I’ve felt confusion in many roles I’ve held. Those jobs quickly became demoralizing as I struggled to understand what priority I was working toward while my grandiose ideas were put on the backburner permanently. Many Airmen fight with this issue. The sooner we recognize that we must set a priority in our jobs and understand the essential duties from the nonessential, the sooner we might alleviate stress and anxiety that comes with doing many things but not being effective at any of them. One reading I recommend is ‘Essentialism’ by Greg McKeown. I’ve found that, while I am not great at many aspects of my job, I know that the focus I’ve applied to a few areas will pay dividends in the future and make a better organization overall. The hardest part is knowing that means I may upset some people in the chain of command, but it is a tradeoff for the greater good and provides a clarity of purpose and it’s something I have come to terms with. Focus is key, and doing a few things with excellence can make all the difference.
I recently read a principle written by the host of the Manager Tools podcast Mark Horstman that struck me. It reads, “Any hour you spend on people is a better investment than an hour spent on systems, processes or policies. Great people can overcome average systems; average people won’t live up to great systems”. In maintenance, we spend a lot of time talking about developing or streamlining a process but never how we will develop or coach someone struggling in their work—it’s generally assumed that if someone is doing a bad job that it stems from a lack of motivation or care. Take time to deliberately invest in people—you might avoid problems later on.
Feedback is a foundational task for any NCO. We believe that a lack of errors is good performance and if there are no errors, no feedback is necessary. What actually happens is that we close off the opportunity to improve our organizations. When we don’t guide and develop people at the one-on-one level (with regular feedback, not just formal), the cracks start to show in bigger ways within the organization. I’ve seen this manifest into a top-down management culture, making it reactionary and ‘dumber’ because only the people at higher levels can see the wider scope of the situation and compensate for the gaps in the organization’s performance. More systems are then created to avoid errors. Just because nothing is wrong doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t develop people before they make mistakes or bigger problems appear—we should coach our people and share our experiences. In the long run, I think we could avoid bigger cultural problems because of it.
As the MSgt was raising his voice, it was apparent that he was passionate about the topic we began discussing a few minutes earlier. I stayed with the conversation. Had I taken my ego and rank as a SMSgt into the situation, I would have likely reacted differently. My patience paid off because he got his message across—he had been putting off a needed surgery because he felt obligated to stay on the roster to work. Rank and ego should never be part of a discussion when a subordinate is trying to talk about an issue—you might unintentionally extinguish a conversation that might build some trust and uncover problems.
When the Enlisted Evaluation System changed, CMSAF Cody believed that the new system would not lead to backstabbing–many Airmen I’ve spoken to would have a different opinion on the matter. In examining that system we have to keep in mind how it is administered, which leads to a question; is the system broken or is our application of it wrong? I would argue that it lies in our application of the system.
I have noted that many people believe the system is largely detached from its primary purpose–to reward those top performers in their primary duties. I’ve seen SNCOs make forced distribution recommendations–without the supervisor’s involvement. I think we pushed the system to its current state. Instead of giving some level of input from supervisors in the process, we detach an Airman’s day-to-day work and look only at what SNCOs ‘see’ of each person–a fairly limited view. Hence, we see the ‘brown-noser’ when someone deliberately works to be seen by supervision–they understand who the decision makers are.
What would happen if we involved the individual’s immediate supervisor in the process? It’s a simple change. SNCOs would guide it, but the recommendation ‘rankings’ would be determined by their supervisors as a whole in a discussion forum. I tried it and it worked wonderfully. The SSgts that we ranked for recommendations felt that they had a fair shot because their TSgt supervisors had a say in the room when that discussion was going on. My role as the SNCO; check the stack against records to ensure they supported–I was the one that spoke last during the meeting when I gave any opinions. If I did speak before that, it was to guide the discussion or prompt thinking. The TSgts even examined EPRs (we’d done an impromptu EPR review board before this discussion). You’d be amazed at how insightful the recommendations are. Plus, when you do this, you are giving some control back to supervisors and shoring up their credibility with their subordinates. So, look at the way you or your organization integrates the Enlisted Evaluation System into it and ask yourself; is it the system’s fault, or is it in the execution?
