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Deliberate Development

Professional Development for the Military Leader

Author

Jessy Martin

Jessy seeks to develop others using a combination of his experience, lessons learned from mentors, and inspiration from educational pursuits. He currently serves as a SNCO in the U.S. Air Force. Jessy's views do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force or the U.S. government.

Forced Distribution: Simple Fix to Eliminate Brown-Nosers

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?

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Daily Deliberation: 22 June 2018

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.

My Boss Said I Could

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.

Daily Deliberation: 25 April 2018

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.

Daily Deliberation: 22 April 2018

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.

Daily Deliberation: 7 February 2018

Mentorship is an often confused term in the Air Force.  It is sometimes a term synonymously confused with ‘career progression grooming’.  However, it is important to remember that they are distinctly different things.  Being a mentor is more than just showing someone the path to the next grade.  Mentorship is about developing abilities.  Seeking out that person that seems to have an area of their life figured out where you might otherwise be weaker at can be the basis for a mentoring relationship even if it doesn’t involve your career.  Find that person—it is truly a win-win situation.

Daily Deliberation: 4 February 2018

We all have people that we look up to that we believe personify values we hold.  Whether they are people we interact with every day or a historical figure, we seek some level of inspiration from them.  One leader I look up to is Brigadier General Robin Olds—in fact I have a photo of him wearing his famously out-of-regs mustache while preflighting an F-4 hanging on the wall in my home office.  Why you ask?  To me, he personifies risk taking, bold leadership, and servant leader dedication—traits I hold in high regard because they often lack in leadership.  I will sometimes glance up at his photo for a bit of inspiration during trying times.  Think about a leader whose traits you value and seek to personify those traits–use them as a model.

Daily Deliberation: 1 February 2018

There is some truth in the effects of influence from the company you keep.  There are two ways those close associations go; either you influence those around you or they influence you.  What’s the problem with that?  Nothing—unless those influences are negative.  Don’t be around those people and take on the burden of their complaints about the circumstance that they face and can’t control.  Instead, take your own path and control the things you can control.

Trust: An imperative for organizational growth

As a young SSgt crew chief, I can remember remarking to my peers about how I felt like a glorified SrA; I could correct, inspect, and sign off jobs to make an aircraft airworthy again, but my unit didn’t really trust me or my counterparts beyond that.  I came to work each day, did my job as a maintainer to the best of my ability, policed up my ratees as a supervisor, and went home at the end of the night.  I had been working in a rather large aircraft maintenance unit for a few years and knew that my leadership recognized only when things went wrong.  Even when matters such as issuing LOCs and the determination of EPR markings occurred at the lower echelons—at the first line supervisor level—supervision often stepped in to question it or take control of the situation.  Why was this?  It all boiled down to a lack of trust and a belief that those at the junior levels were too inexperienced to handle leadership and managerial tasks.  As leaders and managers, we feel the need to monitor and control things to ensure they do not go wrong.  We won’t accept a mistake or a delay.  However, in doing so, we stymie the growth of our junior enlisted Airmen.

When there is a lack of trust

There are consequences that result from our need to keep pressure on things to ensure they don’t fail.  First and foremost, we are telling our people that we do not trust them.  During aircraft generation exercises at one base, ‘cell bosses’ were assigned to monitor a group of three aircraft and report their readiness to the maintenance operations control center.  Instead of assigning a capable SSgt, TSgt or even a ranking SrA already assigned to an aircraft to report status, it was a job frequently reserved for a MSgt.  This eroded the assigned SNCO’s time, pulling them away from their primary duties simply to monitor maintenance actions during an exercise and adding another layer of supervision to all processes, duplicating the effort of the production teams.  That process did not trust the junior enlisted or frontline supervisors to monitor and report the generation of their own aircraft.

Work in military organizations in general is directed from the upper echelons to the lower levels, leaving little in terms of initiative other than in the execution of the assigned task.  While certainly not the wrong way to execute the functions of the military organization, the lack of control and trust in closely controlled mechanistic organizations tend to be due to the shifting of responsibility.

Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, posits that a traditional authoritarian supervision is a Win/Lose paradigm, meaning that one person in a relationship wins while the other loses.  This erodes trust, and where trust is lacking, there is a tendency to hover over, check up on, and direct.  Since the trust isn’t in the relationship, leaders and managers feel as though they need to control others closely, using them only as their ‘gofers’.

