Six Characteristics of the Highly Effective Staff Officer


The following guest post was penned by Andrew “Evan” McCoy, Assistant Operations Officer for 4th Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment. The views in this post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Department of the Army of the Department of Defense.


There are many things that an Army Officer, specifically a combat arms Officer must be. There are the standards; empathy, discipline, physical fitness, confidence, resilience, mental agility, innovation, strong communication, that list could actually go on for days, and there would still be arguments for and against what characteristics a great Officer should have.[i] This paper is not focused on these, but is focused on a much smaller list of characteristics, those that I see as essential to any junior Officer who is lucky enough to find themselves occupying a desk in the bowels of the headquarters building.

Let me preface this by stating plain and simply; I do not see myself as a Highly Effective Staff Officer. I have had the opportunity to observe and learn from many of the best staff officers around, and it is through those observations that I frame this paper.

My purpose for writing this is to serve as a guide to the junior staff Officer, most specifically lieutenants and junior captains, who have finished time as a platoon leader and find themselves thrust into staff meetings, command and staff meetings, training meetings, training resource meetings, daily commanders updates and a myriad of other staff functions to which they have previously had limited if any exposure to.

The staff is an interesting and rewarding place to be assigned, especially as a company grade Officer. The staff’s primary purpose, which is often lost in the list of requirements from higher headquarters, is to advise the commander so that they can make a more informed decision. It is often forgotten during the seemingly un-ending taskings from higher headquarters, that we exist as a tool for our boss to give refined guidance and direction to his subordinates. The commander has two main responsibilities; true, there are many things that they do and are responsible for, but it all boils down to these two things: Provide guidance to staff and subordinate leaders, and make decisions on proposed courses of action. The staff’s function is to make those two things as easy as possible for the commander to make well informed, accurate, and timely decisions.

As a current member of a battalion level staff[1], I have had the opportunity to observe many different characteristics of many different staff Officers. These characteristics, personality differences, and complex problems are found in all levels of staff work, I am sure; however, I will speak mainly from experience at the battalion level. What I have come to believe is that Professionalism, Optimism, ‘Buy-in’, Motivation, awareness of the environment, and the ability to see the big picture; are the essential characteristics of the highly effective staff Officer.

What follow are my thoughts on how junior Officers assigned to the staff, can help to keep this process as smooth as possible. Again this is not meant to be just another list of attributes for staff Officers to gloss over, it is meant to be a thought provoking work, helping to spur on the individual staff Officer to develop the necessary skills to not only survive, but thrive during an assignment to the battalion level staff.

Professionalism

The first and foremost thing that any Officer assigned to the staff must be is a professional. I understand that within the Army we must all conduct ourselves in a professional manner, in fact it is one of the core concepts of who we are as Officers, but I am alluding to a deeper meaning of professionalism. Professionalism is defined as the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well.[ii] I see this as the most important of the characteristics that we will discuss, mainly because it is so broad and all-encompassing.

Let’s begin by breaking down the definition. The skill that is expected from a person, who is trained to do a job well, cannot be summed up by just listing a stack of books, articles and manuals to read and saying “here you go, once you’ve read these you will be good to go.” The skills required of the staff Officer are cumulative, gained from experience, learned from failures, and ever changing. The wide base of knowledge required as an Officer on staff must be developed over time through professional reading, professional discussion, and at times through direct training by more experienced staff Officers. It is imperative to have a wide base of knowledge, knowing things that are ‘outside of your lane’ will help during collaboration and during professional discourse with other members of the staff.

In addition to the wide knowledge base, an effective staff Officer must possess a passion for widening that base further. As an Officer progresses on the staff it is expected that they will not stagnate or plateau, but will continue to become better, not through rote repetition of a single task, but through a greater understanding of the world in which the staff operates, learning and developing skill sets in new processes, expanding systems and ways of thinking and improve upon the systemic processes with which you are already surrounded. The US Army Center of Military History Recommended Professional Reading List[iii], is a good starting place, start with your level, when you finish that read the next above, there may be some merit in reading the next level above that but there is no need to discuss it out loud (same thing with Clausewitz[2]). When you have finished all the recommended reading on that list, go to your local book store and start in on anything in the business or personal development section. The purpose is not to gain specific knowledge, but to widen the base of knowledge that you can draw from in your professional life.

As a philosophy major in college, I gained a passion for reading, especially reading thought broadening topics. Taking this passion for learning into my own personal and professional development has been a rather easy transition, and it has benefitted me greatly, both expanding my base of knowledge as well as lending itself to strengthening my arguments during professional discourse.

