Part 3 — 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.
It has been a few months since the release of the 2021 Major Promotion Selection Board (PSB) results. The exciting glow of good news has dried up, replaced by the normal tedium of work. For the majority of those who were selected, there is still a lot of time between now and pinning on the next rank.
We started the series by asking the force a few 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 for field-grade life?
- What skill do you wish you developed earlier in your career?
This wasn’t a call for “how to be a good field-grade officer” – there are plenty of resources on that. This was a call for how to use the time between selection and promotion to make that transition easier and more productive.
In the last article in this series, we shared feedback from the force regarding what current field-grade officers “wished they knew” before moving into the field-grade ranks. While many of the specifics varied, the key concepts were:
Leading by example – Company grade officers will look at you and determine if this career looks worthwhile.
The importance of intent (much higher intent) – Knowing what your boss wants gets you a C+. Knowing what your boss’ boss wants gets you a B. Knowing what they all want and making it actionable for your entire organization (often before they even communicate it) gets you an A.
You work for the company now – There is no longer an excuse for not knowing Army systems. Training management, resource management – you have to be the expert. And you have to be the one who trains and motivates your team to care about it.
In this article, I will discuss the things that field-grade officers wish they did prior to pinning on Major. Just as in the last article, the advice is categorized under three main headings; personal habits, leadership, and understanding.
Personal Habits – Fitness, Reading, Writing
“You can’t become in 30 seconds what you haven’t been for 30 years.”
-Quoted from one of the respondents
A majority of the respondents wished they spent more time building better personal habits in the time they had prior to pinning on Major. The three personal habits that were most frequently mentioned were fitness, reading, and writing.
First, fitness appeared often. It’s not just the importance of maintaining physical fitness during the twilight of company-grade duty, but in fact, expanding and branching out. It is very likely that some officers will have accumulated nagging injuries during company-grade service. Likewise, some may have neglected preparing for the Army’s shift to the ACFT. The waning days of company-grade service offer a good opportunity to re-establish a physical fitness regimen that takes personal circumstances into consideration, is sustainable, and prepares you to hit the ground running at the first post-promotion duty position.
Additionally, one respondent discussed the importance of picking up a “lifetime sport” or “hobby.” This field-grade officer writes:
“…in one of my divisional assignments, most “field-grade” decisions were made on the sidelines or immediately after an ultimate frisbee game. Not being into sports made this a missed opportunity to influence.”
While this may have been peculiar to this field-grade officer, many of us can attest to the informal structures that exist where decisions get made. If you’re not participating, you don’t get a vote.
Second, many respondents discussed the importance of establishing a reading habit – specifically, a professional reading habit. Some of us have great habits when it comes to reading for pleasure or even reading the books that are recommended for us. But who among us has a habit of actually setting aside time to read any of the numerous professional publications that are constantly being updated? And not just Army doctrine, but Joint doctrine?
It’s not easy – there’s a lot out there. And many field-grade officers report having to play catch-up.
The fix? Build the habit now of setting aside time to sit down and read for and within the profession. Even if it is just for a few minutes a day or a half-hour a week. If instituted now, this small change can pay dividends by the time the newly-minted field-grade officer is in the job.
Finally, writing. The ability to write – both internally and externally – was mentioned by just about every field-grade officer who responded. Here’s a direct quote from one:
“The Army runs on policies and memoranda. Looking back, I realize my AR 25-50 skills (Army Regulation 25-50, Preparing and Managing Correspondence) were atrocious. Read the regulation. Make your correspondence match the Army standard. If your formatting is wrong, most commanders will not even read the content. They will just hand it back to you. The Air Force has a brilliant publication called The Tongue and Quill. While their formatting is different from the Army, the guidance on clear, concise writing is helpful.
And on the importance of writing good emails:
“Writing skills are essential for emails, too. Commanders have precious little time. Ensure you tell them what they need to know within the space of one screen on their smartphone.”
Beyond mastering internal writing, many wish they had begun writing professionally for public audiences. Many officers will be encouraged to write when they attend Intermediate Level Education (ILE), but it is often a voluntary pursuit. As one respondent wrote: “Nothing quite incentivizes you to hone your wordsmithing like knowing your work product will go before a mass audience. Professional writing is also a way to develop your personal “brand” as you move forward in your military career.”
