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Deliberate Development

Professional Development for the Military Leader

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Metrics Don’t Motivate

I was recently standing in a formation when the speaker said, “We met several of our key metrics…”.  Things trailed off after that because my mind wandered to other matters of the day.  While that may have motivated others in the formation of probably a few hundred people that day, I suspect it had the same effect on many others that it did on me.

Metrics, numbers, and graphs do not motivate most people, especially when they do not know what those numbers entail or what they even mean.  What matters more than a regression analysis on a batch of data with a trend line going upward is the tactile, real impacts that people can see at ground level.  Metrics are abstract and aren’t tangible things in many people’s minds.

Impacts are key.  Months ago I spoke with my subordinates at a roll call—while I was still new in my position.  One thing I noted was the environment—I recognized that my subordinates, NCOs, were in an absolutely critical position—they teach young Airmen.  I made the natural connection—their job was to interact and instruct and I noted several instances where a young Airman was left behind in the hustle and bustle of mission generation to fend for themselves.  “Mentor your students where you can,” I told them, “because when they start working on the flightline, they won’t receive such guidance.”  To this day I am uncertain as to whether my words evoked some inspiration, but I was staggered later on by the amount of initiative they took in taking their students under their wings—it continues to this day.  They take ownership and pride in the classes they teach.  It has bred innovation.

What motivates them to take such measures?  Passion.  They recognize that their involvement with the Airmen not only as technicians but as young adults and military members is critical.  They understand their impact at their level.  It’s a matter of building a relationship with a group of new military members.  They don’t just churn out 1,700 students per year through the doors of the schoolhouse; it’s more to them than that.

Don’t motivate people by showing them a slew of numbers—there is no reference point for them with metrics.  Motivate them by emotion because ultimately, that’s what motivation is.  Keep the numbers in the conference room to manage processes, not people.

Are Leaders Puppets?

The recent inauguration of our 45th President, Donald Trump, has brought about a mixture of opinions of what type of a leader he should be or the type he will be. Many say our elected officials are just puppets who should be toeing the company line and doing what the majority of the population wants. This got me thinking about the leadership culture I have seen in just about every area of our lives and I disagree 100% that a leader should be a puppet and do what the masses desire.

If we were to lead our units this way, every Friday would be a half-day. We would not do any of the menial tasks no one likes to do. And morale would sky-rocket…for a period of time. Until nothing got accomplished, the mission would falter, the need for our workcenter would be null and void and we would be living in a van down by the river. If we as a nation got everything we wanted, it would be like the scene from the movie ‘Bruce Almighty’ where everyone won the lottery and the city fell to chaos.

Routinely, I will ask my kids what they want for dinner as I am making my shopping list for the week. They are both smart, health-minded kids and neither of them has ever not included pizza or a dessert. We don’t lead our homes like this, why should we lead any team like that? If I were to simply lead by giving in to the demands of the masses, my area of responsibility would fail. Leaders are put in place through appointment or democratically because they are seen as someone who has the best interest of the people and mission in mind. We need to advance the mission and, at the same time, fulfill the legitimate ‘needs’ of the team, not just provide items on their wishlists.

We do need to listen to the masses and get a pulse for the organization. There is never a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership and we have to dig into what the constraints and needs of our team are. This involves getting into the weeds a bit to learn their struggles and what is needed to enable them to succeed. This is how leaders see the whole picture of their AOR and can make decisions for the betterment of all.

I have been part of many teams where I thought I knew what was best. I would petition to my leaders to bend to my will. I would even leverage the productivity of our team to sway their opinion as if to insinuate that we had it all figured out. Almost on every occasion, I was humbled when shown the big picture and the effects my “plan” would have on the whole organization. I am not suggesting for leaders to not question their chain-of-command, because it is important for us to let them know our concerns and things they may not have considered. I am suggesting that we strive to see the big picture and not assume the masses have the best answer.

As for President Trump, I hope he fulfills his promises of not giving in to the status quo and that he is able to listen to the masses and make decisions based on what is best for our country. I will not agree with all of his decisions and that is okay; however, no matter what he does, we all have some control over our own AORs and need to make the right (not the popular or easy) decisions to move our team forward.

