US Ambassador Robert Blake Jr speaks at Colombo MBA Alumni Association

Keynote Address to the Colombo MBA Alumni Association Conference 1 March 2007

Thank you for the invitation by the Colombo MBA Alumni Association to speak at this important conference. Members of the Colombo MBA Alumni Association are at the forefront of Sri Lanka’s economy so I am honored to have the opportunity to speak with you today.

Today’s topic, “Beyond Traditional Boundaries,” is especially appropriate as Sri Lanka seeks creative, non-traditional directions to a future of hope, security and prosperity.

It is a special pleasure to speak with you, the cream of the business community here. The business community here always has impressed me as vibrant, innovative, and optimistic. You therefore have a major role to play in helping lead your country toward a more secure and prosperous future. I will come back to that later.

I thought I would use today’s occasion to talk about management of organizations beyond traditional boundaries. All successful organizations share similar traits. Even the organization I work for, the U.S. Department of State, has had to become more like a business and break many of its traditional boundaries.

American diplomacy in the 21st century is still based on the same fundamental beliefs that have guided it for 200 years. Our mission remains to advance security, democracy, and prosperity for the benefit of the American people and the international community.

The world, however, is a vastly different place than it was even 20 years ago. It is smaller, more interconnected, with both traditional and new transnational challenges that threaten global prosperity and security.

Adapting to this changing environment, American diplomacy has broken out of its traditional mold and become more diverse, proactive, creative, and flexible to confront these challenges. It is this new face and attitude in American diplomacy in the 21st century that I would like to highlight today in our discussion of going beyond traditional boundaries.

One of the biggest ways we have changed is to run the State Department like a business. Under the leadership of President Bush, former Secretary Powell and Secretary Rice, every Embassy and every bureau in the State Department has a performance plan with goals and specific objectives we hope to achieve annually.

Every employee also has specific objectives for each year and receives a two-page written performance evaluation that determines promotions. Famously among US federal agencies, the State Department also has a unique up or out system. That is, those under performers who are not promoted within a certain period are asked to find new employment.

This system encourages leadership and pro-active diplomacy and is good for morale. You may be surprised to hear that the State Department is the highest-ranking Federal agency to be listed in Business Week’s 2006 list of “50 best places to launch a career”?

BusinessWeek Magazine conducted a poll that ranked the State Department sixth, just behind such firms as Disney, Goldman and Sachs, and Google. The State Department was also highly ranked as an ideal employer for undergraduate business majors. There are a number of reasons that figure into this account, but I think one of the most important is the State Department’s continuing effort to diversify its workforce.

Today, American diplomacy is no longer a white man in a pin-stripe suit and leather briefcase meeting a government official in the ministry. (You will notice I was careful not to wear a pin stripe suit today!) Rather it is conflict resolution in a Bedouin tent while speaking Arabic and drinking bottomless cups of tea; sponsoring local students to tour the U.S. to learn best practices to implement back home; getting dusty building homes with an NGO like Habitat for Humanity from scratch materials; and developing public-private partnerships to link rural villagers to the world wide web.

Indeed diplomacy these days is about people-to-people relations, partnerships between individuals, governments, NGOs, educational institutions, and so forth. So the State Department itself is about people most of all. Unlike our brethren in the Pentagon, we don’t have sophisticated machines and weapons. We also don’t have the Pentagon’s financial resources. The budget for any one of the Pentagon’s hundreds of procurement programs far exceeds our tiny budget.

But what we do have is people, some of the very best people in America who are not only the face of America but also reflect the great diversity of our country.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and current Secretary Condoleeza Rice, both of whom are African-American, have made diversity a top priority. Secretary Rice said, “the signal sent to the rest of the world is that America is represented by people of all cultures, races and religions. Diversity is a great advantage to each and every one of us, and an important affirmation throughout the world that multi-ethnic democracy can work.”

To recruit the best and brightest from all backgrounds, geographic regions, academic majors, and ethnic groups, the State Department participates in diversity fairs; it offers a graduate foreign affairs fellowship program aimed at women and minority students; and it partners with employee organizations such as the Asian Pacific American Foreign Affairs Council, Blacks In Government; Disability in Foreign Affairs Agencies, to name a few.

Diversity is more than a matter of social justice. It also makes good business sense. Diversity encourages a wide range of perspectives, increasing creativity, ideas, and solutions. The new, more diverse generation of American diplomats is culturally aware, adaptable, well-rounded, and agile. They are problem solvers who can effectively reach out to people in pursuit of American interests.

Before coming to Sri Lanka, I served in India from 2003 to 2006, half of that time as acting ambassador. I supervised 1800 employees among our four different consulates. One of our most important tasks was public outreach to the billion plus people of India, half of whom were below 25 years old.

