Lukas Püttmann    About    Research    Blog

Learning to work in hierarchies

Samantha Powers is the former US Ambassador to the UN under Obama, a Harvard professor and a former war journalist reporting from 90s Bosnia. In her recent memoir, “The Education of an Idealist”, she describes her upbringing in Dublin with an alcoholic father, migrating to the US and her path through journalism, academia and government.

I like her explanation of the different modes of working in journalism/academia vs. government.

Mode 1

In her early twenties, Powers worked as a journalist in wartime Bosnia. She reported from Sarajevo while it was under siege and published many articles in large newspapers and magazines. She learned to write in an engaging way which helped her later, when she became an ambassador to bring the stories of individuals to her official UN meetings, to make other diplomates relate to them and their suffering.

She enjoyed her independence, the travel and the attention and status from seeing her name published in the New York Times or the Washington Post.

But she missed the opportunity of shaping events herself. When she interviewed politicians, she would often think: “I would rather be on the other side of the table.”

So she decided to join law school:

Jonathan Moore, the former US diplomat and refugee expert I met working at Carnegie, had become someone I turned to at critical moments. With school beginning at the start of September, I needed to make a final decision, so I telephoned him and asked what I should do. Jonathan didn’t hesitate. “Get the hell out of there,” he urged me. “You need to break out of the compulsion for power, glory, ego, relevance, contribution. Get out. Get out before it gets you, and you forget what got you in.” I didn’t think self-consciously about power, glory, and ego, but Jonathan knew I didn’t mind seeing my name in print.

After her graduate studies, she became a professor of human rights law at Harvard Kennedy School. At the same time, she published “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide”, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize.

Mode 2

Powers learned about Obama, the new Senator from Illinois, from his DNC speech, reached out to him through friends and joined his team. She entered his administration to work at the National Security Council in a role focused on managing contacts with the UN and keeping an eye on human rights issues.

But she was frustrated that colleagues would not listen to her, that she could not travel as she liked and that her initiatives would come to nothing. She felt like she wasted her time when she and her colleagues would spend a long time marking up each other’s word documents. She needed to learn the vocabulary, such as that stepping over a level in the hierarchy was a “process foul”.

Time also became more precious:

The aspect of government that I had least appreciated before I joined was the importance—and shortage—of “bandwidth.” So much was going on in the world on any given day that one could easily lose an afternoon editing language in various press releases. Mort, my longtime mentor, urged me to prioritize, helping me understand my days as analogous to my mother’s when she worked in the emergency room.

Suddenly she was in the group making the decisions:

[A mentor] often dispensed wisdom on how government worked, and told me I should not have waited until a high-level meeting had ended to make my point. “Listen,” he said firmly. “If you hear nothing else, hear this. You work at the White House. There is no other room where a bunch of really smart people of sound judgment are getting together and figuring out what to do. It will be the scariest moment of your life when you fully internalize this: There is no other meeting. You’re in the meeting. You are the meeting. If you have a concern, raise it.”

In her words, she “did not yet have the relationships, the clout, or the mastery of bureaucratic processes [she] needed to maximize [her] impact.”

Putting it together

It took her some time and the advice from more experienced colleagues such as Susan Rice to get up to speed and learn to deal with her frustations.

To become effective, she used three strategies:

  • Keep an eye on the big picture: Don’t forget the long run even though short-run attention is crowded out.
  • Build a network: She created a weekly “Wine & Cheese” women group to share stories and get advice. And she also played basketball which helped her to get to know the male colleagues in the White House better.
  • Work on smaller projects: These don’t get top leadership attention and are easier to have an impact on.

I enjoyed reading her story and can relate to it. Working in hierarchies is something you have to learn. I found life as a researcher more free, less structured and more bottom-up. I was expected to search for my own research ideas and I could collaborate freely.

It’s quite different for me as a consultant. Our teams work embedded at the client in large hierarchies, so there are more stakeholder to inform and align with. The target audience usually has limited “bandwith”, as your project is only one of many that concerns them. That’s why it’s important to understand the process and to be concise and accurate in your communication.

While the first mode of working is more conducive for being creative, I now realize I could sometimes have been more effective in academia using some simple strategies. A simple, “end of month” email with what I did the last month and what I planned to do in the next would have gone a long way of keeping my supervisors in the loop, even when we couldn’t meet face to face. It would have provided them with an earlier opportunity to provide guidance, voice concerns or to keep me from starting down some rabbit whole.

In other areas, I think researchers use the same tools successfully already. Most writing guides for papers or presentations already advise to be “top down” - to give the message first and the details later.

In the end, the two modes of working are very different, but I think it’s insightful to change the between the two.