- - Thursday, March 22, 2018


Rex Tillerson was doomed from the start as secretary of State in attempting to transform the organization by making it leaner and more agile. Few would doubt that State badly needed some transformation to continue into the 21st century, but Mr. Tillerson chose the wrong model for reform and transformation. Mr. Tillerson’s designated successor, Mike Pompeo, would do well to consider some successful government transformational models that have worked.

Mr. Tillerson’s business model works in the private sector, but rarely in government. As a CEO charged with transforming a troubled business, a private sector leader has virtually unlimited power. Those who get in his way or are considered incompetent or incompatible with the new corporate vision are simply fired and replaced with people deemed capable of getting the job done. Things don’t work that way in government.

Government agencies, the Department of State included, work under some variation of Civil Service regulations that require workers found to be incompetent, insubordinate or non-performing to be documented and counseled before termination or demotion. Actually, the State Department has one advantage in that politically appointed ambassadors can be replaced immediately without cause. Mr. Tillerson took advantage of that loophole, but it didn’t save him.

Mr. Tillerson never gained the support of either his boss or his subordinates in trying to drive his vision home, and it is not clear that he shared whatever vision he had with either of these two key constituencies.

If Mr. Pompeo is smart — and he apparently is, having survived a year under President Trump as CIA director — he will get Mr. Trump’s buy-in for whatever vision that he has while assuring his subordinates in the organization that he supports its core values and will make any necessary changes within the traditions and culture of the institution.

One of the best things Mr. Pompeo could do is solicit the views of Gen. Al Gray, the 29th commandant of the Marine Corps. Gen. Gray is widely considered to be one of the most successful reformers in an organization that prides itself on a history of innovation while maintaining its core values.

Gen. Gray believed that the Marine Corps warfighting approach was too rooted in the attritional style of warfare that dominated American military thinking from the time of the Civil War, and he convinced his two immediate bosses — the secretaries of Defense and the Navy — that the more flexible philosophy of maneuver warfare would be a better fit as the nation approached the next century.

Having sold that approach to his bosses, Gen. Gray set out to sell it to the Marine Corps. Gen. Gray was a “Marine’s Marine” and he embodied the warrior ethos that the Corps embraces. His message was that Marines could fight smarter without incurring the appalling casualties of its legendary battles such as Tarawa and Iwo Jima without losing the traditions and culture that made the Corps unique.

In ensuring that his reforms were enacted, Gen. Gray practiced “management by walking around.” Whether it was the cafeteria at Marine Corps headquarters or a barracks on Okinawa, Marines learned not to be surprised by a punch in the arm by a little guy with four stars demanding to know what they had done for the Marine Corps today. Few Department of State employees ever saw or interacted with Mr. Tillerson even in the headquarters at Foggy Bottom. Gen. Gray’s real success is that most of his significant reforms remain in place three decades after he retired.

If Mr. Pompeo wants a civilian model, he could do worse than consult with James Lee Witt, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under President Clinton. Mr. Witt took an underperforming agency that had a bad reputation as a dumping ground for politically appointed hacks and transformed it into well-respected, client-oriented organization with a reputation for efficient response to fast-developing disasters. He did this by professionalizing the staff and reducing layers of bureaucracy while raising the morale of rank-and-file employees.

Few who have worked for the Department of State in the first decades of this century will doubt that the organization was ill-prepared for the millennium and badly in need of reform; it had too much tail-to-tooth, but most of us are still proud of the organization and want it to succeed. Mr. Pompeo has some excellent role models to draw on for advice and inspiration. Mr. Trump has undertaken some bold and risky diplomatic initiatives, and he will need a Department of State to successfully implement them if they are to succeed.

Gary Anderson in a retired Marine Corps colonel who served as State Department governance adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs

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