Capricia Penavic Marshall, PROTOCOL

Capricia Penavic Marshall, PROTOCOL

Zibby Owens: Capricia Penavic Marshall served as White House Social Secretary in the Clinton administration and as United States Chief of Protocol in the Obama administration. In her posts, she advanced the presidents’ agendas using new tools and innovative protocol methods to build relationships between dignitaries and industry leaders worldwide. She oversaw the diplomatic details of state visits and summits such as the G20, the Nuclear Security Summit, APEC, NATO, and the Sunnylands Summit. She’s president of Global Engagement Strategies LLC which advises global organizations and companies on issues related to the nexus of business and cultural diplomacy. Her clients include Bloomberg, 3M, and other Fortune 100 companies. As a first-generation American, she has brought an understanding of the importance of culture to her posts and consultations. She’s an ambassador-in-residence at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and a partner in Pine Island Capital Partners. Her book is called Protocol: The Power of Diplomacy and How to Make It Work for You.

Welcome, Capricia. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Capricia Penavic Marshall: Thank you. Thank you so very much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: I’m so excited to discuss Protocol which is basically all the best stories about world leaders in the world tucked into one tiny little container, which is great. You take the reader everywhere that they would never have access to and give us great lessons. It was a joy to read.

Capricia: Thank you very much. That was quite purposeful in the sense that I wanted it to absolutely be a how-to. I did not want it to be memoir-esque. I think there are also a lot of people who leave their jobs in Washington, DC, and they write these tell-all books. That was not the objective. That was not my intent. My intent really was, I wanted to take the many years that I’d had in government and pull the lessons and the tools that I created over the years, but match them up with interesting anecdotes that brings to life those tools and lessons. Oftentimes, I hope you found very humorous.

Zibby: I did. They were great. Even something as cool as Obama just putting his arm on your shoulder and asking for your advice, the way you talk about it, it’s like, sure, yeah, I’m used to Obama just coming over and asking what I think too. It was very relatable. It’s like you could put yourself in your shoes in all of your stories. That was great.

Capricia: Aw, thank you.

Zibby: For people who don’t know about your amazing career, can you give a couple highlights about your tenure in the White House and all of the things that you have been in charge of just as a background?

Capricia: First of all, I got into government through a political campaign. I had started on the 1992 campaign for President Bill Clinton, for Governor, then, Bill Clinton, and very smartly decided to work for his wife. He didn’t seem as though he had much of a chance at becoming president, but she was a top-one hundred lawyer in the country. I thought, you know, as someone who had recently graduated from law school, that’s someone I really should get to know. Started working with her, became incredibly close to her. She became my mentor. When he won, she and the president offered me a position in the White House. I was her special assistant. That meant that I did everything with her. I started the day with her. I ended the day with her. We traveled around the world together. I was also the bridge for her to the social office. When the first social secretary had decided that she was going to depart, Hillary turned to me and she asked me if I wanted to take on that post. I was incredibly honored that she did, of course.

I do have to say that at first, I wasn’t quite sure that I was ready to take on the job. Many of the women before me, they were older. They were more experienced, it seemed. I just didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself. This is where my mentor and other women who were part of my circle of supporters pushed me up, raised me up. They said, “No, this is time. You are going to take this position on. You are going to step into this job. You’re going to be fantastic. Don’t worry. We’re going to be here for you. We’re going to be your safety net. We’re not going to let you falter.” I was really, really lucky that they did. I was very, very blessed to have that. They did just that. For me, it was a dream job. I loved it. The job, very quickly, it manages the entire domestic agenda for the president in the sense that we visually put out the agenda to world. If it was a social occasion, if it was a policy initiative, whatever it was, we were making sure that through events, through interactions, that the world was allowed to experience this. It was extraordinary on so many levels. I thought, wow, I really hit the peak of government service in that position.

Then when President Obama was elected, he then reached out to Hillary Clinton to become his secretary of state. She said to him, “I have your perfect chief of protocol. I am telling you, you have to hire Capricia Marshall.” I didn’t know him. I really didn’t know a lot of people in the administration. At first, there was a little, wait a minute, I don’t know, we don’t know this woman. The chief of protocol spends a lot of time with the president, a lot of time. You’re hooked at the hip when you travel abroad. I am the person who welcomes everybody to the United States. It’s a job that is very, very important in that regard and having that special relationship. He took Secretary Clinton’s advice and her recommendation and named me. It comes with the rank of ambassador, so I was then put forth before the senate and was voted in and given the position. It’s an extraordinary job. It has so many facets to it. Like I said, there’s the visits aspect to it, but there’s a hugely ceremonials aspect to it. We oversee the president’s guest house. An element of this job that I wasn’t quite aware of is that I also oversaw the foreign diplomatic corp, making sure that they were credentialed, making sure that they behaved when they’re in our country. If they didn’t, I had to help, and then just engaging with them. The job was just phenomenal. It was my dream job.

