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Day In The GovLife: Charles Ray, U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe

Welcome to the initial post of Day In The GovLife. This series will look into cool and or obscure government jobs and get the scoop on what it’s like to be in that role, how you can get there and overall advice for govies.

Day In The GovLife

Job: U.S. Ambassador

Interviewee: Charles Ray, U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe

What is a typical day like in your job?

I’ll describe today, which believe it or not is fairly typical here in Zimbabwe: Got up at 5:30 and walked the dog, showered, and made myself a cup of coffee. Had to leave the house before eight to get to the Harare Club where we were sponsoring a dialogue with youth leaders on their role in the development of the country. We co-sponsored with the “Independent” Newspaper. That ended at 10, and I had to get to the embassy to clear my inbox and read overnight cable traffic. Then, a meeting with my Defense Attache on proposals for future reengagement with the military here, a meeting with my Political-Economic Counselor regarding a business dialogue planned for June, and a business roundtable that they want me to drop in on this afternoon. Met the with my Protocol Assistant to discuss final plans for a dinner the wife and I are hosting tonight to say farewell to some of our foreign diplomatic colleagues. After a quick lunch at home, dropped in on business roundtable to say hello to local business leaders, then off to Netherlands embassy for our weekly “Fishmongers” meeting, a meeting of the major Western donor country ambassadors to discuss the political situation and our assistance programs. Another topic on the agenda is an upcoming meeting in Brussels on Zimbabwe which we will all have to attend. After that meeting ended, back to the embassy to make sure there are no last minute issues requiring my attention, then to the residence to shower and get ready to greet guests at 6 pm. Last guest out of the house at 10 pm, and then I spend a couple of hours either working on my next book, writing a blog for the embassy web site, or something for my personal blog site. In bed by midnight. That’s the way my days go, and this has not been one of my busiest.

What was your career path/how did you become an ambassador?

I retired from the US Army in 1982. My last assignment was at the Defense Language Institute as the Senior Slavic Language Advisor. A friend of mine, the librarian at the Presidio of Monterrey, suggested I take the Foreign Service Examination, which I did in December 1981. I actually entered the service in August 1982, a full month before I officially retired from the Army. My first post after training was in Guangzhou, China as a consular officer. I followed that up with an assignment at the newly opened post, Shenyang, China, where I ran the consular section and did economic and political reporting. In 1987, I went back to the US for Thai language training, and in 1988 was assigned to our Consulate General in Chiang Mai, Thailand as Administrative Officer. At that post, I also did refugee and narcotics work, in addition to providing services to American citizens.

I came back to the US in 1991, and served two years as Special Assistant to the Director of the Office of Defense Trade Controls in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs. Then, in 1993, I went to Freetown, Sierra Leone as Deputy Chief of Mission. I was a student at the National War College from 1996-1997, and in 1998 went to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam as the first US Consul General in that city, and reestablishing the first diplomatic presence there since we closed the embassy in 1975. I came back to the US in 2001 to attend the Senior Seminar, a foreign affairs program for senior officials of all agencies that the State Department once ran, and in 2002, I was nominated and appointed ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia. I served as Diplomat in Residence at the University of Houston (2005-2006), and was appointed in 2006 as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs. I came to Zimbabwe as ambassador in November 2009.

What made you decide to join the State Department?

After 20 years in the army, I guess I’d become addicted to travel and experiencing different cultures. The Foreign Service seemed a natural follow-on to my military experience. I’m not really a 9 to 5 kind of personality.

What is the most challenging part of being an ambassador? Coolest or best part?

The most challenging thing about being an ambassador is balancing the reality of what’s happening on the ground in your country of assignment with the political realities that drive Washington. The second challenge is getting everyone on a multi-agency country team singing off the same sheet of music. The coolest thing? You’re the guy – the voice and face of the US Government and the American people, and people look to you for advice and counsel. It can be frightening, but also exhilarating. (Check out Charles photos below from his experiences as an ambassador)

What is the number one lesson you’ve learned from your time at State?

The number one thing I’ve learned in the State Department is that while agencies, cultures, and countries differ, there are some universals that apply to us all. The key to getting things done is to truly lead people rather than bossing them around.