Leadership roles: Train versus Educate

'It's a guess. I never said it was an educated guess.'
‘It’s a guess. I never said it was an educated guess.’

Stepping into my first leadership role was awkward for me. I was a good technician and knew I could help others be better at their trade too. However, I was not sure how to function in this new role and I wasn’t given any clear guidelines. It almost felt like a sink or swim scenario and I had no clue where the shoreline was. Ever felt this way?

It took me about a month before I was effective, although, I still wasn’t clear what all of my responsibilities were. Every time I asked my boss, he said my job was to take care of the people and make the mission happen. Well, that was clear as mud. In hindsight, I think he was still trying to figure it all out too.

I will not claim to have the absolute solution to this age-old problem that most leaders face every time they move up a level; however, the Air Force has given me a peek behind the curtain. For those who have never read any of the three volumes of Air Force Doctrine (https://www.doctrine.af.mil/), you should give them a glance. Volume I covers the basic doctrine of why we exist and Volume II discusses some basic leadership concepts. The real gold for me was in Volume II’s Appendix C which discusses training and education.

Training and education are very different and yet easy to merge in our minds. Training is teaching someone how to do something step-by-step. “When you go over the ACA with your Airman, ask these questions…” Almost all of our jobs as technicians are step-by-step from the AFI or technical order. Education on the other hand is focused on developing critical thought about a subject or concept. Learning the pitfalls of poor feedback or the psychology behind the benefits of candid feedback or studying how other organizations offer feedback to their people are gaining education. Education opens the aperture of our mind to a bigger picture view of what we are doing.

What does this have to do with leadership? Glad you asked. Most of us instinctively want to be trained on our new positions. We want to know the roles and responsibilities we have and how to execute each. We are still stuck in the mind of a technician. Leadership roles always come down to two things: people and the task. As we all know, there are not instruction manuals that come with people. Think about it this way: three of your team members all show up late to work tomorrow. All three would likely have different reasons. One may have stopped to perform CPR on someone and another simply over-slept his alarm. Do you handle each situation the same way? Training is having a blanket policy or flowchart to handle a situation. “You were late, here is your punishment.” Education is discovering what happened and dealing with that individual scenario.

The good news is that it gets even vaguer the higher up the food chain you go. As a SNCO, you will be given a flight to lead and your direction will be to “take care of your people and make the mission happen”. Some portions of your job are covered in regulations; however, 99% of what I do each day is not on any role chart with a detailed flowchart of what to do. So what do you do? I will share some strategies that come to mind and you will notice ‘education’ is the underlying theme.

I have some friends who jumped in and got to know their people with a bottom-up approach. They learned what their teams do each day and how each member fits into the mission. They sought out pain points or broken processes and found ways to fix them. They educated themselves on the organization and looked inwards and outwards on how to produce a course of action for the team.

Others have taken the top-down approach. They look at what they know they are responsible for and reverse engineer the processes that make it happen. These leaders are looking for holes in the processes and want to tweak the systems. They educate themselves by learning the processes and by dealing with the outcomes. Although, I prefer the bottom-up approach, this approach does work well for those with poor people skills or those with a binary type mind.

The last approach is more comical than anything else, but some make it work. I know several people who hop in the chair and wait to be reminded to do something or wait to get yelled at to figure out what matters. Then they do these things to the best of their ability. This approach depends on having others educate you and certainly not the most effective way to go. However, I will admit, these are the people who typically discover the stupid processes that no one really cares about and yet their predecessor stayed late every Friday completing the report and doing the work.

As we progress into new leadership roles, keep in mind we are not going to get a checklist of items to do each day. We are going to receive some intent or a general vision of where we are headed and it is up to us to educate ourselves to make it happen. Once we have our plan laid out, we create those step-by-step processes for our technicians. Understanding the difference between training and education and how it tied into my role as a leader was eye-opening for me and I hope it is for you as well.

