Staff Skills

Musings of a Fourth Year Career Advisor

By Virginia McDougall September 13, 2021


“Four years in DOCM-A is too long!” I was told prior to receiving my posting order for another two years. I had already been a Career Advisor for two years, learning to operate behind the opaque façade of Army’s Career Management Agency. No one could really say why four years was too long, just that it was…..however my enthusiasm and energy had been reinvigorated by a new challenge in the Advanced and Technical Group (A&TG) - Pathway Portfolio so I accepted the challenge with open arms. After a hectic two years in A&TG, my enthusiasm towards my portfolio remained; however, fatigue did present and it is only now with some time to breathe and reflect, I offer my musings… to aid you as you enter the career interview phase of the career management cycle.  

As an engineer by trade, I tend to analyse everything - myself, others and the world around me. I feel that having observed four years of portfolio behaviour, about forty different career advisors and countless PACs, it would be remiss of me to not reflect and share some of the light bulb thoughts, epiphanies, or concerns that kept me up, woke me up or worked me up. So, please consider the following reflections for all in the trinity of career management - the officers, the Career Advisors and the Chain of Command. I offer a perspective that I hope will assist in improving communications for a critical function in our people capability.

Reflections for Officers

Communication. There is a human on the end of the phone/email. They are your peer, your colleague, an Army Officer just like you – and potentially a position you will hold in the future. After observing around forty other Career Advisors, I guarantee that they are aiming to do a good job in a role they probably never expected to undertake. They are asked to deliver Army its people capability, while balancing the trinities of:

  • Professional Development, Personal Considerations, and Service Needs,
  • Career Advisor, Officer and Chain of Command, and
  • Establishment, Workforce and Policy.

Do not worry, it is not lost on me either. They genuinely want to help you. If you are rude, insulting and demanding they will not feel inspired to go that extra mile for you. They know it is a selfish game - it is your career and your life - but communication does not need to be discourteous. This is a perfect example of the saying that ‘you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.’ Career Advisors are humans and they care; do not make it hard to care.

Honesty. Your Career Advisor is building a jigsaw puzzle. It is a puzzle with a vague picture to follow, and no edges to start with, every piece is unique in shape, size, and material and there are not enough pieces to finish the puzzle. To make sense of this your Career Advisor needs to understand what you, as one piece of a complex puzzle, looks like in order to position you. This means you need to be honest and open with your Career Advisor. There are individuals outside CM-A who do not promote honesty and transparency; this is not helpful for DOCM-A or the individual. There is a Career Advisor trying to get you the best fit in the puzzle and they cannot do it without an understanding of the picture and shape of your piece. If the shape of your piece changes, they need to know. They can probably move your piece if they know early, or if the change is compelling enough; but it will cause other pieces to move. It is never just you that it impacts - most likely it is three to five other officers and sometimes it disrupts a whole section. I do not want to stretch the metaphor any further – I am sure you take my point. Be straight with yourself and with us. If your circumstances change, the best course of action is to engage early and with ALL the information. The aim remains to staff the Army on behalf of the Chief, so not everyone likes where their puzzle piece falls; honesty is your best chance.

Be involved. The Career Management Cycle is defined and tight! Engagement at the right time serves your best interest. While it is accepted that everyone in this Army is busy, I recommend you make the time to participate in the career management process. If you do not submit your preferences, EOI, PAC submissions etc – it does not make you appear busy and important. Rather, it says to the person who is presenting you for an opportunity that you cannot manage your time and/or prioritise tasking. It certainly does not yell, "I am suitable for greater challenges!" A NLT date is not the due date - it is okay to send a document in prior to this date. It fascinates me that 90% of PAC/CO documents are submitted the day (and early morning after) they are due. These are significant career milestones and you do yourself a disservice to leave it to the last minute. You also risk missing opportunities. This goes for PAR’s too. While it is the responsibility of the chain of command to submit these on time, it will affect you if they are late or are never submitted – there is an impact, address it appropriately - speak up.

