By Quentin O’Neal
Major Dave Leydet and Major Ryan Stephenson recently penned a phenomenal article detailing the importance of the relationship between a unit’s Executive Officer (XO) and its Operations Officer (S3). It also expounds upon those two field grades’ (FG) unique responsibility to their unit and its members.
By comprehending the significance of these relationships, JOs and senior NCOs can pave the way for personal success. Investing time to understand their FG bosses as well as FGs understand each other leads to better outcomes for their organizations. These takeaways primarily apply to JOs and senior NCOs who are running a staff section at the battalion (BN) level, but should also offer insight to any leaders working for or with field grade officers.
Understanding your Field Grade Boss’s Background and Blindspots
Knowing your field grade boss’s background, both personally and professionally, can help you understand how they approach their responsibilities–and help you cover their blind spots. Knowing what shaped your FGs’ values as they grew, whether it was a regional culture, a family lifestyle, or something else, will help you understand how they think and make decisions.
Junior leaders must recognize that the daily interactions of Field Grade officers (FGs) differ significantly from their own. FGs often have many subordinates but few peers, making them more isolated. In contrast, JOs and NCOs often have shared experiences from college or the barracks. They easily build connections that evolve into diverse military backgrounds and fewer workplace friendships. To bridge this gap, it’s essential for junior leaders to learn the histories of their FGs, understanding their decision-making processes and perspectives. As one climbs the ranks, relationships with peers might change due to the vast responsibilities associated with FG positions. This shift might result from the pressures of career progression and the need to solve complex issues, potentially overshadowing the desire for genuine connections.
Moreover, understanding a FG’s professional history is crucial for helping guide junior officers’ insights to the team. While many FGs might have expertise in logistics or operations, they might lack knowledge in fields like human resources or military intelligence. Thus, junior officers should position themselves as domain experts in their own areas of expertise, ensuring FGs can make informed decisions. Demonstrating independence and expertise assures FGs that they can trust their staff without excessive oversight. As a Squadron S-1, I came to view myself as the senior human resources advisor to the command. JOs and senior NCOs serving in these positions should adopt the same attitude in dealing with their FGs.
This mindset is vital for a few reasons. For one, your FGs are counting on it. They need to have confidence that their staff primaries can operate independently and without too much oversight. Two, a successful JO wants to make their own decisions and manage their own business. By showing a spirit of willingness to act and even make some mistakes, you will show your FGs that they don’t need to worry about the specific area of expertise you bring. If they have to get too involved, things may fall out of your control, and you will be frustrated over your lack of influence over things that immediately affect you. Your unit will suffer for it.
Understanding the Unique Role Your FGs Carry for the Organization
Your FGs may be in a struggle for resources, and may be in a battle of personalities. The initial FG years are, in many ways, the last great filter before attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, which is generally the final step in the achievement of a 20-year career, at a minimum. In addition to this, they will have a vastly more diverse portfolio of things they are responsible for than ever before. Understanding these aspects will help a JO or senior NCO to recognize that they fill a key role in helping their FG boss accomplish large goals.
FGs are, as I’ve heard one Battalion Commander put it, “enterprise owners.” No longer do they own one simple aspect of a larger system–they own an entire system. FGs will seldom have the bandwidth to put their heads down and work on one or two specific tasks or projects. They will instead be responsible to track and report on several, if not dozens, of efforts. An S-3 section, although being a single staff section, is multifaceted. Within it are usually several smaller sections overseeing a multitude of functions that affect the BN on a daily basis: ammunition and land management, orders production, current operations, and future operations, to name a few. And the XO is managing the rest of the entire staff. These FGs will rely on you as someone with expertise in a specific function, to carry efforts across the goal-line.
The XO and S3 have distinct roles but share status as the “Iron Majors” that run an organization. As a lieutenant working on BN staff, I quickly gained an understanding that the FGs ran the BN day-to-day in a garrison setting. As a Captain, I have heard Sergeants Major go so far as to say Majors run the entire Army. In this same vein, JOs and senior NCOs need to recognize where they and their peers may fall in this organizational structure, and how to allocate the time and attention they give to each one’s requirements.
Immediately upon assuming a new role on a BN staff, JOs and senior NCOs need to quickly acknowledge their place in this hierarchy and which major they report to. As a BN S-1, I always put the requirements of my XO over those of the S3, unless the requirement from my S3 was something that I knew was directly tied to a priority set by my Commander. This is a lot easier when the BN S3 and XO have a developed and complementary relationship. The examples given by MAJ Leydet and MAJ Stephenson speak of their ability to step in for each other where needed, and not let their abilities and knowledge stay stovepiped into their own sections. I have seen poor BN S3-XO relationships and their effects. In this case, the chain of command became unclear. The S3 opted to directly approach other staff sections for requirements. Instead of collaborating with the XO, he often overburdened the staff unknowingly. Furthermore, he didn’t verify that his expectations aligned with the commander’s intent, rather than being his personal preference.
In most cases, a JO or senior NCO in charge of a BN staff section will be the last line of defense before requirements and guidance reach the company level. The likelihood for “staff overmatch” is significant, as company-level units do not have a staff. JOs and senior NCOs owe it to themselves and their subordinate units and Soldiers to understand the unique aspects of their FGs relationships, how it affects them, and what responsibilities they own in the effective execution of staff work.
CPT Quentin O’Neal is an Adjutant General officer currently serving as the Secretary of the General Staff at the U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command (USASOAC). He previously served as the Division Strength Manager and G-1 Plans Officer for the 82nd Airborne Division, and as the Squadron S-1 for 1st Squadron (Airborne), 40th Cavalry Regiment. He is married to Crystal O’Neal and is the proud father of Robbie and Lily.