What I ask of you and what I demand of myself — I will embrace accountability, honesty, and respect no less than anyone.

Last week, after lengthy confirmation hearings, Rex Tillerson — the former CEO of ExxonMobil, was officially sworn-in by Vice President Mike Pence as the United States Secretary of State. The following day, Mr Tillerson went to work and his first order of business was to address his entire State Department team. Having viewed the footage of his welcome speech and read the transcript, I’ve noted down what I think are some excellent leadership lessons, particularly suited if you are taking over a team or wanting to re-energise a team that is perhaps dysfunctional.

Well, good morning, all. We apologize for being late. It seemed that this year’s prayer breakfast, people felt the need to pray a little longer.

A good speech starts with a bit of humor. Not a joke that takes 6 paragraphs to tell. But something that shows you are a human and can have a laugh. Mr Tillerson then goes on to thank his wife for the support she has shown him, as well as the Acting Secretary.

I also want to recognize and thank all of you here at headquarters of our State Department, the staff and partners around the world, who have faithfully performed your duties regardless of who was in charge.

This lets the entire State Department know that he sees them all as being above petty partisan politics. Or at the very least he sends a signal that he expects them to be party agnostic.

So in the days and weeks ahead we’re going to have plenty of opportunity to discuss in more detail the goals, the priorities, and the strategic direction for our organization. But for now I really want to take a few minutes to communicate my high regard for the men and women of the State Department and share with you some principles for all of us to live by as we pursue our shared mission.

This is a key paragraph. The Secretary is essentially saying — I’m new here, we haven’t worked out what the strategy and priorities are, however as the leader, there are some principles I’m bringing with me to the organization.

When I wake up each morning, the very first thing I ask myself is: Are all of our people safe? The safety of every single member of our State Department family, regardless of where he or she is posted, is not just a priority for me. It’s a core value, and it will become a core value of this department.

Mr Tillerson spent 10 years as CEO of ExxconMobile — a multinational oil and gas corporation where safety is critical. But really, safety is critical in any business. And a leader who stakes safety as a core value is basically saying to the team — I care about you. If the team sees you care for them and their safety, they will care about your customers and your business.

The Foreign Service is not the only component of the State Department. The Civil Service workforce at the State Department plays an indispensable role in all we achieve, and we cannot attain success without the mission-critical services that you provide. Though we often live in a world of headlines, working outside of the public eye does not make you any less essential to our operations. Your dedication, your intelligence, and your sound judgment are the brick and mortar elements of all we do. We all depend on your good work, and I know it will continue.

Here the Secretary is giving a nod to the less visible parts of the organisation. In other organisations this may be the factory workers, or the labourers or otherwise little seen parts of the business. Highlighting they are important to the business sets a tone that everyone is important.

I know this was a hotly contested election and we do not all feel the same way about the outcome. Each of us is entitled to the expression of our political beliefs, but we cannot let our personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team. Let us be understanding with each other about the times we live in as we focus our energies on our departmental goals.

A good leader will acknowledge the real situation. It’s generally not a good idea to ignore the elephant in the room or bury ones head in the sand to a real and present negative. Acknowledging the highly charged election results, recognising that people have different views, but that through understanding, the important work of the organisation needs to continue towards the goals shows a good understanding of high level leadership.

As Secretary, I will deploy the talent and resources of the State Department in the most efficient ways possible. That may entail making some changes to how things are traditionally done in this department. Change for the sake of change can be counterproductive, and that will never be my approach.

Here Mr Tillerson is beginning to discuss how he will lead. Talking about potential change but only if required and necessary. No one would be expecting no change. But at least people will understand that it won’t happen without thought. I liked this statement as it carries forward to future paragraphs and shows the Secretary is a seasoned professional leader and manager of large teams that have undergone cultural change.

But we cannot sustain ineffective traditions over optimal outcomes. I will gather information on what processes should be reformed, and do my part to make sure we are functioning in the most productive and efficient way possible.

Some more information on change. Just because we’ve always done it one way doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. The measurable outcomes will be an increase in efficiency and productivity. Seems like standard business practice but talking about it will put people minds at ease.

