From State Department to Head of Georgia Tech Strategic Initiatives: A Conversation with Frank Neville

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Frank Neville recently sat down with Joe Bankoff, professor of the practice in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, who recently stepped down as chair. They talked about Georgia Tech’s technologically-focused education and the need for students to learn both technical and essential skills in order to have a successful career. 

Neville is Georgia Tech’s new senior vice president of Strategic Initiatives and chief of staff working with President Angel Cabrera who began in September. Neville brings to bear perspective based upon 15 years as a diplomat in the U.S. State Department (DOS) and 14 years in higher education. 

Neville’s foreign service work followed a degree from Carleton College in political science. The early years of his DOS foreign service career were in cities ranging from Taipei, Taiwan, to Chengdu and Beijing, China, to Guatemala City, Guatemala. When he left the DOS in 2004, Neville was the most decorated officer under the age of 40. Neville transitioned to work as vice president of Global Communication and Public Affairs at the Thunderbird School of Global Management (now part of Arizona State University). There he met Cabrera who, as Thunderbird’s president, focused on five global pillars, which drew upon Neville’s international expertise. When Cabrera was named the sixth president of George Mason University, Neville joined him as the chief of staff and vice president of Communications and Marketing. Cabrera then brought him to his current position at Georgia Tech.

Read in the interview below about Neville’s experience as a foreign service officer, the value of an international affairs school at a technological institute, and the importance of applying a technical education with global affairs.

I particularly wanted to ask you about your own experience in statecraft working in the State Department. How has that been useful in your work trying to help universities.

I’m very committed to the idea of public service and working in governments and being able to really be on the frontlines of international affairs. It was highly rewarding and frequently frustrating, but when you step back and look at it in the aggregate, a very, very rewarding experience. So I appreciated the opportunity to serve this country and the values that it represents.

I think being in public higher education, there’s a similar sense that we are stewards of the public good. We are here to educate the next generation. We’re here also to solve big problems, or contribute to the solving of big problems to generate new ideas that can help benefit society. We’re here as engines of economic development for our communities, so that sense of commitment to the public and that spirit and mission of public service is something that I feel very strongly about. And I can tell that even just in my short time here at Georgia Tech that this is a place that is very grounded in those values.

One of the things from your State Department work that really would help us at Tech, and in the Nunn School in particular, is your experience in identifying from a real-world perspective some of the problems that need to be dealt with, being able to help us shape a focus on what are the real-world problems that are cultural conflicts, not just technology conflicts.

I'm glad you mentioned the cultural conflicts that often underlie problems because it’s often imperceptible from the other side of the table. You see somebody behaving differently, and you sort of assign your own interpretation of that behavior based upon how you would be behaving in this situation.

Probably one of the most valuable lessons I learned was the skill of putting yourself in the other person's shoes — not necessarily to agree with them, but to understand them and why they are behaving as they are, what are the motivating factors, what are the cultural influences, things as simple as justice and fairness and risk-taking. All those things vary tremendously by culture. If you're an American going into a negotiation with somebody who has a different interpretation of those things, you can quickly get off track, and you won't even realize it until you hit a dead end.

Well, and part of it is that people go about making decisions in quite different ways, and that's also quite cultural.

Right, and for negotiators, American negotiators, in particular, this is often a point of frustration. When I was at George Mason, one of the classes I taught was cross-cultural communication and management. I often had lots of Korean students in the classroom because there's a very large Korean population, and we had an exchange relationship with Korea. I would say, okay, you're an American businessperson negotiating a contract in Korea you have a 12-hour day of negotiations and you think you reach a deal. The Korean negotiator leaves and comes back the next morning and says “everything that we agreed to yesterday, we need to rethink.” 

What's happening there? What we don't understand is that Korea is a consensus culture, and the person sitting across the table from you is not necessarily authorized to make a decision by his- or herself. That decision has to be validated by the broader group that is part of the stakeholders involved in this. If you don't understand that going in, it seems like from an American perspective that the other side is being deceitful, so there's a quick unraveling of the conversation if you apply an American approach, an American set of values, to that scenario.

I think you make the point quite appropriately that you don't necessarily have to agree, but you need to respect that there are differences that matter and understand where that comes from, and that's certainly one of the things that we work on here at the Nunn School. With our Sam Nunn Security Program, which is mostly Ph.D.'s and postdocs, we spend a lot of time trying to make it clear that, just because you have a perfectly elegant technical solution to a problem does not mean it's useful because it may not fit the culture. The process by which you get to that so that people don't feel like they've been disrespected is a really important aspect of this process, so we operate sort of at this boundary layer between technology, culture, global affairs, and frankly the problems in the world. Tell me a little bit about what you think is the value of a school like the School of International Affairs at a technology institute.

I think there's a tremendous amount of value because international affairs operates in context. It’s a real-world context, it’s a complicated context, and so it’s not divided by discipline. To be effective in that context, the more holistic view you have and the greater mastery of all various different disciplines and issues that are all sort of wound up in the situation, the more effective you're going to be. So, I think the advantage of having the Sam Nunn School here at Georgia Tech is that you have such a tremendously deep understanding of technology and science.

If you can connect that then into a real-world context, you can be much more effective than simply a technician without that broader international affairs context, or conversely, an international affairs expert without the technological capability. And especially in today's political environment, there are very few issues that don't have a science or technology connection. The data explosion, the data revolution, the technology revolution that we are living now is transforming everything that we do, and so, bringing a strong technological grounding to any public policy issue, to any international affairs issue, is a tremendous strength.

We have a fair number of students in my class and others where we are drawing on the engineering, science, and design students from across the campus for parts of what we do. We are able to have faculty cross-appointed to the College of Computing, to the School of Mechanical Engineering, to the College of Design. There is a real fabric around Georgia Tech that allows us to have this kind of an integrated approach, but it's important for students because they're thinking about “Where do I go from here?” Can you tell us a little bit about your views on why there is an advantage to students to combine whatever may be a technology education with an understanding of global affairs?

Sure, so I think I mean the graduates of Georgia Tech do exceptionally well. We could spend the rest of the hour providing examples of that. The starting salaries that the students get are a reflection of their tremendous talent and accomplishment. 

The further along you go in your career, the less success is dictated by technical skill, and the more it’s about leadership, and the more it’s about understanding context, the more it's about dealing with people, and understanding organizational behavior, and all these other things that come along with it. So, having that grounding through an understanding of things like negotiation or cross-cultural communication or international policy issues, right off the bat, is a tremendous asset because it prepares you for leadership positions well before you're at the point of having to grapple with those things personally.

Well, I think that it resonates very clearly with what president Cabrera has done, for example, in his book “Leadership in the Transformative Society”. There is an opportunity here, and part of the success of Tech is building the leadership capacity for roles that don't yet exist and to solve problems we don't yet know about, and so it’s a real delight to have you and the president here working on these things. We look forward to the opportunity to find other times and places where we can connect. Thank you. 

Thank you. I look forward to it.


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