Don't Take It Personally

Such a glib, seemingly unfeeling phrase! It is easy to offer this advice as long as you are not the person who didn't get the second interview or the job that seemed like such a good fit. Yet this trite admonition— "don't take it personally"—has merit.

When I served as director of a relatively large staff at IIE and frequently hired new staff members, and later at NCIV, I often passed over job applicants who were capable people with impressive qualifications. In my experience, for each job opening there are a number of candidates who can do the job. Managers building a team of people with complementary expertise look for someone who not only can do the job but also whose background builds the strength of the staff as a whole. Please keep this in mind as you cope with the inevitable rejections an extensive job search entails.

What Do Employers Value?

We are often asked what it takes to succeed in the fields of international education, exchange, and development. What do employers value? In addition to professionalism, most employers seek these qualifications:


Most jobs have a minimum requirement. In some cases, an advanced degree may propel your resume to the shortlist. In other situations, "on the ground" experience will make hiring you more likely. Nonetheless, I encourage young colleagues to get the maximum amount of formal education that time, finances, and geography permit. It will never be cheaper. It will never be more convenient. Options such as American University's School of International Service Master of Arts in International Relations online program, which includes limited sessions on campus, are becoming increasingly popular.

The key question about earning a graduate degree is the same one you ask about any job: will it be rewarding to spend your time taking the prescribed courses and fulfilling other requirements? You want to earn an advanced degree because the learning involved excites you— not merely to acquire another credential.

What about a PhD? Clearly, if you want a career teaching on a college campus, it is a prerequisite. And it can be helpful in other roles where you deal with colleagues who hold doctorates. As a practitioner, technically I did not need the degree, but I am convinced that it often gives you more options and, in certain cases, gives you a leg up in the hiring process. One thing I didn't think too much about years ago in grad school was the fact that a PhD would enable me to serve as an adjunct professor in the 1980s and to again engage in that satisfying work in this encore chapter of my career.

Another factor to consider is that the alumni of your graduate school will likely be the core of your professional network. As a graduate of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (and a member of the "Fletcher family," or "Fletcher mafia"), that tie has been important. Fletcher alumni have made special efforts to help me. (Ambassador Walter Cutler, who served as chair of the NCIV Advisory Council, is a Fletcher alumnus, and we often referred to our Fletcher connection while working together.) In turn, when a Fletcher alum asks me for a favor, I'm inclined to oblige because we share that common bond.


The ability to express oneself clearly and crisply in writing is fundamental. Many jobs involve writing grant proposals. All require communicating with stakeholders. As we are ever more inundated with messages from many sources, those who can draft messages concisely using attractive language have an advantage.

The ability to communicate well orally continues to be prized. Despite the electronics at our disposal, the skills to speak in public and to convey your ideas with compelling stories is sought after. Whether in a room of 500 people, via webinar or Skype, or around a conference table, those who are most articulate usually carry the day.

Finally, the listening dimension of communication is vital. Again, in our information-saturated workplace, the ability to distill the salient from the superfluous is essential. So many of the jobs in these fields involve building relationships. Productive relationships are always predicated on reciprocity. One small example: your thank-you letter for an interview will have greater impact if you recount several points the interviewer made. The thank you not only tells your prospective employer that you have good manners but it also demonstrates your important listening and writing skills.


This is probably the quality I value most in colleagues. The capacity to express genuine curiosity—authentic interest—in your colleagues from abroad and their cultures encourages cooperation. The relentless search for common ground undergirds fruitful collaboration. Those most effective in international careers have not lost their capacity for wonder.

Moving On

Knowing when to move on to the next chapter of your career is critically important. Too short a time in one position arouses suspicion and questions about your perseverance. Too long a time and your effectiveness has diminished. The exact time frames depend on the particular situation.

Sometimes leaving is prompted by the difficulty of working for a supervisor you do not respect, or by the belief that you can contribute more to your cause at a different organization. I remember my mom asking me why I left a senior position at one organization to become executive director for another while taking a $4,000 salary cut. I told her, "Mom, I'm not learning anything anymore." The challenge was gone.

That is what propels most of us to begin that job search. It was very difficult to leave my job as president of NCIV (after almost sixteen years), but I wanted to "finish strong." I wanted to leave the network I had come to love so much when people would be sad to see me go and not be wondering, "Is she ever going to leave?" No matter how good the fit, the time for the next chapter inexorably comes.

Discerning when it is time to make a change comes from pondering your career holistically. Ask yourself whether your cause, preferred tasks, and motivations have changed. As one colleague told us, if you look out the window and more often wish you would rather be out there than in here, it is time to make that move.

Work-Life Balance

When I presented some career seminars for the Foreign Policy Association, I was asked to comment on maintaining appropriate work-life balance. The trouble with the question is that the answer varies with one's personal preferences. Almost all of my adult life, I have been blessed to do work that totally engages me. My professional roles required hosting and participating in many events (including evenings and weekends). Wholeheartedly embracing my cause and building important relationships for my organization were enjoyable and, yes, time-consuming, activities. My professional life morphed into my social life. Some professional colleagues became lifelong friends.

For me the relevant questions have become: Are you spending enough time with family and friends? Are you exercising regularly? Are you getting enough sleep? No matter how much you love your work, you do it better when you take care of your health and interact with family and friends outside of the office.

Another related question I always pose when I conduct seminars on leadership for NGO executives is, "Do you have the discipline to disconnect?" Research increasingly shows that, much like accomplished athletes, we all need to rest and recharge. An instructive book on the subject is The Corporate Athlete: How to Achieve Maximal Performance in Business and in Life by Jack Groppel. I had the opportunity to discuss this issue with Jack. The research results he shared made me even more committed to my yoga practice and the healthful habits that are too often abandoned as 24/7 job pressures consume us.

A final bit of advice I often share, and try to follow myself, is: "Each day do something you don't have time for." If you wait until you actually "have time," you will miss some memorable moments.

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