Your Merit. You are capable. You are suitable. But are you competitive? Is there currently a need for your skill set? Prepare yourself mentally for all outcomes from a posting or a PAC. Army is spoilt for talent and in many cases, great officers will miss out - it would be a poor system if we had very few who were capable of the next rank. Almost everyone that goes to a PAC is suitable but not all can progress; it is a pyramid. I have watched the pain on the PAC members’ faces as they realise that an officer is likely to be provided a result they were not seeking or expecting - they know how good these people are, how hard they have worked, the sacrifices they have made over their career and the potential they have. And then they realise that everyone in the room is worthy! They do not deliver these results lightly and being a PAC member is an eye opening experience. You need to prepare for all results, to work out how you can cope with uncertainty and a potential result that all bar the Chief will get at some point. When that point comes, it does not lessen who you are, it just reflects how spoilt for quality our Army is. This does not mean that you do not have a significant amount to continue to contribute to the organisation. My observation is that job satisfaction can increase when someone is released from the relentless pursuit of climbing the pyramid at all costs, and changes focus to seek roles, experiences and teams for which they feel passion.

What is success? Do not give yourself up to the system, have a plan! Understand what your career success is, be realistic, work towards it and refine (or redefine) as required. Career success should not just be rank – promotion to what? What are you passionate about? What are your family needs? Success will redefine over time as life changes. Do not hold doggedly to a goal you set at RMC. Army will ask a lot of you and providing that in a role you do not enjoy or are not suited to is challenging. My observation is that it generally takes about three months for an officer to transition from ‘motivated towards a long term career in Army’ to ‘thinking about discharge’ in a new role that they do not like. If there is not a bright light at the end of an ill-suited posting or team, the AC853 may unexpectedly appear. Think about how you like to work – constant tempo, strategic concepts, individual or team tasking, developing deep expertise – and look for roles that suit you. It is not a race – do not rush to failure. There is no precedent in career management. Your career success, your experiences, qualifications and preferences should be connected by a thread of logic – not someone else’s biography. For an organisation with depth of talent, there are many specialist areas that are still challenging to fill; consider if your value to the organisation is in these areas.  Your working life is at least 40 years - recognise that it is a long game and that hindsight will not often assist you in a long career. Army will not ask less of you as you promote. Ensure your family are in a position to support what your career will ask of you next and accept that what Service means to you may shift along the scale during different phases and challenges of your life.

The End. At some point, your goals will diverge from what Army is offering you – it will happen to everyone. When that happens, please remember that this divergence does not lessen you or your past. Your time in Army has contributed to who you are, your current skill sets, your network and, most importantly, represented significant service and sacrifices for your Nation. Do not let the end define the whole.

Run your own race, be honest and timely.

Reflections for Career Advisors

Be a human. There is a human on the end of the phone/email. They are your peer, a colleague, an Army officer just like you. It is a selfish game – this is their life, their career – expect them to be passionate and forgive their occasional emotional response. You are the messenger, and sometimes you will get shot – try not to take it personally or you will not fare well mentally in this posting. You have the bigger picture, find perspective, recharge your empathy and be supportive.

Tactical patience. Army has trained you to make decisions and make them NOW. In career management, please don’t! Sit on it a week (unless it is an urgent COPAS) – contemplate, discuss and wait for opportunities. Often an officer will call with a vent and call back later when they have calmed down or found their own solution; they will thank you for listening and not acting on their emotions.  Other times, another opportunity will present that solves that problem. I know many an officer grateful for a Career Advisor’s solution to their dilemma, unaware that the Career Advisor was also grateful that their situation presented at a time that helped out someone else in need.

It’s all connected. Ask questions! You have been a competent, confident Army Officer for 12+ years....and all of a sudden you will not be able to answer a single email independently. That is okay and you are going to fare better if you ask and ask and ask. Ask those around you, ask those in the broader Army People Capability System, Selections & Appointments, Establishments, previous Career Advisors or SMEs. Please do not guess. Ask and ask again. Everyone that has walked into CM-A has experienced this discomfort. You are not incompetent, you are new to the People Capability and one of the reasons you are here is to learn. Four years in and I still regularly encountered new processes, situations and queries that I could not answer without help.  You are only one part of the People Capability and do not own all the levers, take the chance to understand the entire System.

