« October 2013 | Main | December 2013 »

November 30, 2013

A legend in my own mind

A lot happened in Brazilian-American relations while I was here.  If asked to predict before I got here, even if asked to be extravagant, I would never have been so bold as to predict all the things accomplished in education and English learning.  The numbers are impressive.  Our English teacher exchange, for example, grew 54 fold in the time I was in Brazil.  This is not 54%, but 54 times.  By the time I leave, more than 20,000 Brazilian students will have gone to the U.S. on SwB.

I am in an unusual position.  Usually, I am trying to figure out what why we couldn’t get everything we hoped.  In this case I am trying to figure out my/our contribution to something so massively big that those unfamiliar with our operation do not believe it.  There was an interesting example last year when I reported about the increase in English teacher exchanges I mentioned above. I wrote to Washington that we expected to go from twenty to 490. My colleague in Washington thought I made a typing mistake and reported up 49.  Actually, I was wrong.  By the time I corrected the correction, our Brazilian friends had agreed to 540 and soon after that wanted to do the program twice a year, bringing the total to 1080.  The English w/o Borders program in general is expected to reach 7 million Brazilians over the next four years.  When you throw around numbers like this, it is no wonder people don’t believe it.

My analysis challenge is trying to figure out how much of the success over the past years would have happened without our contributions and how much my team and I did.  I have come to a nuanced answer.   We didn’t do anything in the sense of making it happen.  Our Brazilian friends did it.  American universities made the connections. Fulbright coordinated and IIE and Laspau made placements. But we facilitated all of them. We were necessary but not sufficient.  Necessary but not sufficient is not a satisfying answer.  This kind of ambivalence doesn’t look good on our efficiency reports and will not get the recognition we “deserve.”  Nobody gets promoted for being necessary but not sufficient. We prefer the illusion of control, but isn’t it better to be a necessary part of something really big instead of in complete control of something vanishingly small?

Why bother trying to figure it out at all if we are getting good results?  Results matter, but if you don’t study the process you cannot estimate to what extent those results came from your efforts, from what others did or from luck & serendipity.  It is always a combination but the mix matters.  You want to be able to duplicate success and avoid problems.  Unfortunately, much of our success cannot be duplicated. It was based on conditions which will not be present again. Ironically, our success altered the landscape in such a way that my methods are no longer effective. Knowing this is worth the time it takes to understand the process. Maybe I don’t exactly know what to do to achieve future success, but I know that I cannot continue to apply unaltered what worked so well the first time around. Knowing this is worth knowing.

This leads me back to my title.  As I get ready to finish in Brazil, I am feeling the usual mix of pride in a job well done plus the strange brew of simultaneously feeling humble at being so lucky, i.e. not deserving much recognition and feeling aggrieved for not getting much recognition. I didn’t say it was logical.  The more effectively you achieve something by working with others, the more others think it is simply natural and inevitable. Maybe it was. Maybe I am only a legend in my own mind. Maybe I just shouldn’t care.  I often joke that I need not worry since they cannot fire me and they will not promote me. That really is true.

Being necessary but not sufficient implies that you are part of a big team. There is often a distributed decision network at work and many members of the team are only vaguely aware or even unaware entirely of all the others. There are lots of necessary but not sufficient players.  My FS career is almost over. I would really like a big success to top it off, but I don’t think I can have one. If it is “my” success it won’t be big and if it is big I will share it with so many others that it won’t be mine. Good enough for me.  

November 28, 2013

Driving around Rio

Sugar Loaf Rio 

You always pay more for taxis in Rio. They are used to tourists and they know that there is a kind of differential tourists are willing to pay, or maybe don’t know they are paying.  But this time I got by w/o too much trouble.  I suspect the driver that took us from the airport to the hotel was taking us for a ride.  When I noticed we seemed to be going the wrong way and commented to him, he told me that there was a big music festival and we could not take the usual shorter route.  Maybe that was true.  I ended up paying more for an extra-long ride and when he gave me change, he did so with small bills, pausing each time until I just told him to keep the rest.   But on the way back from Sugar Loaf, we got a driver who actually used the meter and it told the right amount.  We went with the notorious “flat rate” to the statue of Christ.  I didn’t mind paying, since the guy waited for us and took us back down.  When I came with Espen a few months ago it was hard to find a taxi back.  The convenience was worth the price and the taxi driver was interesting.