To accomplish this task, I had a staff of dedicated, diverse, and energetic young diplomats that I sent all around India, discussing American policies at universities and secondary schools, doing radio interviews and web chats, and hosting American cultural performances.

What made this diplomacy extraordinary was that many of our officers were of Indian descent and were fluent in the local language or dialect. Not only did these young diplomats represent the face and voice of America, they also demonstrated our serious intent to forge a lasting and meaningful partnership with the Indian people and the pride we have for Americans of Indian origin in our public service.

The greatest challenge these young diplomats encountered was persuading a sometimes incredulous Indian public that these Hindi and Urdu speakers were truly American diplomats and not recruiters for Amitabh Bachan’s or Shah Rukh Khan’s latest “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” program or some other hoax!

Not only has the State Department become more diverse, it has become more adaptable. The best example of this is our growing use of the Internet in our diplomacy through web chats, blogs and virtual web sites. We have developed programs to enhance America’s presence through a medium that young people increasingly rely on for their information.

At the U.S. Embassy in India, we embraced this strategy. For example, we worked with American business to launch Internet connectivity to farmers and students living in remote villages. Internet kiosks enable Indian farmers to improve their livelihoods by accessing information on how best to grow and market their produce. Farmers can use the kiosks to check current market prices of their commodities, access data on markets around the country, and find information on local and global weather. No longer are they reliant on the state marketing boards, which did not really look out for the farmers’ interests.

I am equally excited about USAID’s Last Mile Initiative, launched here in Sri Lanka six months ago. This program will increase productivity and provide new opportunities for farmers, small businesses, and other organizations in rural areas that do not currently have access to the web. We plan to create 25 internet and communications centers, with the first few centers to be opened in April. As of today, private firms have matched one-for-one the $380,000 investment made by USAID. Wimax and other connectivity technologies have been selected, and content for the centers to teach English language, agricultural practices, computer use, and small business skills has been identified.

So, the State Department’s growing diversity and adaptability are enabling it to practice a new kind of diplomacy for the 21st century. I think the same has to be true for business here in Sri Lanka. Here are a couple of examples:

* Today’s businessperson in Sri Lanka has to think 360 degrees. Of course you have to constantly adapt to whatever your market is. But you also need to think out of the box and shape the market. Think of Steve Jobs who invented the I-Pod, a revolutionary new product that is now changing the music and telephone and other businesses.

* Like the State Department, the best companies today must also take care of their employees or risk losing them to your competitors. Continuous professional training, child care, on-site medical care and sports facilities not only enhance employee morale but also enhance productivity.

* Today’s modern company must also be a strong corporate citizen. Whether it is contributing to tsunami reconstruction, building an orphanage, or helping an NGO to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS, corporate social responsibility helps brand a company as one that cares about its customers and its community.

* Lastly, you, the business community must take an active role to shape the policy environment in which you operate. That means not just working with Government regulators to reduce bureaucratic constraints on business. It means helping the Government to think ahead about what educational and training policies it must put in place now so young Sri Lankans ten years from now will have the right kind of education and training to compete in the business environment then.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the business community needs to raise awareness about the benefits of peace. Like the United States, your multiethnic, multilingual society is an advantage, not a liability. Your ability to adapt to years of conflict has been impressive, but now it is time to adapt for peace.

To quote Jayantha Dhanapala, one of Sri Lanka’s most distinguished diplomats, “peace is good business.” I don’t need to tell you how your economy has been held back by war. You know that the cost of the conflict has been to sacrifice 2-3 % of annual GDP growth.

But peace will have benefits that reach far beyond the economic dividend.

* A sustainable peace will provide the climate for the Government and its NGO partners to resettle the more than 500,000 Sri Lankans displaced by conflict, more than 2% of your population.

* And a sustainable peace will do more than anything else to end the killings, abductions and other human rights abuses that have plagued Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has a unique and historic opportunity for peace. The current ruling SLFP party effort to develop with the All Party Representative Committee a serious power-sharing proposal is the best chance in many years to finally achieve a political solution. The President enjoys the support of the Prime Minister and a majority in Parliament and can count on the UNP to support the proposal providing it is credible and meets the needs of Sri Lanka’s Tamil and other communities.

I hope all of you and groups such as Sri Lanka First and the Business for Peace Alliance will actively encourage the President and other political leaders to seize this opportunity for peace. Now is the time for all of us to go beyond traditional boundaries for the most important purpose of all: the future of your beautiful country.

Thank you.

[Courtesy: US Embassy, Colombo]

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