Life as an Office Management Specialist (OMS) – Five weeks in:
Let me start by saying that there have been few jobs in my life where every moment I was at work, I was actually earning my kibble, and I mean every moment, bathroom breaks and lunch aside, of course. Bartending on busy weekend nights; working at ski school during Christmas break; sale weekends at Mills Horse and Tack; the day shift in Everett PD Records and now here, Embassy Bogota. My previous job was more feast and famine, with busy times followed by days where we just kept the home fires burning and I had to dig up projects or work to do. But being an OMS at one of the largest embassies in the world is a whole different story.
I’ve taken the 12 Dimensions, the criteria upon which new Foreign Service Specialist applicants are judged, and have added my own definitions. First, the real ones: http://careers.state.gov/uploads/e6/a5/e6a522b90ed39f2b2bfd42e03947ecc3/12_dimensions_specialistOA.pdf
And now how these dimensions translate into real life:
1. Composure: The ability not to break into tears or hysterical nervous laughter when your co-worker or supervisor tells you that they’ve added a side trip to a remote city for that VIP visitor, “while he’s here,” and all the flight, hotel, motorpool and in-country travel clearances will need to be made. It’s 3:30 on Friday and he needs to leave on Monday morning. You then get three “out of office” replies to your go-to people in the travel section.
2. Cultural Adaptability: The ability not to feel like a total fool when you walk into a store and the shop folks greet you with phrases that you only recognize as greetings from their context, despite months of language training and countless hours of homework. Add to this, the ability to gracefully exit when you realize, after 15 minutes of browsing through the clothing racks, that this is a maternity store.
3. Experience and Motivation: It really helps if you WANT to feel out of sorts, uncomfortable and lost, at least for a little while. Either you’ve had this type of experience in the past – and liked it – or your motivation to serve the USG overrides the (hopefully) passing sense of “what have I done?” There should be some little corner of you that harbors an adrenaline junkie who can hit the ground running and thrive on things being not how you’re used to them.
4. Information Integration and Analysis: Being able to remember how to use eight different new programs for travel, time and attendance, personnel evaluations, supply ordering, high side, low side, combinations, passwords, swipe card codes, plus the usual Microsoft suite of office software.
5. Initiative and Leadership: Not ignoring/deleting that e-mail that says they’re looking for volunteers who are willing to give up their lunch hour for the next week to solicit donations in the embassy cafeteria for cause de jour that the Ambassador is standing behind.
6. Judgment: Even though you’ve been working all week on Big Project #1, when Bigger Project #2 is suddenly thrust upon you and it’s full of yucky details you’re uncertain how to do – knowing that it truly is the new priority and Big Project #1 will have to be back-burnered temporarily. Sprinkle in lots of easy tasks that you can complete in “just a second” to get them out of your inbox and continue to reshuffle the priority deck when Even Bigger Project #3 walks through the door. The ability to know whose requests need immediate attention, and what can stew a bit.
7. Objectivity and Integrity: Without these, you probably won’t get past the security clearance.
8. Oral Communication: You will be working with some really, really smart people. Being able to express yourself in complete, coherent and somewhat intelligent sentences will be necessary to gain respect from coworkers and colleagues you will meet while representing the US. Oh, and do this in a foreign language, too, please.
9. Planning and Organizing: This is my favorite dimension and perhaps one of the most important. Your email inbox will fill up every day with messages you’ve been copied on. You’ll need to discern: does this really apply to me now? What about tomorrow? Where will you find it in three weeks when someone says, “but I sent you a message with her phone number; can you find it for me? I need to call her NOW.” Remember that your email inbox has a strict size limit; you can’t keep it all. You’ll need to devise a system of sub-files for people, projects, miscellaneous, future stuff, might be important but I’m not sure stuff and then stuff you’ve deleted stuff. Same goes for the paper files, and remember that in two years – it will all have to make sense to the person who will take your place.
10. Resourcefulness: Oh boy is this one important. Fortunately, everyone realizes that we’re all new here and two or even three years in one place is barely enough time to become fluent in your work. Therefore you need to know who to turn to for what. This will usually be the locally engaged staff who are truly the skeleton of the embassy. Who is your friendly go-to for technical issues (like when the $#@#$ printer is doing “that thing” again!), or who in motorpool has a sense of humor when you have to cancel/change the van schedule one more time. Or who knows how to use that blasted new program that has been foisted upon you? How do you order (and design) business cards for the new officer? How do you get a cash advance for an invitational traveler? How do you procure interpretation services and equipment for a conference of 300 guests… by next week?
11. Working With Others: Can you be solution person, not problem person? Can you say, “sure – I’ll figure it out!” to the A-type coworker who has overextended his/herself… again? Can you avoid the temptations of office gossip? Can you be friendly at 0704 in the van to the embassy with that person who just drives you nuts? What if your supervisor is one of the infamous “screamers” who we’ve been warned still lurk front offices worldwide? Are you willing to make and bond with some really amazing new people, only to have to move on in two years?
12. Written Communication: So much of our work is done through email now; can you express yourself clearly, politely and succinctly without sounding brusque or rude? Can you figure out the necessary business pleasantries in your new country’s language? And finally, can you write a stellar self-evaluation for your annual review that demonstrates everything you’ve done from the above list so that you can perhaps be considered for tenure or promotion? So that you’ll have more responsibility and more things to do at your next post….
Now, do all the above in a new country, time zone, climate, language, culture, food supply, sometimes with or without family support. I recommend the following exercise: run full speed towards a target about 100 yards away. At 96 yards, a whistle will blow and you’ll have to stop, turn and run as fast as you can the other direction. Then, after only 25 yards, there’s that whistle again and you stop, turn and run a third direction still not knowing if you’ll ever know the relief and relish of reaching a finish line and a job well done. Lather, rinse, repeat. This job is not for the faint of heart and the USG is certainly getting their money’s worth!