These three things – fitness, reading, and writing – are all skills that must be practiced. By the time you are promoted and are in the thick of a tough new job, integrating these skills becomes difficult. If practiced now, you can set yourself up for success and (potentially) lessen the burden of having to rapidly acquire these new skills.
Leadership – Delegation and Communication
“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
-General George S. Patton
At this point in a company-grade officer’s career, the officer should be adept at direct leadership. Giving clear tasks, explaining purpose, modeling good behavior – these are all elements of effective direct leadership. These are still important, but will not suffice as a field-grade leader who now has to practice organizational leadership.
A majority of the respondents discussed the importance of organizational leadership and “getting good” at it – mostly through understanding higher intent and then implementing action. The most tangible piece of advice offered on how to practice this now is through delegation. If you find yourself in the position of being a Captain who will soon be a Major, now is the time to start getting comfortable delegating. Delegate all of the things that you’re good at. Push it down lower and see what happens.
Did the quality suffer?
Did the execution falter?
Good – now is the time to fix it. Not by taking over, but by working on how to deliver feedback and tighten up your guidance. This is a skill you will have to use as a field-grade officer to be effective, and if you have controlled every aspect of your work until this point, you will be in danger of being overworked because you fail to delegate or ineffective because you delegate poorly.
On the topic of communication, it’s likely that most company-grade officers feel that they are “good” at it. iOne of the respondents wished they had paid more attention to what their senior field grades said and wrote when they communicated. This field-grade officer wrote:
“They [senior leaders] put immense amount of time into their messaging and what they want done; semantics matter (words matter) – remember if Majors are no longer directly leading, then Colonels and Major Generals have to get their desired action to actualize through many LTCs and MAJs…stay on their terms and use their language (“when in Rome…”) it’s their team too.”
It is very easy to look at senior leaders with skepticism – and many company-grade officers do. But they are human as well, and they have been practicing these skills for even longer. If you pay attention, they will tell you exactly what they want. Often, we simply have to get out of our own way to hear or see it.
Understanding – Shifting your mental state, asking “why,” and active listening
Finally, many respondents wished they had begun making the mental shift required to thrive as a field-grade leader much earlier. This is a new phase of military service. For example, going to “cool schools” doesn’t make as much sense anymore – especially when someone else from your unit would be better served by that slot.
It is important to begin to recognize that inside of a tactical formation – like it or not – the field-grade officer represents what the Army is supposed to promote. When pinning on the oak leaf, it’s not likely that the officer will suddenly have an epiphany and instantly change behaviors. You will likely still feel very much like yourself.
But the rest of the Army will see you much differently, and coming to terms with that now can help you make that transition.
One of the things that a respondent wishes he did differently was begin to ask the field-grade leaders around him “why” more often. Not “why” in a complaining sense, but to truly understand the greater purpose behind certain actions. Actions at the company-grade level often feel divorced from their purpose. The field-grade officer may know the ‘why’ and the company-grade officer could stand to benefit from hearing that explanation. Hearing the “why” all the way from the action to the ultimate outcome could help the company-grade leader finally get it. Too often, we are so focused on achieving results that we don’t ask why (or explain why). This can lead to misunderstanding the purpose at best, or bitterness – or even undermining behavior – at worst.
The last piece of actionable advice which was consistent among respondents was the importance of building a true active listening habit. Chiefly, not listening to respond, but listening to understand. It’s not just about hearing something and then generating the appropriate output. That’s company-grade business. Active listening is truly hearing the words that are flowing and the thoughts and history behind them, taking a pause, and then thinking through how to be most helpful – which might be saying nothing. This active listening may be hard to do as a company-grade leader focused on getting results. But as a field-grade officer, active listening becomes paramount both up and down the change of command.
Making the Switch – It takes practice
Consistent through these articles is an insistence that the knowledge, skills, and behaviors required to be successful as a field-grade officer are different from those that lead to success as a company-grade officer. Additionally, these are attributes that you will not simply learn through attendance at ILE, conversations with mentors, or through sheer willpower – they have to be deliberately practiced over time. The good news – as reported by those who responded – is that they can be practiced.
Implementing small changes in personal habits, practicing delegation, refining communication skills, asking “why,” engaging in active listening – these are among the things that you can do right now to begin making the switch. While company-grade officers still have to do the work that is asked of them, there is an opportunity to use the period of time between selection and promotion to begin making those changes now.
Captain 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.