All of those actions to control simply work to erode the leader/manager’s time and increases their work scope to include the trivial, creating an atmosphere where short-sightedness and the lack of analysis of root causes to organizational problems set in.  No forecasting or planning occurs, leaving things like recognition packages or taskers on the backburner, only for those things to jump to the forefront of the leader’s attention when they suddenly come due, leaving the leader to “put out fires”.  Like a game of whack-a-mole, the manager deals with problems as they arise with no time to seek any root causes.  They believe their subordinates are incapable of handling mildly complex situations.  Slowly but surely, a manager’s job becomes nothing more than the monitor of all a section’s programs, directing their ‘gofers’ to attend to the day to day tasks associated to them.

As we add levels of rank and oversight to things, we stomp out opportunity which results in broken organizations.  We rob subordinates of the ability to fail, rob them of the ability to learn that failure isn’t the end and to learn from each of their experiences.  We rob them of the ability to solve problems as supervisors.  It tells Airmen that they are not valued because they are not trusted—we are telling them that they are simply a means to an end.  Long-term, there is no commitment to the organization that doesn’t trust them and results in real retention issues.  Fast forward to ideas of mandatory fun to bridge the chasm that has developed between an organization and its lower echelons in an attempt to shore up morale.

How do we solve this problem?

You know who your superstars are.  Since the changes in the enlisted evaluation system, you’ve likely become acutely aware of who your ‘superstars’ are—don’t restrict your thinking to just TSgts.  Think of your rising SrA and SSgts.  How you’ve evaluated those Airmen is your method to nail down, but bottom line is that you know who is capable of handling responsibility.  Give them responsibility.  As a brand-new SSgt, I was in charge of two seasoned civilians and three Airmen—my own shift.  I became the “go-to” guy in my shop because of the technical skills I honed and some of the managerial skill I developed.  Put your money where your mouth is when you sign that person’s EPR—if you gave them a push for the next rank, you are telling everyone you believe that they are ready for responsibility.

Don’t just ‘add rank’.  Adding rank to a problematic situation or program simply means they can muscle in changes they want and that they can apply the organizational fixes they think will work, not what might actually work.  This just adds barriers to communication and potentially more layers of supervision, which is really the last thing you’d need in a situation where the atmosphere generally lacks trust.  Adding rank means, “I will win, you will lose”.  The lack of trust perpetuates and while things might be okay for a while, nothing is ever truly fixed.  If adding rank is the consistent fix, you might have or be in the process of creating an atmosphere devoid of trust and people who have become professionally ‘immature’ because time hasn’t been invested in priming them for increased responsibility.  At that point, they’ve become resolved to think of themselves merely as drones to be controlled by their immediate supervision, a point where they retreat into their own clichés and look out for their self-interests.

Empowerment, not delegation.  Stephen Covey sums up my idea of empowerment perfectly—“a job with trust”.  You still retain responsibility for things under your roof, but resist the urge to simply delegate a task.  Don’t make the person your gofer.  Empowerment doesn’t mean throwing a pile on them and running.  Resist the urge to jerk on the leash when you give a young SSgt a set of responsibilities.  Lay out expectations, end results, and boundaries or limitations and let them go about their task.  Be available, but make things a learning experience for them rather that you giving them all the answers.  Things will get dropped, but if the person you assigned is a person of character, they will quickly recover and move forward.  Your job is to adjust direction, give a gentle nudge and move big rocks, not control everything day-by-day, step-by-step.

Get yourself right.  Yes, I said it.  We all have faults.  Imbuing some level of trust in an organization means the leader needs to adapt as well.  When I was a production superintendent, I struggled daily to keep my hands off of the individual maintenance actions on the flight line.  My job was of a larger scope, not to tell someone how to do their job step-by-step.  I’ve been an avid reader of professional development literature for a few years now and it has widened my gaze to many things I was doing wrong.  A common habit among pro supers; impressing our autobiographies on the technicians that worked for us—“When I was a crew chief…”.  Instead of really letting them dig deep into an issue, we would step in with the corrective action for a job without firsthand knowledge.  While that wasn’t always wrong, we often did so at the expense of not allowing them to learn and problem solve for themselves, making them dependent on our guidance or too afraid to act independently.  Learn to accept mistakes and use them to teach instead of reacting to the mistake, seeking to counter it.

Consequences?

If we cannot address our trust issues as organizational leaders and managers in the long term, we face the ‘dumbing down’ of the successive generation of leadership in the Air Force—from our future NCOs to our future SNCOs.  For aircraft maintenance, it’s known that we’ve garnered several thousand new accessions in the last year, according to a December 2017 issue of the Air Force Times.  In the next four to five years those new accessions will be our frontline supervisors, hopefully gaining the needed experience required to keep our aircraft maintenance complexes running.  Our current NCO corps will need the leadership skills necessary to direct the organization as future SNCOs.  Our trust problem is an imperative that applies across the force as a whole—SNCOs and officers alike.  How we approach our Airmen in developing their leadership skills now will affect the future of our Air Force.

– Jessy

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