You are not a help desk. Do not become your portfolios ‘policy google’. You will get exposed to People Policy and need to research it in support of your role so if you know something and can answer quickly, then help out. You are not magically an experienced Policy expert and the officers in your portfolio have the exact same access to PACMAN and MILPERSMAN as you. If you spend your days trolling through policy rather than contemplating their next posting, you are not career advising.

The CAG. Do not attempt to do this job alone. You are a Career Advisor GROUP and you need that group. You will need to bounce ideas, review each other’s wording of correspondence, solve posting dilemmas and vent. If you aim to optimise your corps plot at the detriment to the LOG/ARMS/CSS or All Corps plot, you have failed Army. If the units and roles you have been in are stacked with talent and Kapooka and RMC are not staffed well, Army loses. If your plot is sorted and your colleague’s is not, Army loses. If your plot solves next year’s problems with no regard for where it might lead, Army loses. Work together and find time to contemplate – not just act. 

An opportunity to learn and reflect. This environment is as All Corps as it gets and it is likely that from here on in, other than CO, your work environment will be a lot more diverse than it has been in your foundation years. CM-A presents an excellent environment at this pivot point of your career to provide self-understanding through contrast. Learn to adapt your communication style to a broader audience, reflect on what has been effective in your corps or specialisation that is different to how your peers work. Learn from them and help them learn. Develop your self-awareness; I learnt an immense amount about differences in motivation, career success and leadership styles, and more importantly about myself, in my time in CM-A.

Be transparent, maintain trust.  You can see the bigger picture of establishment. You have access to personal files, PAC results and chains of command. You will balance advice across the portfolio and have to represent a wide audience.  You are a trusted agent and it is important not to betray that trust. Being transparent means conveying the why, not the how. Maintaining trust is providing context to an individual or chain of command when required, staying in your lane and keeping people informed. Increasing transparency through communication will stave off portfolio resentment.

Diversity. Please be open minded and understand that not everyone looks like you and your version of service to this point in time. Army is a diverse team and you are trusted with maintaining the whole team in support of Ready Now and Future Ready. Be kind, work together and keep your EQ bucket full.  We have a developmental model designed to meet Army’s current and future challenges.  It is a start point, learning when to deviate or enforce it is one of your leadership challenges.

Enjoy, contemplate, learn and be kind.

Reflections for Chains of Command

Thank you for your engagement and effort to ensure Career Advisors are informed. Thank you to those who understand the breadth of communications required of the role and offer patience, context and timely advice. Your information is crucial and enables CM-A to staff the holistic needs across Army and the Joint Force.

Balance care and candour. Please consider critically the career aspirations of every officer in your command. 90% of career planners submitted to DOCM-A contain a comment along the lines of, "I support these realistic career prospects". I observed that the majority of these are incorrect. Not every Captain is going to be an ADC, and they are not all required for a UN Mission. Less than half of Command and Staff College graduates will be Band 1 for Lieutenant Colonel. Less than a third of Lieutenant Colonel will promote to Colonel. Too often the outcomes from PACs or other DOCM-A processes are the first time an officer hears that they are not competitive for an experience or promotion. This is not a positive outcome for the officer. This is not a complaint about having to be the bad guy, I was okay with that. I was not okay with officers being devastated by the news because everyone around them has continued to build them up for experiences they were not suited for or going to compete for; particularly if they were rebuilt after finding peace with a decision. We are spoilt for talent in Army so these officers are likely capable of the experience you are recommending them for, but does Army NEED them for that promotion/experience at this point in time? Will the officer be better served by being released from that expectation? It is kind to be realistic about an officer’s prospects for progression or an opportunity. A united front is much easier for an officer to accept than contrasting advice. Good cop/bad cop does not work for CoC/Career Management as the officer ends up disgruntled, and it does not matter who that is directed at – it is a fail for Army. 

Be aware of bias. You are not what ‘right’ looks like! No offence intended; every profile in this Army is different and there is not one way to achieve anything. Just because you were a CAPT at 1 DIV, does not mean every officer in your command should seek this HQ experience. It is utterly unhelpful to have an entire unit/area ask for the same experience. Just because you were an MA/SO does not mean it will set someone else up for success.  When officers seek experiences they are actually interested in or suited to they tend to perform better than when they just throw significant effort at roles they dislike.  There are a lot of impressionable officers who will model their thinking, development and attitude off you - take it as a compliment but encourage individual growth, promote diversity and identify their individual strengths.

