by Scott Nusom
The field grade officer’s chief responsibility is to operationalize guidance and intent. However, often overlooked is how field grade leaders can just as effectively operationalize individual and team development. Simply stated, field grade leaders can build a useful framework for individual and team investment around teaching, professional development, team building, counseling, and influencing the organization.
Serving as the squadron operations officer is a rewarding, albeit humbling undertaking. In a position where living in a proactive future is essential, we often find ourselves reacting to contact. The most organized individual can get pulled into the daily grind of planning, current operations, training management, and every other endeavor that finds its way into the operations realm.
Without perspective, the noted challenges can lead to short-sighted frustration and cynicism and the need to just survive the field grade gauntlet. To get through each day or task by telling your team to row, although they may not know the technique or destination, is sometimes a monumental undertaking. However, with perspective, operations officers understand that their position provides a unique leadership opportunity to invest in the organization’s long-term success and, more importantly, the long-term success of its members.
Investing in others falls in line with the Army’s People-First Strategy, yet it can easily get neglected when the section becomes inundated with tasks. Leaders inside the section desire to learn and want to do well. However, with disparate levels of rank and experience, it is easy to take for granted what people know or their work capacity. While soldiers will always plow ahead to get the job done, the “why” is not always understood.
Being new to the staff provides the same learning curve as taking over a new squad or platoon. But more people than we care to admit are reluctant to ask questions, especially of the field grade officer. Appreciating how we can operationalize individual and team development within our sections will alleviate these issues.
Capitalize on teachable moments. Teaching demonstrates that you care about the individual and the growth of the team. It addresses the disparity of experience and the need to provide a deeper understanding of what the section is working to accomplish. Carving out time to teach can be ad hoc and does not need to fit neatly onto the calendar. A quick lesson on War Fighting Functions, the 8-Step training model, or a step of MDMP is possible. These lessons require nothing more than a whiteboard and a pen, and give operations officers a focused way to interact with their team. Teaching also provides context and the crucial “why.” If individuals understand their tasks, chances are good they will not require future explanation. Additionally, they are more prepared to teach new team members without direct involvement and will own the responsibility moving forward. Pausing work for a few minutes to provide context or introduce something new will pay dividends to the section’s growth in the long run.
Schedule section LPDs. These are sacrosanct for troop commanders and should remain that way for majors leading staff sections. LPDs provide the operations officer and the operations sergeant major the opportunity to step outside of the daily regiment and dive deeper into leadership topics. They stimulate more in-depth discussions, building comfort and trust over time. Providing subordinates with an opportunity to lead a discussion is excellent for their development, demonstrates confidence, and promotes trust. Do not make LPDs complex. Articles from professional journals, military/leadership blogs, or a chapter out of a Field Manual or book serve as great primers. LPDs inside the section capitalize on the different levels of experience from NCOs and officers and promote profound, meaningful discourse. Just ensure the topic will garner feedback from the diversity of ranks within the section.
Build the team. Nothing will bring a section closer together than a well-intentioned team building event. Similar to LPDs, these events do not require complexity. Competing in a physical challenge once a month is an easy way to rejuvenate morale and promote esprit de corps. Even the occasional off-post physical training event or ruck march breaks up routine, reinvigorating the team. If your installation has a facility such as a Ready and Resilient Center, use team-building events to introduce unique resources while getting away from the squadron footprint. Encouraging other leaders to plan the event provides another opportunity to foster ownership. With regular turnover, team building events are a natural way to welcome new members. They also provide occasions to farewell long-serving teammates and highlight their contributions to the section.
Counsel regularly. Whether formal or informal, counseling is the best way to assess performance, learn about personal and career goals, and address individual challenges. Counseling enables you to devote time exclusively to each team member and have a more personal conversation outside of the group forum. By placing a premium on counseling, the junior leaders within the section are more likely to do the same once they are directly supervising others. This experience will pay dividends when they move onto their next troop-level leadership position. Sending out a pre-counseling form before formal sessions will encourage a more meaningful and in-depth discussion. Taking five minutes to pull a team member aside during a lull in a field exercise or a garrison workday is equally essential. If done correctly, counseling will not just assist individuals on the team. Equally important, it will serve as a catalyst to garner feedback on the section’s strengths and weaknesses and your blind spots as a leader.
Influence throughout the organization. Operations officers sit in a unique position to influence across the organization. It is not uncommon to have a section filled with future platoon sergeants, platoon leaders, and troop commanders. Not to mention the multiple interactions you have with the other staff officers/NCOs within the squadron and the brigade. As a virtue of position, you will have just as much – if not more – interaction with the troop commanders as your squadron commander. Prioritize this relationship and help teach, coach, and mentor the Army’s future field grade leaders. While only a few years removed from their position, you have made the leap from direct to organizational leadership. Open the troop commanders’ aperture and help them see how their efforts better contribute to squadron and brigade operations. If capitalized upon, an excellent opportunity exists to influence people’s leadership habits well beyond their time in their current unit, moving towards what Tony Burgess eloquently defines as third-generation leadership.
Operationalizing how you lead and develop sets the foundation for building a thriving operations section. Without a doubt, shouldering additional responsibilities is not something field grade officers should take lightly. Doing so requires effective and creative time management. A well-constructed framework will provide the requisite space to balance development with the litany of other requirements. At the basic level, knowing people enables you to better manage talent and assign the right person to the right task. At its core, investing in your team shows that you care about its members’ professional growth. Personal investment proves that the journey of stewarding the profession and the long-term development of the Army’s future is more critical than rowing the proverbial boat. But when you must row, the crew knows where it is going and how it will get there.
Major Scott Nusom is an Armor officer currently assigned to the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy. He recently completed his tenure as the Operations Officer and Executive Officer of 1-32 CAV, 1/101 (AASLT), Fort Campbell, KY. Scott is passionate about teaching, leader development, and building effective teams.
Author’s Note: For clarity, I use the term operationalize to describe how to create a tangible plan of action from a thought or idea.