Are Leaders Required to be Technical Experts?

smartAs we are coming up in the ranks, we strive to become technically sound in our profession. We learn the ins and outs of our job and continue to hone these skills. Eventually, we make rank and gain some supervisory roles. If we are quasi effective in these new roles, we gain even more rank and even more responsibility. One day we become responsible for functions we do not know much about. How important is it to become technical experts in these functions?

I am a Crew Chief who has not turned a wrench as a line mechanic since 2009. Since then, I have been in various supervisory roles both on and off of the flightline. I have supervised those of my own Crew Chief species and every other specialty that is in our maintenance community. In deployed locations, I have supervised civilians, supply functions, contractors, foreign nationals, security forces and many other various specialties. Now, I supervise high performing NCOs and SNCOs in all maintenance specialties, admin personnel, computer networkers, military training leaders, and we are part of a detached unit with unique operating requirements. All this about me is not to brag; rather, to lay the framework that I have some credibility to talk about supervising those whose function is outside of my background or area of expertise.

I have attempted to become an expert in some of these fields in the past. I tried to become a technical expert in each field because I thought I couldn’t be effective as a leader if I didn’t know their jobs. Have you ever had this thought too? What I learned was that I was completely wrong. I didn’t need to learn how to do their jobs to be a good boss; I had to learn how THEY did their jobs. I needed to see their routines, what processes they employed, what restraints they have, what they struggle with, what they excel at, etc. I needed to experience their day. I needed to know what they did and could bring to the table.

There is no way I could ever become an expert in every functional area and there is no need for me to even try. We need to trust our experts to practice their trade and to do our best to give them the tools they need to succeed and seek ways to develop them professionally. If we want them to trust us, we have to trust them. As leaders we need to be experts in helping our team see the big picture and how each function fits into it. We need to create the vision and point the direction we need to go. We need to articulate what needs to be done and the intent behind it and then let the real experts figure out how to do it.

This does not mean we are to be completely ignorant to how things work or even not strive to become smarter in how things are done. In fact, the more we know about the inner workings of a particular area, the better we can be at hearing those whispers that can become screams. The way we do this is by going back to my formula for trust. To earn the trust of others; you have to be visible, interested, and involved. When we are doing these three things, we are learning the inner workings of our organization and earning the trust of our team all at the same time.

Being knowledgeable as a leader is very important; however, being an expert in each area is not a prerequisite to being in charge.

Service Before Self?

Helping-Others“My EPR is coming due! I need to get some base/community service in so I can get a bullet.” Sound familiar? I wish I could say that I have never said a version of this, but I think all of us have at one point. Although serving is ultimately a good thing, we carry this bullet-forging mentality with us into others areas of our profession and forget what service is really all about.

Serving others around base in a Top 3, Rising 6, AADD, etc. is a great thing to do. Serving others in the community is a great thing to do as well. However, when we are doing it just to get a bullet, are we truly serving? This is something I had been asked before by young NCOs and have asked myself when I was told I needed to get some community involvement. Basically, are we trying to perpetuate a “fake it until you make it” mentality? We are trying to fabricate a community of dedicated Airmen who are willing to serve selflessly by motivating them to do so for selfish reasons.

My personal opinion is that any act of service to another is a great thing. Even when I have been volun-told to do certain things, afterwards I had a sense of pride in the fact I helped to make a difference. Honestly, it sometimes took a boot in the butt to get me out of my comfort zone and to do this. We have all been part of these scenarios where we see those who were clearly there just to get their name on the list and did just enough to get the bullet. This is apparent to everyone that they are here just for that reason alone. This is a shame as they are not even attempting to gain some value from the experience.

We are all extremely busy. We have workplace demands, PME distance learning, studying for promotion, off-duty education, caring for our Airmen, and, oh yeah, an outside life too. The last thing many of us want to do is give another moment of our time to serve another and this article is not about trying to motivate you to do that. My goal is to explain my view on service and what a servant really is.

