AAFSW recently had the pleasure of learning more about the newest Director General of the Foreign Service, Marcia Bernicat, her goals for her tenure as Director General, where she sees the State Department in the future, and more. Check out our interview with her, below.
AAFSW: How have you found your first months as Director General?
Director General Bernicat: A whirlwind of activity and very rewarding. I feel privileged to be able to serve as Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Global Talent for the Department of State at this critical time. It’s truly my dream job, helping lead the Department’s efforts to recruit, retain, develop, and empower our greatest resource — our people — diverse, top talent dedicated to our diplomatic mission and to serving the American people.
I’m an extrovert and a people person by nature, and I’ve been re-energized by the opportunity to connect and reconnect with employees in real life — or 3D, as I like to say — once again. There’s really no substitute for that kind of interaction. And I look forward to engaging employees from all levels of the organization, at home and in the field, in the months ahead.
AAFSW: The world is a rapidly changing place. What does this mean for the State Department and its personnel?
Director General Bernicat: We have seen so many changes over the past few years. The pandemic forced everyone to adapt overnight to a new rhythm both at work and at home, and we did so relatively smoothly. I saw our global team respond to these changes with grace and compassion even in the face of loss and adversity. And we continue to apply lessons learned every day to ensure we take advantage of the flexibilities we’ve embraced and new technologies we’ve adopted to advance the mission while supporting our people.
What’s indisputable is that the world is demanding more of us at a faster pace than ever before. For the Department, this is a potentially transformational moment. As the Secretary has noted, we’re at a critical inflection point not just for the Department but also our country. We have a chance to strengthen the foundation of our diplomacy for generations to come, so we can continue to advance America’s interests and values and serve the American people.
This is really the thrust behind Secretary Blinken’s Modernization agenda, ensuring we are organized, staffed, equipped, and resourced to take on the challenges of the 21st century — from global health and climate to cybersecurity and emerging technologies, economic statecraft, competition with China, and multilateral diplomacy.
For me as Director General and for the Bureau of Global Talent Management, this means doing what we do best even better — recruiting, developing, and retaining a diverse workforce and creating an inclusive environment where all can thrive and deliver on the mission.
Part of this entails redoubling our efforts to help employees prioritize the many demands we face so we can meet these challenges in a sustainable way. Through understanding and mutual respect, we can rise to the occasion just as our predecessors rose to the meet the challenges of their time.
AAFSW: What are your goals for your tenure as Director General?
Director General Bernicat: To borrow from the late Secretary Powell, rule one is “don’t break it.” What this means for me is continuing to support the great work on behalf of our workforce that my predecessor, Ambassador Carol Perez, and the Bureau of Global Talent Management (GTM) have undertaken over the past three years in truly unprecedented and difficult times for the Department.
Taking care of our people must continue to be at the heart of everything we do. GTM is a service bureau dedicated to providing all our employees with the support they need to thrive and realize their full potential, from recruitment to retirement. This will remain our north star.
My second priority is to champion the goals set forth by the President and Secretary. The White House has prioritized rebuilding and strengthening our foreign affairs workforce, and the Secretary has laid anagenda to modernize American diplomacy. GTM plays a critical role in each of these efforts. This will help us do our jobs better, compete more effectively for new talent, and better position us to advance U.S. foreign policy goals in a complex and hypercompetitive world.
Making Diversity Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) part of our DNA is a top priority for me, as it is for the Secretary. GTM is working closely with the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and the Secretary’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion to implement State’s DEIA strategy, including action on more than 180 deliverables, because we recognize that in today’s world to be competitive an organization must embed DEIA fully into its processes and culture. As Secretary Blinken has said, diversity in the broadest sense is a critical comparative advantage on the world stage. Because of our unique history, America is the world. As we take full advantage of this diversity as an institution, we are better able to avoid blind spots as we strive to understand and work with the world to advance U.S. interests and values.
Last, but not least, is modeling accountability. None of this works if we don’t hold each other accountable. We all have a shared responsibility to model the behavior and conduct we wish to see. As I tell our newest employees, you don’t have to be in a leadership position to exercise leadership. Creating an accountable, inclusive culture is a whole-of-Department effort, and wherever you are serving or whatever your rank, you have a big part to play in holding yourself and others accountable to do the right thing. Those of us in leadership positions have a special responsibility to hold ourselves to the highest standards because we have a duty of care. This requires, first and foremost, that we create a safe work environment, one free from sexual harassment, discrimination of any kind or bullying. And it requires supporting our employees, supervisors, and managers as they work to uphold these principles — so that we can all focus on faithfully executing the mission.
AAFSW: What are the largest obstacles you’ve come across as you work toward achieving those goals?
Director General Bernicat: First, I would say that change is hard. This may be obvious but it’s no less true, and sometimes the things we fail to see are right before our eyes. Bureaucracies by their very nature resist change. And as human beings, our survival instinct often makes us risk averse. I was a history major, so I tend to take the long view on these things. Change takes time. It’s seldom a straight line. It often happens in fits and starts, but over time, one sees progress. And I’ve certainly seen it firsthand over my 40 years in the Foreign Service and I’m confident that with the priorities the Secretary has set out and the commitment of an engaged workforce we will see significant positive changes in the coming years.
Secondly, I’m reminded of the what the late British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (in office from 1957 to 1962) once said when he was asked what was the greatest challenge for a statesman: “Events, dear boy, events.” The core of that message applies to most leaders and organizations. And it’s certainly true in the world of diplomacy and foreign affairs. Just in the last three years, we’ve had a global pandemic, the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine — not to mention some of the other challenges at home. Any one of these alone would have been formidable. And yet we’ve risen to the challenge.
Whatever the crisis of the moment, it’s important that we keep things in perspective and recall what our predecessors have faced — from a Civil War to two World Wars and a Cold War.
AAFSW: Do you have a plan for overcoming these obstacles? Or what do you see as the best way forward?
Director General Bernicat: I think the key is to come at these challenges and obstacles with resolve and humility. Resolve to find effective solutions that serve our workforce, the Department, and the American people. And the humility to know that often we don’t know. No one person has all the answers. Our strength as a country and as a Department lie precisely in our ability to bring people together from diverse backgrounds and with different talents so we can devise the best solutions. We won’t always succeed. But I have great faith in — and have seen the results of — our ingenuity when we truly leverage the strength and skills of our people.
AAFSW: From your perspective, what does the future of the State Department look like?
Director General Bernicat: It’s agile and expeditionary — I like to say that diplomacy is a contact sport, and I think the future of the State Department has our staff equipped to work in ever changing environments, getting out of the brick-and-mortar buildings, and going beyond the main cities. This also means having the tools and the technology to be able to operate effectively wherever the work needs to be done.
The future of the State Department is also multifunctional. We will always need deep subject matter expertise in some domains. But increasingly we need to be conversant and up to speed on what the Secretary has identified as our six mission-critical areas — global health, economics, competition with China, climate, cyber and emerging technology, and multilateral diplomacy.
This really requires that we embrace a culture of lifelong learning, and I think that paradigm shift will take time, but has already begun.
AAFSW: Is there anything else you’d like to share with AAFSW’s members and the broader foreign affairs community?
Director General Bernicat: I just want to express my sincere appreciation for the support you offer our Foreign and Civil Service employees, spouses, partners, household members, and retirees. You are there for our community always and especially when it matters most.
More broadly, to our Department employees and the broader foreign affairs community: I remain in awe of your commitment to our mission, our country, and our fellow citizens. You are a true source of inspiration for me and a model for the world.