Jesus statueHe told me that he had been driving cab for about seven years.  He was a cop before that, but police work was too dangerous.   He said that in his police academy class of seventy, twenty-four had been killed in the line of duty four years later when he decided to seek a more tranquil profession.  Of course, he was a cop in the middle of all that trouble with drug dealers in the favelas.  Things are calmer now.

Taxi drivers in Rio own and maintain their own cabs, although licensed and regulated by the city.  He can have up to two other people drive the car.    His car is completely flex-fuel.  It can run on gasoline, ethanol or natural gas.   These days by far the best fuel is natural gas.  It costs the least and gets the most mileage per unit, more than twice as much as ethanol.  Ethanol is the worst.  Mileage is poor for the price.  Gasoline is in the middle.   Natural gas also has the advantage of better engine wear and less pollution.   He asked if we use much natural gas in the U.S.   We don’t.  Busses often run on natural gas and some delivery fleets are turning over to gas, but we don’t currently have the infrastructure.  I suppose that might change with the fracking boom.   Changing to natural gas makes the cities cleaner and quieter than they would otherwise be, in addition to saving money.

Rio really is a pretty city.  Mariza is visiting and I wanted her to see it.  We went to Acre last time she was here.  That was an interesting experience, but not the pleasant one you get in Rio.   Rio is really one of the world's most beautiful cities.

Red sky 

We saw a double rainbow over Copacabana.  It was gone before we got our cameras.  Would not have done it justice anyway.   But the red sky was still interesting.  Red sky at night, sailors delight. The picture doesn't do that justice either.  

November 24, 2013

America's best high schools

The best high schools in the U.S. are at this link. There are charters and regular public. They are not in the “super smart” places you might guess. They are in Kentucky, Florida (2), Arizona (2), Texas (2) & Virginia.  

Two on the list are Basis charter schools. They are criticized for having larger class size and not being completely transparent about finances, but who cares? When Lincoln was told that Ulysses S Grant was a drunk, he reportedly ask what brand of whiskey he drank so that he could send it to his other generals.

Whatever they are doing, we should study and try to copy and adapt to other schools. I think we have a bad habit when talking about social problems in general and education in particular. We look at the bad performers and losers and ask what keeps them down. A better tactic would be to look to successful performers and ask what they do right.

Leo Tolstoy wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This is not a mere literary truism. It is based on the idea that there are a an infinite number of ways to screw up, but a much smaller set of things to do right. That is it is smart to work from positive examples and avoid being tinged by bad ones.

In my experience, most negative people dislike positive ones. I think that tendency explains much of the losers' "bad luck." To them, a positive success is a kind of insult. It points to the fact that they are screwing up in ways the prefer not to change. There is also a lot of envy involved. Maybe we cannot avoid the deadly sin of envy in all our personal transactions, but we should base policy on copying and adapting the best.

November 23, 2013

A language is just a dialect with an army and a navy

Language difference is the obvious but vaguely surprising thing I noticed in Columbia. Portuguese to Spanish is a one-way street.  Portuguese speakers can understand most Spanish, but Spanish speakers do not understand much spoken Portuguese.  My Brazilian colleagues told me about this and I found it was true in Bogotá. People spoke to me in a language I more or less understood, but my responses were met with puzzlement. Portuguese, especially the Brazilian variety, uses vowels in a more exuberant way. 

The boundaries of language are interesting.  Some dialects should qualify as languages and some languages are really just dialects. There is an old saying that a language is just a dialect that has an army and a navy.   When I spoke Norwegian, I found I could also understand Swedish w/o too much difficulty. Written Danish is almost identical to written Norwegian, but the spoken language is different.   