The day I found out I made SMSgt, I was congratulated by a civilian coworker–a retired Chief. He said, “Congrats Jessy, you’ll probably never get any feedback again!” His words made me think. I had no doubts that he would probably prove correct–only time will tell. I wondered why that was? Corporate executives, CEOs–the leaders of businesses seek coaching as a method of feedback. As enlisted people, we have some huge responsibilities than our predecessors did in the Air Force, which makes getting feedback of the utmost importance. Why wouldn’t I receive feedback even as a SMSgt? Our current CMSAF uses self-assessment tools to hone his leadership approach and considers himself a lifelong student of leadership. Be humble enough in your rank and position, no matter how high, to take some feedback–and seek it out. It only seeks to make you better.
Decisions and their weight become heavier once the burden of responsibility is yours to carry. When we become accountable for an outcome, we suddenly become more deliberate about avoiding a poor outcome and we rally more brain power toward the solution or the execution of the task.
In one small decision, I witnessed the shift of that weight and the reaction of one of my NCOs when it became his to carry. During a Wingman Day, the NCO asked if he’d be able to run an errand. At first I didn’t understand what he was asking me—I paused and realized that he wanted my permission to run the errand between Wingman Day events. He wanted my permission so that he was not accountable for his absence. In this way, he could be “careless” in the conduct of his temporary absence—besides, if I cleared him, he could say ‘my boss told me I could’. David Marquet calls this ‘psychological responsibility’—I’d be accountable if I gave him permission, not him.
I did something he didn’t expect. I turned to the NCO and told him that it was HIS decision to make. Immediately, he recoiled and reacted as though a flashlight had been shined in his face. You could almost see the weight of responsibility pushing down on him–he was jittery. He started talking to his coworkers to get their insight to mitigate risk if he were to run the errand and still make the next Wingman Day event. Now that he was responsible and accountable, he began to be more careful of the outcome. I noted how the psychological responsibility he suddenly assumed spurred more deliberate action—it was an experiment I conducted on the fly after having read David Marquet’s book, ‘Turn the Ship Around!’. In the book, he institutes a system of intent-based leadership on board a submarine where individuals below him made decisions—effectively giving his crew control. One of the concepts he discusses was psychological responsibility and engaging the crew through deliberate action. The NCO ran the errand but was back quickly because he put in place measures to ensure he’d be at the next event—he was accountable if he wasn’t.
We apply too many flimsy, bureaucratic controls to mitigate risks. In the maintenance community, I’ve seen the addition of in-house checklists, briefing QA failures at roll call and even added supervision to tasks. None of these seemed to work. Psychological responsibility isn’t tangible and therefore doesn’t appear to be an action to mitigate brainless mistakes, but I saw firsthand how shifting it made someone react more deliberately in an innocuous situation. Think about the controls in your organization meant to engage people and ask how effective they are. Chances are high that if you shifted responsibility closer to the decision points on the job, you’d see more deliberate action and a more steady hand in holding the weight of that responsibility.
Trust is the center of gravity for many things. If you don’t think that your supervisor or boss trusts you enough to give you greater responsibility or if your job lacks some level of satisfaction, you might be overlooking something. One thing to think about in this situation is readiness; does your supervisor or boss think you are ready? Show them that you are. If able, do things that require you to step outside of your lane. Demonstrate that you can do your job exceedingly well and take up the reigns of responsibility for something else that is not typically yours to own. You might be surprised to find that those acts communicate more than words. Those acts make you indispensable–a ‘linchpin’. They’ll be more willing to trust you in unique roles and with greater responsibility. You might even be given the room you need to act on your ideas with more freedom of movement. Deeper trust is often given to those that appear ready for it.
Pride in ownership takes a few ingredients. I found this out through a program I tried creating in my unit, which immediately fell on its face as soon as it was enacted. It was meant to encourage maintainers to take ownership in their aircraft. One component to its failure was organizational structure and culture–it didn’t support pride in ownership. Production in the aircraft maintenance community is very top-down and mechanical. Jobs and assignments are often dictated. If we are constantly telling our people what, where and when to do things, how can we hope to get their buy-in to such a concept? It first requires communication of ‘the big picture’ and the team’s objectives–frame the situation–let them get creative with how to make it happen, ownership will follow.