Deliberate Development

Professional Development for the Military Leader

Tired of Only Putting Out the Daily Fires?

Not too long ago, I worked for one of those leaders and mentors that we all dream of having. He would push my limits of leadership and knew how to ensure my areas of weakness were being developed. He gave me just the right amount of leash to let me make tough decisions, but not too much that I could bury myself too deep. He taught me so many lessons openly and many that I am just realizing today as the seeds he had planted are beginning to germinate.

After a conversation with a friend about some issues he is having, I offered some advice. Awhile later I was trying to think about where that nugget came from and I realized it was one of those seeds he planted years ago. My friend was telling me about some of the big fires he has been putting out in his organization and feels like he is never getting ahead. He actually related it to running on a treadmill where he is constantly expending energy, but not actually getting anywhere. I have had this feeling many times and have discovered I was placing all of my focus into these big problems and not paying attention to the little issues of today that would become the major issues of tomorrow.

We get into these defensive modes and begin reacting to everything instead of becoming proactive and heading them off at the pass. My old boss is a very tough guy whom I had to brief on the status of his beloved cargo aircraft and he was brutal with his questions and demands. He was charged with the safe maintenance and operations of a large fleet with a global impact so this was understood. Over time I began to realize the things he would hone in on and would make sure I exhausted every resource and prepared for every conceivable question. This strategy worked very well for me and seldom was I caught off guard. Until he did one of those things only a great leader can do; he found the kink in my armor and taught me how to strengthen it.

One such brief, we had an aircraft that was broken and there was lots of buffoonery that ensued before, during and after the repair. I was ready for his questions about this big issue. However, he breezed right over this aircraft and asked me about a seemingly insignificant detail on a mission that left on-time. There was a hiccup in the sequence, but the time was recovered in other areas. I had known next to nothing about this detail.

The lesson was to not only focus on the big things that everyone can see. Not to worry about explaining away the past. Yes, those answers are needed and we need to respond to them; however, if we are only reacting to issues, we will never grow as an organization. We also need to actively seek out the small hiccups so we can work them before there is a major issue.

It is the old 80/20 rule where we spend 80% of our time on 20% of the people, aircraft, etc. The big shiny problems have a way of grabbing the attention of our bosses and thus become our priorities. We need to get ahead of these issues by spending whatever time and energy we have in reserve to see where the next fire is going to start. Eventually, you can get ahead of a lot of the problems and are able to breathe and look to the future more clearly. By investing in this top 20%, we will be effective and have success; however, when we find ways to elevate the other 80%, we will find significance.

Bullet Writing… For Dummies (like me)

Ah, the art of bullet writing. From the very first Air Force evaluation in the wonder years of the late 1940’s to today’s latest EPR form, many have been bested by the arduous task of taking life itself, amplifying it’s quintessence, whittling large narratives and compartmentalizing facts into… A single; three part bullet–with an impact [here].

So, where to begin? Let’s take into account how much weight an Air Force bullet holds. It’s a remarkable statement that can change the tide of a SrA Below-the-zone competition, it can validate those who are, as written, the best performers of the quarter/year and it can make or break promotion recommendations and even promotions themselves.

The bullet formula has many styles; from it’s simplest form of “Act-Impact”, then to a more in-depth and commonly used “Action-Result-Impact”.  Personally, I find the latter to have two parts that are redundant. A result is and can also be an impact.

So we arrive at what I prefer, “Act-Fact-Impact” or AFI for short. Vaguely familiar right?

The end result of shaping your bullet with “Act-Fact-Impact” allows you to write in an active voice. Active voice is the preferred way of speaking as it is direct and to the point. “Airman David ate breakfast”. The active voice is broken into 3 parts as well; Actor, Action and Recipient.

Let’s put it to practice. If Airman David helped with base clean-up, spent 8 hours bagging leaves, cleaned 4 square miles and led his fellow airman in the charge we can extract this bullet:

– Led 4-man team in base beautification; cleaned 4 sq miles in 8 hours–improved image of facilities & compound.

Sure, this is a simple bullet, but it’s exactly what happened. And anyone who reads it regardless of AFSC will know what it means. As we said at the begining, let’s keep it simple. What did you do(act), tell me something about it(fact) and how did impact others?(impact).  Now take this simplistic bullet and fine tune it with a much stronger impact such as cost savings or manpower efficiency and you’re good to go.

