By Isaac D. Pacheco
Last year, President Donald Trump tapped former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Mike Pompeo to serve as the nation’s 70th secretary of state. A seasoned government leader, having served as a member of the House of Representatives from Kansas’ 4th District, and as a U.S. Army cavalry officer, Pompeo has brought a wealth of experience to the Department of State and has worked tirelessly across political, ideological and geographic divides to enhance the Department’s capabilities and ensure that it is appropriately staffed to accomplish its mission.
In April, Pompeo unveiled a new professional Ethos statement that reinforces the Department’s vital role in advancing U.S. foreign policy and promoting diplomatic solutions to challenging issues around the globe. Since his appointment, a renewed emphasis on employee engagement and increased recognition of eligible family member contributions to the workforce have bolstered Pompeo’s frequent assertions that the Department’s people are its most important asset.
Pompeo sat down with State Magazine shortly after his first anniversary to reflect on his tenure thus far and to share his vision for the Department moving forward. He commended the men and women who make up the Department’s workforce for the amazing work they do and emphasized the critical importance of diplomacy in an era of increasing global interconnectedness.
ISAAC D. PACHECO: Thank you, Secretary Pompeo, for taking the time to chat with State Magazine a little bit about what you’ve done here in your first year as Secretary of State, as well as your vision for the Department moving forward.
I wanted to start by asking what accomplishment, either diplomatic or administrative, are you most proud of thus far, and what priorities do you have for the Department looking into the future?
SECRETARY OF STATE POMPEO: First of all, thanks for the opportunity to be with you. This is an important State Department institution. I’m glad to be able to be a small part of it now one year on in my time as Secretary of State.
It’s hard to say what the accomplishment is over this past year that I’m most proud of. We’ve done so many things that are so spectacular and important for the American people.
I like to believe that what we’ve done in this year has gotten the team back engaged and we’ve put American diplomacy back out in front as the first among equals in a national security sphere for the United States of America. That’s the right place. Diplomacy should always be in front. It should always be in the lead. We should be driving that policy not following what someone else is doing, and I think we’ve done that. And the team has been spectacular. They’ve done everything that I could have possibly asked of them to help me achieve that.
PACHECO: What has been one of the most challenging administrative tasks inside the Department that you faced in trying to re-establish that sense of purpose and mission?
POMPEO: There are really two. First, we had a huge bottleneck of getting our senior leaders onboard—our ambassadors, all the senior leaders—getting them into the process and then getting them confirmed. We’re still not all the way through that, but we applied a lot of effort to that at the front end, and it has yielded really great results.
The second piece, I guess, is that I came in when there had been a hiring freeze, that we weren’t hiring spouses, family members, and it was critical. We needed to get those both ginned back up. We needed to have all of our team back on the field. We needed to have recruiting classes of the right size and training at the right scale, and we needed to take those amazing human beings that are State Department family members and get them back engaged in that process as well, and we’ve done that. It took a little while to get the ball rolling there. I wish it had been weeks. It was several months. But once we did that, I think we’ve seen the increase in output and capacity of our organization.
PACHECO: People from all walks of life come to work here. What is the Department doing to ensure that we’re an inclusive organization where everyone has the opportunity to reach their highest potential?
POMPEO: A couple of thoughts: First, it’s an imperative that senior leaders set the culture right on that. That we make sure that every team member, whether they’re a Foreign Service Office, or a Civil Servant, or part of our locally-employed teams in the field, understands that you will treat every human being with the dignity and respect they deserve by the nature of their humanness. And so I’ve said that from the moment I walked in the building on C Street the first day, and I say it in every gathering that I have. We have to do that. The team has to do that. The leadership must lead on that issue, but everyone who comes through here must understand it is one team, one mission.
And the second thing we’ve tried to do is set a professional standard of excellence that isn’t unique to any one group. It’s not unique to Western Hem. It’s not unique to our cyber folks. It’s not unique to Foreign Service Officers. We did this with something that we’ve called the Ethos that we’ve put forward, which says these are the characteristics of people who will be part of America’s diplomatic corps, the team that is out delivering on behalf of the United States of America. So if you work with USAID, or you work in another part of our organization, this is the standard to which you should aspire. It has both the personal character standard and an organizational set of understandings, and we hope that that will become something that’s foundational and part of the DNA of everyone who works here at the State Department.
PACHECO: As you’re doing right now, you’ve made it a point to communicate openly, frequently and honestly with the Department workforce. Why is this so important to you and what type of results are you seeing from this outreach?
POMPEO: This is the fifth or sixth organization I’ve had the privilege to lead. I had a tank platoon and ran a couple of small businesses, and then I was the director of the CIA, and now this. Not one of those organizations can possibly thrive without understanding the commander’s intent. What is it that the senior leadership wants them to do? What’s the mission? What are the parameters by which we’re going to execute that mission? And so that’s why I spend a lot of time. I do gatherings called “Meet with Mike,” where we invite 60 or 70 people randomly who are the first ones to sign up and just take every question they can throw at me. I want to talk with them. I want to hear from them about the things that they’re experiencing that, boy, if I stayed locked up in my office on the Seventh Floor I would just never see.
