Senior Leader Engagements: Keep Calm & Carry On

CJTF-HOA's Birthday GEN Fathi with MG Sattler

As an AFRICA OSC, you are guaranteed to experience at least one Senior Leader (SL) visit during your tour. For some offices, you may experience one a week or month.  These are called Senior Leader Engagements (SLE) and the size and workload required for these can be a few hours to several weeks.  The visit can be a fact-finding visit to determine partner nation issues, a new mission requirements analysis, a policy change analysis, or other reasons that are driving the requirement.

Ensure that you understand what is driving this engagement up front.  What is the task and purpose of the visit?  What is the SL hoping to get out of the visit, and what will the partner nation expect from the visit?  Are these two the same, or different?  Are there any roadblocks to the visit?  Can your office and the embassy handle the visit at the time they are requesting?  Are there any cultural hindrances to the visit, such as Ramadan?  What “Gotcha” is the SL walking into, and do we want them to, or not?

Ensure you understand who is driving this engagement upfront?  Did you ask for the SL to visit?  Does the SL’s staff agree?  Is it a Congressional or Staff Delegation on a multi-country tour?  What countries are before and after; and is there a theme to the overall visit?  Is it a multiagency visit, and other agencies are coming along because of the Very Very Important Person (VVIP) is attending?  Perhaps they are looking for face time with the VVIP, and your country is a secondary purpose for their trip?

Be clear to understand why they are coming to your country, who is driving the engagement, and what is expected out of the SLE.  There may be some nuances in those three areas that some staff members should know all three, and others should only know one or two.  Overall, pull out these themes and insert them into everything within the trip to include speeches, talking points, meeting engagement topics, deliverables, and gifts.

Lastly, what happens if the trip is turned off or delayed?  Make a schedule of when you should start delivering diplomatic notes, meeting topics, and pressuring your partner nation for information on meeting times.  You don’t want to waste too much capital with your interlocutors if the trip has not reached a confirmed status.  Pushing them for a lot of information only to have to turn around and say now the SL is not coming looks terrible and makes them think poorly of your office and the United States.

Be calm, be confident

Your office will see more of the details of the SLEs than the SLs and their staff will.  Finding the line between what is essential for them to know and what is not is vital to understand is key to their overall perspective of the visit. Complaining to the SL or his staff about all the work his visit is taking, or took, is not productive for your office.  You work in Africa; things are going to change, and maybe often.  Your whole schedule more than likely will not survive the first contact.  The plane will be late or early.  The SL will cancel the day before.  The partner nation will change the times of the meetings. Something may or may not have been coordinated, such as the VIP lounge.

Keep moving through the changes.  Keep your cool.  Your reaction should be: What do we need to do?  It should not be OMG the sky is falling!  Perhaps one meeting gets, and you roll with it, and give the SL executive time.  Take her back to the hotel to check email or prepare for the meeting she came here for, and take her staff to the local Africa market to buy some Africrap.  Keep the overall objective of the visit in mind and ask: How does this change affect that? If there is none, then roll with it Africa style, if there is then conduct an analysis of how to still accomplish the task, but maybe through a different meeting or visit another place.

You should always have the highest degree of confidence in the program and the schedule.  Don’t display weakness.  This isn’t their first rodeo or SLE.  If they see you floundering, they will take that back to whatever unit they came from.  If the SLE is from the Combatant Command and you flounder through the visit, your evaluation is at stake.  If they ask about something, and you don’t know, don’t say I don’t know, say, “Let me verify what I heard last night.”  Follow up with your staff about this question while moving from place A to B, or walk off to a corner and call them to verify the problem.  If there is an issue, think through a plan A and B.

Dealing with TBDs.  In Africa, almost everything is TBD until about 72 hours out.  This goes back to your schedule surviving the first contact.  I always had one engagement prepared to insert into a few hour gaps.  Be it a visit to a military unit or school displaying our security cooperation efforts, or perhaps something out of the military section that could give the SL more perspective on the region.  Something like a visit to a regional development bank, a regional maritime center, etc.  Something low key, but easy to arrange within 24 hours.

Be good to your colleagues

When the SLE is over and has left, you have to return to doing your daily work.  How you act and deal with your embassy colleagues before, during, and after the SLE will affect your future relationship with them.  If they went out of their way to help you, put them in for a yearly embassy award.  Thank them during country team to let their boss know what kind of job they are doing and their ability to work within the interagency world.  Think about how much the embassy staff helped you with your SLE when they have one they could probably use an extra staff member or two, volunteer to help.  Be prepared to offer your staff, or yourself, to assist in an SLE that has nothing to do or will not help your mission at all.  A bit of selfless-service goes a long way when you need to change things at the last minute, or when your SL has a one on one with your Commanders.  If you are an ass to people, people will be an ass to you, and they will tell everyone else about you.  One team / one fight on the Country Team.

Confusion: ways to eliminate it

Too many times, I’ve read scene setters and thought – Is this too long?  Will they read this?  Is this answering the questions they have? If it is too long or doesn’t answer the questions they may have, it is worthless, and everyone will think they’ve provided the right information, yet no one will have read it.  This could lead everyone to feel the SL has the correct information, yet realistically they may be winging it.