Regardless of the circumstances shaping our country or our department, we must all remain focused on the mission at hand before us. I remind you that our undertakings are larger than ourselves or our personal careers. Our duty is to faithfully represent our nation in the arena of foreign affairs. If we stay focused on the work before us, I promise I will work to ensure you achieve your own personal success and your professional satisfaction in what you are doing.

This is a very powerful message — do your job to the best of your ability and I will help you with your personal career.

For every individual who works at the State Department, I ask that we adopt a few core principles.

We’re getting to the meat of the speech. But a good speech from a leader will ask his team for something. It’s the call to action.

First, I believe that any organization runs best when all of its members embrace accountability. From the mailroom to the boardroom, every member of a team has a job to do. I know nobody will always be perfect, and that certainly includes me. But I ask that everyone strive for excellence and assume responsibility for their actions and their decisions.

Here is the first ask — embrace accountability. Notice how he doesn’t expect perfection. He realizes that we are human. He is asking that everyone try.

The New England Patriots have signs posted all over their team facilities that simply say, “Do your job.” It is a brief message, but one with profound importance. If we all do our jobs and embrace a willingness to be held accountable for our performance, we work better as a unit and move closer to attaining our goals. It’s worked pretty well for the Patriots over the years, as I must admit. (Laughter.)

Back to a ‘do your job’ mantra. With a relatable story to boot. An effective speech will either be a story itself or include one.

Secondly, I want us to be honest with one another. We’re on the same team. We share the same mission. Honesty will undergird our foreign policy, and we’ll start by making it the basis of how we interact with each other.

The second ask.

Lastly, we’re going to treat each other with respect. No one will tolerate disrespect of anyone. Before we are employees of the State Department, we are human beings first. Let us extend respect to each other, especially when we may disagree.

The third ask.

What I ask of you and what I demand of myself — I will embrace accountability, honesty, and respect no less than anyone.

So in his first address, Mr Tillerson doesn’t talk to the team about how they will do their jobs dealing with foreign countries and set the stage for United States international affairs. He doesn’t talk strategy or goals or priorities or politics. He knows his job is to bring everyone together and talk about how they will work together. And the core values that they will need to deploy to make anything else they do work. These three core values are essential to any business in my opinion.

As such, I will depend on the expertise of this institution. There are over 75,000 members of the State Department workforce, both Foreign and Civil Service employees, with an average of over 11 years of service in the department. I have 25 minutes. (Laughter.) You have accumulated knowledge and experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Your wisdom, your work ethic and patriotism, is as important as ever. And as your Secretary, I will be proud to draw upon all these qualities in my decision-making.

Acknowledging that you may not be the most experienced or smartest in the room with the subject matter was a good move. A career businessman coming in to lead the State Department is not too common. With this one paragraph, the Secretary saluted the knowledge in the building and affirmed that he would be drawing upon that knowledge and experience in his decision making process.


We can extract 12 points from Mr Tillerson’s address that can be used in any opening address to a team.

  1. Use humor to break the ice (but not too much, you’re not a clown)
  2. Talk about the need to be one team working together
  3. There are guiding principles and core values that exist that strategy and goals are derived from
  4. Safety of each employee is paramount and front of thought
  5. Everyone is important, regardless of where you are in the organisation chart
  6. Acknowledge the negatives
  7. If there is change coming, acknowledge it and discuss why
  8. Do your job, the business will look after you
  9. Call to action
  10. Talk about the importance of core values
  11. Acknowledge the experience and knowledge that you will draw from
  12. Thank everyone

In my view this was a very professional and well-delivered address to a team. It hit the right spots of acknowledging the scope and importance of their charge, as well as talking to potential change. And talking about core values and safety stood out as signs that Rex Tillerson is an excellent leader of people.

Like with any speech, what’s important is how it makes you feel afterwards. If this speech was given by your new boss — and you worked for the State Department which by some accounts is in a bit of turmoil — how would you feel?

The video and transcript of the address can be found here