Friday, November 06, 2009

Taking the Orals: The Group Exercise

One of my favorite things about doing this blog is that I get lots of emails from folks wanting to join the Foreign Service asking for tips and advice. I love the service, and anyone who is already in knows that it is much more about WHO you serve with than where you serve or what job you do. So I want all the good people we can get to join and serve with us!

From what I can see from my email and checking twitter, lots of folks have just heard they have passed the written portion of the Foreign Service Officers Test (FSOT) and are preparing their qualifying essays in hopes of getting an offer to take the oral assessment.

I can't speak to the essays. They are a new requirement. But I did pretty well on the oral assessment and helped lead a couple prep sessions afterward, so I can speak to that a bit. All of what I am going to tell you is covered in the prep sessions and so does not violate the non-disclosure agreement.

For today, we'll talk about the GROUP EXERCISE.

In the group exercise, you will be in a room with up to five other examinees. There will be four examiners in the room. Three of them are charged with watching two examinees (you won't know which one is watching you) and one watches the entire group dynamic.

Each examinee will be given a project. You will be instructed that you have to come to a group consensus about funding one project completely. Any leftover money can be split however you decide on the remaining project. You will be told you have a certain amount of time to complete the exercise and that you will not be warned again of the time. Therefore, one person should volunteer to be the time keeper. If you can, let it be you. If not, you might want to occasionally ask the time keeper for updates on how much time you have left. I did this during my OA.

Each person will have a set time to present their project. Do not take the entire time. Leave time for the other participants to ask questions. Once everyone has presented, you should lobby for your project. But here is where you have a decision to make. If you see, after initially lobbying for your project that yours is stupid by comparison to someone else's project, say that to the group and throw your support behind another project. Help gently guide (without bullying) the group to consensus.

It is important to remember that whether or not your project is funded has NO BEARING on whether or not you pass. They are looking to see if you are a leader without being a bully. They are looking to see if you can negotiate constructively and work well with others. Which brings me to a second important point: you have to TALK. If you don't talk, the examiners can't judge you. In my group, the guy who got his project fully funded never said another word. He failed.

It is also important not to let the rest of the group derail your chances. If your group isn't talking (I hear this has happened but I would think it would be rare!), gently guide them. Ask about the other projects. Suggest compromises and as for people's buy in. Ask them directly. Even if everyone else fails, you will have shown you can lead even an difficult group.

You will tend to be in a group of high achievers. Some of them are going to think the way to pass is to bully or talk over other examinees. Don't let it ruffle you or silence you. Show composure. And finish the task. You want to show you can accomplish something.

I actually feared I had gotten too forceful at the end, but my examiners later told me they loved how I handled the bully in our group: she thought she had to get funding. At the end of the exercise, she was still trying to get one guy to give her some of the money the group had allocated to his project. I asked the time keeper how long we had. He said about a minute or so. I looked at her and said, "We need to finish." She responded, "Wait! He is just about to agree to give me $10,000." (hello? consensus?) I looked at the time keeper and asked, "How much time do we have now?" He answered 45 seconds. I said, "Write down what we have agreed to and you can finish arguing about this in the hall."

I passed (with a pretty high score). She didn't.


meridith said...

Absolutely - great post! My score on the group exercise was the highest I got and the feedback was enlightening. The scorers for my group gave much more weight to management of group dynamics than to how we sold the project (as you'd expect with a group exercise). I can't echo enough how important it is to engage members of your group - to solve problems, to draw out folks who are talking less and to keep on task. It doesn't diminish you at all to encourage others to speak. Ask good questions, be pleasant and pass. After all, that's what you want!

Barry said...

Good write up, and I like the telling anecdote at the end!

I passed the OA earlier this year. To me, the key to the Group Exercise is about finding balances. You need to find the right balance between acting as a "type A" leader and a "type B" group participant. You need to find the right balance between advocating for your project and reaching a group consensus. You need to find the right balance between making your opinions known and taking time to draw in the quite members.

Of course, how you act depends entirely on the group dynamic you have. Because this is so unpredictable (though you are correct that FS types tend to be high achievers), it is a waste of time, in my opinion, to come with prepared "pat phrases" to plug in. It is far more effective to try and "read" your group during the first 60 seconds of the discussion and respond according to the dynamic before you. This is why I think the best prep is finding a group of FSO-aspirants with which to practice.

Carl said...

Thanks for your advice. I'm taking my OA at the end of the month and am looking for all the guidance I can get! Do you have any thoughts about suggesting the use of objective criteria during the discussion phase? Do you think that the risk (time-eating discussions over the criteria, if any, to be used) likely outweighs the benefit (using a common measure to evaluate projects)?

Matt Keene said...

Really excellent and timely post. I've linked to you here:

Saffron Monsoon said...

Thank you for the advice! I will keep this in mind when I someday go to the OA. Your smackdown of the group bully is hilarious and awesome.