Zibby: Wow. How do you go through all those experiences and not get too nervous? How do you meet all the world leaders? How do you remember — part of your book outlines just the detailed level of things you have to remember about every country and how a tiny thing wrong — obviously, there are some bigger mistakes, not that they were your fault, but hanging a flag upside down or having it appear that way.

Capricia: .

Zibby: I know you did. That was amazing. Every country is so different. Every leader is so different. How do you keep it all top of mind and present in such a calm, dignified way no matter what? What if you’re having a bad day? How do you tuck that away? How do you do it?

Capricia: What protocol drives you to do is to be ultimately prepared. It is in that you’re able to keep it, as you put it, all together. I had to make sure that I did all of the research, my homework, the background checks, because I had to advise the president. I had to advise the secretary of state, the vice president, on culture nuances, directives in a meeting, how to engage in a way that was going to pivot the power in their direction. Before they even thought about stepping into the room, there was so much preparation that went into that. For me, and I believe this wholeheartedly, that when you are prepared, it takes the stress out of the situation. There’s a roadmap that’s sitting before you. You go, okay, I’ve almost got my personal Waze here. I can drive my way through this engagement because I know when to stop, when to turn, what to do next. It’s when we go in it when we’re sort of chucking it to the wind that we can get lost and chaos happens. It’s the uncertainty that can cause the stress, the anxiety, and for things not to go the way that it should. I say, build a plan. Plan to fail. Why wing it?

Zibby: Then what do you do in times like this where you can’t plan anything?

Capricia: Again, that is where I think protocol really comes into play. We are in a fog right now. People are uncertain. People are scared, frankly. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to behave. They don’t know how to interact again. They’re missing it. They’re really missing the human interaction. You set forth your plan. First of all, am I abiding by the rules and regulations of my city/town? It is ten? Is it fifty? How many people can come together? Then giving people advance notice. I’d love to have you over for a cocktail. We’re going to be outside in my backyard. There will only be six couples, or six people rather. I will make sure that appetizers are individually plated. I went to an ambassador’s residence the other day. We sat outside. He had an open veranda there. It was so elegant. His wife is amazing. It was the ambassador of Singapore and his wife Gouri, just so elegant. Interesting food from Singapore on individual plates served with gloved hands. It couldn’t have felt more safe to my husband and I. We were so appreciative of it. In advance they ask, have you had any interactions that we should know about? He’s a diplomat. He has to be concerned. You just have that give and take. It’s both sides. It’s the host and the guest being respectful to one another and really informing one another so that you can enjoy each other’s company.

Zibby: It’s true. The more visibility you have into everything, the more peace of mind you can bring with you.

Capricia: A hundred percent.

Zibby: I love how in your book you say that not only were you an expert on the world stage, but that anytime you go to a dinner party, people grab you and take you into the kitchen to ask you for your advice. That’s so classic. I could totally see if I were good friends with somebody who has had your job to be like, what do I do with these place cards here? and everything else.

Capricia: I never minded it, ever, ever. Anytime anybody asked, sure, okay, let’s go.

Zibby: What’s the most applicable thing that you took away from your whole government experience that you feel like you can use in the day-to-day interactions in your own life or in your close friend’s lives? What’s one of the most important tips that you got out of it?

Capricia: It was actually a lesson that I learned from both presidents, Clinton and Obama. They are the two most empathetic people that I’ve ever met in my entire life. They understood that the importance of leadership was not derived from being strong and decisive. Yes, they are that because they are the president of the United States and leader of the free world. It’s from putting themselves into the position of the person they’re speaking with, the person that they’re helping, the group that is lost, and by drawing upon empathy. In particular today where people are feeling confused, uncertain, we have this whole new dialogue, these discussions, sometimes hard discussions, on race, how can we learn more about one another? What did I think I knew but perhaps I didn’t quite know? By engaging in this discussion and learning more about you, boy, I’m going to become a better person. I certainly am going to know more about the topic. Figuring out ways to create those bridges of understanding, it’s really important. The two of them, that was one lesson that they really taught me in abundance.

