Marching Orders. Williams formed a team to work "quicker, better, more responsively." (Photo by Janice L. Tuchman for ENR)

How do you open 15 embassies and consulates in four years, start construction on 39 more and have 13 ready to bid? Two words: "Discipline and accountability," says Charles E. Williams, director and COO of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations at the U.S. State Dept.

"Accountability is a word Williams uses every day," says P.K. Bagchi, OBO’s project director for the new U.S. Embassy complex under construction in Beijing. "He doesn’t micromanage, and his door is open so you can discuss problems on the horizon. But he has truly implemented performance measures."

Williams was hand-picked for the job in December 2000 by then Secretary of State designate Colin Powell as the newly elected Bush administration prepared to enter the White House. He recalls that Powell charged him with what Williams calls an "awesome task," to turn around the existing, slow-moving program and rapidly increase security.

Upgrading embassy security around the world became a top State Dept. priority after the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The department found major deficiencies at 195 of its 264 embassies and consulates, real estate worth $12 billion. Some were functionally obsolete as well. But the standard design-bid-build process used then, along with limited resources, meant only one or two facilities a year could be built. The old program, under the Office of Foreign Buildings Operations, suffered because it did not have a plan. Says one critic: FBO "had a lousy reputation on Capitol Hill and within State."

But Williams, who retired as a major general after 29 years with the Army Corps of Engineers, had a mandate straight from Powell. Williams shows visitors the reference in the book, The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell: "Do whatever is needed to overhaul the capital planning procedures and operations of your office....Go ahead and push the envelope...ignore traditions that don’t work any more–and whatever you do, don’t bother asking for permission."

Williams indeed pushed the envelope. After Powell raised the office to the more senior bureau status within the State Dept., Williams asserted his unique management style to turn the program around. His first term was an unqualified success. Four years into his tenure, there were 54 embassy compounds under construction or completed. Not only did he dramatically accelerate the pace of construction, he started saving money by implementing Standard Embassy Designs (SED) and design-build project delivery. These techniques reduced the duration of a project by as much as a third. Officials saved $63 million on fiscal 2002 projects, for example, allowing OBO to plan an additional facility. Click here to view embassy buildings

More Work in the Pipeline 
  Award Date
Baghdad, Iraq Summer 2005
Beirut, Lebanon September 2005
Ciudad Juarez, Mexico July 2005
Johannesburg, South Africa September 2005
Khartoum, Sudan September 2005
Kigali, Rwanda September 2005
Libreville, Gabon September 2005
Mumbai, India August 2005
Quito, Ecuador August 2005
Skopje, Macedonia September 2005
Suva, Fiji September 2005
Source: U.S. State Dept., Bureau Overseas Buildings Operations 

SED allows contractors "to take more consistent design criteria to delivery more rapidly," allowing construction to begin sooner, explains Mike Gwyn, a government group vice president with Fluor Corp., now responsible for the operation of J.A. Jones International. Williams works regularly with industry to refine SED, adds Gwyn.

Williams also shifted the program away from a traditional government approach, employing some of the management skills he used in the military and in the private sector to achieve performance-based results. His first task, he says, was to sprinkle private-sector talent within the staff. "We had to do things quicker, better and more responsively," Williams says.

He also instituted a land acquisition strategy where U.S. officials select 10-acre sites for future compounds that meet environmental, security and other criteria. Preselecting the land makes it easier to go to Congress and ask for money to build the compound, Williams explains. It also frees the design-build team from worrying about issues in the host country such as zoning or night work.

Shortly after she became Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice asked Williams to stay on, saying, "I don’t want you to change anything," Williams claims. He says Rice is promoting a new vision that she calls "transformational diplomacy." OBO’s role is to transform old dysfunctional embassies into all-encompassing "diplomatic platforms" that include an array of government agencies, such as an Environmental Protection Agency office or an Agency for International Development unit, within one compound.

Frequent Flyer. Williams has visited 122 countries, often for ceremonies such as groundbreakings in Berlin (above) and Managua, Nicaragua. (Photos courtesy of Department of State)

Four years ago OBO was managing $700 million worth of work. Today, that portfolio exceeds $4 billion. Williams has visited 122 posts during his tenure, including numerous groundbreakings and opening ceremonies such as the one at the $75-million embassy in Yerevan, Armenia, on May 6 (see cover).

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget "rated our new construction management as 97% effective for execution. We have 15 to 20 large reliable American contractors working for us now, versus two or three in years past." Williams says. The plan now stretches out over 14 years with a total cost of $17.5 billion. To stretch those resources further, the White House is phasing in a cost-sharing program among the many agencies that will share space in new embassy compounds. When fully matured in four years it will add $1.4 billion each year to the funding stream.

Leadership Secrets

Observers credit Williams’ managerial skill as a key to his success. Larry D. Walker, group vice president for global infrastructure of Louis Berger Group, says one can’t divorce Williams’ style from the magnitude of the program. Williams "had to implement a strong organizational model," Walker contends. "He is a strong disciplinarian and this is what this organization needs."

Louis Berger currently is assisting OBO with conceptual design for the new embassy compound in Baghdad. "It’s the upfront work," explains Walker. Designers take the concept to a point where the design-build teams can bid on it–generally 15 to 25% complete. Click here to view Who's Who in State Dept. Design-Build

Along with management strength, Williams needed the support of senior leaders at the State Dept., considered extremely political even by Washington standards, as well as Capitol Hill. "He was brilliant in understanding Congress and OMB," which...