As a young Airman, I thought the awards system was a joke. Those who won Airman or NCO of the quarter or year were those who were never spotted on the flightline where the work was happening. As a one-striper, I had already decided that was not something I wanted to be a part of. I then looked for where the true awards were in my career field.

As a Crew Chief, being able to lead your crew, getting assigned your own aircraft or being selected as a flying crew chief were major honors given to those who knew how to do their jobs well. However, very little fanfare followed those milestones. They were bullets on EPRs, but still not enough to push you for Below the Zone or other awards. In fact, I was only a contender for BTZ because I was taking college courses, not because of my skills with a wrench. I had peers just as talented, if not more, who were not looked at because they didn’t go to college.

Two counterpoints to make on this topic are: Yes, we want reward those working on the whole person concept with volunteerism or professional development. The other is that there are awards for “Crew Chief of the Year” or “<insert career field> of the Year” that often go to the performers; however, those bullets do not hold as much weight as Amn or NCO of the Year. I have actually been directed to remove some of the “other” awards from decoration packages. This is because they are not universally recognized. I am not bashing these awards or those who earn them; rather, attempting to make the point we are not rewarding the behaviors we need repeated if we want to be effective warfighters.

I completely believe that we need to be working on the whole person and those who are not developing themselves will struggle in future leadership roles. When we take college classes, certification courses, or volunteer, we are learning different perspectives, making connections and seeing the world from different angles. These things will make you better leaders in the future; however, there needs to be a balance. When people learn that these are things that push their awards package to the top and having one of these awards will greatly aid their promotion statement, you have people focussing on these periphery things. You really can’t blame them.

Yes, pro development is a requisite for effective leadership; however, having gone through the struggles of the actual job made me a much more effective leader. I knew the impacts of 12-hour shifts on the body and the family. I knew the feeling of extreme hot and cold and what it felt like to miss the base functions everyone else got to go to. Because of that, I forced myself to think twice before asking the same of those on my team. Having earned a degree or leading a volunteer event make you stronger leaders, but those things alone are a recipe for disaster.

The first question that should be asked if we want to change this culture is: who is doing their job well. Who is the person moving the mission and actually earning their paycheck according to the AFSC badge they are wearing? No other factors should be considered at this point. Only those performing. Next, who out of these performers are pushing to better themselves.

Why doesn’t this happen? Several things contribute to this. First of all, 99% of the packages that come across have similar performance bullets. Usually, they are unit level impacts. “Billy did x; it worked–contributed to 1,000 missions this month”. When the masses have similar impacts, what do you do? You look for their personal impact which is almost impossible to discern what they actually did on an individual level. So, then you move on down to the whole Airman stuff which reflects what they did directly. “Billy took 3 classes; earned 9 credits–bachelors with 4.0 GPA”.

We tend to give credit for the job performance tasks based on one task they did merged with the collective whole of the unit. However, we don’t do this for college or volunteerism.There haven’t been too many “Billy took 3 classes; passed–added to unit’s 1,000 credits this quarter” pass by me. We need to change the focus for the WHOLE package to reflect what THAT person actually did. However, this is not as sexy and will require a culture change.

Step one: who are the performers moving the mission?

Step two: who amongst them are preparing for future leadership roles?

Step three: write bullets to reflect individual impacts.

Potential Pitfall/Solution: at first, the top performers may not have a lot of pro dev efforts and you will be tempted to move to the next person. Work through this and challenge them directly. “Billy, you are seen as a leader in your career field. Your peers look up to you and you will be a leader. We want to revamp the awards system to stop rewarding professional volunteers and we need you to take on some pro dev efforts. Here are some that helped me move to the next level … ” You may need to wait a quarter or two to groom them properly, but it is worth it. In hindsight, I wish I had spent more time on grooming the top performers who had given up hope on winning an award.

Another strategy is to make a mass announcement that starting first quarter 2020 of how your team is going to do awards moving forward. When we did this in my last unit, I outlined our new awards strategy by saying frontline supervisors would be the nominators based on performance. I know we weren’t perfect in rewarding the #1 person every time, but deserving people did win and the favoritism complaints were almost nil.

Rewarding performance first and then development efforts will be noticed by those young Airmen and NCOs. They will see those who are the workers earning awards and they will value what is rewarded. A fact that has rang true throughout my whole career is that you get the behaviors your reward. What are you rewarding?

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