Making the Switch: What I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Field Grade Officer
Note: Quotes and feedback have been anonymized and modified for clarity.
Last week, the Army released the results of the 2021 Major Promotion Selection Board (PSB). Senior Captains received notes of congratulations from family, friends, and mentors. Many of those notes from senior leaders included language about how “more is expected” now that they’ll soon be a “field-grade” officer.
What those things are, exactly, are often left a mystery.
Earlier this year, we asked the force for input on what things senior Captains can do now to better prepare themselves for the mantle of field-grade leadership. Specifically, we asked three questions:
- What do you wish you knew before becoming a field-grade officer?
- What would you have done differently as a company-grade officer to prepare yourself for field-grade life?
- What skill(s) do you wish you developed earlier in your career?
The feedback was impressive, nuanced, and often very specific. Field-grade officers from across the Army (both active and reserve) responded enthusiastically, hoping to share their lessons learned. Many lamented that they missed opportunities in their twilight years as a Captain that could have better prepared them for their current duties.
Their feedback was not advice on “how” to be a good field-grade officer, how to be a good S3 or XO, or how to lead indirectly. This advice offered tended more toward specific actions and behaviors junior officers should consider taking right now to prepare for the shift that is expected when pinning on the gold oak leaf.
While we asked three questions, the responses typically fell into two broad categories:
- What I wish I knew (before becoming a field grade)
- What I wish I did (as a Captain to better prepare myself)
This article will delve into and explore the “what I wish I knew” category of responses. A subsequent post will follow that captures the “what I wish I did” responses.
Behavior Matters – Lead by Example
“Leaders can influence others by acting in a manner that provides others with an example by which to measure and model their own behavior. Leading by example is a form of influence where leaders provide models rather than explicit direction. Leading by example is a manifestation of character and presence attributes.” (FM 6-22 Leader Development, 7-23)
One field grade officer said, “How you act is a seed being planted in the minds of all the Lieutenants and Captains on staying [in the Army] or going as field grade life draws near.”
The field grade officer has an outsized influence on how junior officers view military service. They are looking at him or her and taking score. Is this the life that I want? Does this job seem rewarding? Do they seem happy? While not battalion commanders, majors still have an effect on the young officers they lead.
As a field grade officer, more is going to be dumped on your plate. And the expectations are that you can handle it. This doesn’t mean foregoing the basics of soldiering – physical fitness, education, and self-development. One field grade officer wished that he better understood personal time management before being promoted. While the boss expects you to move the organization in the right direction, subordinates will notice if you are skipping PT, habitually staying in the office late, or failing to maintain a military appearance.
The same field grade officer reminds us that as an operations officer (S3) or executive officer (XO), this is the “last guaranteed spot in a battalion – not everyone will keep going.” Even if the officer stays in, there is a chance of not returning to the battalion level, where the focus is still at the tactical level.
If we’re not thinking about how our own behavior affects others now, it may be a tough adjustment when we suddenly find ourselves standing in the S3 fishbowl as the S3.
Understanding intent – not just your boss, but your boss’s boss (and beyond)
“The commander’s intent becomes the basis on which staffs and subordinate leaders develop plans and orders.” (ADP 6-0, Mission Command, 1-49)
One field grade officer stated that he wished that he was more prepared to implement and influence change. Leaders are constantly changing out. And with those changes come new policies and directions. As a field grade officer, this is where it becomes important to reach up two or three echelons higher and figure out what is desired of your unit. Only then can you truly implement the changes needed in your organization to move it in the right direction.
The same field grade officer writes: “Understanding how to gather intent and context matters because you can be doing all the right actions and still miss the mark because the culture doesn’t match the Division and Brigade Commander’s desires.”
Field grade officers are expected to learn and understand intent, often through feeling the pulse of both the organization he or she serves in as well as the pulse of echelons above their own. Showing up to work, grinding through the day, and hitting all of the wickets won’t cut it anymore. The challenge comes from both gathering the information to truly understand the direction, and then being able to put that into action – often indirectly – inside of the organization to get it there over time.
Field grade officers care about your role more than others
“I’ve heard it said that if you do the things that made you successful as a Captain when you’re a Major, you’ll distinguish yourself as the best Captain in your unit.” (Anonymous)
Many field grade officers discussed the importance of understanding “big Army” systems. Specifically, training management and resource procurement were mentioned over and over again. These are behemoth Army systems that take time and study to fully understand and appreciate. For many field grade officers, their “Iron Major” time began with lengthy deep-dives bringing them up to speed. This was time wasted, as the time horizons for both training and resources are long, and if we want to train or get stuff later we need to be planning now.
But the field grade officer cannot do it alone. The officers and NCOs who work for the field grade officer have to be brought on board, oftentimes begrudgingly. Time on staff is often viewed as a distraction or a departure from a “real” job. Field grade officers cannot expect their subordinates to understand the importance of the long-range training calendar or maintenance schedules. One field grade officer wished he knew that he would have to educate and teach his subordinates why these things matter and how to execute them effectively instead of expecting them to know (and to care).
Knowing is half the battle
Consistent throughout the feedback was the importance of expanding your personal bandwidth through effective time management, adherence to the basics (physical fitness, military bearing, tactical competence), and stretching to understand the intent of higher (much higher) is paramount in making the switch. Finding ways to optimize is difficult – especially as family and social responsibilities often increase around the same time as a promotion. Using the time just before that promotion to think, tighten personal management systems, to work at understanding the direction our organizations are moving, and to recognize that there are parts of the Army – especially it’s systems – which we need to understand, can set up the soon-to-be Major for success.
In the next “Making the Switch” article, we’ll share the tangible things that field-grade officers wish they did in the last years of company-grade life. These are the skills and attributes they wish they had spent time on prior to signing in as a newly minted field grade officer.
Captain(P) Don Gomez is a Psychological Operations officer currently assigned as an Instructor of Arabic at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is a 2021 Center for Junior Officers Leadership fellow.