Listening is one of the things I am working on as a leader. I have the tendency to offer advice when someone brings me an issue. This is typically what they want, but I find I am not listening for the true root of the issue and only solving a surface symptom and not the actual problem. Actually, I have learned that my advice rarely solves another’s true problem. What helps is when I listen and ask them questions that help us both understand the problem better. By the time we get to the root of the issue, they already know what to do.
Tis the season. The holidays are upon us as are the SSgt SCOD EPRs. One of the most frequent questions we are asked during this time frame is how can push our SSgts higher on the list for Forced Distribution? I think the better question is how should a SSgt EPR read?
To be clear: I am not talking solely about making people look good on paper. I am suggesting that we need to be developing our members throughout the year and capture their efforts on paper. I am not a fan of “inflating” our teammates for the sake of EPRs.
The greatest piece of Air Force literature still remains to be the 36-2618 (Enlisted Force Structure). This book has been about 90% accurate for every new rank I have made and has provided me guidance on what to strive for when my supervisors did not. In there, it discusses what a SSgt “should” look like. They “are primarily highly skilled technicians with supervisory and training responsibilities.” This quickly read statement holds the keys to being a good SSgt.
Highly skilled technician: know your job. SSgts should be able to do their job with no one looking over their shoulders. No one should be coming behind them to fix their mistakes. They are trusted to care for their piece of the pie.
Example: SSgt Lawrence troubleshot and fixed landing gear issue… He generated 100 missions throughout the year… etc. are all examples of this. How is the SSgt doing their job well? Bullets showing job skills are often “me” focused.
Supervisory responsibilities: Typically, this is where you are a first-time supervisor with some Airmen to shepherd. You have CDCs to track, EPRs to write, feedbacks to perform, dorm inspection fails, and all of the other supervisory challenges that come with this new role.
Example: SSgt Lawrence challenged Airman X to get an 85% on CDCs… He led a volunteer clean-up event… These bullets usually show one-on-one leadership impacts or small team efforts.
Training responsibilities: Teach new Airmen and newly assigned teammates how to do their jobs. Also, teaching your subordinates how to be in the service.
Example: SSgt Lawrence trained 5 Airmen on 200 core tasks… He became the unit CPR instructor… Again, these are one-on-one or small team efforts.
A good SSgt EPR shows a mixture of all three of these things.
Now to take this up a notch to develop great SSgts, you need to show how they are ready for the next stripe. TSgts are the “organization’s technical experts.” This is a detail often overlooked as most SSgts are so skilled, they assume they are the technical experts already. I see this all the time as they say, “I am an expert, I can do that task in half the time of my peers.” That is the definition of highly skilled.
Technical expertise is when you know your job so well that you are solving problems. “Noticed trend of #4 main tires being changed out-of-cycle. Discovered factory bolt installed backwards on all block 11 aircraft.” A different way to say this is that highly skilled technicians are hands-on experts and technical experts are able to connect the dots of a bigger picture based on their skills.
Work to develop your SSgts to 1) be very good at being “highly skilled technicians with supervisory and training responsibilities.” as discussed above. and then 2) teach them to take a step back to see the whole picture and help them connect the dots to solve problems not to simply fix discrepancies.
As you do this, they will grow in their supervisor and trainer roles organically. You can’t solve problems without leading a team of leaders or training people on a mass scale to implement a smarter solution.
When was the last time you read a book or watched a video and learned something very interesting? You couldn’t wait to work it into the next possible conversation that you had. Then you realized you were not an expert or received some great questions and continued to dive deeper into the topic. Soon you were quit smart on the subject. When we learn new things, we tend to share them. When we share, we grow. Continue learning and continue sharing…you are making everyone around you better.
I remember wanting to learn martial arts as a child. I watched Karate Kid and checked out some books from the local library. After countless hours of self tutelage, I was still not an expert. In fact, I learned more in the first week of an actual martial arts class than I did in all of those books. We have to put what we study into motion. If not, it is just like a book on a shelf in our minds. The knowledge might be there, but it is useless without action.
Are we trying to make things around us better or simply repeating the same motions? Leaders need to stand up and silence those who are just echoing issues. We need to take ownership of the problems surrounding us and make things better.
The most important thing a leader can do is to set up their team for success. This means removing obstacles in their paths, obtaining required resources, and preparing them for their next roles. Most of us are so task-saturated with moving the mission that we struggle with developing our teams. We think there is plenty of time in the future…tomorrow.
I remember sitting down at my desk and creating an outline for each individual on my team. I had mapped out future roles for them and how I could help them get there. Over all the process was a lot of fun and forced me to really focus on their strengths and weaknesses. However, I forgot the most important part of this equation…to include my team. Here I was mapping out their futures without taking their inputs, hopes, passions, struggles, etc into mind.
Inadvertently, I was making their future achievements my own. This was exemplified recently by something I overheard, “If we are putting all the work into this celebration, it should be mandatory.” This was in connection to a ceremony marking an important milestone in many Airmen’s careers. Our Airmen put a lot of work into this personal achievement; however, this leader was making the same mistake I was…making their achievement her own.
Most of us fall victim to this from time to time. I have placed some controls into my own path to try and avoid this and they go back to removing obstacles, obtaining required resources, and preparing our team for their next roles. This also helps me to avoid being a micro-manager too.
In motion, it looks like this: I see an area where we are weak on our team. In this case, it is a program we are responsible for. What I want to do is to fire the manager and put someone else in her position. What would this accomplish? I would be happier having an A-player take over the program. What about the A-player I stole from another area? More importantly, what about the manager who was sub-par? In this case, me making this move only makes ME feel better and look better to MY boss.
If that were my goal, done. However, my goal is to serve other through mentorship so they can learn from my successes and failures to get at least one step further than I have. So, to keep pace with this, I have to try something different. So let’s sit down the manager and determine what her obstacles to being successful are. Is it that she doesn’t know her role or does she not care? Most of the time, a little of both, although the “don’t care” attitude is often the effect of trying to get training and being ignored. Eventually, the thought is “if you don’t care to train me, I don’t have time to care about this.”
After this assessment, I need to let her tell me what she needs. Then add my inputs and fill in the gaps. After that, we create a plan with scheduled follow-ups and re-evaluate at each meeting.
If we are serious about breaking the old mold of leadership, we need to employ tactics that invest in our team. Remember the accomplishment is not our own, it is their’s, but we can certainly help them get there!
Leadership is like parenting. We would do anything to set our children up for success. We know one day they are going to leave the nest and be on their own and we want them to be able to function. Those on our teams are the same way. One day, they are going to leave the nest and lead teams of their own. We need to spend our days strengthening the skills of our teammates so they can succeed. Ironically, doing this makes us better leaders and prepares us for more advanced roles.
Creating clones of ourselves is useless. In the book, Turn the Ship Around!, David Marquet talks about how he thought to be a great Navy Captain, he had to give great orders. His crew would be on the ready awaiting his every word and not move an inch until he said to. He realized he couldn’t think for dozens of people at the same time and that in order to be successful, each one had to lead themselves. We are not designed to walk and chew gum at the same time. We need to develop those on our team to do their jobs and let them go.
I have learned we can be the smartest person in the room and have all of the right answers and still not make a difference. Until people realize we have their best interests in mind, they will never listen to what we are saying. If you want to make a difference, stop worrying about proving how right you are and start working towards a solution for your team.