Ironically, the title ‘sergeant’ is derived from an old French word ‘serjant’ meaning servant1. Over the years, it has kept its meaning and even the definition (from multiple dictionaries) for a servant includes those employed by the government. We are servants. Even though we often feel like Alfred Pennyworth from Batman, we are not meant to be that type of servant. We are servants in the sense of someone willing to offer their life in support of a cause. In our case, it is in the defense of the Constitution of the United States of America. Someone who is willing serve our nation.

As Airmen, we have the core value of “service before self” and I stand firm in this being the most under appreciated and truly misunderstood value we have. The only time it comes up is when the boss is trying to hose you. “I need you to work this weekend. I don’t care about your plans…remember ‘service before self’” “You need to appreciate this deployment and remember your core values.” This mentality is the direct result of the “fake it until you make it” mentality. We push service as a box to fill rather than an opportunity to make those around us better.

One leadership style often discussed, but quickly dismissed is the servant leadership model. This model suggests we place the needs of others above our own. When we take care of the team’s needs (up and down the chain), they have the ability to grow even stronger. There is very little debate suggesting that servant leadership is not the most effective model of leadership. Some of the greatest leaders of all time are classified as servant leaders: Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to name just a few. Their examples and legacies live on much longer than other leaders. Think of all of the followers Jesus has to this day. Think about how every city in America has a street named after Martin Luther King. It is because these leaders inspired others through acts of service. There was no question the needs of those on their team came first.

In my own career when I placed the needs of my team over my own, they have always responded in amazing ways. The gestures do not have to even be big. The person who trained me on being a flightline expediter told me that I did not get lunch until everyone on my team did. This was really a challenge because expediters live in their truck and often their lunches are staring right at them on the passenger seat throughout the day. However, it was a small gesture that reminded to meet the needs of the team first. It was much bigger than a simple lunch; it was a reminder to place myself in their shoes each day.

When we are able to place ourselves in the shoes of our leaders and subordinates, we can better understand the needs they have. I remember once being over tasked with all sorts of things and I was staying late all week to get them done. Once I put those fires out, I still had to write a decoration for one of my ratees. As I sat down at a desk, 2 hours after my day ended, I opened my email to see my team lead took care of it for me. This random act of kindness was powerful! He certainly did not have to do this, he did it because he placed himself in my shoes and thought about how he could serve me. You better believe I looked for every opportunity to pay him back after that.

Service is more than a checked box on your EPR. Service to our nation and others is a higher calling. It is an opportunity to make a difference in another’s life. It is our chance as a sergeant to show our team they matter to us. It is our chance to make a lasting impression on their lives that will create a “pay it forward” mentality as opposed to the volun-told culture. Once you understand the power of this concept and experience the joy of enriching another’s life, service becomes a calling not a tasking.

  1. Online Etymology Dictionary. Sergeant: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=sergeant

Whispers Turn into Screams

listen_ignoreAfter I gained some experience as a leader, I realized something simple and yet profound: whispers turn into screams. Small issues can become large issues if left ignored for too long. Something that can be handled very quickly is often ignored until it becomes an emergency.

Time and time again, we hear about a systemic issue in the business world and even in the Air Force. For example, one of the root causes behind the Minot Nuke Incident was a high turnover rate with personnel on station. It had been pointed out before that people were leaving just as they were getting proficient; however, it had been dismissed just as quickly as it was voiced. This little whisper of a brewing issue was one tiny thing that contributed to a huge screw up which could have been much, much worse.

Although most of the time, the small issues in our organization do not lead to the mishandling of a nuclear weapon, there are still many events that could have been prevented by not ignoring the initial signals. Think about it in the sense of launching a mission. Usually, the issues that hold up a line (i.e. load plans, life support equip, etc.) are brought up very early in the sequence. The urgency behind this is very low because there is still plenty of time. Eventually, we realize key sequences are not happening on time and we begin to wonder what the deal is. It is at this point we begin to jump through hoops and turn up the intensity levels. When it could all have been dealt with much earlier.

On a daily basis, we hear about little things that are happening throughout the work center. Not every one of them is something we need to act upon; however, there are several needing attention. When I overhear someone say there is a potential scheduling issue for an event three months away, the tendency is to ignore it. “Who cares, it’s three months away?” Then suddenly it’s the Friday before the event and the issue was never resolved, everyone is in full panic mode.

