Former diplomat translates skills into new corporate language
BY MAUREEN JENKINS
When you have been appointed ambassador to six countries, had special assignments in two others, served key posts in the U.S. State Department, and represented the most powerful nation on earth at the United Nations, what do you do for a career encore?
You get your first corporate job at age 69.
While many of his contemporaries are ambling around the golf course and basking in retirement, Tom Pickering is just getting started. And as senior vice president for International Relations, he's helping create a global legacy within Boeing, one that's strategically planting the seeds of long-term growth.
Brought into the company in January 2001 - just one day after leaving his post as U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs - Pickering has been charged with the mandate of helping Boeing "go global." Of course, the aerospace giant had a presence in foreign countries long before the former ambassador arrived on the scene. But he and his team of nearly two dozen players are working with Boeing business units to increase synergies to help Boeing grow across the company - and around the globe.
And while some Boeing employees question the company's globalization thrust, fearing it will mean that American jobs will be exported to other countries, it's tough to challenge the credentials of the man chosen to lead Boeing's global charge. Now donning his diplomatic hat on behalf of Boeing rather than the U.S. government, Pickering is translating his negotiating and team-building skills into a new corporate language.
With seven ambassadorships under his belt (in the U.S. Foreign Service, three "ambassadorial tours of duty" is considered extraordinary) Pickering is a diplomatic heavyweight.
"I succeeded him by one [ambassadorship] at the United Nations, and he was a legend there," former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told Boeing Frontiers. In 1993, she replaced Pickering as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. "Trying to live up to him was a big deal. At the U.N., he was regarded as a master diplomat."
And that high esteem helped convince Boeing Chairman and CEO Phil Condit that Pickering was the best mind to help fulfill the company's vision.
"He had just absolutely great connections in the entire diplomatic community," said Condit. "If you travel with Tom, you see that he knows people everywhere and they respect him. His ability to open doors and know the right people to talk to brought tremendous capability to Boeing."
Pickering no doubt brings "a huge Rolodex" to the table, says Stanley Roth, Boeing vice president – Asia, International Relations, but also carries with him "a profound understanding of the world. As a company seeking to operate globally, what better resource could we have?"
Now well into his seventh decade of life, Pickering keeps an aggressive schedule - one packed with countless meetings, strategy sessions, and domestic and overseas travel - that would vanquish men half his age. But he's on a tireless mission, one to help a company that built its reputation in Seattle become an even bigger player on the world stage.
"This is a guy who thrives on his work. He's maintained the same rigorous schedule ever since I first met him 20 years ago," said Roth, a former assistant Secretary of State for East Asia who first worked for Pickering at the U.S. State Department. "Maybe he's got better genes than the rest of us."
A diplomat is born – and made
Unlike some lifelong Foreign Service workers who manage to fall into their careers, Thomas R. Pickering developed a passion for international affairs in high school. Knowing he was a history buff, a professor of his at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, encouraged him to take the written U.S. Foreign Service exam in 1953. After earning a master's degree one year later, Pickering also passed the Foreign Service oral exam and was immediately offered a job.
But the timing was bad. Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy's charges of rampant Communist leanings within government - and specifically, the State Department - prompted Senate investigations and stalled Foreign Service appointments, including Pickering's. But ever the scholar, Pickering won a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Melbourne in Australia. He also got a chance to see the world through the U.S. Navy, spending 3 1/2 years on active duty and in the Naval Reserve.
During the ‘50s, Pickering made another move that's paid dividends in his personal life and diplomatic career. He married the former Alice Stover, who had spent a year working for the U.S. Information Agency in Holland. But during those days - and in fact, informally until 1972 - married couples were prohibited from serving in the U.S. Foreign Service. Pickering's wife decided instead to serve the country by playing a key role in her husband's ambassadorships.
"That's been enormously helpful," he said. "She's been an important member of the team" in each country in which the ambassador has worked.
Having served under both Democratic and Republican presidents, Pickering's reputation as a smart, strategic and creative thinker later made him an attractive candidate to the business world.
"I think it's his ability to absorb information and have a very good sense of other people's positions," Albright said. "Being able to see things from the perspective of other people. He's just got really good biofeedback."
It's no secret that companies sometimes hand pick former ambassadors for high-profile corporate assignments, hiring them strictly for marquee value. Some of these diplomats-turned-executives "never stop doing their old job, so they're on the conference circuit, or writing op-eds [opinion editorials] for newspapers," said Roth.
"Tom, on the other hand, has really made the adjustment [to corporate life] and thrown himself into his mandate - not seeing how many times he can be quoted in the newspaper."
Before he retired from the State Department, a friend put him in touch with Boeing executives. Meetings with then-Vice Chairman Harry Stonecipher and Condit resulted, and Pickering agreed to join the Boeing team.
"We knew we needed to change from being a U.S. company selling globally," said Condit, "to being a truly global company that was part of many countries around the world.
"To have somebody with real broad international experience that has a deep understanding of different cultures, knows people in a lot of critical countries, and has real access to leaders in a number of countries is a real asset in trying to build the international relations strategy."
As an ambassador, Pickering was stationed in countries critical to U.S. interests. While serving in the Russian Federation, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, he was a key member of the U.S. foreign policy team.
As the lead diplomat to the Russian Federation from 1993 to 1996, Pickering was a "critical partner" in helping shape the U.S.-Russia post-Cold War policy, former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry told Boeing Frontiers. And in the aftermath of the Soviet Union, that included helping the Russians dismantle nuclear weapons, rebuild their economy, and find gainful work for nuclear scientists.
