Interview With Michelle Los Banos of the Department of State
Secretary of State
AMBASSADOR CHACON: I’m Arnold Chacon, director general of the Foreign Service and director of Human Resources at the Department of State. In this edition of Conversations on Leadership, it’s a real privilege and honor to host Secretary John Kerry in conversation with one of our emerging leaders in the department, Ms. Michelle Los Banos, a midlevel Foreign Service officer and former Pickering Fellow who works in my office on diversity and inclusion issues.
MS LOS BANOS: Good morning, Mr. Secretary. Thank you so much for having this conversation with us today.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, Michelle. I’m happy to.
MS LOS BANOS: My first question for you, Mr. Secretary, is with your long career of public service, what has it meant to you to lead the Department of State?
SECRETARY KERRY: The best of job I’ve ever had, by far, for lots of reasons. First of all, unlike the Senate where I spent about 28-plus years, I have an opportunity to initiate things and get them done and get them done more immediately. There’s the executive component of being here, which is exciting and helps you to move the agenda far more rapidly than you can in a legislative session.
But secondly, I am working with 70,000 extraordinary people in unbelievable numbers of different roles – Foreign Service, Civil Service, designees, agency part-timers, military. I mean, it’s such a – it’s an amazing team effort that gets up every single day somewhere in the world 24 hours a day and is making a difference in people’s lives, carrying the banner of our country, our values, our interests. And it’s all hanging out there. Many people – I mean, vast numbers of people in the world look to the United States of America for leadership. And whether it’s Ebola or AIDS or Zika or whatever the health challenge, the crisis of a typhoon in the Philippines or a Nepal earthquake – you name it, we’re there and we’re trying to make a difference. How many jobs can you say have the opportunity to do that on a daily basis? It’s pretty special.
MS LOS BANOS: It is pretty special, Mr. Secretary. And it’s clear that you’re so passionate about this work and you really do value the men and women who help you carry it out every day. Some of my Civil Service friends feel that they are not recognized for their contributions to our mission to the same extent that members of the Foreign Service are. What should I say to them?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I hope that’s not true. I mean, I guess if you say that some of them feel that way, they feel that way, and so we’ve got to address that. But I know that sometimes some people within the Civil Service sector feel I’m stuck, I’m sort of in a track here, and there’s a really exciting thing happening over here, but I’m here and I can’t kind of go off and do that. And to some degree there is a focus, an intensity to the track that one gets on within the Civil Service. But boy is that critical to us. I mean, we could not do many of the things that we do without the special expertise that people bring as a consequence of being more focused and tracking for a longer period of time a particular discipline or issue. And therefore they come to the table with much more expertise than a generalist who’s coming in and saying policy-wise, well, we’ve got to do this or we’ve got to do that. Then you’re going to turn to somebody in the Civil Service to say, “How do I get it done? How do we really make this happen?”
I have seen heroes within the Civil Service who but for their knowledge and the great experience they’ve gained by being particularly focused on a particular area, we wouldn’t get certain things done. A prime example of that is the Iran nuclear agreement. Jim Timbie, who is retiring shortly after 30-plus years, whatever, is the world’s resident expert on nuclear disarmament/verification control. And he was so essential. We could not have done without Jim, without Chris Backemeyer, who helped us in so many different ways in articulating what was doable and not doable in terms of that agreement.
So it’s a mix. I mean, I think of people like Robert Jacobson, who’s heading up Western Hemisphere Affairs and nominated to be our ambassador to Mexico, helped us break open the Cuba channel. I mean, these are – I just don’t think barriers have to exist there. Don’t let them be in your mind. You go after what you’re doing, find the interesting areas you want to work on that matter, and ultimately you’ll be at the same table as everybody else in very significant ways. But I think my idea is to try to break down barriers in ways that are constructive and put people’s talents to use.
I say, Michelle, whenever I get a chance to talk with folks in the embassies and the posts abroad – I don’t think everybody believes it when I say it, but I mean it: Everybody is an ambassador. You may not all get the day-to-day responsibility and the perks and so forth, but the fact is if you’re standing behind that window in a visa office, the person who comes to that door, this is life and death for them, this is the whole deal. And how they’re received, how they’re talked to, what kind of response they get, how fast and efficient it is, all of those things will be their first impression of America. And some cases sometimes it may be the only one some people get if they get turned down or it doesn’t work out. Who knows? But I insist that it is so vital for people to treat everybody with the greatest respect, the greatest warmth and friendliness, and make them feel, wow, America is a special place and I can see why just through the people that they meet.
MS LOS BANOS: Sometimes those people at the consular window are the only Americans that other people of other countries will end up speaking to and interacting with, and it’s so important that we treat everyone fairly not only there but within our entire organization. Which leads me to my next question, which is we talk a lot about building and creative an inclusive environment at the State Department. Why is that important?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, because the State Department is the face of America to all other countries, and the face of America needs to look like America. And we don’t completely yet. I mean, I’m just being upfront and candid about it. We have work to do. We are doing that work and I’m proud of that. We’re up in our diversity efforts across the board but still struggling in a few places where I wish we weren’t.