Over the years, I have come up with a system to help me manage what whispers I need to worry about. It is a simple question: will this impact the people or the mission? If the answer is yes, I take this whisper and dig into it a bit further. If the answer is no and I can make the whisper go away within a few minutes, I handle it on the spot. Everything else is noise.

When I decide to dig into an issue a bit further, I look at what the potential causes are and how I can align resources right now to account for this. If we had a similar long term view in our personal lives, it would look like this. Every year my HOA hits me with a bill right after Christmas. This is the time of the year when funds are low due to all the gifts and festivities. Knowing that bill sneaks up on me, I can put away the money for it now when funds aren’t tight and be ready. We all do something similar to this in our own lives, but we overlook simple solutions requiring an ounce of foresight when it comes to work.

I personally hate being in full-on panic mode and know those on my team do as well. There are times when we need to be and they are taxing on the people and the equipment. However, if we learn to listen to the whispers and deal with them intelligently and early; many of the “emergencies” are able to be avoided.

Are you a Pinger?

chase the mouse“We are working for a real pinger today,” were the first words out of the mouth of my Senior Airman trainer on my very first day on the flightline. He went on to explain a pinger is a person that freaks out and is bouncing from one thing to the next like a ping pong ball. This was the literally the first piece of on-the-job training I received. This is something that is noticed by everyone and not admired by anyone. We have all seen those that freak out when something is not going well and dedicate ALL resources to the issue.

The problem with this is when all resources are focused in one area, other areas are now failing. Then we get healthy in one area and then fail in another and throw the resources there and the cycle continues. When it comes to making the mission happen we can easily fall into a “chase the mouse” scenario. We are tempted to constantly run from one fire to the next. We look like a cat chasing a mouse. This wears our people out and it makes us look like we do not know what the heck we are doing.

As the expression goes, “what is measured is what matters,” or some variation of this is the mantra of many senior leaders. They do not have the ability to get into the weeds all the time and have to determine the health of the organization by specific metrics. Their subordinates (usually our bosses) often chase these statistics and when the unit is substandard on one or lagging behind their peers, they begin to ping.

Naturally, we need to shift our focus when we are not meeting standards. However, it does not require a tourniquet on a paper cut. Instead it takes getting to the root of the issue. What I do is take a quick look at what I think the root cause is and then find one person with the skills to lead the effort. Once I have this person in place, I let them know where we are and where we need to be. They are then trusted to find the root of the problem and let me know what is needed to fix it. A lot of issues can be fixed just by putting eyes on it and educating the masses.

By having a more deliberate approach to the situation can and often does lead to a fix without shifting very many resources at all. The argument arises that it is easier to say than do when leadership is breathing down your neck. Truthfully, you are already out of standards in one area and it is known. I have never once had a single issue explaining to the boss that we are looking into the root of the issue and here is our plan to fix it. A lot of times once we start to look, the issue is even worse and those findings are also shared with a proposed get well date. Accept responsibility and accountability and the desire to fix the problem. This is typically met with a “keep me updated” response and that is the end of the conversation.

When we panic and blindly throw people or money at problems, new areas will soon fall below the standard. It makes us look worse when we get one area up to code and a new deficiency is briefed the next meeting. Here our leadership looks at us as ineffective and those we lead feel the same way and morale begins to fade. Instead of chasing the mouse throughout the organization, relax, take a breath and define the cause of the problem that you are actually solving.

What’s Real and What Isn’t

disconnected leaderColonel Robin Olds, a cavalier fighter pilot and commander during the Vietnam War, commanded a military installation and flew a F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft.  He often found himself at odds with policies during his time in Vietnam; Washington had implemented what was called the ‘Rapid Roger’ program for generating F-4 missions[1].  The program had been implemented because of an apparent love for statistics—Washington wanted to fly more missions with fewer aircraft[1].  Colonel Olds noted several big issues with this plan.  While the numbers and the concept may have been fantastic, Washington didn’t anticipate what challenges would be faced on the ground.

