I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for (or worry about) Summer 2022 bidding, which started in mid-September 2021 and lasted about six weeks. Shortening my tour in Ciudad Juárez by a year had propelled me into bidding the day before a solo road trip to see my mom in northern California for the first time in over two years. And bids would be due several weeks later during my dad’s upcoming visit, when we would be at a Mexican resort almost a four hour flight away. I hadn’t seen him for over two years either, so I wasn’t open to changing my leave plans, plans I had made many months before when things had been different. If anyone had told me then I would be bidding and leaving Post a year early, I’d have told them the chances of that were somewhere close to zero. Bidding this year was the last thing on my mind, in terms of vacation plans or anything else.
[This post is a companion piece to Fourth Tour Bidding, Part I.]
But that was the reality I found myself in come summer’s end. Working long hours and experiencing medical challenges complicated my ability to focus on daily life, let alone bidding. When I’d last bid in 2018 I’d been so on top of things. This time felt more by-the-seat-of-my-pants, although I did have a better idea of how mid-level bidding worked having done it once before. On balance, although the timing wasn’t ideal, many of my colleagues who bid while assisting the Afghanistan evacuation obviously had it awfully rough. Difficulty isn’t a zero sum game, but the awareness prompted me to take a deep breath and through a growing fog, gather my organizational skills. Embracing a willingness to let the chips fall where they may was essential this time around.
In 2018 when I bid mid-level for the first time, I only bid overseas consular assignments. Ultimately, although I had been assured throughout the bid cycle by the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) that I was competitive for the positions I was bidding on and that I had entered enough bids for them to work with, it ended up that those positions went to other bidders and on Handshake Day I didn’t get an assignment.
At the time I thought it was because my bids were 03 positions and I was an untenured 04 officer being forced, as all second tour officers are, to bid for their third tour against fourth and fifth tour 03-ranked officers who have been tenured and promoted already and have more in-cone experience. Second tour officers are considered at-grade to bid for 03 mid-level positions whether they have been promoted from 04 to 03 yet or not, and I always hear that it doesn’t matter, but in this type of organization I can hardly believe that. Particularly if you are bidding on small posts in highly-desirable EUR Bureau locations as I was, competition was tough.
Even though I’d been a consular manager twice and served out of cone due to the rare setup of my first two tour assignments, it would be understandable for CA to want to send a fourth or fifth tour officer with more experience to a post with only one or two consular officers. However, a lot of other issues not visible to bidders can come into play, like medical clearances, tandem bidder considerations, or a change in the incumbent’s TED aligning with a bidder who already has a language score on the record and can get there sooner. Suddenly the job you secretly set your heart on isn’t an option and you’re left wondering what you did wrong. The answer of course, is nothing.
Being suddenly asked by CA late in the bid cycle why I hadn’t bid out of cone also had come as a shock; although CA doesn’t know until midway through how many jobs vs. bidders they will have, because not every consular officer eligible to bid is going to bid consular jobs, and how qualified that pool of bidders will be, I had been clear that as a consular-coned second tour officer serving in an out of cone political assignment, my priority was to come back to consular work. It is, after all, why I joined the Department.
But it was dawning on me too late then that I didn’t have a backup plan in the event CA didn’t actually have a mid-level overseas consular job for me. I couldn’t very well launch into out of cone bidding and all its intricacies around lobbying and references at that stage, and as I stated I didn’t want to.
I quickly bid some domestic consular assignments I wasn’t thrilled about, not because of the work, but because of the financial prospects: FSOs are assigned housing for short-term and long-term training periods in the U.S., but are on our own for all expenses related to domestic assignments including housing. We hadn’t saved up money in Canberra planning to go back domestically for a third tour, especially given the lemon of a car we’d bought, the cost of living in Australia, and V’s six months of unemployment when we arrived thanks to then-Secretary Tillerson’s hiring freeze that prevented EFMs (eligible family members) from working at embassies worldwide at the same time V’s elder daughter started college at a private university.
And I wasn’t comfortable enough to wait months past Handshake Day waiting for a “Now” job to pop up. I watched a more senior officer in my section blow off bidding entirely and hedge her bets against her approaching departure from Canberra. Right before the Department would have assigned her a tour, a treat reserved for the entry-level or officers who can’t or won’t comply with bidding instructions, she called around some folks she knew in Washington and got herself a job that had come onto the bid list off-cycle. That was way too gangster for me at that point and after all, she was a political officer. That allowed her to operate in the realm of decentralized, free-wheeling decision-making as compared to CA’s more centralized process.
So the assignment to Ciudad Juárez which came in November 2018 during the second round of handshakes and included significant management responsibility and promotion potential reassured me that I had done well after all and was on the right track. But I hadn’t originally bid on Juárez or asked the Office of Medical Clearances to pre-clear it for me until CA prompted me to do so after Handshake Day, so it was a bit of a surprise.