A common thought is that this is acceptable:

– Led 4 BSRP Ann/NCO TARPA proj; 6 BMP/JPG/MOV increase vs ABCsec tm–inc prod 500% to USAF std

For your career field, that may be the trend.  It is not acceptable as it isn’t helpful.  Bullets weighed down with catastrophic acronyms and decoder ring secured details may seem important, but let’s be honest. Any reviewing panel previously mentioned that oversee awards or such will start drooling as the grey matter leaks out of the judges’ ears. Keep it simple. For the judges… think of the safety of the panel.

To conclude, these “great works of fiction” or similar language that some have come accustomed to referencing, don’t have to be that.

Just remember, AFI or Act, Fact & Impact. Often times, the best solution is also the simplest.



“You are just Lucky!”

At many points throughout my career, people have told me how I was just lucky and, honestly, I have thought this about others too. Although I am not claiming to be able to explain away the luck phenomena completely, I am going to discuss what is known as the luck factor. Read on if you want to get lucky…punk.

Psychologist, Rick Wiseman is the author of the book, The Luck Factor, based on a decade of research into luck and superstitions. His research found that 72% of the population had a lucky charm or some other superstition they believed to deliver them to lucky opportunities; however, none of these subjects were any luckier than those without a charm. He did find that the two greatest factors delivering “luck” were chance opportunities and being able to handle the misfortunes in their lives.

Chance Opportunities: “Man that guy was just in the right place at the right time.” is something we have all thought at one point. Maybe it is even something we have thought about an event in our own careers. One of my favorite career events ever appeared to happen by chance on the surface, but it was more preparation than luck. I was selected to be a part of a crashed C-17 investigation and recovery effort that received a lot of attention and was an amazing challenge. What many didn’t realize is that I was the third choice out of four people.

The number one choice was our most experienced Pro Super, but he was deeply involved in another project. I was the second most experienced Pro Super and supervision wanted to keep me on station since number one was tied up. The third guy was not trained and the fourth was not trained or capable. By default, I was selected.

The Roman philosopher Seneca had said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Think about some of the moments you felt lucky. These might have been a moment where you seemed to be the only one who knew the answer or you were the only one able to do a particular task. I’d argue that you weren’t luckier than the others, you were just better prepared.

How do you become better prepared for opportunities that may come your way? One way is to go above and beyond. Are you the first person to leave after a training session or are you the one who stays back to ask some other questions? There have been times where I saw peers stay behind and what they learned made them better prepared. When we do the bare minimum, we are no better prepared for an opportunity than the next person.

Handle misfortunes: Our ability to deal with the things that do not go well in our lives is a very powerful skill to learn. I hate to say it, but all that resilience training might actually be useful. We all know bad things are going to happen in our careers. We may be passed over in the forced distro selection, maybe someone else is selected as NCO of the quarter over us, maybe we have to do a short-notice deployment or a multitude of other things. How you deal with these events makes the difference?

No one enjoys when things don’t go his or her way; however, when we realize it is just a season, we can grow and get past it. I don’t know about you, but when I look back to the times I was passed over or forced to make an unwanted sacrifice, I have almost always came out better on the other side. Sometimes just having the knowledge I was able to endure made all the difference in the next challenge I had faced.

In his book, Resilience, Eric Greitens teaches, “not all of us are strong at the broken places [misfortunes]. To be strong at the broken places is to be resilient. Being broken, by itself, does not make us better.” We have to reflect why we weren’t chosen. Was it because we were not the most prepared? Was it because no one knew we had such talents? Was it because we were whining and spreading negativity about our misfortunes? When we learn from our experience, we are better prepared for future opportunities.

What Causes Conflict?

“Can we…can we all just get along?” If you were around in the early 90’s, you might remember the press conference where Rodney King spoke these famous words trying to motivate the stoppage of the L.A. riots. This was a huge statement, because the riots were in support of him. What would drive a community to violence? Why have conflicts at all?

The L.A. riots of 1992 were in response to the justice system not prosecuting four police officers caught on video excessively beating Rodney King. Most of the nation perceived this as a racially charged crime against Mr. King and when justice was not served, the city went crazy and began looting and destroying anything in their paths. The trial was the catalyst for this outburst, but it was not the root cause. The root cause is something we are still struggling with 25 years later: respect for others.

Disrespect for another or the perceived disrespect instigates conflict. We can only take so much before we lash out at others. Think of the last argument you have had in your work center or home, it wasn’t over the fact you didn’t put down the toilet seat or refill the printer. That was the catalyst and the root cause is something centered on respect. We have to take a step back when someone lashes out at for something that seems completely trivial and diffuse the situation.