"Tom was right in the middle," said Perry, now a Stanford University professor and Senior Fellow who also served on Boeing's board of directors. "He was chosen because he was believed to be the most able Foreign Service officer we had anywhere. Much was expected of the ambassador, and luckily we had the right man for the job."
By the time Albright became Secretary of State in 1996, Pickering had retired from the U.S. Foreign Service. But when Albright took office, "I wanted to surround myself with the strongest possible people, and I was thrilled [Pickering] came back," she said. "I consider that one of my coups, that I was able to get him to do that."
In many ways, Pickering's current role at Boeing isn't too large a leap from his ambassador chores. A diplomat abroad supports his country's diverse business interests in his host nation. But now, when Pickering goes on the road, he pursues one corporate agenda: the Boeing globalization strategy. For Pickering, it's not just about meeting with a country's ceremonial leaders. His overseas visits often include high-level sessions with current and potential commercial aircraft and military customers around the world, with the former diplomat using his vast knowledge and extensive contacts to help build Boeing sales.
A foot in both worlds
Diplomats stationed abroad must quickly grasp the mores, values, culture and business practices of their host nations while at the same time being shrewd negotiators on their countries' behalf. While ambassadors - especially those stationed in a nation deemed critical to their countries' interests - are insiders within their own governments, they must remain a sort of outsider to their hosts if they're to be faithful to their charge.
The government shifts diplomats around frequently "to keep them in a position of being consistently objective," said Pickering. "We want to strike a balance between a knowledge of the local scene and objectivity about what the U.S. is doing in that country."
By all accounts, Pickering successfully walked that line. "He never developed ‘client-itis,'" said Roth. "This is a guy who always remembered who he worked for."
For Tom Pickering, Boeing and its evolving corporate culture was yet another "foreign land" he needed to tackle one bite at a time.
"In many ways, breaking in at Boeing was a constant learning process," he said. "Because I've had to divide my time between a number of different priorities, at this stage I would benefit from a great many more opportunities" to visit Boeing sites. He's especially interested in visiting those that handle production.
Pickering has adopted a State Department model for Boeing's International Relations team. Just as an ambassador presides over a team in the host country, so are Boeing's country executives coordinating cross-Boeing efforts in their nations for the good of the enterprise. Likewise, those executives serve as liaisons between Boeing interests and their country governments.
As for his personal transition from government to corporate life, Pickering said his biggest challenge at Boeing "was really to put together a staff and program, and get to know as much about Boeing and how it operates as possible.
"By the time I had changed jobs more than a dozen times, it was, I think, easier," he joked. "You develop a pattern of how do it and what to do, and you can apply that pattern even though you're not in government … and do it reasonably effectively as long as you stay flexible and keep your eyes open."
And that flexibility and openness is always evident, even in meetings with his high-level staff. A master of detail, Pickering is especially adept at seeking what's missing, what critical question or concept is being overlooked. In recent meetings with newly appointed Boeing country presidents - strategy sessions designed to shape upcoming "Global Enterprise Strategy" presentations to the Executive Council - he offered suggestions, rather than demanding the team do things his way. Ever the diplomat and bridge-builder, he solicits input in order to build consensus.
While that approach works well in foreign policy, it can be frustrating to journalists and others seeking insider news within scoop-driven Washington. "His discretion was legendary - never saying anything about anything," said Cokie Roberts, co-host of ABC News' "This Week" and senior news analyst for National Public Radio, of Pickering's reputation for deflecting tough questions. "Speaking in diplomatic gobbledygook so that an administration never had a reason to be angry about anything he said."
While Pickering was well respected across Washington for his integrity, reporters "knew he wasn't going to tell you anything," Roberts said. "Discretion was his middle name."
At a global crossroads
Pickering faces major challenges as he shapes Boeing's International Relations strategy.
As the world witnessed in last month's much-watched presidential elections in France, not all people eagerly embrace the notion of "one world." Many blame the United States and American business interests for shrinking boundaries that nationalists would rather see maintained. To combat that in countries where Boeing operates, Pickering would like to work closely with Boeing's Communications team and its leader Judith Muhlberg to use media and other channels to help shape positive public opinion about the company's presence.
In many nations, he said, "We have had a huge supplier relationship, which basically has created jobs in their economies they would not have had, and allowed for wealth and value in their economies they wouldn't have otherwise had. So people see that aspect of globalization in other countries, I believe, as a positive. But I believe we need to grow our presence under our own name as well to build value and increase our influence in sales and marketing."
Pickering hasn't chosen an easy path at Boeing, knowing he must ultimately convince not only shareholders about his strategy, but also Boeing business unit leaders and employees across the company.
"The biggest challenge is actually internal," said Condit. The challenge "is for people to understand the critical difference between selling globally and being a global company. We have business units that are familiar with selling around the world. They wonder why we need something else [International Relations] here. So Tom has to convince a lot of people inside that this is a real asset to them."
When he can, Pickering takes this message on the road to Boeing sites. A believer in the "bicycle principle" - "If you're not moving forward, you're falling down" - he's staking his considerable clout on the ultimate success of his team's international strategy and its ability to help boost company sales.
By objective standards, Pickering has enjoyed a dynamic career - and the finish line isn't in sight. But are there any regrets, any challenge he wishes he'd had a chance to tackle?
"I suppose there are a lot of things I would have done over in a different way," he said. "If you're objective, you make mistakes, and there are things you would have done better. But you need to find a way to build on those things.
"When you begin to think you're omniscient, you're in trouble.
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