by Chard Phebe
Being an Executive Officer (XO) as a First Lieutenant (1LT) has been described as “unglamorous” and “thankless.” I knew that entering the role back in August 2021, when previous Battalion Commander encouraged me to take the position. What I didn’t foresee was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or that my unit would deploy to the Baltics a year later. I was responsible for getting all our equipment to Lithuania—but I honestly had to Google “Lithuania” to know where it was going. In short, I had no idea how unglamorous and thankless being an XO would really be.
But these unique challenges gave me the chance to gain experience and insight. In this article, I will share practical advice I currently use as an XO in three key areas: maintenance, administration, and self-care. While my experience comes from the European theater, this advice is relevant anywhere. These tips are intended to help company XOs excel and maintain personal well-being during this intense professional challenge. Should you ever find yourself assigned as a Company XO, your success in this challenging position is based on the habits and skills you bring to your daily life.
A critical responsibility of the XO’s job is keeping the unit’s equipment war-ready. Poor maintenance will severely limit operational capability. It will also make your unit (and you) look terrible. Therefore you must develop a system to maintain an overview of your equipment, prioritize repairs, and forecast preventive maintenance. For me, this has been a simple Excel file with two sheets: one for our vehicle status based on the Equipment Status Report (ESR), and one sheet of service schedules based on the ZMPRPT T-code in GCSS-Army. Using this system, I’ve been able to track parts, repairs, recoverable items, and weekly work projections.
Having this maintenance battle tracker allows you to share maintenance information with your platoon leadership teams, so they can fix problems and hold their people accountable. For example, vehicle fault data indicated that one of my platoons was failing to complete proper weekly PMCS. Using my tracker, I was able to show the platoon leadership the exact vehicles and identifiable faults during weekly inspections. They addressed the issue with the relevant individuals and the recurring faults have ceased. By empowering platoon leadership teams to take care of their equipment, you foster a culture of responsibility and ownership within the unit.
Secondly, reliable maintenance tracking tools allow you to push timely and accurate information to stakeholders at higher echelons. For example, one week our company had two pacing items (mission critical vehicles) go non-mission capable (NMC) on the same day. Because we had a robust maintenance tracking system in place, I was quickly able to brief our Brigade XO on exactly what happened, what parts we needed, an informed estimate for the vehicles’ repairs based on historical trends, and also let him know we had a different pacing item going fully mission capable (FMC) that same week, lessening the blow of the bad news. Priorities from higher will shift, parts will come in earlier or later than expected, the mission often changes. Tracking the most current information helps you to make informed decisions at your level and give higher solutions instead of problems.
Supporting the Commander
Between the overly busy Commander and under-experienced PLs sits the XO with the knowledge and capacity to hold the company together. The Commander is ultimately responsible for things, but as their “Chief of Staff”, the XO is crucial to their success by ensuring all work is being completed on time, according to their intent. You must be proactively thinking of second- and third-order effects your Commander may not see. Doing so can allow you to preempt suspenses and potential friction points, making your unit shine in the eyes of all.
For most Army leaders—including your commander—time is their most valuable resource. Therefore, it’s essential to help them prioritize tasks, delegate often, and manage their time efficiently. Don’t wait for the Commander to follow up on tasks, do the follow up yourself. Work out friction points before they get to the Commander’s level. By setting internal deadlines ahead of external deadlines, you allow yourself the opportunity to address unforeseen issues or delays while still meeting organizational requirements. You know you’re succeeding as an XO when your Commander has the space and time in their schedule to think and plan ways to make the unit better.
One of the greatest ways you’ll support your Commander is with your communication. Remember that you often possess critical information on various tasks and projects that impact everyone. Regularly update your Commander, ensuring they are aware of progress and potential challenges. Check in frequently with your platoon leaders and first sergeant to ensure they are getting the most information possible to effectively do their jobs. Effective follow-up and proactive communication are essential in building trust and maintaining positive working relationships in your unit.
Put Your Mask On First—Then Help Others
Being an XO can be mentally exhausting and emotionally taxing. After a particularly bad day early on in my XO time, my fiancee called and told me she was worried my work stress was affecting me. There were several other points in this mission where I felt I was near my limit and was unsure how I’d overcome. I knew after my fiancee’s call that something needed to change with how I handled this position.
Like all the equipment you maintain as an XO, you the XO are also an asset to maintain. The job can consume you or drive you to unhealthy habits if you’re not careful. You must find healthy coping mechanisms for stress. Fitness of course is a good place to start. Consider also developing a new hobby, something absorbing to take your mind off work. If you can, take time to explore your current area of operations. While in the Baltics, I’ve begun hiking as a way to unwind and get out of the office. Carving out time for yourself to recharge and rejuvenate will allow you to approach your duties with renewed energy.
While you are fighting to prevent your own burnout, recognize you are also in a position to promote a supportive environment within your unit. More than once, I’ve had to step back and realize that I may be causing my team more stress than I was removing. You should encourage open communication and provide resources for mental and emotional support. Encourage everyone not to just dump all their stress on fellow Leaders or family back home. The Chaplain and Military and Family Life Counselor can offer valuable assistance to you and your soldiers facing challenges. Also ensure you’re proactive and notice if someone appears to be suffering in silence. By emphasizing the importance of self-care and fostering a supportive atmosphere, you help create a resilient and cohesive unit. This is only an implied task for XOs—but it is arguably the most important thing you can do for your unit.
In conclusion, being an XO has been a greater challenge than I could’ve imagined. In this position I have gained these insights that I hope can benefit current XOs, future XOs, and other Army readers. Prioritize maintenance by fostering a culture of ownership and utilizing tools to track information effectively. Efficient and effective leadership involves effective time management, prioritization, and leveraging digital tools for streamlined communication, delegation, and documentation. Finally, prioritize self-care by finding healthy stress relief mechanisms and promote a supportive environment within your unit. You were chosen to be an XO because of your demonstrated potential to get results. By implementing these lessons learned, you can excel in your XO role while taking care of your personal well-being and the well-being of your organization.
1LT Chard Phebe is the Executive Officer for Alpha Battery, 3rd Battalion, 265th Air Defense Artillery. He previously served as a Tactical Control Officer in Washington DC and a Platoon Leader in the Florida Army National Guard. 1LT Phebe holds a Bachelors in Marketing from the University of Central Florida, and a Masters in Business Administration from the University of West Florida.