So, you’ve pinned (or rather, hook-and-loop fastened) your black bar to your chest. Gone are the days of people calling you “Butterbar” and ignoring what you have to say. It’s a new era, right? Wrong. You’re a lieutenant, get used to being commonly ignored. However, that has its upsides, as you will eventually learn.
With that black bar, though, your time as platoon leader is drawing to a rapid close, and therefore your life is about to take a dramatic turn for the worst: you are either going to the staff or to be an executive officer. Both are a far cry from the down-in-the-dirt fun of being a platoon leader, and both involve the intense application of your new Combat Power: PowerPoint. If you’re going from platoon leader into an executive officer (XO: hint, does not mean hugs and kisses, that could get you in some SHARP hot water) billet, then maybe these words will be of some use. If you’re coming from the staff, it will all seem eerily familiar and yet better.
So here, from my just under two years of XO time, both in garrison and deployed, are my nuggets of wisdom. Take them or leave, them, because what do I know, I’m a lieutenant.
10. Executive Secretary
You've arrived in your office. You've met the commander and the platoon leaders, and the 1SG has crushed your hand in a grip like a vice, just to set the parameters of your relationship. Congrats, you’re the XO. Get used to that title, because you’re going to hear it a lot. XO this, XO that, where’s the XO, I need the XO now, XO these slides are late, etc, etc, etc. You’re going to begin to feel like you are like an executive secretary rather than the executive officer. Well, you’re not wrong. Your job is to synthesize ALL the data that comes in from the company and give your commander a snapshot of the company, whenever he asks. You will also be writing memos. So many memos. Do yourself a favor, get out AR 25–50, and learn how to write a memo. This is going to pay dividends when instead of the S-1 kicking your memos back, you’re able to call the S-1 and tell them that the margins on their LOI are all wrong. It’s the little things.
Look at you. You are the XO. A senior lieutenant. You are like the god of the lieutenants. You have at least three, and they exist to serve you, right? NO. Bad LT. It’s the other way around. Yes, they may be young, and confused, and ask the stupidest questions in the world, and NEVER understand that there are regulations which give all the answers, and are always making mistakes, but remember, just a year ago, you were them. So shut your ego off, and do your job, which is to mentor. Not just talk at them. Sit down, get to know them. Offer advice. Get them involved in organizations that will help their careers. If they’re good stuff, let everyone know about it. If they need work, well, work on them. It can be a hard road to travel because there’s not a huge age difference, but in the end, they will thank you.
Remember how you used to brief? Out in the field, maybe with a sand table, but probably not, usually with a notebook and something to point with (because sticks are symbols of power). Not anymore. Now you brief with PowerPoint. More importantly, you prepare briefs for the commander. The better his slides, the less the staff will pick on him. And by better, I don’t mean fancy transitions or graphics: I mean content. The bare bones, the essentials. Anything else is just decoration that is meant to disguise that you have no idea what’s going on, and a sharp S-3 will be all over that. So do your boss a favor, and make some damn good slides.
7. Additional Duties as Assigned
When you were a PL you probably had a few extra duties, like safety officer or environmental officer. And that was probably a bore. Well, there’s this line in most officer’s job descriptions: extra duties as assigned. And oh brother (or sister), you are going to be the poster child for additional duties. Let’s see, so you will definitely become lead Safety Officer, Maintenance Officer, Operations Officer, Combined Federal Campaign Officer, Voting Assistance Officer, Container Control Officer, Equal Opportunity Officer, Historical Officer, Victims Advocate Officer, Guy Who Makes the Coffee Officer, Mess Officer, Color Coordination Officer, We Should Get That Guy Who’s Retiring a Plaque Officer, Ooh I Saw Something Shiny Officer, and…well, you get my point. If it’s not in the commander or first sergeant’s job description, you own it.
6. Sense of Humor
Laugh. Daily. Make jokes at meetings. Play pranks on your staff (not your supply sergeant though. Never piss off the guy or gal who can suddenly add $20,000 to your clothing record). Smile when your day sucks. Odds are, everyone else’s day sucks, too. You’re the head of the ops section, so set the tone from there. And if your humor eventually turns snarky and sarcastic, then you’re one step ahead of your peers for when you go be on staff.
5. Knowledge is Power (And you’ve got the power)
You are the person with their ear to the ground. You should have an intimate knowledge of what is going on in the company at all times. Eventually, you will get so in tune with it that you’ll know where everyone is at any given time of day, because you’ve synced the company calendar to your brain. It’s scary, but cool. With all this knowledge comes an element of power. Don’t use it to make people feel stupid. Use it to help people out. Granted, some of the knowledge is close-hold between you and the commander; don’t go spreading it around. Gossip can come back to bite you. Hard. So play nice.
4. The Commander is always right
This one is pretty simple and self-explanative. You can disagree in private, but don’t undermine your boss in public. Once they make the call, take a deep breath, and deal with it.
I would also add to this: learn from your CO. If they make mistakes, note them. If they are successful, learn what it is that makes them a success. Because in just a few years, you will be in their shoes. And the view from up there is very different from the view as an XO.
3. Protect the Property Book!
This must be your mantra when you wake up in the morning: I will not lose accountability of the commander’s property. You and the supply sergeant are the two lone sentinels on the walls that protect the commander’s property. You had best protect it well, as EVERYONE is going to want it. Sure, you can give away that nice new OE-254 antenna to that squad leader who says that he’ll give it right back, but still hasn’t returned the range box and the range was three months ago. Or you can say, “Aw hell no” and risk making people upset. Hint: make people upset. The property book is your sacred trust. Guard it with your life, because the best way for you and your commander to get into trouble is from missing high value items. Does that mean you’re going to tick people off? Yes. Get used to it.
2. Your Ops Sergeant is Your Best Friend
Your commander may become your friend, but he or she is your boss. You might be friends with the first sergeant, but he is the boss’s right-hand man. The job of XO can be a lonely one, so that is why the Army, in its wisdom, gave you an Operations Sergeant. They have that thing that you lack: years of experience. They are also an NCO and can handle things in ways that officers aren’t supposed to. Work closely with your Ops Sergeant, develop a strong team, and nothing can overcome you. Not even the battalion command sergeant major, who dares you to touch his grass.
1. What Success Looks Like
Right about now, you’re thinking success looks like you getting pats on the back after meetings and maybe some new bling in the form of an ARCOM. Disabuse yourself of that idea, because it ain’t it, buddy. Yeah, once in a while someone will say “good work, XO,” in passing. It’s not exactly the most glamorous job. But what people will notice is when your boss looks good; also, the converse. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a hands-on commander or a “I’ll be in late today” commander. The commander that says in a briefing, “I’m not sure, sir, my XO didn’t tell me,” is sunk. They’ve lost all credibility, and guess what, so have you. Make your commander shine. The sign that you’re doing your job right is that they look good.