Creating Success In Your New Position

Part I: Position Occupied

CCLKOW is a weekly conversation on military affairs jointly hosted by the Center for Company-Level Leaders (CCL) at the US Military Academy at West Point and the Kings of War (KOW), a blog of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the US Army or the Department of Defense. Read the post and join the discussion on Twitter #CCLKOW

This week’s piece is written by a guest writer; James Casey. James Casey is a first lieutenant currently serving as a Headquarters and Headquarters Troop Executive Officer in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. He is a graduate of the Airborne Course and the Armor Basic Officer Leader Course. Previous leadership positions include Tank Platoon Leader and Tank Company Executive Officer. James can be found on Twitter at J Casey

At the end of your last leadership tenure, you thought you had learned all there was to learn at that level, and you felt confident that you could crush your next assignment like you destroyed that pack of Rip-Its at your last field problem. As you’re conducting a RIP with your predecessor, however, you realize that it seemed he was stressed for good reason, and that the position that once seemed easily doable for a leader of your caliber now looks like it will crush you under the weight of a thousand different tasks and systems. One month, two months, six months into your position, you still feel like you’re drowning in missions large and small, critical and minor alike. How can you get ahead? Could you have done something different at the beginning? I think there are two answers, each as important as the other: always work on learning/preparing for your next job; and make a deliberate plan to get ahead of the curve of your new position, which is what I’m going to discuss in this article series.

While you can start this process after you’ve been in your position for a while and still be successful, it’s a better idea to make a deliberate effort at the beginning so that you don’t have to reinvent your battle plan half-way through your tenure. Making a good plan starts when you begin to occupy your position, or while you’re starting your relief in place with your predecessor.

While following your predecessor around, take note of the different areas of responsibility he has and tends to, and which ones are neglected; this will indicate what his priorities were, and may indicate future friction points. In each area of responsibility, list what’s required of you and the subordinate leader to be successful and for things to run smoothly. Note the status of each commodity shop, and write down nagging questions you have about how things operate, or things that don’t seem to add up.

When meeting each of your new subordinates, make sure you ask relevant questions, be polite and approachable, but don’t try to be their friend. Friendship isn’t analogous to earning mutual respect; in fact, it will undermine respect and authority in the long run. Just as important to mention, don’t doggedly ask every question that you have. Jot down questions to ask later; you don’t want to overwhelm your new team or give a first impression that you constantly hound your subordinates.[1] Instead, the first time you meet your new team, you should briefly discuss expectations and the most effective ways to communicate with you. Reiterate these expectations during your initial counseling. I like to tell my subordinate leaders that I’ll support their lines of effort when they need outside support, and that I’m invested in their success. When your Soldiers know that you hold them to a high standard, but are readily available should they need to leverage more assets, they’ll work hard towards your end state confident that you’ll back up their initiative.

Throughout your observations of your new posting, take stock of critical shortfalls across the board. What is your team failing at? Do they realize their own shortcomings? What is the major obstacle to success? Leading Change by John Kotter has an excellent 8-step process that succinctly states common shortcomings when teams are attempting to right their own ship.[2] Does anything obvious stand out? First, they need to know that something is wrong, and that it needs to change; telling your team that your organization is fine as it is only solidifies complacency. If key subordinates already know that something is wrong, remove the barriers to their success. Often the barrier comes down to poor or broken systems in place, or uncooperative peers and superiors.

While taking stock of the situation, take the time to get your commander’s priorities for the organization. What does he notice from his perspective that needs to be fixed? How does your team’s performance or mistakes help and hurt the overall mission? Common sense should rule the day. If your commander’s perspective or priorities aren’t lining up with how you see the situation on the ground, tactfully broach the subject. He can’t make informed decisions for the collective organization if his subordinates offer a gilded SITREP. Once you and your commander are on the same page, you can prioritize your own lines of effort to support the larger unit; focus on the biggest friction points and highest payoff potential items first.

For example, if you’re an S-3 that hasn’t published an order for a culminating training event that starts in two weeks, then publishing pristine but routine TASKORDs should not be the priority. Instead, bring all available resources and personnel to bear on ensuring that the subordinate companies get the information they need to conduct their own planning. Rework the shop’s battle rhythm to ensure that the calendar is centralized and that deadlines for internal staff work are enforced. If you’re an XO with no maintenance program to speak of, focus on creating or fixing one before you start worrying about affecting the commander’s training calendar or creating a killer OPD plan. This isn’t to say that TASKORDs and leader development aren’t important (truth be told, I despise TASKORDs), rather it’s to illustrate that certain lines of effort need to be prioritized over others.

Know what critical responsibilities and missions are being failed, and then come up with a plan of action to fix them in a reasonable time frame. Create a vision for your organization, and develop short and long-term goals for each of your areas of responsibility to achieve that vision. Don’t wait to learn the ropes for a few weeks before making decisions; time never makes this easier to accomplish. It seems that leaders often become overwhelmed with the day to day minutia and lose perspective on what’s actually important. By the time they realize that they’re drowning, it’s even harder to create a new plan to run a successful organization. Instead of wading into a new job assuming you’ll have time to figure things out on the go, you need to be proactive and adaptive leading up to and while conducting your RIP.

Recognizing friction points and critical shortfalls is only the first step to success in your new high-temp job. In the next post, I’ll discuss how to adapt that plan, prioritize available resources and subordinates’ lines of effort, and create successive short-term wins for your organization that will build momentum.

[1] Hackworth, David H., Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts: The Hopeless to Hardcore Transformation of 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, United States Army, Vietnam (New York: Rugged Land, 2002), 37–48.

[2] Kotter, John P., Leading Change (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), 3–17.

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.