If you are their sounding board or verbal punching bag, excuse yourself from the situation and say everyone needs a moment to calm down. Once the emotions settle, reflect on what could be the root cause of this. Then reengage with the person with the intent to talk things out. You should be in full-discovery mode where your goal is to get to the real issue at hand. Only then can you solve it together. The key is to detach yourself from the situation and not take any of the feedback or criticisms as personal attacks. This is extremely hard as we are not wired to be open-minded while being attacked.

Remember the key to resolving conflict is finding the source of the tension. Even if we think the other person is blowing things out of proportion, it is still their perception that things are a certain way. After all, isn’t perceiving their viewpoint as stupid the same thing? We have to be willing to listen to others before we can expect them to respect us.

(To learn more about conflict resolution, check out the book, You Can’t Beat Me!)

FITS: Faith In The System

“You have got to have faith in the system, Joey,” was something told to me a few occasions as a  young NCO/SNCO. The little blue book (core values book) that used to circulate along with the little brown book had mentioned this phrase under the section for Service Before Self. To be honest, I always felt this was a cop-out statement and never did anything for me except question my faith in the system.

To have faith in someone or in something, there has to be some sort of foundation. For example with religion, I had a moment of clarity and realized there was something bigger than myself and decided to place my faith in God. The moment of clarity was my leaping point. With people, it is the same thing. We have faith in those who we trust based on previous experience or at least in those who have not scarred us in the past.

In the military, we do need to trust the chain-of-command on many things. If we questioned every decision or looked for background on every policy, we would never move forward. However, it is the chain-of-command’s responsibility to clearly communicate their direction the best they can. From my experience, they don’t do this very well. The commander makes her decision based on the many conversations and advice provided with her staff of officers and SNCOs. Each of them clearly and intimately knows the details of the decision. Then for whatever reason the background info stays with them and only the decision or new policy is passed on to the masses.

“WTF?”, “Why are we doing that?”, “This makes no sense!” These are all things that were said to me as a new SNCO. After I did some digging, I would learn the background and then pass on the WHY of the decision. Even if it was still an unpopular policy, the team always appreciated being told why we were doing this. No one ever heard, “just have faith in the system,” and thought, ‘well, that was all I needed to hear before going on 12’s and rearranging my family life.’ Especially, when the same people who offer this advice would never accept it for themselves in their position.

Ironically, this statement falls under the Service Before Self section as I feel it is one of the most misunderstood core values. We look at this core value as a ‘get out of jail free’ ticket for supervisors. “We need you to work this weekend…remember Service Before Self.” In reality, service is a vital pillar in the defense of our nation. Our entire military does not exist if we are not willing to serve. We serve something larger than ourselves or any one person; we serve a legacy, we serve to honor those who came before us, we serve to protect the future of those who will come after us.

This is why we joined the military and continue to serve. Service requires a sense of purpose and show of faith. This does not come from the bottom of the organization up the chain; it comes from the top down. Real leaders serve their people and most of the leaders I have worked with and for do the hard stuff extremely well. They stay late, take work home and even sacrifice their own desires to advance their teams. However, they often forget or forego a critical step to keep this faith alive: communicating purpose.

They put all their efforts into solving a problem for the masses but fail to share important info with the team. It is the equivalent of running a marathon and then stopping right before the finish line and saying to the officials to have faith you could have crossed it. Those who will be impacted by policy should be respected enough to get the background and take a blind leap of faith.

After the Air Force: Career Planning

A few years back I had applied for the TERA (15-year retirement) program the Air Force was offering in order to draw down the force. The numbers did not work in my favor and I was not selected, but I learned a valuable lesson: I was not as marketable as I thought!

With the experience I have had and my level of education, I was expecting employers to line up and start a bidding war over who was worthy to have me on their team. This did not happen and, in fact, I learned I lacked the minimum requirements to even apply to some of the positions I wanted. After I took a step back and allowed for a moment of self-reflection and clarity, I discovered I had prepared myself for what I had imagined others wanted instead of actually was required for particular jobs.

For example, I was looking at a job to become an Operations Manager at a manufacturer in the local area. I blew all of the basic qualifications out of the water and was probably a touch over-qualified in some areas…except for experience writing SQL queries. This position required documented experience in SQL to even apply. So, a job I could have been very good at, was not even an option for me anymore.

The good news is all that you need to know in order to prepare for your dream job is very easily accessible. There is an easy fix for this and it involves Google and foresight. If you have a good idea of what you want to be when you grow up, search for jobs. Read the descriptions from various companies and then seek ways to become qualified in those areas. Here is the job description I described above:

Operations Manager Job Description
Operations Manager Job Description

We need to do this before we are actually looking for a job. Then it is too late to get 5+ years experience, or a SQL certificate. Instead of focusing on the things I thought would make me more marketable in this area like a Six Sigma cert, I could have applied my resources where they needed to be.

