“The Air Force mentoring program should focus on developing subordinate leadership skills. Current Air Force mentoring instructions substitute career building for leadership development.” These are the first two lines from a 2003 Air Command and Staff College thesis written by Major Todd Lancaster. When I stumbled upon this paper, this statement really hit me and was a key driver in starting the Deliberate Development site and in-house mentoring initiatives with my team. I will not dissect the paper in this article; rather, I am going to discuss how we can take a step to solve this problem.
In today’s system this issue is only getting worse as many Airmen, NCOs and SNCOs are seeking the next shiny box to fill to help them become more promotion eligible. The problem is that career development and box-checking is a short-term and short-sighted method to “leadership development.” We default to this method because it is a tangible thing we can measure. I know how well your training is going by your percentage of qualifying tasks signed off or whether you completed PME or not. I can report those numbers to my boss and say my team is on track. We don’t measure how effective the individual’s PME training or task training was though, because it is much more subjective.
From my experience, there four main areas that a solid Air Force SNCO has to learn and master. Some specialize in one and others have a mix of all four; however, the goal is to be well-rounded. These areas are: Program Management, Leading Others, Resource Management, and Task-Performance.
Program Management: Many SNCOs manage a program or function. Their flights or sections are charged with performing a specific function. In terms of an EPR or awards package, the accomplishments would read as “generated 35 missions or flight managed 200 records.” Many people are focused in this area and deliver some really impressive results.
Task Performance: This is the other major area that people shine. “Taught 1.2K hours; trained new CATM instructor; 50% of TBA tasks completed; etc” These are the singular actions that benefit the mission or organization.
Task performance and program management are the two areas where NCOs transitioning from on-the-job leaders to team leaders focus on the most. Watching them in action usually reveals someone who is a stickler for the AFIs and can only see things in black or white or they are in the weeds of those doing the job. They were great technicians and know how the job “should” be done and want to be in the mix to ensure everything is done correctly. There are those that never get past this stage because it does produce results and their supervision only sees the results not the effect on the people. That takes us into leading people.
Leading Others: A lot of people in leadership roles have trouble showing how they lead others. What is worse is that many of us do not know how to lead others. We assume that because we are completing tasks that we are leading others. This is simple management that is essentially “managing” those on the team during their Task Performance.
To lead others, you need to create a vision everyone can work towards and then develop and empower them to achieve it. For example, my vision for the SSgts and TSgts at FTD is to prepare them to be SNCOs. We do this by investing in their professional skills and giving them leadership opportunities. It is not a perfect system and we are still tweaking a lot of things, but it is making some amazing people even better. The best part is, I am only moving obstacles out of their way and allowing them to take risks. They don’t need me to hold their hands. Most of us do not want to be managed, we just want to know where we are heading and what we are allowed/prohibited to do.
Resource Management: There are three main resource categories: money, time and wisdom (I define wisdom as the crossover of experience and knowledge). All of us have a mixture of these three things in our personal and professional lives. We all get to choose how efficient we are with our time. We all get to choose how diligent we are about learning our craft. I have a friend who used to print out aircraft tech data and study them at his house and then fight to get onto the weird and rare jobs for the experience. And we all can control the budget by not being wasteful.
Leaders look for areas where these resources are being wasted and find ways to make it better. A friend of mine saw a huge waste of time creating an in-house product that ate up about 6 hours a day per flight. He offered a solution that required a tweak in the system of record that would allow for more time to be spent doing the actual job rather than tracking it. He saved us hundreds of hours each year which ultimately saved money and enabled more experience on the job.
To be a great SNCO, you need to master all four of these areas. However, you don’t have to wait until you are a SNCO to work on them. Both examples I just illustrated about my friend with tech data and the other saving 6 hours per day were started when they were a Airman and TSgt respectively. Both of them turned out to be amazing SNCOs because they continued to grow their abilities in each area.