What Business Leaders Can Learn From Diplomats

The U.S. State Department looks for 13 traits in potential high-level employees. How many do you possess?

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For any job, there are specific hard skills interviewers look for, and then there are those tough-to-measure soft skills and the much-discussed emotional quotient. Evaluating a candidate on 360 degrees can be a daunting task. The 13 dimensions of foreign service officers can help interviewers predict a potential employee’s impact on the job and enable candidates to deliver a stellar performance on the interview stage.

If you haven’t heard much about the 13 foreign service officer dimensions, you aren’t alone, as I knew them only vaguely until Sanjiv Rastogi, my former boss at Microsoft, shared his wisdom. As diplomats, foreign service officers formulate and implement the foreign policy of the United States and spend most of their careers overseas as members of U.S. embassies, consulates, and other diplomatic missions. In order to secure a job as a foreign service officer, one must demonstrate the 13 dimensions the State Department looks for in qualified candidates, each of which reflects the skills and personal qualities that are essential to the work of the Foreign Service.

The following is a list of the 13 dimensions, along with a brief description of each, as outlined on the State Department website:


  1. Composure

To stay calm, poised, and effective in stressful or difficult situations; to think on one’s feet, adjusting quickly to changing situations; to maintain self-control.

  1. Cultural Adaptability

To work and communicate effectively and harmoniously with persons of other cultures, value systems, political beliefs, and economic circumstances; to recognize and respect differences in new and different cultural environments.

  1. Experience and Motivation

To demonstrate knowledge, skills or other attributes gained from previous experience of relevance to the Foreign Service; to articulate appropriate motivation for joining the Foreign Service.

  1. Information Integration and Analysis

To absorb and retain complex information drawn from a variety of sources; to draw reasoned conclusions from analysis and synthesis of available information; to evaluate the importance, reliability, and usefulness of information; to remember details of a meeting or event without the benefit of notes.

  1. Initiative and Leadership

To recognize and assume responsibility for work that needs to be done; to persist in the completion of a task; to influence significantly a group’s activity, direction, or opinion; to motivate others to participate in the activity one is leading.

  1. Judgment

To discern what is appropriate, practical, and realistic in a given situation; to weigh relative merits of competing demands.

  1. Objectivity and Integrity

To be fair and honest; to avoid deceit, favoritism, and discrimination; to present issues frankly and fully, without injecting subjective bias; to work without letting personal bias prejudice actions.

  1. Oral Communication

To speak fluently in a concise, grammatically correct, organized, and persuasive manner; to convey nuances of meaning accurately; to use appropriate styles of communication to fit the audience and purpose.

  1. Planning and Organizing

To prioritize and order tasks effectively, to employ a systematic approach to achieving objectives, to make appropriate use of limited resources.

  1. Quantitative Analysis

To identify, compile, analyze, and draw correct conclusions from pertinent data; to recognize patterns or trends in numerical data; to perform simple mathematical operations.

  1. Resourcefulness

To formulate creative alternatives or solutions to problems; to show flexibility in response to unanticipated circumstances.

  1. Working with Others

To work effectively as a team player; to establish positive relationships and gain the confidence of others; to use humor as appropriate.

  1. Written Communication

To write concise, well organized, grammatically correct, effective and persuasive English in a limited amount of time.


Unlike most corporate roles, which require specialization to fit employees into predefined boxes on an org chart, the foreign service officer role is uber generalist. It requires versatility, breadth, resourcefulness, communication, and collaboration to drive results in ever-changing conditions. For example, implementing an economic development program in Albania versus Zimbabwe requires the same broad skill set and solution frameworks, but in a completely different socio-economic, political, and cultural environment. Foreign service officers must be familiar with almost everything to engage suitable experts and achieve desired outcomes.

Sanjiv took the foreign service officer exam in 2014, and as he conducted research for his new undertaking, he was incredulous to learn that the guidance for preparation was “no preparation.” Test takers are expected to have a working knowledge of U.S. and world history, geography, the U.S. constitution and government, economics, science, mathematics, statistics, computers, pop-culture, and literature, to name a few. And let’s not forget English reading, writing, and comprehension—an SAT déjà vu! A group exercise, panel interview, and case report follow if you can ace the test.

The group discussion requires building consensus across competing interests for the same resources. It is analogous to multiple product lines trying to secure a finite R&D budget, with each product team pitching why their product line is the best investment for the company, but with a caveat of eventually reaching consensus on which single product line to invest in. Alignment with the overarching organizational goals, leadership to act beyond parochial interests, influence without authority, composure to deal with conflicting proposals, verbal and non-verbal communication, and active listening skills are scored in real-time by a group of observers.

During the panel interview, interviewers ask situational questions based on the 13 dimensions. Responses are expected based on the well-known STAR (Situation, Task, Actions, Results) model, along with a clear articulation of the “Learning.” No answer is a wrong answer, as long as the STAR+L is clear, credible, and delivered with confidence.

The case report consists of analyzing a field situation and representing perspectives of many functional stakeholders with rationale and supporting data. The deliverable is a one-page recommendation with defensible arguments based on facts.

Although Sanjiv cleared two of three hurdles, he did not score high enough to get the “nod.” But the experience was priceless, as the 13 dimensions that make up the overall fabric of a foreign service officer’s work are highly relevant in a business environment. Leaders cannot lead in silos. Awareness and application of these dimensions can enable them to become more strategic and collaborative and to influence without limits. If these qualities are good enough to hire diplomats to represent a nation, they can certainly help you to hire and develop the right leaders for your companies—or get you to your dream role.

If this article has ignited interest in the Foreign Services, you can learn more at the State Department website.


Author Note: Thanks to Sanjiv Rastogi for sharing his foreign service officer experience and for his everlasting mentorship.






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