Of course, some things called dialects probably should have their own language.  I read that Chinese “dialects” are mutually unintelligible.  Like Danish and Norwegian, the written languages are the same or similar, but the spoken languages are not.  I have had some problems with English.  There were people I could not understand when travelling in the UK.

My first language shock came when I was nineteen.  I hitchhiked from Wisconsin to South Alabama.  It was a dumb idea.  I was not prepared and I had only about $15.  I was trying to go to Florida, but I didn’t have a map or much of a plan.  I ended up on State Highway 10 and got a ride from a guy in a truck.  I understood nothing the man said.  He didn’t take me very far and when I got off a farmer was standing near the road.  He started to talk to me (People of rural Alabama very friendly).  He had one of those Civil War accents, but I understood him well.  He was a little put off when I told him that I was glad I understood.  He laughed when I explained that I had understood nothing from the man who had just dropped me off.  “Oh, that’s old Butch.  He’s the town drunk.   Ain’t nobody understands old Butch.”

Accents and languages can be fun.  I am not very good at accents, but I did find an interesting performance by a woman who does 21 accents in a few minutes.  She is at this link.

Conference in Bogotá

Bogota streetI didn’t get much time in Bogotá but from what I saw it was a nice city and people were friendly.  It is very clean and looks a lot like some places in the Eastern U.S.  You can see pictures interspersed in the text. I was there for a PAO conference.  It is useful to learn about my colleagues’ challenges, since our jobs are mostly similar.

Budget cuts and sequester will increasingly constrain our work.  I could adapt to the cuts in money, but the threat is staff.  The 2 for 1 is still in place.  That means that we can fill only one position for every two that fall open.  It ratchets down our staffs, but that is not the most immediate problem. The conditions we face are changing.  It would make sense to reconfigure my staff to adapt to the changes. But if I change the job descriptions sufficiently, they become “new” positions, subject to the 2 for 1 rule. I will leave Brazil next July.  The rule will last longer than I will. This means that I will be unable to do any real restructuring.  I don’t want to use this as an excuse, but it is a reason.

Bogota beer

On the plus side, I can live with limits on travel.Fortunately, the travel ceiling is based on 2010.When I arrived in 2011, I reformed the way we travel.It was not rocket science.We simply shop a little for better fares and never change our plans.Fares vary depending on the day and even the time of travel.A little flexibility in scheduling saves thousands of dollars.On the other hand, changing tickets once issued is expensive.A little more rigidity here also saves thousands of dollars.The bottom line is that we are travelling more, which is necessary for our expanded jobs, and paying less.We could save even more if we didn’t need to use the government booking system, but that is another story.

Night street in Bogota 

Brazil is the big dog in South America.  More than half the population in South America lives in Brazil and we are our own region with three, soon to be five consulates in addition to the Embassy.  Our situation is a different.  Our neighbors do a lot more “international” cooperation than we do.  It is a lot like our consulates cooperating, however.  They speak that same language externally, as we do internally, and a combination of countries often have smaller populations than a combination of our consular districts.  Anyway, putting Brazil into a mix changes the dynamic.  Portuguese is similar to Spanish but not the same and people cannot easily communicate.

November 21, 2013

Know the place for the first time

 

Many people would like to be farmers at five in the afternoon, but few want to be farmers at five in the morning.  Farming is hard work and it was even harder work years ago. It is still hard work for many of the small farmers in the Amazon.

These guys, or their parents, came up the new Brasília to Belém highway thirty of forty years ago.  They sometimes walked from places like Goiás of the Northeast looking for a new life in the new lands. Some made it big and there are a lot of productive large and modern farms on this Brazilian agricultural frontier. I talked to some of the smaller farmers.

Pigs 

Paragominas has a program that tries to help small farmers.  The municipality guarantees that they will buy their produce for use in the schools, i.e. provides a certain market.  But it is hard to keep them down on the farm and easy to understand why.  It is hard work.  The couple I talked to, the one you see in the picture above, were originally from the NE, I think they said from Ceará. They worked their whole lives on the farm, but their kids were college educated and unenthusiastic about keeping up the tradition of farming. Birth rates in Brazil are dropping and it seems likely that fewer and fewer farmers will be on the land as time goes on. This is probably good. More will be produced on fewer hectares.