Zibby: I guess if I had a lot to do with presidents, I would try to store away any tips so I could throw those back out. One thing I was struck by in your book was also the importance of environment and how even just how you set up a room for a meeting can have a massive effect on the outcome and how people approach it and go into it. Can you talk a little more about that? Even high and low ceilings and the positioning of the tables, tell me about that.

Capricia: That’s the superpower protocol. The superpower protocol are these micro-moves that have a major impact. Story to illustrate it, I tell this at — when I traveled with the president to Mexico for the G20, he was going to meet with President Putin. This was their first meeting when Putin regained the presidency. There was so much drama involved in this. Everything was so tense. I went to the NSC to get the brief agenda of the meeting like I usually did so I could figure out, what exactly do we need to do here? How does protocol create this framework for diplomacy to take place? Then I’m meeting with him. Sorry, I’m waiting to greet him. He’s running late. That’s frustrating. It really kind of sets you off. He finally arrives. That was a mental mind game on his part. That was a deliberate move on President Putin’s. I am sure. Greeted him, hello, hello, and then escorted him and made our way to the room. Upon greeting, I do the introductions to the president.

We had heard that he was hopeful that Secretary Clinton was not going to be in the meeting because the two of them had a bit of back and forth going on about the recent election. President Obama, he’s so funny this way. He’s big, tall. He’s greeting him. He steps aside. He goes, “Oh, hello. Have you met my secretary of state?” and unveils Secretary Clinton. Just in that moment, again, the mindset of diplomacy, you could tell there was a hint of surprise by President Putin that there she stood and didn’t think that maybe she was going to be there. That sets a mood. That sets a tone. Then we escort them into the room. We design. Protocol designs the room from the table to the décor on the table to the lighting in the room to, as you put it, the size of the room. We wanted the size to be small. We wanted President Putin to feel forced into this discussion. We wanted to him to feel like his back was almost literally against the wall because they needed to come together. They needed to lessen the gap in their difference on some of these hardcore issues. We learned after that we had rigged the room well because they did actually come together on many of these issues. We felt like protocol won the day that day.

Zibby: Then you also point out when it totally failed, like with the meeting with the Chinese, I think that’s who it was, afterwards, how that meeting was set up improperly. Am I getting that right?

Capricia: Then, it was with President Putin.

Zibby: Oh, it was? Okay, I’m sorry.

Capricia: It was in another location. It was just in a tent that was big and vast. The way that the two presidents were seated next to one another, it was awkward, the way that they had to turn. The space allowed for there to feel as though there was no connectivity between them. All of the elements just did not work. Again, the readout afterwards was they were far apart in any of the issues of importance that United States and Russia need to come together on. We don’t have to always agree with our counterparts. We certainly aren’t going to always agree with our counterparts. That’s what diplomacy is about. It’s about creating those relationships. It’s about discussing those hardcore issues and figuring out a way that we can come closer together, have a better understanding.

Zibby: If you were going to design — let’s say you have to have a difficult conversation with somebody in your own life, not to keep taking your amazing advice on the global scale and taking it down to my tiny little life. Let’s just say you were going to plan a meeting where you had to negotiate something, for instance, with somebody. You might not have the same points of view. How would you design that environment from the protocol standpoint? What can you do to make the environment more like your Mexican event versus the other one?

Capricia: First of all, bring people to a place that matters to you. You’re meeting with a new client. Bring them to a room in your office or your home that showcases a bit about that business and what you’ve done. Maybe it’s a founding document or an award that you’ve just won. Make sure that those are displayed and you’re there and that they know. “I’m going to bring you to my office. I don’t bring many people, but I really want…” They know they’re going somewhere special. Then in that room itself, make sure that you’ve zhuzhed it up. Have the seating so that when you’re discussing, it’s a one on one. You’re looking at one another. It feels comfortable. I’m a big believer in having a little nosh, to make sure that food is an element in things. It’s very welcoming. It’s very inviting no matter how we are engaging. It could be with a friend on a personal matter, it could, like I said, be with someone of importance to our business. They feel very welcome. They feel very respected by those gestures. Those small details really begin to add up.

Zibby: It’s so true. Tell me about, what made you write this book? I know in the book you talk about how everybody was always asking your advice and telling you to write one, so you were finally like, okay, fine. How did it happen exactly? Then what was the process like for you writing it?