I mean, Michelle, you’re working in that very effort with Arnie Chacon and company. You tell me. What do you think? I mean, how can we do better? Do you have ideas for how we can do better?
MS LOS BANOS: I do. And I think as you said, we are trying to do better both in terms of our recruitment and sort of targeting and being strategic about the audiences that we reach out to. You yourself gave a great speech at Indiana University, a call to service sort of speech, telling people the type of organization that we are, and we want people from all different backgrounds and experiences to come and work with us and be part of our team. And that’s really important. So when we have those incredible people here at the department, what’s even more important is building a culture that is inclusive. And how do we do that? We have to be conscious about how we build our teams. We have to let people know that they’re valued and that their contributions matter. We have to foster an environment of openness and cooperation.
SECRETARY KERRY: That goes back to leadership too, doesn’t it? I mean, that’s leadership.
MS LOS BANOS: It goes back to leadership. Exactly.
SECRETARY KERRY: And then the leaders of the teams have to be really sensitive to that and aware of it. And it’s up to us to inculcate that in everybody each step of the way, and we’re getting more – I think we’re getting much more tuned into that, much more effective. But we have to make that – we have to put that – we have to translate those sort of aspirational words into a series of steps that people really take in order to make sure it happens.
MS LOS BANOS: Exactly.
SECRETARY KERRY: Which is why, I mean, I’m going to go out actually and give a few more speeches not unlike the Indiana one in various parts of the country just to sort of get the message out and invite people to really open their minds to this is a terrific career. And then we have to deliver on that and make sure it is terrific from the get-go.
MS LOS BANOS: That would be really helpful, and I think a lot of people across this country would welcome hearing that message.
SECRETARY KERRY: Good.
MS LOS BANOS: And I just wanted to say, going back to leadership, I think you did a really outstanding job at the conclusion of the Iran negotiations. You sent a message to everyone in the department thanking us for our help in that effort. And while the vast majority of us didn’t necessarily work directly with you on the negotiations, what you did was you put into context for us how our contributions matter to our overall U.S. foreign policy. And that’s so important in leadership, to communicate to your people what the broader goal is and how they fit into that. And you said something along the lines of the Earth doesn’t stop spinning for any one topic, no matter how important.
SECRETARY KERRY: That’s true.
MS LOS BANOS: But what we allowed you to do was to focus on that very important topic and know --
SECRETARY KERRY: Twenty-one solid days in Vienna.
MS LOS BANOS: Yes. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY KERRY: I know, tell me about it.
MS LOS BANOS: Exactly.
SECRETARY KERRY: I thought it was Groundhog Day. (Laughter.) But honestly, everything else kept happening and we had an – all around the world we had these extraordinary efforts that were going on, so we could just pick it up like a seamless web.
MS LOS BANOS: And that was – it was great to hear. In a way you were – Mr. Secretary, you were thanking us for having your back, and that felt really good.
SECRETARY KERRY: Good.
MS LOS BANOS: And in that moment it was very clear to me what my purpose was and how my daily contributions mattered to our overall foreign policy.
SECRETARY KERRY: Good.
MS LOS BANOS: And I think that’s a message that leadership really needs to reinforce.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, thank you. We will – I will keep that front and center and be even more mindful of it.
MS LOS BANOS: So I have another question for you if I may. What advice would you have for people like me who hope to one day be in a position of leadership?
SECRETARY KERRY: Start exercising it now. Don’t – a position of leadership isn’t something you get to at some point and everybody says oh, okay, now you’re a leader. You have to begin doing things that show that you have that quality, or qualities, plural. And that begins in your earliest job. I mean, if you notice that things aren’t working right in the consular division or at the earliest entry stage of whatever job it is you’re doing, constructively, thoughtfully find ways to weigh in, to seek out the leadership, to put a proposal on the table, obviously always being sensitive to not being threatening – and that’s part of leadership, is figuring out how you do these things in a way that people take you in and not push you away. I think always treating people well, always being respectful of your colleagues, always trying to get the best out of everybody else, doing things in a collegiate manner, not solo and not just going out and taking care of yourself, so to speak, within the building and the process. I think those are the important things.
If you hear breathing, folks, that’s my wonderful dog Ben who is coming over to say hello to me.
I think you have to just put your best foot forward. Never take the status quo as automatically being the best way to do something, either. I think people always have to be ready to push a little and push the horizon somehow. People will notice leadership skills. If you are somebody that your friends and colleagues come to as a mentor, people will notice that. And you know the old saying: Cream rises to the top. And I think if you just keep steadily at it, people will find their road ahead. And so everybody from wherever you are has the ability to be a leader and to make a difference, and that’s what makes a team and that’s really what makes this building work most effectively.
MS LOS BANOS: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary, for having this conversation with us today. I hope we can continue the conversation.
SECRETARY KERRY: It was fun. Thank you, Michelle. Thanks for all you are doing.
MS LOS BANOS: Thanks.
AMBASSADOR CHACON: I hope you enjoyed the podcast. If you’d like more information on people and careers at the Department of State, please follow me, Arnold Chacon, on Twitter and LinkedIn.
SECRETARY KERRY: Ben, let’s go out. C’mon.