Today’s Challenge: Ambassadorial “Aha”‘s on Life, Labor and Love

You may recall that my first challenge (a pre-challenge, in fact) came from the audacious Eric Gertler, who suggested I write to the ambassadors in each country I was visiting… and to throw in a note to Aung San Suu Kyi while I was at it.

On Friday, I had the opportunity to spend an hour within the walls of the US Embassy with Julie Chung, the Counselor for Economic Affairs. She has a fascinating career that spans continents and disciplines and was kind enough to share her experiences and perspectives with a curious American traveler.

Diplomacy, at the end of to day, is all about relationships. From my conversation with Julie, I not only learned about fostering local alliances, empowering Iraqi widows and combatting sex trafficking, but uncovered some good relationship-building principles that can apply to policies, product development or personal matters.

Play, even though it’s serious. As we discussed key issues like trafficking, Julie shared with me some of the innovative techniques they’d used to overcome barriers with law enforcement. Instead of simply creating a mandate, the Embassy organized a football match, karaoke and dinner between local police and NGO’s. In a relaxed forum, they were able to get to know one another, understand each other’s issues and goals. This led to a new dialog and stronger, more sustainable relationships.

Working with corporations and attempting to align everyone from marketers to scientists to regulators, playfulness and laughter have been key in breaking through perceived barriers. I recall a tough ideas session where a group of us were at odds about whether an idea could work. I was sneaking a snack, dropped it in my lap and surreptitiously tried to shovel it into my mouth. A client caught my less-than-smooth move and promptly made a joke at my expense. We all burst into laughter, and for some reason that was the catalyst that broke the tension. Our differences were chopped by our chortling and the solutions started flowing.

Create an infinite loop. While the de facto perception of American policy may be one of imperialism, Julie shared with me models of how the Embassy works to empower Thai businesses and infrastructures, instead of just offering funds or frameworks that may not work in this environment or culture.

I’m a strong believer that it’s the people who make an idea, not the idea itself. Unless you inspire a team with the skill, stamina and structure to execute, a business is going to be short-lived, or worse yet, never live beyond a piece of paper. Same goes for relationships: unless each party is not only nurtured by but empowered by the other, it’s hard to build the right momentum for a healthy partnership.

Keep good company. Having traveled through four very different countries, I’ve been fascinated by what economic health means beyond the numbers. Similar to personal health, national wellness isn’t just about the number on the scale, but the methods that make the metric. Between India, Myanmar and Bhutan, I’ve gotten a glimpse into markets on crash diets and those adopting slow lifestyle changes, and continue to be curious about Myanmar’s development, given its girl-of-the-moment status in the international community.

When seeking investment, it can be easy to be blinded by a flash of cash and a sparkley smile and a bit harder to find intentions that gleam just as brightly as the exteriors. Having helped companies explore new partners (and having dated in New York City), I’ve learned that the company one keeps often says more than its actions and trappings. Check things out and choose wisely.

It was a rare treat to visit the Embassy and to spend time with such an inspiring leader. Thank you, Eric, for the excellent challenge, and Julie, for the brilliant conversation.


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