Rubber trees 

I keep seeing parallels between American environmental history and what is happening today in Brazil.  We are pioneer nations, taming the wilderness. It is out of style these days to tame the wilderness, but we have the luxury of it being out of style because we have tamed the wilderness.  We cannot go back.  Our challenge now is to adapt what we did to make it sustainable. Forests are growing back in the U.S.  There are now more trees growing in Eastern North America than there were in 1776. Marginal lands have returned to forests and our agriculture is becoming sustainable. Brazil is on this path.  We passed through the time of maximum destruction and we now it will begin to reverse.  In the U.S., the nadir of forests was around 1920.  Then things got better.  I don’t know if Brazil has turned the corner yet, but it will soon.

Supper 

Sustainability sits on three pillars: environment, social and economic development.  We often forget the last two when talking about sustainably, but in the long and medium run, w/o development in the social and economic spheres, the environment cannot be sustained. We humans do not properly understand the complexity of the environment and we never will.  But sometimes we come close enough to truth to know some of the things we should do.  We come around in circles.  I recall the lines from TS Eliot, "We never stop exploring, and at the end of all our explorations we come back to where we started, and we will know that place for the first time".

My pictures show some of the farmers. The pigs are an Amazon variety. You can see rubber trees tapped int he picture below and the supper picture is a great meal I had at one of the family farms, all with products growing locally and organically. 

November 18, 2013

Family businesses in for the long run

me and timber 

Many of the businesses around Paragominas are family owned, with generations of family members working there. The small sawmill in the picture above is family owned and so is the multimillion dollar wood processing and forestry operation farther down.  I think this has to do with the pioneer nature of the society.   The founders - or more likely today grandfathers - came to this place and set up shop.  They have often gone through several cycles of business.  There were shortages of people they could trust, with the proper skills to run the businesses, so they made their own.

The saw mill has been here for many years.  The logs come up the river and are processed at this and other nearby mills in the town of São Miguel.  All the logs processed here are certified.  You can see the markings on each one.   It is a specific number so the wood can be traced.

Factory floor 

The Floraplac MDF  plant is in a different business. They make fiberboard and wood products and require smaller trees that can be chipped and/or pulped. Originally, the factory used naturally occurring timber. But in the early 1990s, the owners saw that this would not be sustainable and started to plant their own. This created the need for different machines.  Logs from the forest primeval tended to be big and differentiated. Those from plantations are smaller and uniform. The latter are easier to process, which is another benefit of plantation tree farming.

Parica plantation 

Some of the trees are a native Amazon species called paricá.  This tree grows to harvest in around nine years.  You can see the picture above.  The wood is good and worth more per pound that eucalyptus, but eucalyptus produces more pounds per acre and has a shorter rotation of only seven years.  There is need for both but the eucalyptus is often more useful, if less popular because of its non-native status.

 

There are hundreds of species of eucalyptus, so the variations are almost endless.  Eucalyptus is native of Australia, but there are probably more types of the trees and more trees in Brazil than anyplace else in the world.   Vitorio is constantly seeking to improve the genetic stock and silviculture of his trees.  For example, some suffer from rot when there is too much humidity and they are now planting crossbred trees that are resistant.   They are in a perpetual arms race with bugs and diseases.  This is the way of nature, especially when you have large areas of very similar trees. 

As I have written before, I am a little sad that eucalyptus has replaced pine over the warmer parts of Brazil.  Pine is also an invasive species here, but it is familiar to me.  I like the eucalyptus trees, but pine are more the woods of home.   But where eucalyptus can grow well, pine cannot compete in the pulp & chip market.  The eucalyptus has a nice scent, kind of a fresh mint.  I still, however, prefer the pine. 

