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Hillary Clinton's Lessons in Executive Diplomacy


A host of memoirs by former Obama administration Cabinet chiefs have been arriving in bookstores, offering valuable management lessons for political appointees and career civil servants. This is the third in a series on the experiences of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (Stress Test), Defense Secretary Robert Gates (Duty), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Hard Choices), and Defense and intelligence chief Leon Panetta (Worthy Fights).

In Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton chronicles her four years as secretary of State under President Obama, in which she visited 112 countries and traveled nearly 1 million miles. Among insights for government leaders:

Building personal relationships. In Hard Choices, Clinton notes the value of her visits to numerous countries and the importance of developing relationships with foreign leaders. Both Hillary Clinton are well known for cultivating relationships. As secretary of State, Clinton continued to build on the relationships that she developed as first lady and as a New York senator earlier in her career.

Relations between nations are based on shared interests and values, but Clinton notes they are also about personal bonds. “The personal element matters more in international affairs than many would expect, for good or ill,” she writes. Clinton describes her relationship with China State Councilor Dai Bingaggo, for example. “Dai and I hit it off right away, we talked often over the years,” she writes. This rapport proved critical in negotiations over China’s position on a United Nation’s resolution involving sanctions on Iran.

Personal relationships also played a key role in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake in January 2012. Two days after the earthquake, Haiti’s President Rene Preval told the Clinton’s staff that the secretary was the only outsider he trusted. “I need Hillary,” Preval said. “I need her. And no one else.” Clinton reflects, “It was a reminder of how important personal relationships can be, even at the highest levels of diplomacy and government.” After their face-to-face meeting, Preval signed an agreement that gave temporary responsibility for the airport and ports to the U.S. military so planes could land and supplies could be distributed.

International diplomacy is not a typical responsibility of a government executive, but personal relationships are crucial in most agency business. It has been a constant theme during our interviews with Obama administration political executives during the past four years. One executive responsible for working with the business community said, “I spent a lot of time during my first year on the road building relationships. You need to build good relationships with corporate America. Building those relationships is crucial.” Others told us of the importance of their relationships with Congress, the White House, and the Office of Management and Budget.

Enlisting people outside the organization to accomplish the mission. During her four years as secretary, Clinton spent much of her time working with other federal departments, corporations, international organizations, foundations and nongovernmental organizations. The public often overestimates the extent of foreign aid and the size of the State Department, yet it is one of the smaller federal departments, employing just 20,000 public servants.Americans It is thus essential that the department leverage its limited resources. In 2009, the department created an Office of Global Partnerships, headed by a special representative for global partnerships, to serve as the entry point for collaboration between State and other organizations.

Hard Choices details numerous examples of such partnerships. Based on discussions with like-minded governments about what could be done about the risks of climate change and carbon emissions, Clinton took the lead in forming a public-private partnership consisting of governments, businesses, scientists and foundations. At an event in 2012, Clinton announced the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. Participants at the event included the environmental ministers from Bangladesh, Canada, Mexico and Sweden, the ambassador from Ghana, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator. By 2014, the coalition had signed on 37 country partners and 44 nonstate partners. Clinton writes, “The coalition is making important strides toward reducing methane emissions from oil and gas production and black carbon from diesel fumes and other sources.”

Another interesting partnership she formed addresses health problems caused by cooking over open fires and dirty stoves. Clinton notes it was important to “tackle this under-the-radar but deeply troubling and consequential challenge.” In 2012, she launched the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves with 19 founding partners from government, business, international, academic and philanthropic entities. Clinton writes, “The alliance decided to pursue a market-based approach to persuade companies to build clean, efficient and affordable stoves and fuels.” After leaving State, Clinton became honorary chairwoman of the alliance, which has started projects in Bangladesh, China, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, with planning under way for additional projects in India and Guatemala.

Looking ahead, it is likely federal agencies will need to develop more partnerships with other governments and organizations. The State Department’s initiatives under Clinton offer a model from which other agencies can learn.

Finding new ways to communicate. One of the most interesting chapters in Hard Choices is Clinton’s description of the 21st Century Statecraft agenda, which she calls “digital diplomacy in a networked world.” Like many government executives, Clinton sought to figure out the best way the department could communicate with its various audiences. The State’s audience is worldwide, but all government organizations face the challenge of effectively communicating with stakeholders. At State, the Bureau of Public Affairs created a digital division to amplify the department’s messages across a wide range of platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr and Google+. Clinton writes, “By 2013 more than 2.6 million Twitter users followed 301 official feeds in 11 languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Russian, Turkish and Urdu.” While most agencies don’t face the language challenge, the message from Clinton is clear: Government must find and use the most appropriate tools to connect with citizens and industry partners.

Having respect for career public servants. Like former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in Stress Test and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Duty, Clinton is highly complimentary of the public servants she worked with. Hard Choices is dedicated to “America’s diplomats and development experts, who represent our country and our values so well in places large and small, peaceful and perilous all over the world.” She movingly describes her farewell speech in the lobby of the State Department: “Filling the large lobby were so many people I had come to love and respect. I was glad they would continue serving the United States with intelligence, persistence and courage.”

Secretary of State is clearly a unique role, but there are lessons to be learned from Clinton’s experience that are applicable to executive positions across government.

Mark A. Abramson is president of the management consulting firm Leadership Inc., and Paul R. Lawrence is a principal in Ernst & Young LLP’s Government Practice. They are the authors of What Government Does: How Political Executives Manage.

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