in an organisation where business culture isn’t people oriented, how do you create an environment where people want to work for you/in your department?

Diplomacy really is, at its core, about understanding, persuading, and supporting people. In the Foreign Service, particularly at the more senior levels, developing human capacity on the individual, team, and mission levels was as important as advancing foreign policy goals.   I enjoy networking and staying in touch with people I’ve worked with previously, which makes recruitment a bit easier. People who worked for me knew they were going to get a boss who would give them interesting and developmental work and, when warranted, recommendations for increased responsibility in new assignments.

Most large organisations today have a strict bonus and pay raise policy, which makes it difficult to reward people even when you know they truly deserve it. Have you found a way of dealing with this?

Money is not the only reward. In fact, most of the people I know in the State Department are motivated by a sense of service. Nobody joins a career in government service to get rich.  I recognized star performances with awards (with or without cash), inclusion in meetings with senior leaders, training and development opportunities, and strong lobbying for desirable onward assignments.

Companies often refer to themselves as “family”, yet only a few support their employees like a family supports its members – unconditionally. Aside from professional training, what support do you offer your employees?

Overseas, particularly in hardship environments, security is always the number one concern. We must take care of the families with everything from adequate housing to good schools to medical care because if the employee is worried about her family she will be less productive at work. In Washington, we offered free consultations/referrals for physical and mental health issues and had a variety of programs for work-life balance.  An open door and a comfortable sofa for staff from all levels are valuable forms of support that don’t cost too much.

Some managers believe in a strict hierarchy and the “do what I say approach”, sighting cultural norm as an excuse. What are your thoughts on this?

I worked in a hierarchical organization, but saw a variety of different leadership styles ranging from inclusive and engaging to aloof and isolated. While everyone has a boss, the former style resulted not only in happier employees but also better policy.

Tell me how you decide what to delegate and to whom.

As an Ambassador I delegated as much as I could so that I had the bandwidth to focus on the engagements with senior host government officials, public diplomacy, and strategic planning that I needed to do personally. In my first mission a smart junior officer reminded me that once I’d agreed to meet with an interlocutor, that person would be less willing to meet with other members of the mission. I believed it was important to give up and coming staff opportunities to brief visiting delegations, do media interviews, and plan complex events so they would have the experience and confidence they’d need moving ahead.  Delivering bad news was not something I delegated.

Team building has become a buzzword in the corporate world, yet many still do not see the value in applying it to their group or organization. What are your beliefs and or successes around team building?

The first step is ensuring that disparate elements of the organization understand each other’s roles and responsibilities. The next step is getting them enthusiastic about working together towards common priorities. A more advanced level is encouraging them to establish goals and tactics together, getting out of their comfort zones as necessary to achieve results. This is particularly important with multicultural teams, as we have in our missions overseas.

When it comes to morning or weekly briefings do you conduct those in person or via a memo?

In person, although I usually have a junior staffer take notes so there’s a record of the discussion as well as a written list of assignments.

How do you decide to be available to your team (i.e. text/Email/voice call/video call)? How do you determine the best way for them to contact you that does not interrupt your workflow?

I had an open door as much as possible and encouraged in person discussions — not only in my office but also in other’s.  I made a point of getting around to staff meetings of the offices I supervised , and when overseas hosted social events with a constantly-changing cross section of staff.  This is one area where it helps to have a genius, empowered personal assistant recognized for her integrity and interpersonal skills. I was very fortunate in this regard.

How much do you value transparency of information at work? To what extent do you share information with your team?

I don’t think it’s possible to work effectively, or to have the ties of mutual respect necessary for success, without transparency. I shared everything except gossip.

How do you best separate work life from personal life – for a healthy balance? What are your biggest challenges around this? How does this impact you personally?

For me, as mentioned before, exercise and sleep are absolutely key when working long hours with serious responsibilities for people and results. They are not mutually exclusive but it does require discipline — including being willing to say “no” to the late dinner meetings when there’s a training run early the next day. I think it’s important not just to talk the talk here — staff will notice what the leader does and take care of themselves (or not) accordingly.

Explain how you work with HR for recruiting and interviewing. What works for you and how do you handle the interviewing process for vetting candidates?

I usually had the prospective supervisor conduct interviews after a discussion of what we as a team were looking for in a new staff member — including the importance of diversity. Getting references and feedback can be more of a team exercise.

How do you respond to employees / colleagues who are diagnosed with mental disorders, e.g. depression or anxiety?

These are medical issues and should be dealt with accordingly — people need time and medical attention to deal with them in the same way as they would for physical illnesses, and given the stigma around mental health issues, sometimes they even need encouragement or “permission.” Particularly in stressful environments, or with staff coming out of difficult or dangerous posts, leaders must be alert to the signs of PTSD and other medical challenges.

Sometimes an employee is not working out despite your best efforts and you know that this relationship is not serving them or the business. At which point do you decide to part company and how do you go about it?

There are plenty of rules about this in government, so much so that there is a myth that underperforming employees can’t be fired. This is not true. If an employee is unsuccessful in a position, the supervisor has an obligation to provide clear, direct counseling, in person and in writing, and to document both the performance problems as well as attempts to improve performance through counseling, coaching, and training. If performance is still inadequate after implementation of a formal performance improvement plan, the employee can be directed to look for a better fit elsewhere. It’s important to keep the organization’s HR expert, and if necessary, legal office, in the loop. If the supervisor has worked to build an open relationship with her staff, and conducted regular, interactive performance reviews, the decision to terminate won’t come as a surprise — I’ve even seen it roll out as a positive experience in self-awareness and new direction for the employee.