Floraplac is a vertically integrated operation of a type we see increasingly rarely in the U.S.  They own the land and grow the trees they use to supply their operation. During the 1990s anon most American pulp, paper and timber firms sold their land to smaller holders and timber investment management organizations (TIMOs). This is how I got my forest land.  Companies figured that they did not have to bear the carrying costs and risks involved in growing the trees and owning the land.  They could rely on private owners. The additional transaction costs were low compared to the carrying costs.

Brazil is not ready for this just yet.  There are probably not enough private owners for all the land around here needed to supply the plant.  I asked Vitorio about this model.  He said that they are trying to source some timber from smaller holdings, but these were not people engaged in forestry, as they might be in the U.S.   Rather they were doing a kind of silvopasture or woodland agriculture, where they would raise stock and/or crops among and between the trees.  The forestry would provide a supplement to their income but not in itself be a viable investment.

Buying from small holders is not the most profitable business possible. Floraplac does it as part of its commitment to the community and corporate social responsibility.  It is smart business in the long run.  At some point in the future, there might be calls to move the plant or criticism of its use of forest resources.  At the time, it will be good to have a significant group of people who better understand sustainable forestry and are connected by their own interests to the continued viability of the enterprise. 

They were down to earth, friendly people.  The multigenerational nature of the business ensures that they look to the future.   It seems to me a really great business and an admirable business model, so far removed from the caricature of people showing up in the forest to make a quick buck and a quicker exit.  People here are in it for the long run.

November 17, 2013

Belém to Brasília highway

Belem to Brasilia Hwy 

They started work more than fifty years ago. Today many people consider it a kind of mistake, maybe even a ecological disaster.  After travelling along the road, I don’t agree.  This is Brazil's Route 66, a highway of dreams. The Brazilians at that time, led by President Juscelino Kubitschek, wanted to open up the empty land in the interior of Brazil. That is why he built Brasília and why he built the road to connect the new city of Brasília with the older city of Belém and with all the places in between.You can see a stretch of the road above

It was heroic work, cutting through what people at the time called jungle. Today we have a more politically correct term – rain forest.  The people who did the work were pioneers, like those of the American west.  They came to settle their country and seek a new life.  It was hard and dangerous.  Many people died in the process.  Others are still there and they and their descendants are still there.

I learned that once the Amazon forest was cut, the soil would soon turn to rock and sand, unproductive.  My observation is that this is not true. The soils are fertile and things grow wonderfully. 

The land next to the Belém to Brasília highway has had three main and overlapping cycles. The first involved clearing the land and using the forest resources. This is very much like what happened in Wisconsin and Michigan in the 1850s and 1860s.   It was disruptive, with forests being destroyed.  Immigrants cleared the land and tried to establish farming. As with Wisconsin or Michigan, the success of the farmers was mixed.  In some places, the soils and topography supported farming; other not so much.

The second stage consisted mostly of unsustainable cattle ranching. Ranchers put large numbers of cattle on the newly established pastures.  There were not many animals per hectare. It was profitable for some, but very inefficient.  This was the nadir stage. Things had been destroyed and degraded but not yet begun to renew.  his was like Wisconsin in 1871, during the great Peshtigo fire that may have killed as many as 2500 people or the big blowout fire of 1910 that destroyed three million acres in Idaho, Montana and Washington and helped establish the need for the U.S Forest Service.  

oil palm 

Cattle raising in the way they were doing was indeed unsustainable and that which is unsustainable will not be sustained.  The region is now entering a third stage.  This is the stage of readjustment and sustainability.   As I have written elsewhere, sustainable does not mean natural.   The ancient forests are gone, as are the ancient forests of Wisconsin.  They will never return as they were, but that does not mean that the new systems are not sustainable. Above you can see an oil palm plantation newly established on a degraded pasture.

Cattle ranching remains an important part of the local economy, but it is becoming more efficient, with fewer hectares required to grow beef.   Some of the degraded pasture is now available for crops and re-afforestation.  This is exactly what happened in the U.S. a century ago.  Paper and wood products mills are now mostly using fiber from planted trees, which I will talk about in subsequent posts.  In the area around Paragominas, they grow soy.  This is a triumph of the Brazilian USDA equivalent, EMBRAPA, which developed soy that growing in this tropical environment.  A little farther north, where it rains more, they grow oil palm.  You can see in my picture that oil palm is being planted in degraded pasture.

