Navigating Your Career: How to Succeed in Foreign Policy
Insights from Two Foreign Policy Rock Stars
WASHINGTON - As young professionals, we are often inundated with various ‘how-to guides.’ While they can be helpful in providing scope, in the end, some of the best advice can simply come from lived experiences.
The German Marshall Fund’s Young Transatlantic Network of Future Leaders (YTN) and the DC Chapter of Women In International Security (WIIS-DC) were joined by Derek Chollet, executive vice president and senior advisor for security and defense policy at The German Marshall Fund of the United States and Julianne (“Julie”) Smith, senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program, Center for a New American Security. Both long-time foreign policy wonks took time to share some advice, lessons learned, and how to navigate both real and perceived career obstacles in the foreign and security policy fields.
Finding Your Drive
For many of us in the foreign policy world, there tends to be a defining moment that drives you towards this field –your passion for other cultures, languages or global events. Whatever the push and pull factor, we all have our reasons – mine, too many episodes of Alias. For both Chollet and Smith, their motivation to enter the world of foreign policy was defined by the historical events around 1989. While Chollet was state-side, entering his professional career in Washington, DC, Smith was abroad and experienced it firsthand. Deciding not to ‘sit on the sidelines of history,’ they wanted to be a part of the momentous change that was occurring.
They outlined that the key is to find a path that merges your passion with your ambition or as Smith stated, “half accident, half ambition” and knowing that it may take multiple roads (i.e. endless internships or majors) to get there.
Beyond the Bureaucratic Red Tape
Working in foreign policy often takes us to the wonderfully complex world of government, whether you are working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in X country, or the U.S. State Department, your position without a doubt, is often to carry out an initiative from above and to move it along the necessary channels – often leaving little time for reflection but amassing knowledge.
Both Chollet and Smith have extensive background in the public sector. Chollet was the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Prior to joining the Pentagon, Chollet served at the White House as special assistant to the president and senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council Staff.
Smith served as the Deputy National Security Advisor to the Vice President of the United States from April 2012 -2013. During March and April of 2013, she served as the Acting National Security Advisor to the Vice President.
Both reflected on the fast-paced work environment and the advantages of bringing your trusted network into government with you when possible, stressing the importance of networking and keeping in touch with your professional peers and mentors as information gateways.
While this may seem somewhat obvious, one surprising takeaway was how vital it is, in their experience, to take the time away from government and its breakneck-paced environment to replenish, actually digest information, and then go back in, highlighting their own careers of working in both in-and-out of the public and civil society sectors. Doing this allows a balancing between thinking and doing.
What Makes Some Effective and Others…Not so Much?
The million dollar question: what makes someone effective in their foreign policy career? Both Chollet and Smith shared their common challenges and obstacles while working under past administrations. One common challenge was navigating some of the office politics between career officials and political appointees. In their view, one is not better or preferred over another, rather the ability to see the bigger picture, set the direction, and execute are the traits that matter, not necessarily the career track. Being able to write clearly, concisely, and in a hurry is a must as well.
How to Stand Out
Let’s be honest, we live in hyper competitive times, especially in the world of foreign and security policy. How do you land that job among the incredibly talented pool of young professionals that all seem to speak five languages and have degrees upon degrees? Chollet and Smith admitted that today’s work environment is much different from when they first entered it, but there isn’t any one right way or background, the important thing is to simply ‘stand out.’ Whether it’s your resume, the ‘side-gig’, or extracurricular activities (Smith worked on a farm in France!) or a unique niche – whatever it is, your unique angle should be what sets you apart from the mass of applications. Smith reflected on her professional start as a journalist and stressed how necessary solid writing skills were. But she really credited the ability to process, interpret, and relay information quickly for helping her advance in the field.
Some additional nuggets of advice:
- Be confident. Simply have confidence in your work and relying on the combination of your accumulated professional and personal experiences.
- Be resourceful. With the advent of Google, most of us can be extremely knowledgeable in the matter of minutes in any given area, but how you analyze and apply critical thinking of that information is ‘what makes you an expert.’
- Be adventurous. Take advantage of tangible life and ‘on the ground’ learning experiences. Whether it’s travelling to a new region, volunteering your time on important issues close to your heart or simply meeting the people affected by world events – these experiences can be incredibly valuable in not only shaping your scope and perspective on issues but your outlook on your work.
Ultimately, Strive to be a Foreign Policy Disruptor
As mentioned before, Chollet and Smith were driven by world events that prompted them to act and dive into the wonderful world of foreign policy. They wanted to be a part of that world, rather than a bystander. While a global movement may not be in order (or maybe it is?), the ability to change policy is very real and we all need to strive to be disruptors in the field. Challenging the status quo and making our voices heard. Chollet and Smith described some of their challenges maturing in the space, jokingly stating that they sometimes still feel like the ‘kids in the room making big decisions.’ They still face the generational and gender divide from time to time and struggle to find their voice when it comes to important decision making (which means they are just human after all!). But, social media and technology provide us with a platform and space to further develop these skills. We can share our analysis with the world much sooner than Chollet and Smith who first had to climb the ranks and couldn’t just start a Medium blog. But most importantly, we must continue to be challengers and innovators in the foreign policy and security space.
However you interpret this, just know, that two esteemed (read: rock star) policy experts have been in our very shoes and have offered some insight on how they personally navigated this world. The struggle is very real, but if we stick together and look to leaders in our field as examples – some on what to do and not to do – we will rise to level of passing our advice onto others before we know it!
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.