State employee coordinates help in overseas crises

Tuesday - 6/12/2012, 8:35am EDT

Michelle Bernier-Toth, Managing Director, Overseas Citizens Services, Bureau of Consular Affairs

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When Americans travel abroad, they know in times of crisis they can get assistance from the U.S. embassy.

But if it wasn't for Michelle Bernier-Toth, the ability to get accurate information in times of uprisings, natural disasters or wars could be far more challenging.

Toth is the managing director of Overseas Citizens Services in State's Bureau of Consular Affairs.

For her efforts, she has been named a finalist in the National Security and International Affairs category of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to American Medals, also known as Sammies.


Federal News Radio asked the Sammies finalists to tell us a bit about themselves.

What three words best describe your leadership philosophy?

I don't need three words — my philosophy is, "Why not?" Asking myself this question keeps me from becoming stuffy or rigid in my thinking, and challenges me to look at problems or issues in a new light. Even if the end result is the same, it's a good exercise.

What's the best piece of advice (or words of wisdom) you've ever received and who gave it to you?

Two pieces of advice resonate with me:

Things always look better in the morning. (This doesn't mean I don't lose sleep at night, but I know it's true.)

What are the facts? Start with those, then solve the problem.

Who is your biggest role model and why?

I work in an organization that attracts great leaders, and over the years I've had many role models, from supervisors to peers to subordinates — and of course my parents, who instilled in me the value of public service. My role models are generally people with their feet on the ground and heads on straight, who care about others and don't have big egos. They believe in doing the right thing, and doing it right.

What's the biggest challenge you've had to overcome (personally or professionally) and how did you overcome it?

Finding a good work/life balance. It's a constant struggle. I've tended to tilt to the work side of the balance, and am trying to do better — I think it's important to set the right example for my team. We often work long hours and weekends when there's a crisis or a high-profile case that requires our action. That's part of the job. But I don't want people staying late at work just to be seen — if they don't need to be there, they should go home!

What's the last thing you read and what's next on your reading list?

I usually read a couple of books at the same time, mostly fiction or biographies. I just finished "The Hakawati" by Rabih Alameddine and am now reading Alison Mendel's "Bringing Up the Bodies." I'm also reading "My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness" by Adina Hoffman.

What's your favorite bureaucratic phrase?

There are a lot of bureaucratic phrases that I try to avoid, but as someone who usually seeks consensus on an issue, I like the phrase, "On the same page."

Meet the rest of 2012 Sammies finalists.