It is interesting what they have learned about micro-climates.  The area around Paragominas has less rain than a hundred miles north.  It still rains a lot, but less. Agriculture is sophisticated here, because they can plan for the rain. They have a regular rainy and dry season, like Brasília, but the dry season is not as dry and the wet season is even wetter.

Having my feet on this Amazonia ground gave me a different perception.  It was also useful to come back thirty years later and see what had been done. I understand that there could be wildly different lesson learned.   The natural forest is gone over much of the land. We can mourn the loss.  On the other hand, it looks like it was been replaced with a sustainable system that supports human aspirations and endeavor.

I cannot help thinking back to my own home-place, with all its myths and realities. I grew to full adulthood in the forests of northern Wisconsin and that shaped my outlook. There are no “virgin” forests in Wisconsin. It was all cut over in the middle of the 19th Century and usually cut over and burned a few times after. Yet the forest is magnificent and sustainable.  In many places you find stone walls and other evidence of old farms in the middle of old growth forests.  Obviously, the people who tried to farm these thin soils gave up and moved away. But there is a human presence throughout in forestry, farming and cities. People live in and with nature. It is good.  

This is what I see and wish for my Brazilian friends. They will look back at the extractive period in the same way we did. They will lament the loss, but appreciate the sacrifices and heroism of those who went before. This is the lesson good people will teach their children. They do already.  I felt at home in the “tamed” Amazon in ways I never have in the “natural” parts. Human endeavor need not be destructive but it will lead to change, sometimes for the better.

One more thing about sustainable. Nothing lasts forever, not anything natural or man-made. We can strive for predictable and favorable change. 

November 11, 2013

Time & Money

These are the notes of a short presentation I will give at one of our conferences.

Nothing we do is rocket science.  My guess is that most people think they already do most of the things we will talk about.   But proper management is like diet and exercise. The principles are simple and well known, simple and well known, but not easy to do consistently and not much followed.

We worry about budget cuts.  Let me stipulate right here and now that money is important.  My programs might improve if I had more money, but maybe not.  It depends on how it is used. Ben Franklin said that time is money.  You can indeed sometimes trade one for the other. You might be able to buy a rush job.  But time is less flexible than money and I will talk more about using time wisely and well than I will talk about specifically saving money.  Time is our limiting factor because of how we work today.  Our paradigm is partnership, not patronage.  This means deploying intelligence to find points of maximum leverage and sometimes not contributing any money at all. 

It is time for my short digression, my suitable story. This one is about a guy who is locked out of his office.  He needs to get in immediately and calls a locksmith, who tells him that he can help him out, but it will cost $50.  The guy agrees and the locksmith shows up.  He takes a look at the lock and gives it a little tap.  The lock springs open, whereupon the locksmith asks for his money.  “$50, the guy protests, for making a little tap.  Let me see an itemized bill.”  The locksmith gives him what he asks.  The receipt reads: $.05 for tapping the lock open; $49.95 for knowing where and how to do it.

As I said, nothing we do is rocket science.  Our value added also comes from knowing where and how to do what we do.

We want sustainable programs.  Sustainable implies something that can survive WITHOUT our continued infusion of OUR resources, so I have been trying to avoid things that cost a lot of money and mostly succeeding.  Although has been said that some people have too much money but nobody has enough, I sometimes have enough money; I never have enough time.

Do important things – do the most important things.  This implies saying “no” more often than saying “yes.”

I once heard piece of music composed by John Cage in 1952 called “Four thirty-three”.   It is a three movement composition in which the musician plays nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.  The first time I “heard” this this I was not impressed.  When the musician told me that most people could not understand that “silence too is music,” I stood firmly with most people.

