By: Thang Tran, Nick Luis, Barrett Martin, and Rudy Weisz
Military leaders plan, resource, and execute combat patrols and administrative directives on a daily basis and are well prepared and trained to do so. In contrast, one task that most subordinate leaders are undertrained for is hosting a Distinguished Visitor (DV). DVs range from senior military commanders, congressional delegations (CODELs), staff delegation (STAFFDELs), or higher headquarters’ staff members.
All visits are the same, but different. Planning and resourcing a DV visit is the same, but each visit’s execution should be tailored appropriately for the specific audience. Higher headquarters within the Department of Defense have protocol offices with a robust staff that are charged with planning, coordinating, and executing DV visits, complete with established standard operating procedures outlined in official documents such as the Air Force Pamphlet 34-1202 and TRADOC Memorandum 1-16. However, these resources do not help tactical formations coordinate and host a DV at their headquarters or outstations.
Lessons listed below come from hosting numerous DVs in various environments and are aimed at educating decision makers, leveraging additional resources, and showcasing our people. The opportunities DV events provide for tactical units require staffs and commanders to diligently plan, resource, and execute such visits.
Before the Event
Mindset: Everybody Freaks Out. Overthinking a DV visit is usually what stresses people out more than the actual visit. If a DV is considered “high threat,” do not feel like you can micromanage every aspect of how he or she will feel. Have a sense of conviction in what you say and you just may be a breath of fresh air.
Know Your Audience. Contact the DV’s personal staff, chief of staff, or executive assistant well before the visit. Confirm their intent, goals, expectations, timeline, and any pet peeves. Verify which medium – written, verbal, or graphic – they prefer. More importantly, know their background and understand how your operations fit into their priorities. For all DVs, read their biography and priorities. For CODELs, study relevant Congressional Research Service reports. For Country Teams (Ambassador, Chief of Station, Defense Attaches), review the Integrated Country Strategy. The purpose is to understand your audience and produce a program that is nested with their intent and interests.
Predictability. Coordinate all details such as timeline, uniform, and meeting location and publish a detailed schedule through the DV’s staff ahead of time. Doing so provides them time to prepare an engagement strategy and talking points. When things inevitably change, simply update the DV upon initial contact. Plan for a structured and controlled visit – no surprises. Finally, rehearse the visit. The schedule will always veer off course, so ensure you rehearse the scheme of maneuver with all participants so it is professionally executed.
Hosting the Visit
Prioritize and Be Flexible. Much like all missions, your plan will not survive first contact. The DV will show up with a different timeline, more people, or their own vision for the visit. Stay flexible and focus on their priorities for the visit. Through research, you know why they are visiting. Prioritize and be deliberate in addressing concerns and providing candid feedback to support their decision making process. It is the reason for their visit, so deliver. Ensure your peers and subordinate leaders know the priorities and have a plan to conduct the visit in split teams if needed to meet the timeline and accommodate the audience. For example, it might be a better use of time to have a subordinate leader take the senior NCO, J3, etc. on a site tour and talk through your unit’s needs while you take the DV through your more formal brief and agenda.