How has US diplomacy changed in your 29 years with the State Dept? What are the biggest challenges right now?

The introduction of new information technologies and social networking sites has significantly changed the environment in which diplomats must work. We can no longer get away with just dealing with political elites; everyone is a potential source of information or problems, and people at all levels are demanding a voice in what goes on. The biggest challenges we have right now is how to get traditional-minded, risk-averse diplomats and bureaucrats to recognize and exploit the new environment.

You’ve traveled extensively and lived all over East Asia and parts of Africa. Do you have a favorite place?

I’ve been pretty much all over the world, and I don’t have a single favorite place. I like Asia because of the variety, but have also enjoyed other locales. I’ve seen Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal, taken pictures of lions in the Kalahari, dined with the Khyber Rifles in Pakistan, etc., etc. It has all be a gas, and I think my favorite place is the next place that I haven’t been to yet.

You list Colin Powell as your favorite public servant-why is that?

Colin Powell understand the principles of effective leadership better than anyone else I know. In addition, his integrity is beyond question.

What advice would you give a young person who aspires to join the foreign service?

To someone wanting to join the Foreign Service, I’d say, don’t let traditional urban legend channel you into a boring, predictable path. The Foreign Service is an opportunity to serve your country and help forge international peace at the same time. Of course, I also remind people, getting from the level of a junior officer issuing visas to being an ambassador responsible for an embassy of over 600 people takes time and effort. Took me 20 years, but it was worth the wait.



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7 Comments

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Profile Photo Jeff Ribeira

This is awesome! Very inspiring thoughts from a lifetime of service, and great advice for a career path that I’ve been interested in for quite some time. It’s always encouraging to hear experiences like this, especially from such an accomplished individual as Charles. Did you serve in a Slavic language speaking country before you became an Advisor at DLI? Great pictures, by the way!

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Profile Photo Stephanie Slade

Wow! Thank you Charles for taking the time out of your obviously busy schedule to answer questions for us. I look at your description of a “typical” day and I am amazed by how little down time you get (not to mention how little sleep!). I wonder if it takes a certain kind of person to survive that kind of lifestyle?

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Profile Photo Terry Brill

Interesting post. Can you tell us a little bit about what the United States government is doing to assist the thousands of innocent Zimbabweans who have been imprisoned, tortured or killed by the Mugabe regime over the last twenty years? I travelled extensively in Zimbabwe in the ninties, and I don’t think it is the same place today.

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Profile Photo carla bowers

Wow this is an inspiring story. I’m a bit too old to start out as he did but I sure would encorage others to think about something such as this. My neighbors did a Peace Corp stint, sold everything, worked hard for others and never regretted it.

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Profile Photo Spencer W. Clark

A great look into life in the Service. Having just passed the FS Oral Assessment, I’m hoping that I can build a similarly fascinating and inspiring career. Thanks for sharing.

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Profile Photo Charles A. Ray

Wow! A lot of great comments. I will try to answer everyone’s questions as best I can. @Spencer: Good luck on passing the oral. @ Carla: You can join the Foreign Service up to the age of 59, so I don’t think you should ever think of yourself as too old. I started playing golf when I was 53, which everyone said was too old, and I broke 100 in less than a year. You set your own limits. @Terry: We have extensive humanitarian programs to assist Zimbabweans in distress, and work with civil society to try and keep things from imploding. @Stephanie: True, you need a high level of energy for the job, but when it’s a great job, the energy just seems to be there. @Jeff: You’ll find this typical of government. Back then I was a Foreign Area Officer with specialty in Asia. The only Slavic experience I had was a couple of Russian courses in college. The job was open when I arrived at DLI, and as the senior officer available, I was assigned. The first time I ever visited a Slavic language country was a few years ago as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, I went to Russia on an official visit in connection with the POW/MIA mission. Go figure.

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Profile Photo Anne R. Urbanski

Ambassador Ray is obviously a Renaissance man – soldier, diplomat, author, cartoonist, and he’s probably a decent golfer too:) Thanks for sharing.

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