True Lies

Career Advice from Under the Mushroom

The best piece of career advice I ever received was from an instructor at my career course. Without a lot of fanfare, he leaned over to me one day and said, “You have to be your own career manager. No one will look out for you as well as you do yourself.” It was sage advice, delivered at the Adjutant General office as I picked up my fifth Request for Orders (RFO) in five weeks as I attempted to maneuver my way out of school and back into the operational force.

The ordeal began simply enough. Early in the course, we filled out our “dream sheets”, submitted them to our branch manager, and waited. Then the assignments “came down.” I was confident that I would receive the assignment I’d requested: I brought an above-center-of-mass (ACOM) file to school, was one of only a handful of combat veterans, and was on pace to be the distinguished graduate of the course. As the assignments were read off to the class, there were more than a few surprised faces, mine among them.

Instead of the assignment to Alaska I’d requested, my RFO was for an unaccompanied tour to Korea. Having just recently returned from a combat deployment, the thought of being separated from my family again so soon was far from my mind. The upside (if there really was one) was that the RFO came with a caveat: I was free to “trade” assignments with someone in the course. Really? Who would trade FOR Korea?

Surprisingly, there was someone in the course interested. Very interested. He was recently married and not particularly happy, having wed a 40ish divorcee who came complete with teenagers and an uncontrolled spending dependency. Korea was his one chance to get away. We shared the news with our branch manager, who took it all in stride. His RFO to Fort Riley was changed to Korea, and my RFO was changed to… the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.

“What happened to Fort Riley?” I asked.

“Someone else got it. Needs of the Army,” he responded.

I was actually excited as I anticipated the move. Great unit, amazing history. Looked like a terrific opportunity. A few days later, a welcome letter arrived from the regimental commander. And so did another RFO… to Mannheim, Germany.

“Hey, what happened to Blackhorse?” I asked.

“Priorities change. Don’t call me anymore. If you have questions, relay them through the Commandant’s office.” Click.

Two more RFOs and two countries later, I finally had an assignment, just days from graduation. Because of the RFO fiasco, my family’s passports were significantly delayed (no concurrent travel), my car didn’t ship on time (begged rides for months), and our household goods were parked in storage for six months (thank God for government-issue furniture). Nevertheless, we overcame the early hurdles, enjoyed a great tour, and learned something important from the experience: you really are your own best career manager.

In the years that followed, I learned even more. I learned to engage my career manager in a meaningful dialog. With a good career manager, helping them to understand what you want to do helps them to balance against the needs of the service. Clear communication also avoids unnecessary ambiguity (“Explain to me again why an assignment to a commissary in Greenland is a ‘good career move’?”) and ensures transparency (“Just to be clear, I never said I wanted to help the Afghan National Police with recruiting. You did.”). Finally, a good career manager will help you to better see yourself: your strengths, weaknesses (yes, you have weaknesses), and unique broadening potential.

One the other side of the coin is the bad career manager. We’ve all had them, and we all remember them vividly. You learn just as much (if not more) from a bad career manager, typically with a lot of associated pain, and normally after the fact. For all the reasons you come to appreciate a good career manager, you detest a bad one: your needs really don’t matter, transparency and ambiguity are standard issue, and the less clearly you see yourself, the better.

But the smoke and mirrors employed by a bad career manager come with the territory. You learn to expect the complicated dance and employ deft counter-moves that would be the envy of Michael Jackson. That’s when the real fun begins: the lies. A bad career manager is the master salesman of the lemon lot, the guy who can convince you to take the ’73 Ford Pinto when you can get a ’67 Mustang GT for the same price. “Why would you want the Shelby package? This Pinto has doors, paint, and a self-igniting gas tank!!”

Think about it. That MiTT tour? Did it really equate to command? The “special assignment” that was supposed to be Key/Developmental? It wasn’t. That nominative position you were supposed to get after filling that WIAS tasker? Uh-huh… now you’re tracking.

Early on in my career, I learned to take copious notes when talking to branch (in fact, I learned the meaning of “copious notes” as a result of phone conversations with career managers, good and bad). They’re keeping notes, after all. It might be a good idea for you to follow suit. Those notes might come in very handy one day, in a blog, for instance… which leads us to the coup de grâce in today’s entry at The Pendulum: the ten best lies my career managers told me.

1. “This is a great assignment. If you don’t take it right now, someone else will.” Really? If it was that great, you wouldn’t have to sell it so hard. I’ll take what’s behind Door No. 2.

2. “A Pentagon assignment would be a great career move for you.” Sorry, it’s not the location, it’s the job. A shitty job in the building is no better than a shitty job somewhere else, it just comes with a worse commute. The only time you should consider an assignment with a vague job is if you’re headed to SOCOM. If everything else goes to hell, at least you’ll have a beach nearby.

3. “Are you kidding? This job is better than command.” No job is better than command. And if it isn’t a command position, it won’t count for command.

4. “A TRADOC assignment will kill your career.” Only you can kill your career, and it doesn’t matter if you’re in TRADOC or not. Career seppuku is committed daily across the services, if you haven’t noticed.

5. “A TRADOC assignment will make your career.” Unless your name is Bradley, Patton, or Marshall, it’s unlikely that a schoolhouse assignment will make your career. It all comes down to manner of performance — or the lack thereof — and the perceived value of your job in the eyes of a board.

6. “If you take this job, I will guarantee your next assignment.” There are no guarantees, except the very likely possibility that the person making that promise won’t be around to honor it in a year.

7. “Oh, yeah. That assignment went to somebody else.” Also known as the “buddy hook-up”, this typically happens when you lose a good assignment out of the blue. Your career manager either took care of a buddy, returned a favor, or traded up for a favor of his own… at your expense.

8. “If you take this WIAS tasker, I won’t PCS you when you return.” That’s true… someone else will PCS you. So, technically, not a lie. What we would call “Smoke and Mirrors.”

9. “I don’t have a choice. They need combat veterans in Korea.” One, they always have a choice (and so do you). Two, this typically occurs when a career manager has to fill a requisition at the last minute. When you hear this phrase (or one like it) throw the bullshit flag. A good career manager will work with you, a bad one will roll over.

10. “Trust me.” Trust, but verify. Always remember those three words.

No one can manage your career better than yourself. Engage your career manager, consult with your mentors, and make informed career decisions. Never leave your future in someone else’s hands, unless you want to find out for yourself what it’s like to be left alone in a commissary in Greenland.