Therefore this time, as I mentioned in my previous post, I decided to diversify my bidding strategy by bidding overseas and domestic consular assignments from the outset, as well as some overseas political assignments. Not only was I hedging against CA running out of 03 jobs, but serving out of cone again could have been advantageous and the political jobs were all located in a part of the world we’d like to get back to. Consular bidding would proceed along one track and timeline centralized in CA, and political bidding would be on a slightly accelerated timeline, and decentralized; decisions would be left up to posts as far as interviewing bidders and sending short lists to the relevant regional bureaus in Washington for deconflicting (if the same bidder appeared on more than one embassy’s short list) and decision-making.
I’m not going to specify which positions I bid on in which countries, but ultimately I entered 12 bids in nine overseas posts including Beirut, London, Skopje, Sarajevo, and Belgrade, and three domestic bids in the Washington, DC area. (This is roughly the same amount of bids I submitted in 2018 but with different cone and geographical compositions.) I bid the Balkans very hard (or areas with direct flights to the Balkans) because V’s family is there. Despite trying to get there three tours in a row already, it had never worked out and this was the most chances I’d had yet, bidding almost every consular and political job at my level I thought I was qualified for.
I did a fairly good job of laying out how I organized myself in my Third Tour Bidding, Part I post from just over three years ago, so I won’t repeat it all here.
Attempting to medically pre-clear overseas posts is mandatory for anyone lower than a Class 1, worldwide available medical clearance level. Ideally I should have started months earlier based on jobs I might bid in the Projected Vacancies. But again, no clue I would be bidding. The medical pre-clearance part of the process especially depends on so many people outside of your control – your doctors’ offices, the mail, a bunch of overworked Washington MED clerical types, overseas post Med units that quickly say yes or no to being able to support your condition without sometimes realizing the huge impact of a “no” on an officer’s life, or without taking 10 minutes to ask a couple questions that could solve whatever the minuscule misunderstanding or issue is, etc. – that it’s totally exasperating, especially when some new position is added to the list while bidding is already in progress. You can either take a risk and bid having no idea if you’re cleared or forego it because the wheels will never turn fast enough and you face breaking a handshake if the clearance doesn’t eventually come through.
Gathering references was another layer of difficulty because several of the people I wanted references from were transiting Kabul or PCSing generally, and because political bidding and consular bidding use two separate types of references, as well as two totally different platforms for collecting them. Because, the Department. So instead of bugging people to submit double work for me, I tapped double the number of people and just asked them to speak to either my political or consular work, although I did mix them slightly for interest.
What I did a better job with was my spreadsheet. As I did before, I made a row for each position I intended to bid on. I made columns for the position number, post, incumbent’s name and contact information, capsule description of the assignment, Transfer Eligibility Date (TED), number of bidders (which I had to keep updating and only reflected the number of formal bids entered), other POCs to whom I had expressed interest or sent lobbying emails to, language requirements, and a column for notes on the length of tour and percentage of equity, and benefits like R&Rs, cost of living allowance, hardship pay, differential, consumables, whether the post has furnished housing, and so on.
I also had a column where I noted my last contact with a post, any action items or next steps for me, whether I’d been interviewed and when, and when I’d followed up to express thanks, and if I had completed all the steps to apply for the position, whether it was submitting a Statement of Interest, uploading documents in the Community Lobbying Center, whether I was waiting for a reference to get in touch, needed to amend a resume, or wait for more information.
Corralling all this information into a spreadsheet for me is essential. I cannot imagine managing bidding as an inbox exercise: something would certainly fall through the cracks, and likely many somethings. There are just too many details and actions that you as a bidder are responsible for, and all while working in your full-time job. Dropping the ball on either side isn’t the way to do well in your current work or get your next assignment. I did not want to be that person who reaches out to one point of contact about another post’s job.
Because I had already written Statements of Interest for pretty much each bid, it wasn’t too difficult to prepare if I was asked to interview, which I did around nine times this bid season.
To prepare for political interviews, I read some of the incumbent’s recent reporting cables, recent news in the host country, and skimmed the post’s Integrated Country Strategy. I re-read all my own EERs (performance appraisals) and made notes about my best accomplishments relevant to the job. I went back to the capsule description and through all the email correspondence with the incumbent regarding the job, looking carefully for clues about what the post was looking for in terms of the successful bidder’s skills and abilities.
I then tried to frame my accomplishments to fit questions they would probably ask to demonstrate I could do the job. I scoured some random HR examples of job interview questions and tried to imagine how I might answer them. I looked up the social media profiles of the interviewers and incumbents to see if we knew anyone in common and from where/when. And then I triple-checked the time zones and tested my technology in advance to make sure I wouldn’t miss the interview or have any challenges connecting. As I ended up doing several of the interviews during my annual leave, including while we were at the Mexican resort, this was essential.
