This article was a shortlisted entry in the Cove Competition 2022.
This reflection piece is deliberately aimed at those who are questioning what to do next after sub-unit command. My advice: do sub-unit command again.
Are you doing what you thought you would be doing when you joined?
So why did you join the Army as an officer? Was it to selflessly serve and honourably lead soldiers in combat to protect our nation? Or was it have a job where you could be comfortable in an office, mastering PowerPoint slides or Excel spreadsheets and enjoying the luxuries of daily certainty. While neither of these options may be the reason you cited at the recruiting centre where you joined, it is likely that you could still relate to this dichotomy based on your observations while serving within Army. If not, I am sure it could be heretically agreed upon that both pathways in the Army result in the same pay packet, regardless of how hard an individual works. But what if life as a staff officer didn’t provide the career satisfaction you desired, because it did not correlate to your reasons for joining? Or does it feel like that once you have done sub-unit command, your career options become limited because inevitably the system will force you down the staff officer pathway, where only the select few will have the opportunity to command ever again? But does it have to be this way?
Something is not right
I open with these rhetorical questions not to degrade anyone’s career choices, nor to mock the circumstances that we face, but to be candid about what options an officer in the Army has post sub-unit command. I have been fortunate to serve in both sub-unit command and staff officer roles, which aided in my understanding of how important these roles can be. However, over my years as a major I am seeing some shifts in the workforce which are concerning, given our current posture and likely threats.
Recently, it can be observed that fewer officers are putting their hands up to command a sub-unit; evident from over the last two years where multiple sub-unit command vacancies existed in the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) units until they were filled through subsequent PAC boards. This would have been unheard of 5-10 years ago. Furthermore, many former sub-unit commanders have expressed that they felt governance liabilities or domestic operations consumed the majority of their time instead of doing their core job – foundation warfighting. Some officers that I have spoken with cited that continuing to do the job for extended periods would not be sustainable because the tempo or service requirements would negatively impact their family. Others viewed sub-unit command simply as a gate within their career pathway to higher levels of command. While everyone’s experience will vary, it is encouraging to hear that the consensus among the majors is that their tenure of command came to an end all too soon; meaning that despite the challenges they faced, they enjoyed doing the job. Very few express the same emotions when reflecting upon being a staff officer, yet it seems many are settling for this pathway, despite it not being the reason why they joined.
A personal story
Everyone's reasons for joining are personal, and I respect that one’s priorities will change depending on what season they are in. My reasons for joining were simple: to get out of a dysfunctional home; have a roof over my head, be fed, live an adventurous life; and serve my nation by going to war. Fundamentally, my reasons for serving have not changed, but have only matured and deepened, particularly after becoming a father and seeing an even greater need to protect our national freedoms and liberties. As a lieutenant, I was an average platoon commander. I felt that I did not improve until halfway through my operational deployment to Afghanistan, which I did as a third-year subbie. When a captain, my focus was on pursuing Special Forces – which I failed selection the first time and was not selected the second. Upon promotion to major at 29, I become an Officer Commanding (OC) of a Support Company in the RAR. My tenure as an OC was just less than one year, and in that time I observed two Support Company courses periods, a Talisman Sabre, and sadly a death in the unit as a result of a training accident. As a unit Operations Officer (OPSO), my focus was to serve the Battalion by getting it back into training. As a first- and second-year major, I twice fell short in meeting the staff college gates. Subsequently, I posted to a divisional headquarters, where I was fortunate to work in the plans branch for Joint Warfighting Series. As much as I enjoyed the role and the amazing people I worked with, I came to realise that I had not joined the Army to be a staff officer. Instead, I wanted to be in the field as a company commander where I could serve the RAR, lead soldiers, mentor junior officers, and use every skill I had developed in Army over the last 16 years to prepare the company for war. Thankfully I have been given the privilege of doing sub-unit command once more. Here are my thoughts on doing it again.
Why do SUC again?
The transition from captain to major is a significant leap. Often it comes with the challenge of being out of the Battalion as a staff officer, where you may not be familiar with new platforms, equipment or SOPs. Consequently, a newly promoted sub-unit commander is often focusing on learning new skills or procedures for the first few months while in command. This takes their mental bandwidth and time away from investing into the company. Doing command the second time around means you are better prepared and more acutely aware of what shortfalls you need to remediate prior to going back into the Battalion. This includes qualifying yourself on new equipment, completing specific corps or readiness courses, to even reading the unit orders on the SharePoint site so you can digest the Commanding Officer’s intent and plan your company’s training year.
Secondly, having a break from sub-unit command means you have time to think how you would do things differently. Often tempo in the unit will mean that officers rarely have the time to process, reflect and act upon their actions – let alone invest into their family or partner. Doing time as a staff officer post sub-unit command can provide an officer time to recharge, recover from injuries, and conduct emotional and mental preparations before going back into the breach.
Thirdly, when doing sub-unit command for the first time, your motivations might be different to doing it the second time around. Often, staff college is seen as the first gate in an officer's career; and how well you do as a sub-unit commander may determine whether you will make the cut, or not. Consequently, one’s focus may be more centred on their own performance and not about the company’s needs. This means humility will often take the back seat while the company is being driven to the ground. It could also mean that an honest assessment of what standard the company is at is being masked by a company commander’s perception management skills. Really, what the company wants is an OC who is committed to them and will best prepare them for war in a sustainable manner.
Fourthly, you have matured and gained additional experience. This is a significant asset. It entails being better at prioritising work; being comfortable with professionally disagreeing with or questioning higher commanders in open forums; being able to identify differences in standards of soldiering and ways to improve them; being better at mentoring junior officers; and having greater levels of tactical acumen and battlefield cunning. Another way to view this is to ask, "if you had the choice to fight a near peer force as a first year company commander, or as a fourth year company commander, what would be your choice?"
Lastly, you more clearly realise that your actions are not solely about your company, but about the mission and your unit. This strategic and less self-centred outlook means that you can ensure that the talent within the Battalion continues to progress, and that the next generation of NCOs and officers can be developed. This includes willingly sending members on courses or deployments even when it means taking the hurt. It means being accountable for your own actions and leaning forward to help the other companies and the unit. It means ensuring equipment husbandry and soldier welfare is well managed so the company and unit can achieve its mission. It means being a caretaker within your unit and preparing the next generation.
These lessons are not just for a RAR unit, but would also apply to other corps which are haemorrhaging officers to fill sub-unit command positions. Additionally, it is likely that similar observations exist for SNCOs filling a CSM role again. It also highlights that ‘career success’ needs to be redefined by the individual and enabled by CMA.
So, what to do after sub-unit command? It’s simple. Ask and prepare yourself to do sub-unit command time again. Alternatively, you could continue to enjoy your nice coffee in your armchair, while you’re waiting for your PowerPoint slide pack or Excel spreadsheet to upload.