Optimism

The daily grind of endless meetings, constant reworking of presentation materials, short deadlines and compressed timelines, can make your time on staff seem like a nightmare that you just cannot seem to wake up from. This is an easy trap to fall into, however, it will not only take its toll on the personal level, but it will decrease effectiveness of the staff. It is imperative that staff Officers remain optimistic even in the face of adversity. The fatalist way of thinking must be avoided at all costs, even when you know that the fight is unwinnable.

Medal of Honor recipient ADM James Stockdale was held prisoner for more than seven years during the Vietnam War. He was tortured multiple times, kept in isolation and had no knowledge when his captivity would end or if he would be killed by his captors. Throughout this period of captivity he was well aware of the grim outlook that his situation held, however throughout these dark times he held on to the indisputable fact that everything would work out in the end. While Stockdale had remarkable faith in the unknowable, he noted that it was always the most optimistic of his prisonmates who failed to make it out of there alive. “They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.” The Stockdale Paradox[iv] can be summarized as so:

You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.

AND at the same time…

You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

The unwavering belief that everything would work out alright in the end, must be carefully balanced against the brutal facts of the everyday life.

Just grit your teeth, pour another cup of coffee and get ready for a long night of re-working PowerPoint slides. The night will end, you’ll wake up from the nightmare, and you will move on to another staff position, where you will continue to pull your hair out and work late nights and the cycle will continue until you die in a coffee fueled heart attack. This is your lot in life; you are an Officer in the greatest fighting force ever assembled in the history of recorded warfare. So sit back down at the bench, serve your time, “Row Well and Live.”

“Buy In”

Odds are, if you are assigned to the staff for any length of time, you will be assigned a task that you do not agree with. This is a fact of life; however the job of the staff Officer is not to complain about the task at hand, but to execute to the highest level of your ability. Once that a task leaves your bosses thoughts and is passed on to you, it is no longer up for discussion and it must be executed like it is your own personal brain child. The staff Officer, especially at the junior level, must buy in to the commander’s vision, even if there is disagreement or dissention; there is no place for that in the staff. When we go back to the purpose of the staff as discussed earlier, the job of the staff Officer is to make recommendations for the commander to make decisions on.

When taking stock in whom the truly effective staff Officers is, it is important to cultivate an organization of “True-believers” while avoiding the “bobble-heads.” The very best staff Officers, fully understand and support the commander, espouse their support of the command and bring ‘converts’ over to the support of the command; all without becoming a normative person, a ‘yes-man’ incapable of providing real feedback on issues.

The thought of mission ownership, especially with tactical missions, is essential to every subordinate-supervisor relationship within an organization. The task that is directed by higher headquarters, the commander, one of the primary staff; must be executed and communicated with the surety and confidence as if it was conceived and developed by the staff Officer it was assigned to.

As a highly effective staff officer, you must not only “Drink the Kool-aid” but you have to pour it for others as well. I have had the pleasure to work with many talented young Officers, many of whom are the inspiration for these characteristics. There are some however who as talented as they are, as intellectual and professional minded as they can possibly be, will not see eye to eye with the commander. It can be quite difficult to deal with staff Officers who are full of potential but are pouring a completely different drink altogether, these Officers tend to contribute to toxic situations and should perhaps be looked at as needing to be moved out of the organization. It is also important to remember that the commander, is the commander for a reason. The experience level of the commander is much greater than any other Officer in the organization. Before you decide to dismiss a thought or idea as ‘stupid’ or not necessary, consider the story of Mr. Miyagi[v]. You may think you are just painting a fence, washing the car or sanding the floor, you may be unwittingly learning kung fu.

Motivation

One of the largest problems found within a staff, which has been alluded to already, is a distinct lack of motivation within staff Officers. By the very nature of the staff; unless you are assigned as the Executive Officer, the Operations Officer, or the Intelligence Officer; you are waiting, biding your time for a better assignment to come along. Because of this fact, many Officers become frustrated and lose motivation very rapidly, especially among junior Officers coming from a leadership role onto the less interactive, higher workload of the staff, it can be difficult to retain the high level of motivation that is necessary for a highly effective staff to run smoothly. A technique that can work to help alleviate this lack of motivation is to focus on improving the systems of the world around you. The initiative of a highly effective staff Officer and their ability to affect the world around him, is one of the most important things that a staff Officer can possess. Staff Officers live in a world of systems.

An outside event triggers x report, sent to b staff Officer, which feeds decision y for the commander.