Budgeting for the war effort was programmed, meaning it was budgeted at particular levels in anticipation of a particular level of activity[1].  He only had so many personnel to work on the aircraft and they needed rest.  Supplies and personnel promised to him ended up not being delivered to his installation.  In particular, the concept Washington had in mind required completely re-configuring each aircraft while also preparing them to fly their next mission and fixing any other unanticipated issues—taxing tasks for his ground crews and creating hazardous situations—and the aircraft was slated to fly a few times per day.  Suffice to say that Rapid Roger stressed his resources to an unrealistic level; his unit was manned, organized, and equipped to provide a certain level of output.  His aircraft had a terrible operationally ready rate of 55 percent when he took control of the installation; it had dropped from 74 percent during the previous month[1].

Colonel Olds did everything in his power to increase his combat effectiveness and utilize his resources while not abusing them; he did it successfully over time with a lot of perseverance.  I encourage you to pick up a copy of Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds.

The lesson here is that sometimes as decision makers we can make decisions from a disconnected viewpoint.  Learning how things operate from the viewpoint of your subordinates lends clarity to situations which cannot be simply summarized without that understanding.  While you cannot be everything to everyone and you can’t be involved in every activity your subordinates are tasked with, it is useful to understand the processes, challenges, resources, and skill needed for them to do their jobs effectively.  It is with that knowledge that you can more effectively judge what kind of demands you can place on your subordinates without placing an undue load on them.

Learn what your subordinates do every day, what processes and challenges they face.  Be involved.  There is a balance that goes with that; you do not want to hover over your subordinates, nor do you want to take the task from them and run with it–just observe and ask questions, a low threat visit.  Understanding that ‘bigger purpose’ is a key aspect as well; as a leader, you are often that link to your people, to show them the higher purpose in their everyday tasks.  Colonel Olds understood these concepts well; “I planned to check out all the shops, check out equipment used by the men, look at their supplies, learn how things were put together and taken apart, even examine the gear designed for getting the pilots down from trees.  The base functions were crucial to the success of the mission and the survival of the pilots”[1].

Make sure you know what the realities are in your organization.

 

[1] Olds, C., & Rasimus, E. (2010). Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

 

 

Leaders Set the Tone

Set the Tone

“Come on, we have to get this done to get the boss off of my back!” We have all experienced this scenario in our careers at one point. Maybe we were even the person saying this. Upon hearing our leader say something like this, we get an instant sense of stress. This does not help us function any better and is probably not going to “motivate” us to work any harder. It is just going to take any and all enjoyment out of the task.

When I became a flightline expediter, my trainer told me the Pro Super (the flightline boss) cares mainly about making the flying schedule happen, getting the planes mission ready, and the people are his last priority. The Pro Super’s life is the airplane and the people are the robots that repair them. It was my job to be the buffer in between. The Pro Super sets all the priorities and pushes the mission and essentially creates the atmosphere. Kind of like controlling the thermostat. It was up to me to set the tone for those who were working for me.

I found those bosses who let their stress show, received a horrible response from their team. They were the ones with the most lost tools, most disgruntled workers, and really got nothing done all shift. Their people were stressed and their moods were reflections of their leader’s. Then there were those that were just as stressed, but never showed it. Like a duck on the water; under the surface their feet were manic, but on the surface they were calm and collected. These are the same people who would tell jokes and listen to war stories before we got off the truck. However, when we worked for those who made work enjoyable, we were extremely productive and grew closer to one another. We wanted our driver to succeed and would give our all.

Both people received the same instructions and onto both the same demands were levied. Honestly, both probably felt equally as stressed. The difference is how they portrayed themselves to their teams. Just because we are having a bad day, doesn’t mean everyone around us needs to as well. Just because our boss is a jerk, doesn’t mean we need to be a jerk boss too. As leaders we set the tone. A good indicator of how we are doing is to look at those around us. Are they stressed? Are they working hard and having a good time? Are they only having a good time? Their behavior is a direct reflection of us.

 

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