Capricia: On my last day, I have to say, I sobbed so hard on poor President Obama’s shoulder. I think I saturated it. It was just the saddest day. I did not want to go. I love, love, loved my job. He kept trying to convince me to stay. It was very, very sweet. I knew as a mother that there was a thirteen-year-old boy who really needed his mom a little more involved in his life, so I did leave. When I left, I did join the private sector. I started to engage a bit with clients. I joined the Atlantic Council, a think tank here in Washington, DC. I noticed that people were having a really hard time developing those relationships that matter in their business, that mattered in their lives. Finding those threads of connectivity, it wasn’t easy. It didn’t come about for them easy. I was like, wow, this is what I did for presidents and secretaries of state. I thought, I have to put these lessons and tools down with interesting anecdotes so that I can help people in doing that and sharing it with individuals. I wanted to really talk about, why is it important to invest in that relationship? How can you respectfully invest in that relationship so that you then can build those bonds of trust? From bonds of trust, then your goals are going to come. Those desires that you have in that relationship will be an eventual end game for you.

Zibby: How did you go about writing this book? Did you outline the whole thing? What was the process of the structuring and then the actual sitting down and writing it?

Capricia: I’d like to say it was a first go and that was it, but it wasn’t. I have a great editor at Ecco. I also had a wonderful collaborator. It was interesting, in the first sense, the way that I thought the book should be structured, I remember I submitted the entire outline and sent it to her. I was so proud, so excited. I was proud that I went off on a trip to Spain. She calls me on my trip to Spain. She’s like, “We need to talk. I’m not understanding where these — I know you understand it, Capricia, but this is complicated stuff you’re talking about. I need for you to explain it to us in a way that is going to be a lot more relatable.” I realized that suddenly, that I was communicating like protocol officer to protocol officer and not to the world at large. So redesign of it and then thought through, these are the tools that I’ve used for the physical way in which you can engage with people. Here are some communications tools that I used. Then here are those mindset tools that I implemented and I used. Then I divided the book up that way and put all of those in order. Then I realized, actually, at the end when I finished that there was one more chapter I really felt was important to include. It was Negotiating While Female. I felt that was important to include. I had to fight for it with my editor. She says, “Oh, this is an outlier. I’m not sure that this works.” I go, “No, I promise you it will work.” All of these tools and lessons work for everybody, men and women, but they do apply slightly differently for women. There are some nuances that women must know so that they can gain that advantage. We are in a constant state of negotiation as women always in everything that we do. How can I game out here? How can I get the advantage here? I really wanted to devote that chapter to help women in that regard.

Zibby: Would you write another book now that you’ve done it? Did you enjoy the process?

Capricia: I did. Actually, my editor reached out to me. She’s asking for me to do a follow-up in today’s environment. I’m going to be starting while I’m still promoting this one. I’m going to start drafting out a new one.

Zibby: That’s great. When I was reading this, you had a lot of things that I was like, ooh, what would she say now? Physical contact or shaking hands or all these things that I was like, wow, wouldn’t that be nice if we could still do that? That’s great. Excellent. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Capricia: Golly. If you have an idea, go for it. Go for it. What’s most important, I learned, is that draft that you put forth and that you send around the publishing — everyone thinks you’ve got to write the book and then send the book out. What’s really important is doing the synopsis of what this book is about and being as clear and as defined as you possibly can be in that synopsis so that when those publishers call and say, “Hey, I’d like to talk to you about your book,” it grabs their attention. Then you can do a deeper dive in the personal. Then you can expand it out when you start to write the book. That’s really, really important.

Zibby: I loved the personal stuff that you included. It was so interesting to hear about your family and your parents and how they met, the whole melding of different cultures and going back to where your father grew up. It was really neat. It’s great to have that kind of context when you’re hearing anybody’s professional life. To have the personal is such a nice antidote to that.

Capricia: Thank you so very much. I’m so glad to hear you say that because it was in my core. The home that I grew up in truly helped me appreciate the difference of culture and the difference of people around the world, and wanting to then, when I had the great opportunity on the global stage, to shine a big old spotlight on those beautiful differences.

Zibby: I guess that’s the trick. If you want to raise a chief protocol officer, find somebody to marry from a different culture. Then your child will have better luck at it, working at home. Thank you so much for all of your time. Thanks for your great book and all the tips that you gave for laypeople like me and everyone else. Thank you.

Capricia: My absolute pleasure. Thank you so very much for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Have a great day.

Capricia: Thanks. You too. Take care. I’ll be thinking of you.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Buh-bye.

Capricia: Bye.

Capricia Penavic Marshall, PROTOCOL