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My work has always been about relationships

December 8, 2009

“It’s time I sling the baskets off this overburdened horse. Sink me toes into the ground, and set a different course”. – Phish, from “The Horse

I learned something about myself last week. Something I essentially already knew deep down, but hadn’t had the opportunity to jam into my face for several days straight. Everything I do in media, everything I do period, comes from a relationship I have formed along the way. Relationships are at the root of everything.

This might not sound like much. Of course, you might say. Sure, of course. But it isn’t “of course”. You have to experience it first hand, perhaps through a social experiment, like I just conducted, in which one group of data points in your sample place relationships at the center, and one group of data points in which relationships are almost entirely removed.Last week, I had several interviews for work involving media in some way. Three of them involved speaking at length about my experience, open-ended, having an opportunity to tell a complete story, lay it all out there, and as the story unfolds, energy builds, whipping myself into a frenzy while at the same time trying to maintain a professional veneer. Why I joined the Peace Corps, why I worked for the National Coalition Against Censorship, why I got my Master of International Affairs degree at Columbia University, why I co-managed The Morningside Post, why I have been focusing a lot of my energy on new media since 2007, why I conducted research on media development in Africa, and what I plan to do with all of this. All the while playing off the energy and response of the interviewer(s). Always flowing as conversations do, like a pinball somewhat guided by its own inertia, somewhat by the redirection of objects in its path. But always approximating the path of natural human interaction.

I say all of this because I also took (but did not pass) the oral assessment to become a Foreign Service Officer last week. If you aren’t familiar with the process, which is nothing short of grueling, google “FSOT wiki” and start reading. This experience proved to be an important counterpoint, a B sample, for this experiment I only later realized I was conducting to better explain myself.

The nutshell version of the oral assessment is this:

First, you are involved in a group exercise in which you and 2-5 other people are given a big binder of information to sift through and summarize. Each of you has a unique project to fund, and you are given instructions that you are to determine as a group which one to fully fund, and what to do with the remaining money. You have 30 minutes to read through it and prepare a six minute presentation. Then, after the presentation, you have 20-25 minutes to come to a consensus with these other people, whom you’ve never worked with before, have no real prior relationship with, regarding a project that until a few minutes ago you were completely unfamiliar with, that is going to impact presumably the lives of millions of people for years to come and will cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, usually.

In the group exercise, you are being tested on your ability to work with others to come to consensus. In under a half an hour. And everyone’s nervous. And some people have come in here with a strategy, while others clearly haven’t really thought through why they are here exactly. I understand that this is not meant to truly be a real life situation, but just a standardized test to see how you react under these circumstances.

The problem for me is that I am someone who builds relationships, coalitions, support networks. I don’t go into a cold situation with strangers and wrap it in a nice package after a half hour. There’s legwork that goes into everything I do. Every project I have ever done has taken days, weeks, months of understanding the situation, the people involved, competing interests, and of gaining the trust of stakeholders. It’s a great model, in my opinion. This group exercise is not testing for that, thus negating an integral part of what I bring to the table.

Second, you have the case management test (or the structured interview, depending on the order they choose). Here, you are given a binder of information and 90 minutes to read through it, formulate a strategy to solve the problem, and write a compelling and well thought out memo with a summary of the situation and your recommended course of action. Of course, you are coming again into a cold situation, solving a problem you are completely unfamiliar with, which seems to generally involve scarce resources and human beings enmeshed in some kind of coworker conflict.

Again, I am faced with the reality that this is not how I operate. I don’t go into a situation of this level of complexity, and 90 minutes, have a memo in my hand in which I have worked everything out, on paper. It was awfully tempting to write, “Well, first I would try to build a relationship with these people who are quarreling, perhaps over the span of days, weeks, months, and then….” Based on what I’ve seen and heard, the FS isn’t looking for “get to know the people better before being thrust into a position in which you are their boss having to make the big call”. But here you are, with no prior relationship, having to set them all on the right course. That’s just not how I operate. Frankly, I think there is a danger of winning the battle and losing the war by doing long-term relationship damage for short-term gain. Unless this were the military, maybe, where it’s less about being human, and more about following orders, so you can give orders and people will likely go along.

