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  • Writer's pictureEileen Smith

Get more done by building on this proven set of rules

A former U.S. diplomat reveals her framework for getting things done at a personal and organizational level.


Are you tired of beating your head against a wall at work? Are you putting in the hours, yet you don’t feel like you’re accomplishing your goals in your organization? Over the course of my 20+ year career in diplomacy, I developed a set of rules on how to get things done. I learned these lessons the hard way and wrote them down, so you don’t have to. Building these rules into your approach can improve the success of your organization’s mission and increase the trajectory of your career. ESTABLISH CREDIBILITY In the military, the uniforms with all those medals and insignia come in handy. They’re wearing their résumé right on their clothes for everyone to see. For the rest of us, if you work in a large organization, you can’t assume everyone in a meeting knows your background. Tell them–in a non-braggy kind of way. For example, when you go around the table introducing yourself, don’t just state your title and office. Instead, you can say, “My office is responsible for sales and we’re proud to have already surpassed our goal for the year.”

LEAD WITH WHAT YOU KNOW If you’re in a meeting and someone asks you a question to which you don’t know the answer, you don’t need to blurt that out. Start talking first about what you’ve done about the situation and what you do know. You can point to information you have in a similar scenario. Then follow with what you need to do and what you need to find out. Explain the factors that complicate this issue, causing you to not know the answer. Tell people the next steps.

For example, you can say, “That topic is Jenny’s expertise. I’ll pass this question to her”; or, “The answer to that question is complex and we have a team analyzing the data.” If it’s something that you should know and just don’t, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” but only after you’ve demonstrated you’re on top of the situation. People don’t know what you do know unless you tell them. DON’T JUST ANSWER THE MAIL As tempting as it is to fire off a quick email and cross one more item off your list, some requests for information are opportunities to shape a situation. Can your response be more strategic? Ask yourself whether the response you want to give is the right level of detail for that level of recipient. Sometimes you can inadvertently open up a whole new can of worms that invites everyone further into the weeds.

Consider the perspective of the person making the request and structure your response to include the right content and the right level of detail to accomplish your goals. For example, if someone in HR asks how many workspaces your new office space will hold, they are likely not asking out of idle curiosity. Don’t just flip them the floorplan. Instead, start by explaining the overall goal the group will achieve, the reason for putting these people together in this location, and then number of people. You might even want to include your hybrid work plan—just so they know you’ve thought it through.

DRIVE THE OUTCOME YOU WANT When you’re preparing to tackle a complex problem in a big meeting, work all angles of the issue ahead of time so you’ll know what everyone will say. Talk to key people even if they aren’t reaching out to you. Understanding all the perspectives will help you recognize the options and lead with recommendations to make the tradeoffs necessary to solve the problem. In meetings, come prepared and have a perspective to share. Consider each meeting ahead of time as not just an item on your calendar, but an opportunity to lean in and contribute. Let people know you’re there to make a difference.

ALWAYS MAKE A RECOMMENDATION It’s frustrating to be the boss and have people drop problems in your lap all day. Next time you have to tell your boss about a problem, also recommend a solution. This not only helps you accomplish your goals, it makes you stand out as someone who’s ready to step up to the next level and take on more responsibility. If you’re working up a decision memo, you might want to include three options. This is an opportunity to write up each of them as objectively as you can, while making your preferred option sound like the smartest path.

I once led a large assessment of a major process for our organization. When I presented the options to my boss, who I knew thought the current approach was too cumbersome, I named the options; 1) The Smart Car, 2) The Pickup, and 3) The Mack Truck. Before he even heard the analysis, he said he wanted the Smart Car. Your boss may or may not take your recommendation, and that’s okay. Your job is to add value, not just report the news. FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE This is good advice for work and for life. No one’s perfect. Everyone does and says the wrong thing sometimes. Everyone also does and says the right thing sometimes. If you have a chronic problem with a colleague, address it privately. In public, find the effective things people have done and thank them publicly. If someone makes a good point in a conversation, say so. You can say, “Tom just made a really good point there.” Or, if you’re working on something in a team, recognize your colleagues’ contributions during your presentation. Not only is it the right thing to do, it builds loyalty and trust – which helps everyone succeed.

REVIEW YOUR WORK AS IF YOU WERE THE RECIPIENT When we’re experts in a topic, things become obvious to us that aren’t obvious to others. Before you pass along that memo or presentation, give it another review. Take a look at your written product from the perspective of your audience.

  • How much does this person know about the topic?

  • What questions might they have when they’re reading it?

Include those answers either in your document or in a cover note. This way the next person up the chain will know you’ve done your due diligence, you’ve asked the right questions and therefore, they don’t have to. They’ll know they’re in good hands with you. LOOK OUT FOR YOUR BOSS’S AND ORGANIZATION’S INTEREST Don’t let someone else cover their ass with your boss’s head. How many times have you heard them say, “Well, Rebecca said.” Did Rebecca really say that? Did you hear her say that? Is that what she meant?

One job I had at the State Department included improving our system to do security vetting for foreign guests we were bringing into the United States. My boss wanted it done faster and also better. She in no way wanted to let a terrorist into the country in the name of hurrying things up.

One day I was in a meeting where the head of an office doing security vetting said, well, we can’t do that because your boss wants us to go faster. No. If there’s a problem, fix the problem. Don’t let someone drop their ball and blame it on your boss who may not even know their name, and reputation, is being tossed around in this context. CORRECT MISCONCEPTIONS WHEN THEY HAPPEN If someone makes an incorrect assumption at work, it’s often easier to let it go. You might prefer to chalk it up to their dim understanding and go back to doing your job. However, leaving people with the wrong impression about your motivations reduces your power at work and thus, your ability to get things done.

In one job I had at the State Department, I was in the office that manages foreign assistance funds. An office director came to me and said they had a top level, urgent need for a large sum of money. I agreed their need was important and should be funded, but my boss wanted to hear this request from senior leadership, not just the working level. When I explained this, my colleagues said, oh, your boss wants to feel important. We aren’t big enough for him.

I told them no. It wasn’t about his ego. It was about his responsibility to make sure funds were available in case the Secretary of State had an urgent, unforeseen need. If he gave money to every person who had a good reason, there wouldn’t be anything left when the highest priorities came along. If their need was that important, it would meet this test. BE THE CALM There are stressful times in every organization. Maybe you’re preparing for a big presentation, there’s a deadline approaching, maybe you work in investing and the financial markets are on a sharp downturn, or something else that can raise the blood pressure at work. In stressful situations, people gravitate toward colleagues who look and act like they’ve got it under control. Even when the work is stressful, you don’t want to appear stressed by it. Acknowledge the problem—your head isn’t in the sand—but approach it with calm. Be the clear-eyed, capable person your boss and your clients can depend on to get things done when the stakes are high.

Eileen Smith is a former U.S. diplomat and founder of Spokesmith.

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