One other pitfall we fall prey to is not thinking about where we will be in life when we decide to move on. For example, many maintainers I have worked with over the years said they wanted to use all of their maintenance experience and work for a civilian airliner. What they didn’t consider at 18 was that when they retired at age 38, they wouldn’t really want to be toting tool boxes and crawling in landing gear like an 18-year old.

Instead, look at those who are about to retire and look at what type of managerial role they have and how it could translate to the real world. Then plan to prepare yourself for where you will most likely be in life at that point. Instead of banking on manual labor, are you going to be looking at management jobs? Then check the boxes for that job.

Thankfully, I was denied TERA and it allowed me to learn these lessons in time to prepare for my 20-year retirement and the future career I want. Please, learn from my potential misstep.

Importance of SNCOs Mentoring Officers

“Why are you putting this LT with me?” is a question I have heard in various forms from fellow SNCOs. To be honest, I have asked this question before too. It took some time at the SNCOA to truly appreciate the importance of my time with officers.

We have all read in the little brown book (AFI 36-2618) and have seen the excerpt about working with and developing officers by sharing our knowledge and experience. However, what does this really mean? I used to think it meant we were to be “advisers” for job related questions and to offer insight into the complex inner workings of the enlisted mind. This somewhat confused me, because I always thought the best way to get the most relevant job-related info or to get a true pulse for the Airmen was to talk to the SSgts and TSgts. But the little brown book doesn’t mention officer development until the SNCO tier (par 5.1.8.). Why?

While at the SNCOA it finally clicked. The entire class of SNCOs gets bused to the officer’s first PME known as SOS. This is a school filled with captains from all over the AF. Every SNCOA class goes there to discuss whatever topics they choose. We were tasked with enlisted development and broken up into small groups. I learned from them that they do not receive much education or training in this area at all from their superiors. Most of what they learn is from their peers or us.

This quickly caused me to flashback to all those times I had a new LT shadowing me and I was more concerned with finding something shiny for him to go play with rather than taking the time to teach. If you think about it, young CGOs are always paired with a SNCO. This is because they are thrust into positions where they have similar or even more authority than a SNCO, but without the experience.

Think about most MSgts you know. On average it took him or her at least 12 years to earn that stripe and even longer for SMSgts and Chiefs. That is 12 plus years of learning their trade, cultural norms, what it takes to be successful in the career field and they have had some trials and errors in how to lead those rising through the ranks. Now, imagine being brand new off of the street and trying to run a shop without any of that knowledge or experience. It would be a nightmare!

That is exactly what our young officers are thrust into and then those who can actually help them learn are focusing on how to ditch them. Rather, we need to be taking advantage of the opportunity being provided to us and set them up for success. They are the ones who will be creating the policies our teams will be bound by in the future.

Almost every time I speak with a senior officer, I ask them how I can be a better mentor to the CGOs in my organization. I have spoken to countless Colonels and even a couple of 1- and 2-star Generals on the topic. All have given the same advice: help them learn their trade and don’t make decisions in a bubble.

Help them learn their trade: Are they an intel, maintenance, personnel, finance, etc? Teach them how what the role of each person on the team is. Show them how the process works and show them how to find the pulse of the organization. Have them go to nightshift and do some dirty work for awhile so they can see what the Airmen are going through. What are the things you look for on a daily/weekly basis that determine how the team is functioning and morale is intact? Show them.

Don’t make decisions in a bubble: This is as simple as sharing the thought process you are using to solve a problem. Instead of doing all the leg-work and creating a plan in your head on your own, think out loud. We place a lot of thought into our decisions, but it appears to be voodoo to young officers when it seems like we make our choice, especially on tough decisions that require some navigation through the grey. There is a lot of value in sharing why we don’t jump on the obvious solution that would solve the problem, but impact those with boots on the ground and that is why you chose X instead of Z.

When we take the time to teach our officer corps the lessons we have learned, we are investing in the future of our teams.

To DSD or not to DSD, That is the Question

air_force_air_education_and_training_command_instructor_badge_mirror_finish_7131_2_5de06024-2010-4cb9-8e7b-b30786aed532_1024x1024The Developmental Special Duty (DSD) selection cycle is upon us yet again. There are many fears and hopes associated with the possibilities of being selected. Speaking from someone who held one of these positions in the past and as a current field training detachment chief, I would like to share some of my experiences.