WhatsApp groups. How do you communicate with a bunch of people thrown together all with different international numbers?  Create a WhatsApp group the moment everyone hits the ground so everyone can communicate the small essential things.  For example – the “leaving the hotel now” message is vital to know you have about 15 minutes before they arrive.  The “time change of cocktail to 1830, not 1900” is key as well.  The biggest problem with these is the people who write diatribe comments or are mass commenters.  Sometimes people will turn it off if the group gets too large and the “thanx” comments becoming too many.  Delete people as they come and go.

One schedule (not 2 or 3). I am not too fond of it when you have two agencies or more than one organization and SL coming at the same time.  The level of complexity is multiplied by the number of SLs in a single SLE.  If you start splitting schedules that is good for each of the SLs, but for the embassy staff and the overall control officer things will get missed.  The best thing to do is to keep one schedule based upon times. This allows everyone to see what everyone else is doing also.

The date on emails and documents. This sounds simple, but when you get multiple schedules with multiple people managing them, how those people update things will be different. Be a bit drill sergeant with changing dates on the documents and putting time stamps on them.

Special events pages – 1 page.  Sometimes it is worthwhile to make an event page.  This has the 5Ws just for one meeting.  I found this helpful for an SL, especially if you have specific talking points you want to drive home.  Layout who will be in the room, attach their BIO if that provides context to the discussion.

Count down meetings. These can be helpful in advance, but if done every day, they become useless.  If you do daily countdowns, then cut down on the emails and schedule changes, printing, etc.  I’ve found the following is the best way to do an SLE: 1) minor coordination by the control officer via phone or email up till three to two weeks out; 2) Count down meetings – 3 to 2 weeks out do one, one week out do two, with one the day before kickoff.  Invite all logistics members and key leaders of the embassy to provide guidance and specifics on embassy capabilities; 3) if the SLE is more than several days then do one mid-SLE count down meeting which will help solidify any changes that have happened to the end of the SLE.

Welcome packets. These can help the last-minute staffer that was thrown on the SLE, and it also helps if they SL has been on a multi-country trip and hasn’t had the time to focus on your country and events.

Talking points: No more than ten words per sentence and no more than three sentences.  First sentence: What the topic is.  Second sentence: What the issue is.  Third sentence: What you recommend the SL says or does.

Be prepared to give them executive time.  These trips are marathons, and some members do better than others.  Give a few hours in the morning for them to check emails, take a nap, or read through all the material you gave them.  Perhaps they like to run and need some gym time? Maybe they stayed up late last night at the bar and need to sleep in.


Dipnotes.  In certain countries, the more specifics you put in these letters, the better, in others it won’t matter.  If you want access to the Port, for example, put it in there.

Photos of bags.  If you have a large group coming through and they won’t be picking up their baggage, perhaps a picture of each bag would be helpful. This allows an expeditor to pick up the bags easier.

Gifts.  Should you do this or not?  If so to whom will you give it, and what will it be?  What does the partner nation typically give?  The gifts should be similar in nature and price.

Photographers. Official, embassy, local news? Who gets access, to what, and what is the message the SLE is trying to send out?  Your PAO should be working this for you, but keep it in mind.

Translators. How many, for what meetings, and how are they getting around?  Speeches also? Be careful of simultaneous translation and the speaker using awkward analogies – they could be translated wrong, and a press member puts them in the paper, and it ends up being an insult and not a strategic message.

Vehicles.  What type and how many?  Should you have a back-up vehicle in case, one breaks down? Do you need police escorts? Who is the principal and who must ride with them?

Speeches.  You may end up writing this.  If so, and if a translation is needed, keep it short. One paragraph ends up being two if you have to speak, stop, translate, stop, and talk again.

What we don’t control is the partner’s side

Since it is reasonable to wait up to 72 hours to finalize meetings, times, and events, you may get frustrated at your partner nation – don’t.  This is Africa, and they have a different pace, go with it.  Keep some flexibility, and you’ll be fine.  Perhaps take the opportunity to explain to your counterpart who your SL is, why they are coming, and what they want to talk about in the meeting.  This will help them prepare their boss more for the meeting.  Feel free to give them the speech you wrote, they will be writing the speech for their SL and will want to synchronize the statements.  You may have the President on the schedule, and then he flies away to a funeral at the last moment.  Will the Vice-President work, or should you cancel?  If meeting with the President, have you scheduled to meet with the Minister of Defense first?  If your SL is lower ranking by position than the person they are meeting, they should probably meet with their counterpart first, then off to the higher-ranking person.

Are our SLEs just tourists?

This is a common question and comment.  Tourism is not something our SLs do, but some aspects of traveling in Africa are tourism. They should understand some of the cultures they are coming here to see.  There is nothing wrong with hosting a cultural dinner with their counterpart. They shouldn’t be going on a four-day safari though.


Senior Leader Engagements are a lot of work, but they are worth it if done correctly.  They can be disastrous if you don’t plan them correctly, or waste the SLs time.  The worst is if they get a “Gotcha,” they aren’t ready for.  The SL should return and try to push forward whatever reason they came to your country, fulfill any promise they made, and be better informed on the issues within the region.

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