When I travel, I never miss a chance to go to the embassy. I think I’ve done it nearly every time I’ve gone out. I get a chance to hear from people in all different walks of life and all different parts of the State Department. It’s valuable to me to learn, to hear what’s going on on the ground, but it’s also, I think, an imperative for the organization to hear from its leader the expectation set, the toolset, my confidence in them and the authority that I’m going to grant to them, as well as the fact that we’re going to hold each and every member of our team accountable to those standards.
PACHECO: It sounds like some good old fashioned shoe leather diplomacy there from the leadership level.
POMPEO: That’s right.
PACHECO: Which ties in perfectly to my next question, because I’m curious how diplomacy is evolving in an era where information spreads so rapidly online, where people from different cultures and backgrounds are able to instantly communicate across international borders.
POMPEO: Yeah, look, it’s both a challenge and an enormous opportunity. The challenge is there are lots of competing voices that are very low cost, so our adversaries, or even our allies, who have a slightly different take on a particular issue have the ability to reach quickly and broadly into the information space.
But by the same token, if we do this well, if we communicate well America’s values, our ideals, our expectations, what our interests are and talk about this in a way that will appeal to these different cultures in these different places, we have an enormous opportunity to advance our diplomatic cause. You see it in our public diplomacy today. You see it in the way we communicate inside our public affairs operation today, and I hope the world can see that we do this to project the reality of America as a force for good throughout the world.
PACHECO: Bringing it back to the people of the Department, which is at the core of a lot of what you’ve said recently, you promised last year to bring swagger back to the Department. I think a lot of the employees took that as a, hey, I’m gonna recognize the hard work that you all are doing and make sure that people know about it. One year later, does the Department have its swagger back?
POMPEO: I think we’re in a better place, and I say that—you’re a Marine—
POMPEO: It wasn’t that there was an absence of that. We just needed to shine a light on it, and we needed to make very clear that when you’re representing America around the world, you’re representing something unique and special and good, and we need to be proud of that and not hide it under a bushel. And we need to—it’s not about bragging, it’s not about claiming greatness, it’s about demonstrating excellence, and I think the world welcomes that and appreciates it. And I wanted to make sure everyone knew that they had a green light to do that in every activity that they engaged in to make the case for America’s values and its interest wherever they were, and to be proud of the fact that they had this incredible privilege to serve in the State Department for the United States of America.
PACHECO: During your recent town hall, you recently mentioned to the employees that they should take time every day to do something that brings joy to their life. What do you do to bring joy to your life?
POMPEO: A lot. One of the things I do is engage with the staff. It’s great to hole up and read and get educated and make sure you know the things you need to know. It brings joy to me when I get a chance to hug someone who did good work, or to slap someone on the back and say thank you for the good work that they did. That brings me personal joy.
As for outside the office, I … my wife Susan, I love spending time with, and she supports me in everything I do. I have a son, Nicholas, who’s 28 years old, and he will write me notes or give me a holler. Those things bring joy to me as well. And while I don’t talk and see Nicholas every day, I always find some moment where I can say, yup, that was good, that was fun.
No matter how bad things may have fallen on any particular day, when I head home at night, I can always reflect on something where I think I made a difference in that day and I know that our team did.
PACHECO: What have you learned from your interactions with both the Department’s employees, as well as with leaders around the world that you’ve had a chance to interact with that you’re going to take with you from this experience as you move on through life?
POMPEO: I had an enormous opportunity to come to learn the full breadth and scope of what the State Department does. As a member of Congress, I saw some of it. As the CIA director I saw even a little bit more. But now I get to see all of the tools that we bring to bear all across the world, and the good that we can deliver, whether it’s our Public Affairs team, or the Economic team, or the Consular Affairs team that takes care of American citizens who are traveling all across the world. I knew of them, I understood what their missions were, but I got a chance to see under the hood and hopefully make each one of those elements just a little bit better. But when I leave here, I will leave with the capacity to continue to pave forward all that good work and to talk to others around the world about all the remarkable things that the American State Department can deliver for the American people. It’s a remarkable workforce doing an important mission.
PACHECO: Finally, what’s the best part of your job?
POMPEO: You know, it’s hard to answer what the best piece is. I love every element of what it is that I’m doing. It’s not that I don’t have bad days—those are certainly the case. But I get a chance to work with this talented set of people. I get to work with allies across the world who are trying to help us achieve those outcomes. I work as part of a larger institution with the Department of Defense and with the intelligence community to help deliver for President Trump the outcomes that he has set forward as part of his policy set. Every day that I get to watch our team help be a critical part of that does, in fact, bring me great joy. It’s something that’s an enormous privilege and I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to serve. It’s now one year. I’m hoping I get to do it just a little while longer.
PACHECO: Well, it’s been a privilege for us to have this chance to chat with you. Thank you, again, for taking the time to meet with us.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you so much for your time.
PACHECO: Thank you so much, sir.
Isaac D. Pacheco is the editor-in-chief at State Magazine.