Last week, our Career Adviser put together a briefing for those who are interested in the process and what each of the 10 DSD career fields had to offer. He had representation for all 10 career fields and I was fortunate enough to be able to speak about my experiences as a tech school instructor. Ironically, all of us had very similar experiences before, during and after our tour in the DSD.

The general theme was that everyone had reservations about getting outside of their comfort zones to do something completely different from their peers in their primary AFSC. However, once they got into that environment and saw the impact they could have on another’s life and career, they were excited. And afterwards, they were much better prepared to do great things once they returned to their primary career field.

My personal experience as a tech school instructor was from 2004-2008 at the field training detachment in Charleston. Then we had to compete for instructor slots and interview with detachment leadership. They chose who they thought would be the best fit for their teams. Our force was mainly voluntary with the exception of a few non-vols. All of the instructors had to learn how to teach and we all had additional duties running major programs for the unit. We were trusted to manage our own schedules and it forced us to become good at time and task management.

I went from barely being able to manage my daily schedule to being able to manage the monthly schedule of my 8-member team with relative ease. This alone was an amazing skill to carry with me back to my career field. Not to mention, all of the presentation skills I had learned, the amazing people I had rubbed elbows with over the years, and confidence knowing I could take on something outside of my comfort zone and do well with it.

Another huge difference from then and now is the perception from leaders in the units about those filling a DSD slot. When I came back to the flightline, I was accused of “being on vacation” for the past four years and I should expect the first deployment that drops. Nowadays, that has changed as most units have someone in senior leadership who was a previous DSD person and recognizes the value of the returning member.

Also, I do not have any official stats to back this up, but most of these people do very well with forced distribution when they return. Some of this is because they usually return with a CCAF in their primary career field and a second on in the DSD field. Most of it I suspect is from the feedback I receive on a routine basis from units where my instructors return to about how awesome they are. I wish I could claim some credit for this, but the truth is, they have just spent four years with others who are working their butts off and trying to improve themselves. This is contagious and takes on the “iron sharpens iron” feel. By the time they leave, they have mastered the management of their own lives.

If you are fortunate enough to be selected by your commander for vectoring into one of these positions, you should feel honored. This means your leadership sees you as a leader of others and sees some potential in you that you might not see. Out of the 15 DSD slots at our detachment there are about five who were chosen without volunteering. They all love their new gigs and one person actually separated after his time to pursue teaching.

If you are selected by your leadership, feel honored. If you are fortunate enough to choose whether to be vectored or not, choose DSD. It was the one job that set me up better for my career than any other.


Secret to Success: Train Up, Train Down

Here is a concept I adopted a long time ago: Train Up, Train Down. I really wish I could remember where the idea came from, although I am certain I simplified it into this phrase as a teen while training in martial arts. The concept is really quite simple in practice; you train to learn what those above you know and you pass down what you know to those below you.

In the martial arts world, wisdom and techniques have lived on for thousands of years utilizing this principle. There are very clear lines of delineation in terms of rank that make it easy to see who the higher ranking and more advanced practitioners are. You know what belt you are and the belt you want to be and then you learn what is required to attain the belt and train until you know it. Then you take what you have been taught to get your current belt and teach it to those behind you. Very simple and effective construct.

This works in most areas of life still today. The difference is that is not always clear who is ahead or behind. Sure, there is the boss and those in command at the top but they are not necessarily the functional experts in the area you are trying to grow. The boss should be the expert at helping the team work together towards a goal. He or she does not need to know how to do your job to make this happen; they just need to know how to set you up to succeed.

So then, how do you find the person above you? The student-teacher relationship is not defined in the real world. Once we are effective in our jobs, we rarely have a trainer take us through tasks. It is now up to us to do this. If you want to be better at something, it is up to you to grow in that area. We have to accept responsibility for our own paths and take the initiative to become better in our craft.

The way we do this is taking an honest assessment of our own abilities. Then we need to look at those who are more successful than us in that area. For me, time management has been a constant revolving door. It is an area I have been striving to improve upon for many years now and I am always on the lookout for someone or some product that could aid me in this endeavor. When I see an opportunity to grow into a better time manager, I ask the person how they do certain tasks, I read reviews about the product, etc.

It is usually very easy for us to spot those doing something better than us. It is not always as easy to spot those who are trailing behind. However, when we take a step back we can see those in our organization who are making or are about to make the same mistake we have made at one point. Pull him aside and ask if you can offer a piece of advice. I find most of the time people are all ears especially when they are trying to dust themselves off after taking a tumble.

We get better by aspiring to be like those who are better than us in certain areas. We become better by humbling ourselves to learn and practice their teachings. We continue a legacy when we teach others the lessons we have learned. Train Up and Train Down.

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