But the idea is not that nothing happens, but rather that listeners fill in the lacunas with their own thoughts and maybe become more aware of ambient sounds & other environmental factors.

I still don’t really appreciate this “music” but I do respect the idea that you can sometimes be doing a lot by doing less or doing nothing.  The spaces between are sometimes as important as the words or notes. 

Some of us think that if we are in charge and doing something, that nothing is happening.  This is probably true for bad leaders and poor managers, but it should not be the case for us.

This is my long way around saying that choosing what won’t do is as important as deciding what we will do.  Making the right choices does indeed allow us to do more with less, at least more of the right things. This is a simple concept, but not easy.  We have to cut good programs in order to have the time to do better ones.

Here are a few one liners

·         Pick the low hanging fruit

·         Do the easy things first

·         Don’t spend a dollar to do make a dime decision

·         Work through others

·         It may be better to be a small part of something big than a big part of something small

This last one is a big part of our success in Brazil. We played an important role in Science w/o Borders, an ambitious program to send 101,000 young Brazilians overseas to study in the STEM fields. This is much bigger and will have more lasting effects than anything we could have done on our own. It is not our program, but I believe that we were necessary, if not sufficient for its success. There are only two ways to get anything done. Success comes from a combination of pushing harder and removing barriers.  The mix matters. People often prefer to push harder, since it seems more active, but removing barriers is often more sustainable because it creates conditions where events naturally flow. It is like cutting a channel for water to run naturally rather than installing a pump to move the water.

So far, more than 15,000 students have gone to the U.S. on SwB program. It is an example of a true partnership.  Our goals and those of our Brazilian partners are perfectly compatible. Our job is to make their lives easier, to make it clear and easy to do what they want, what we all want.  A recent example is the acceptance in SwB of professional master’s degrees. It is the perfect SwB program, IMO, because it combines hands-on training with academic rigor. We worked to make information about such programs readily available to decision makers and make sure the pathway into American universities was clear and easy.  After the President of Brazil accepted the inclusion, the Minister of Education announced that 1000 slots would be made available, all for the U.S.  Why the U.S.?  Only the U.S. offers such degrees. We like a level playing field where we own the grass. Everyone benefits and we have a natural and sustainable system.

In the fields of education and English teaching, our Mission teams and those of our Brazilian friends work seamlessly together.  This remarkable achievement is based on trust and confidence.  Our friends know that they can come to us with questions and problems and we will try to find answers and solutions.  Beyond that, those connections can be and are made at the working level. Our connections are like Velcro, with lots of little hooks. We can do that because our people are energized.

Empower colleagues – This means what it says.  If I get a request or task, I try to put the most appropriate person in charge.  This may be an American; it may be a LES.  But I give them the task.  And this is the key point.   When they ask me whether I want to see it before the send it to Washington/DCM/Ambassador, my answer is often “no, just copy me.”  I usually don’t check it before it goes up. If I do check it, I pride myself on making few or no changes.  They know what they are doing.

My colleagues also have authority to do many things autonomously.   If it is within their scope of authority, they need not ask permission or fear retribution.  I expect that they will consult with colleagues as appropriate.  I may suggest that they work with particular ones, but I try not to. If they are the most appropriate person to do the job, I presume that they know more about the details than I do.  It is presumptuous and arrogant for me to believe that I know better and it wastes a lot of time, mine and that of others.

Letting go is very hard in our State culture.  All FSOs are smart. We have the capacity to remember lots of things and this gives us the illusion of control as well as the inclination to substitute our judgment for that of others.  As leaders, our job is to create conditions where others can exercise judgment.  We all can buy into this in theory, but in practice it means that I will never be able to know all that is happening in my organization.  I don’t even try anymore.  This is not because I am lazy (well, maybe). It is because I choose to use my limited time to do things more important, more appropriate for my particular talents or position or using my time in places where my value added is greatest.

There is a story about the dictator of North Korea, Kim Il Sung.  According to the story, Kim knew pretty much everything and once when his engineers were building a dam, he immediately saw that they had not chosen the right location and made them move it.  You can see why the place works as it does, but there is a meta-lesson.  People evidently think it is a compliment to claim that the big boss would have the specific knowledge greater than his engineers.  We know that if that is true, you either have a horrible leader or horrible engineers, probably both.