Systems like this are commonplace in the staff functions; however, they are often mismanaged or are not as efficient as they should be. A highly efficient staff Officer should be able to identify these shortfalls of systems, and develop a more efficient means of accomplishing the desired endstate. If a staff Officer is able to affect the systems with which they work in a positive manner, streamlining the process, eliminating wasted effort and simultaneously increasing efficiency, then that staff Officer is able to positively affect the organization.

A German General Staff Officer in France during World War I

Common Operating Picture

The staff of any organization is a complex system of many moving pieces, lots of members working on different projects, everyone pulling in a different direction working their own small piece of the pie; it can be overwhelming especially for a junior Officer. It is incredibly important for any staff Officer to have a working knowledge of what everyone in the staff is working on, the issues that others face, and even offering advice to other staff members. It is imperative that staff members remember that it is the goal of the ENTIRE staff to provide good recommendations to the commander in order to allow them to make informed decisions. The word Synergy, defined as the combined effort being greater than parts: the working together of two or more people, organizations, or things; especially when the result is greater than the sum of the individual efforts; comes to mind when describing the outputs of a highly effective staff. Something that has been observed, especially during staff meetings, is that while one staff section is briefing the commander on issues that concern their section, other staff section members tend to not pay attention, waiting their turn to brief the commander on their issues. This issue, while it should not happen, seems to be very commonplace, instead what should happen is that all members of the staff should take opportunities like staff meetings to ensure that they are on the same page regarding all current efforts of the entire staff.

The separate staff sections are more complexly intertwined than the un-indoctrinated staff officer may realize. Personnel actions, briefed and tracked by the S1 will have consequences that ripple outwards, affecting the mission readiness of the Operations cell, the DEROG updates tracked by the Intelligence office, property accountability from the Sustainment cell, and may even effect the communications readiness of the Signal shop. It is essential that all staff members are aware of actions being taken in other sections, and put forth the required thought and analysis into how each little change will shift their mission readiness.

The staff of an organization, in order to run effectively and efficiently, must develop symbiotic relationships amongst the different sections. The relationship between members of the staff is crucial, especially the inter-dependence between the operations staff and other sections. Having a solid working relationship with your fellow staff members, will greatly improve not only your productivity, but your overall mental wellbeing while on staff.

Big Picture

While there are many things that a staff Officer must understand and be capable of doing, each and every member of the staff must be able to identify the commander’s vision, conceptualize where the organization is, where it needs to be and then be able to delve into the specifics, the nitty-gritty details of how the organization gets from here to there. The ability to see the big picture or the over arching conceptual goals of the organization, and then drop into the specific details is invaluable to the staff Officer. This is directly tied to the “Buy-In” that was discussed previously, the commander’s vision must be understood, so that the staff members can work together to reach the goals. At the junior staff Officer level, it is especially important to identify with the commander’s vision and the over-arching goals of the organization, while maintaining the specified focus on the data and individual events that support the progression of the organization.

The above image is a staff Officers guide to the progression of facts into the decision making process. In summary, the junior staff Officer collects data and refines the data into usable information that tells the story of what the organization is doing and its current status, the bridging point, where data becomes information is the Junior Staff Officer’s bread and butter. The ability to take raw data and through careful analysis, present a coherent thought that can lend itself useful in the decision making and planning processes, is where the junior officer is at his most useful . The Primary Staff Officers uses the information that has been refined in concert with their experience, in order to speak definitively on the status and progressive trends of the organization. This allows the commander to refine this knowledge, give guidance and make decisions based on experience, good judgment and the supporting work that has been developed by the staff.

The staff of a combat organization, while it is a difficult assignment at times, is the best place for a junior Officer to develop the skill set that will support him for the rest of his career. It is through the development of these skills professionalism, optimism, “Buy-in” and ownership, Motivation, awareness of the environment, and understanding of the details and how they fit into the big picture; that junior staff Officers can positively affect the organization, and prepare for future assignments at higher levels.


Notes:

[1] I served as the Assistant Operations Officer for a CTC rotation and an OEF deployment prior to the career course, post career course I currently serve as Assistant Operations Officer and have completed two JMRC D.A.T.E rotations.

[2] If you feel that you must read Clausewitz, read Book One, Chapter One; over and over again until you think you understand it, then talk to someone who actually understands it, realize you actually have no idea what The German was saying and start the process over again. (http://www.history.army.mil/reading)

[i] ADP 6–22

[ii] Merriam Webster Online Dictionary

[iii] The U.S. Army Chief of Staff's Professional Reading List

[iv] Collins, James. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. William Collins, Web.

[v] The Karate Kid. Dir. Avildsen, Perf. John G. Ralph Machio, Pat Morita. Columbia Pictures. 1984. Film.

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