For consular interviews I took a bit milder of an approach, because the subject matter is closer to my current work and required less intensive familiarization, but I still prepared seriously and particularly when the position was a higher-level position. I made lists of things to highlight relevant to each position and thought a lot about how to answer tricky leadership and management questions. For the domestic consular positions, I researched the office’s position within a directorate and CA and tried to understand its role and function within the broader organization.
I’ve said it before – the lobbying aspect of bidding makes me uncomfortable because I don’t like asking people to do things for me. I also like the idea of being able to get a job on my own without anyone else needing to “intervene” on my behalf. But that evidently isn’t really the way the system works. There is something about navigating the murkiness of it, and lacking clarity about whether you are doing things correctly or to what effect that makes me feel tired.
I can understand how especially well-placed individuals who know you and your work well and who are proximal to decision-makers could have an impact on a handshake decision. Particularly when a decision-maker has a choice between a couple of bidders, and one bidder has a stellar reference from someone the decision-maker trusts. But just sending lobbying emails to the desk officers, to CA, to others in bureaus to let them know how much you think you could offer a role doesn’t have a clear impact as far as I can tell, even if you focus all your attention on why you are a great choice for the role rather than the role being a great choice for you.
And writing emails to all your former DCMs and ambassadors to ask them to serve as references for you is great if they aren’t too busy and would be willing. But even then it isn’t clear to me what effect their actual “lobbying” has on decision-makers. Is it the quantity of heavy-hitters in the aggregate? The quality of what they say or their reputation? The frequency with which they reach out? The susceptibility of the decision-maker to being reached? The amount of other bidders on the assignment? This isn’t really an area I can coach anyone on but rather something I am still exploring myself. Probably like everything else, it depends!
One thing is clear, however: to succeed at higher levels, and for competitive bids, you need people on your side. I lobbied for myself a lot this cycle, and reached out to three principal-officer level people for assistance, all of whom were positive about my candidacies and two of whom were able to follow up on a lobby or reference request for me. The third probably also would have been willing, but was preparing to depart Post and noted the position was non-consultative anyway.
Something very important to consider when assembling your bid list is what you really want and are willing to do. There is no such thing as a “throwaway bid.” Anything you put on your bid list may come to you, first as a Bureau Leading Candidate (BLC) email, sometimes called an “air kiss,” and potentially as an assignment. If you are the BLC for a job, it means you will receive a handshake for that job come Handshake Day. If that bid is no longer valid for you or there is an issue when you find out you’re the BLC, it’s time to say something right away. If you’re bidding in more than one cone (i.e. consular and political as I was, or even within a non-consular cone but amongst several bureaus) you could potentially get multiple BLCs. CA deconflicts its BLCs and does not compete against itself, but regional and functional bureaus throughout the Department do not. So it’s on the bidder to decide what to do, and let the others know.
Along those same lines, for consular officers whose bidding is centralized in CA, if you are really set on going overseas, you can do what I did during third tour bidding and only bid overseas tours. However, be aware that if it doesn’t work out for any of the jobs you bid, you might be scrambling on what’s “left over;” once handshakes start being accepted, the bid list will reshuffle. Somewhere, someone will curtail, break an assignment they can’t go to, and new jobs will appear. The bid list appears cyclical, but it’s actually alive and dynamic. And if returning to the United States for a domestic assignment is a non-starter for you, don’t throw some domestic jobs on your bid list, and especially ones that are low-bid.
Does CA care about consular bidders’ career trajectories and preferences? Do they care that your child is dying to go to school in Paris, or that spousal employment opportunities are best in a country where your spouse’s mother tongue is available, or that you really think your next career step is a job doing x, where you imagine you will be happy and fulfilled and all the things?
Probably, to some extent. But you know what CA cares about more? Filling their empty positions, putting together well-balanced teams, and developing officers according to how they see your developmental needs based on your background and references. This is part of the Needs of the Service. So you may be willing to go to a low-bid position in Beirut, but if CA wants you in a low-bid position in Washington, and both are on your bid list, guess where you’re more than likely going? And that goes for you putting Beirut first and Washington last and lobbying CA all you want. They’re done with you and moving on to the next bidder. Similar to the native Japanese and Russian speakers in my A-100 class who did not want the “NOW” language designated jobs on our bid list, because their hearts were set on new-to-them and exciting parts of the world, Flag Day came and they got… those jobs. Needs of the Service. (I’d like to note that one resigned from the Foreign Service within three years, which was a loss for the FS.)
So, before we headed off to Playa del Carmen I early-submitted my bids in the system and tried to forget about it. I didn’t bring my laptop and fob to the Iberostar so I could stalk the bid list and see if anything new popped up to start the whole process over again – inquiring, gathering information, selling myself, responding to late information requests, lobbying, entering a bid. Whatever was done was done. I was happy to do the interviews I’d already committed to, see if I ended up on any short lists or received any BLC emails after bids closed, and then settle in to let the chips fall where they may for Handshake Day on November 1.