It is hard not to want to seem to know more than we do.  We FSO don’t fear dismemberment or death as much as we fear being exposed as wrong or ignorant in front of our peers.  We hate it when an Ambassador or DCM or pretty much any of our applicable colleagues asks for details and we just don’t know.  The proper response is, “My colleague or partners are doing that.  I trust them to get it right.”  But are we comfortable with that answer?

We recently had a very successful visit by John Kerry.  The PA part was to set up a kind of science fair, highlighting our successful partnership with Brazilians in the STEM fields.  As usual, we had only a few hours to get going.  I relied on my Brazilian partners.  Only they could marshal and manage the resources we needed to make it happen on a Friday for a Monday program.   When Kerry’s team asked me for details of what would be done, I had to tell them I was confident that our partners would do great work.  When they wanted to do a final walkthrough, I had to tell them we could not impose on our  our Brazilian government partners to open and pay overtime on a Sunday.  When they wanted to make last minute changes, I had to tell them it was not possible.  I explained to them that their putative (I did not use this precise adjective) needs were my most urgent priority, but the key to success, both now and later, was maintaining and strengthening relations with the Brazilian partner. They would still be here after Kerry left.  To their credit, the team seemed to understand or at least did not stand in the way.

Our part of the visit worked perfectly.   In fact, it was outstanding, because our Brazilian partners came through, as I knew they would.  I am morally certain that if I had interfered more or facilitated more interference, it would have been less good, maybe even a failure.  The difference is that when I did what I did, I bought the risk for myself.  Had it failed, the failure would have been on me.  Had I done the usual, chances of failure would have been much greater, but blame would not affix to me.   I hope that John Maynard Keynes was wrong when he said, it is often better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.  But it is a risk we have to take.  It is not an option; it is our duty.

You might think that I have drifted from the idea of saving money and time, but I have not.  In the example of the visit, we saved time, money and stress.  I did not deploy scores of people for this visit.  We brought in no TDY. In fact, during the visit, we maintained previously scheduled a CAO conference. In other words, we handled the SecState visit, as we did a visit by Biden a couple weeks earlier, as business as usual that did not require extraordinary disruptions in our important priorities.  We really did accomplish more with less of our own time and money by relying on outside partners and maintaining a disciplined approach of matching appropriate resources to the need, rather than throwing all we had at it.

Up top, I used the analogy of diet and exercise.  We all know what to do, but often don’t do it. A VIP visit would be analogous to binge eating.  We sometimes lose our discipline when we are beguiled or intimidated by important people.   It is precisely at these times when we need to be stronger.

Let me finish with another story, only one last time. This is a story close to my heart.  As some of you know, forestry is my hobby.  I studied forestry in college and I own around 430 acres of forest land in Virginia.  They seem very different,  but forestry works a lot like public affairs.  Things take a long time to develop and you can never control all the variables.  In these complex and dynamic systems, results are often not commensurate with inputs, i.e. sometimes lots of inputs produce nothing, while little things can be decisive, but the key to success if understanding the environment, choosing the appropriate actions and then giving them time to develop in the way you know they will.  A truly well-managed forest often seems like it is not much managed at all.  It seems natural because we are working with natural systems. 

Since 2005, I have had the pleasure of writing a quarterly article for Virginia Forests Magazine.  I think my most recent article applies to both of my professional passions - forestry and public affairs.

What I said to my follow forestry folks applies to us in public affairs and I will quote it directly.  “We are in a controversial business. Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, most (not some most) people misunderstand what we do. But our story is important and we should tell it with eagerness and vigor, not just to each other but to all who want to listen, and maybe even to some who don’t. Our narrative is not one of “leaving a smaller footprint” or “reducing damage.” Ours is the affirmative story or renewal and regeneration, of imagination, intelligence and innovation making things better.”


Hosting by Yahoo!