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Does Your Organization Need a Command Sergeant Major?

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on LinkedIn for a corporate audience. Listen to Joe’s interview with Juliet here. And keep your eyes open for Juliet’s return to the podcast! 

by Juliet Funt

I have no military family, nor do I have close friends who’ve served. My perception of the military has primarily been shaped by media, movies, and a few corporate leaders I’ve worked with who have military experience. So, it was a bit of a surprise to learn that my book, A Minute to Think, has found a significant audience within these honorable groups and opened the door to many wonderful connections and new ways to think about leadership.

The “relationship” began with my appearance on the military podcast From The Green Notebook. Then, Command Sergeant Major JoAnn Naumann, who recently became the first woman to serve as the senior enlisted leader of U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), with over 30,000 people under its command, ranked A Minute to Think as the top choice on her list of 69 books for the year. (Yes, she’s an incredibly dedicated lifelong learner.)

Shortly after, the Army War College and Joint Special Operations University began using the book in their curricula. Through this exposure, I’ve been invited to speak at several events for military leadership and have grown a marvelous crop of new, warm friendships.

Together, these experiences have introduced me to numerous individuals possessing a type of honorable character I’ve rarely seen. Spending time in military environments has already yielded some of the most genuinely refreshing experiences I can remember.

The Unique Role of the Command Sergeant Major (CSM)

One lesson that has stood out (among many) is the importance of the Command Sergeant Major (CSM) role. From my layperson’s vantage, this highly selective position—also the highest officer in the enlisted ranks—is a kind of Chief of Staff meets Chief Communications Officer meets Mediator, charged with bridging understanding between the enlisted personnel and the officers. The CSM ensures that both groups support and “get” each other. 

The position, which originated during the Vietnam War, encompasses a wide range of roles and talents, including vital liaison skills that extend command influence, help commanders understand the organization, assess the morale of the force, and provide assistance during critical events.

Command Sergeant Major Kristie Brady, another female “first” as CSM in the Army’s Communications-Electronics Command, explains her role this way: “Traditionally, a CSM comes in and solves problems, advises, builds morale and more. It’s just about going and having that one-on-one conversation… You can’t do it with everyone, but if you have just one more conversation than you did the previous day, it makes a difference.”

To someone like me, a corporate executive and expert on team effectiveness, the mandate of the CSM highlights a major gap in the corporate chain of command. The stats are everywhere that workers are demanding to be heard and understood—but resistance persists.

According to Businessolver’s sixth annual State of Workplace Empathy study, while workplace empathy improved over the past year, 68% of CEOs fear they will be less respected if they show empathy in the workplace. Conversely, the average worker needs to garner their upward empathy. Leaders often experience sleepless nights, torn between their human desire to provide for their teams and the pressures of running large, public companies. And they are not commonly understood for the ways they hold this private pressure.

The Corporate CSM – The New CUO (Chief Unification Officer) 

Spending time with individuals in this role has made me realize that every corporation can benefit from someone like a Command Sergeant Major. A CSM trusted by the “commander” and the “troops” could effectively bridge this gap and serve as a crucial liaison for both sides.

The organizational benefits of having someone in this role could include:

  • Improved morale and job satisfaction
  • Decreased miscommunication and misunderstandings
  • Enhanced team cohesion and collaboration
  • More efficient problem resolution

A Corporate CSM would be, as is the case with a military CSM, a liaison, interpreter, and peacemaker.

If I was the CEO of a company large enough to feel that the channels of understanding and empathy were compromised between the layers of my company, I would definitely try this. I would hire someone whose ONLY job was to become deeply aware, empathetic, and clear about what senior leadership wants and needs, and the same for managers and staff. I’ll be patiently waiting to hear of the first large organization out there that gives this a go.

There is so much focus on empathy-building and psychological safety in the companies I support, yet despite all that intention, the solutions created are still based on a regrettable amount of guessing because no one owns the task of ongoingly making each side clear to the other. But a CSM would.

In that spirit, consider this article more of a thought starter than an instructional guide. I hope it stimulates fruitful conversations, and I’d love to hear back from all of you, including two groups in particular:

A.  Military or ex-military readers who can comment on the inner workings of the CSM role and pressure-test my proposal. What are your thoughts, experiences, and proposed translation of CSMs value into the civilian organization?

B.  Corporate leaders who have succeeded or not in creating more understanding without such a designated professional. How do you listen to the many and have them truly understand you? Who is officially or unofficially your CSM? What actionable insights have they provided you?

I can’t wait to get your insights and perspectives.

Juliet Funt is the author of A Minute to Think, nominated for the Next Big Idea Club curated by Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink, Susan Cain and Adam Grant. She is an evangelist for freeing the potential of companies by unburdening their talent from busywork, and she has brought her powerful concepts to Spotify, National Geographic, Anthem, Vans, Abbott, Costco, Pepsi, Nike, Wells Fargo, Sephora, Sysco, and ESPN. She’s also been featured in top media outlets such as Forbes, CNBC, and Fast Company, Juliet Funt is a globally renowned keynote speaker, tough-love advisor to the Fortune 500, and founder and CEO of the efficiency training firm, Juliet Funt Group.