Training Europe’s fledgling diplomatic service

An EMPA thesis on leadership in the EU kindled Markus Held’s network in Brussels.

Diplomats may be good negotiators. They may have expert knowledge of fisheries and quotas. But they are not all born great managers and leaders, says Markus Held.

For the past two years, Markus has been in charge of learning and development at the European External Action Service – the EU’s diplomatic service, set up in 2011 under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty to represent the bloc’s interests abroad. It has about 4,000 employees, 60 percent of whom are scattered around its 140 embassies across the world.

“Institutions tend to think that good experts make good managers,” Markus says. “But management is something different from expertise. It is its own subject. My role is to impress upon people that you can learn management. It’s not rocket science, it’s not innate, there are rules you can learn and tools you can use.”

Markus wrote his master’s thesis on leadership in European institutions to complete his Executive Master of Public Administration at the Hertie School in 2011.

“I focused mostly on human resources issues at Hertie, on developing management skills – what does it take and how does it work,” he says. “From interviews I had done for my thesis, I knew the main players in the HR world in the Brussels institutions. When I moved to the External Action Service, that helped a lot.” Held had always been interested in training and teaching and had gained some experience in his previous job, but it was never his main role, as it is now.

Markus’s department oversees all training for EEAS diplomats - courses like negotiating skills and political reporting, basic software skills or specialist knowledge on a specific part of the world. A third of the staff are on four- to eight-year secondments from the 28 member countries’ national embassies – part of a long-term mission to create a common EU foreign policy and a common approach to leadership.

“That multiplies the challenge of management by 28,” Markus says. “We get people with a very different understanding of what management is – or none at all, depending on what country. So it is more difficult to develop a common management culture in the External Action Service than elsewhere.”

Broadly, Nordic and Anglo-Saxon countries tend to have flatter hierarchies and empower employees, with managers getting involved when there is a problem. Southern European countries are much more hierarchical. In Eastern Europe, the diplomatic cultures bring their own challenges in relatively young democracies, Markus says. "The bottom line is we get them all, so we need to have an extra eye on how we create this common management approach,” Markus says.

When Markus was studying at the Hertie School, he was the director of an NGO focussed on promoting volunteer work, the European Volunteer Centre. He successfully spearheaded a campaign to introduce the European Year of Volunteering in 2011. "A lot of what I was learning in political communication and campaigning went directly into this – and we won. Hertie was definitely a sparring partner in that.”

To stay connected with the Hertie School, Markus co-ordinates the yearly Executive Education EU workshop in Brussels. One of his previous fellow students is now head of a leadership task force at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin – the pendant to his own job in Brussels. After 13 years in the city, Markus can tap into a wide network of high-profile speakers. And, as the Hertie School network expands, alumni colleagues contribute with great ideas, too. Jeffrey Franks, the International Monetary Fund director for Europe, has spoken to the students as well as Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the vice-president of the European Parliament. Hertie School graduates work for both of them. 

Originally from near Nuremberg, Markus studied in Berlin, Paris, London and Brussels from 1997 to 2003. He retains a special connection with Berlin that he was able to revive during his time at the Hertie School, as well forge new friendships.