Be polite. Please remember that the Career Advisor is liaising with many chains of command. If you are the commander that is rude or demanding, who slanders other Career Advisors and even yells, the contrast is stark. We are providing staffing to the whole of Army, not just your team. Not everyone can have the ‘A-team’ – part of leadership is mentoring and developing your people, that’s how Army gets spoilt for talent.

It is in the details. Please maintain your establishment! CM-A aims to post to balance your team and achieve continuity where possible. This is very difficult to do if you have re-structured internally and the gazetted structure does not reflect your organisation. The innovation in Army is fantastic, and absolutely necessary for an Army in Motion. If you desire personnel posted to the right positions to support your capability, make sure CM-A can understand what changes have occurred. Please submit UIPV or EVPs (to the Directorate of Force Structure – Army) to ensure we are staffing you accurately, otherwise CM-A will post to the positions in the Gazette and leave you to manage any mismatches. CM-A can only make decisions about your staffing based on what you communicate (I am looking at you CASG and AHQ….).   

Generalist vs Pathways.  Army’s strategic picture has changed significantly in the last ten years. In recognition of this, our maturing career management system is providing greater focus on specialist skill sets required to deliver the Army of the future.  This includes engineering, capability and project management, strategic human resource management, workforce modelling, explosive ordnance, data analysts, joint logistics, safety, EW and cyber specialists, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems…the list goes on and will continue to evolve in support of the delivery of the AOF Future Force. All officers need to gain context in Army through their foundation years and should not seek to miss these opportunities. After those years, Army needs officers to progress towards the skill sets they are suited to and passionate about to best achieve Army’s strategic objectives. There is no point having the best commanders on the battlefield if their equipment, munitions, communications and logistics is not suitable for the future threat or environment. Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your workforce to determine who is best placed to deliver every aspect of our highly complex future Army.  Leadership is not limited to Command roles, each specialisation requires leaders in their field.

Be honest, be timely, be kind.

Closing reflections

So after four years in CM-A, I will not lie - I was fatigued by the tempo and the sheer amount of data in my head. I was also buoyed by the quality of the people in this Army. We are an organisation spoilt for talented, passionate and driven individuals, which is a testament to our training systems, values and leadership. I do believe the Army would benefit from cultural change - to place greater value on professionalisation and service to the Nation which currently seem to pale into the background in comparison to ‘rank progression in minimum time’ as a measure of success. Status as a value is not a positive influence on our organisation. It is a long game, make sure your career is sustainable and aligned to your values, not a timeline.

Career Management may be a contact sport; however, we are all on the same team endeavouring to provide the people required to meet the capability requirements of Army and the Joint Staff.  


Portrait

Biography

Virginia McDougall

LTCOL

Virginia McDougall’s career has primarily been with the Chinook Helicopter Capability including the 5th Aviation Regiment and CASG sustainment and acquisition roles. She has also posted to Defence Force Recruiting and most recently as Career Advisor RAEME-B and LTCOL Pathways within the Directorate of Officer Career Management. Virginia is currently working in the Combat Application Lab for the Dismounted Infantry Program, AHQ.  Virginia has a Bachelor of Engineering (Aeronautical) and a Master of Business Technology through UNSW.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



Comments

Hi Ma'am, just a quick note to say I found this a really valuable read. I expect to come back to it a few times over the coming months and years. Thanks for taking the time to pen your reflections.

Thank you for taking the time to offer three differing viewpoints. As humans, we typically develop our understanding of particular situations through a very narrow lens, our own viewpoint. It is only when we understand the viewpoints of others that we find our perspective change. I particularly like your analysis of "The End". Reflecting on my own career, it's amazing how many times my career goals (short and longer term) have changed as opportunities have presented or even not come to fruition. Some roads have been short-lived while others have resulted in life changing events. Some postings were not exactly the career defining moments I thought they would have been. Similarly, some postings that I initially dreaded turned out to be the most fulfilling and rewarding roles I could imagine - it's all about the viewpoint! Thanks for your valuable insights.

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