Third, you have the structured interview, where you will be asked about your experience and motivation for joining the FS for twenty minutes, twenty minutes of being asked what you would do in hypothetical situations in the FS, and finally, you have to answer five questions out of ten explaining what you did in times in the past when you faced such and such a situation. This is the only time in the all the months leading up through this day that you ever speak face to face with a human being. And as this is happening, the two interviewers have been instructed that they are not to react to you in any way that would demonstrate any revelation of connection or human reaction. They just ask scripted questions, take notes, stare at you until it is time to ask the next question on their list.

Again, I don’t operate THIS way. When I speak to people, I engage them and try to understand them, I base what I say around how they are reacting, I focus on developing a rapport, I plant the seeds for a relationship. That’s not at all what is happening in the structured interview, at all. Any semblance of human connection is removed from the process (which makes me wonder if really they are testing for people who are unable to have true human connections, deliberately or unintentionally, which then makes me wonder if that is really the best recipe for diplomacy).

I am not faulting the FS for this approach. This is what they believe is the best way they have to find the type of person they are looking for. This is not at issue here. What is at issue here is what my experiment revealed.

I was sitting in the computer room with all the other candidates, waiting to be called one by one for our results, when I had an epiphany. I was in a conversation with a candidate, telling him about public expression issues in the former Soviet Union, and my experiences speaking with journalists in Nigeria to study extractive industry transparency. I stopped almost mid-sentence, and said to him, “You see, I wish I could have had a conversation like this in the structured interview, in which I could really lay out my ability to work with other cultures, build relationships, use judgment. Instead of just 2-3 minute soundbites that leave out a lot of the connective tissue”.

It was in this moment that I thought about my previous job interviews this past week, and how totally and completely alive I felt, building human connection, having the opportunity to truly be myself, narrate backstory and connect the dots, instead of being a character in a play about three people having a completely inhuman conversation. THESE are the kinds of interviews I want to have, the kinds of interactions with people I want to have.

Relationships are everything to what I do. I devote time to them well in advance of problems that will inevitably arise, and mitigate negative consequences through trust and understanding, so that we can work together to solve them, or better, ensure that we have minimized the possibility of trouble arising in the first place. Relationships are how I start a project, and along the way, see an opportunity to leverage a them into a previously unforeseen, but better, possibility to capitalize on that will expand the impact of the project. It all starts with relationships. And to be honest, I don’t know that I want to do anything that doesn’t depend on them in some way.

It’s not that I can’t connect with people who are stoic, distant, and initially untrusting/cautious. I spent two years in Ukraine conducting free expression projects, working in a whole population of people not unlike the FS interviewers, in the beginning. And, I interviewed numerous journalists in Nigeria, asking them to speak frankly with me about oil industry corruption and the commercial and political challenges they faced, conversations that could have gotten them in a lot of trouble. They didn’t know who I was, or whether or not they could trust me. But that didn’t stop the conversation from happening. I took steps along the way to build trust. I can clearly connect with people who have every reason not to trust me, or reveal any kind of information I could use, including emotion.

The irony here is that I was pursuing the track of Public Diplomacy Officer, which is described essentially as a position in which you are communicating with people from other countries, building understanding of American culture and policy, utilizing a wide range of media in this work. In other words, relationships. Yet, I feel like I was just run through a gauntlet designed to minimize any semblance of relationship building. At least, in the way I know how to build them.

The next day, after the assessment, I cleared my mind, at long last. It was the first time in months I didn’t feel like I had to kill or muffle something human inside of me. I could go back to doing what I was best at, building human relationships to strengthen projects. Happy to not have to watch what I say so closely. Totally alive.

Photo 1:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/izarbeltza/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

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