SGT Barrera shares his reflections as a first year SGT. There is similar article published recently: 'Reflections of a Sergeant' by SGT Aaron Thomas.
My first year as a Senior NCO was a steep learning curve which saw rapid assimilation of information and occasionally learning things the hard way. I am now in my second year and although I am still continuously learning, the stress and frustrations I experienced have lessened. In reflecting on my time so far, I have noted some key lessons that I hope will assist future SNCOs and save them some of that resource we are unable to get back… Time. These lessons revolve around management, training processes and the Platoon HQ dynamic. My subjective experience of team building, personal and professional growth as a SNCO has afforded me the opportunity to reflect without regret, of what I could have achieved if I had my chance again. For that, I am grateful. I do believe there are identified gaps in our training and knowledge in the SNCO trade, which I trust can be addressed by transferring and sharing our experiences in doctrine and training. By combining the Senior NCO “think tank” we can grow the Senior NCO employee value proposition for the Army.
In my first year as a SNCO I deployed with a platoon from 2RAR attached to 5RAR. It quickly became apparent that personnel management is a major responsibility and component of performing the role of a Sergeant. This became evident in my experience of administering soldiers with complexities in their day-to-day lives. Whilst compiling a study book and knowing what qualifications each soldier has was good, it is far from performing human resource management effectively. I found taking a holistic approach when managing your people allows you to grow rapport and trust, so that the individual soldier can perform to the best of their ability knowing you have their best interests at heart. I found getting to know my soldiers early on, from what drives them, to their career aspirations and more importantly who the people are behind the scenes that support their soldiering, eliminated the risk of stressors from work and home eroding professionalism, effectiveness and team cohesion. Do not underestimate the limits that people will go to for you as their leader and to do their part for the team. Do your part by setting them up for success with guidance, direction and the leadership they deserve.
The first step to successful middle management as a SNCO, because it feels much lonelier than being a Corporal, is to look after yourself and your boss. If not, you run the risk of becoming an administrative statistic with your own S1 issues. This does not have to be a burden; you can achieve this through leadership principle number four 'Lead by Example'. Inject specific mental health training along with physical training as this fosters a professional culture, where intellectual strength and resilience is valued as much as physical strength. During my time as a SNCO, I have had multiple soldiers with personal issues and at one time I was going through some myself. With some empathy and understanding, that catered to the individuals needs in times of strain, we all got through it. It was not without some intervention though, and sometimes you must search internally and work on yourself to be able to change things externally. I was surprised what breathing exercises, meditating and other mental strategies can do for wellbeing. These methods gave me a new perspective on work and life and helped me find my balance in a new role, which ultimately allowed me to manage the welfare of my soldiers concurrent to my own.
- Work on mental resilience. See Head Fit or Open Arms and Joe Dispenza. Be open minded and attempt meditation, gratitude, grounding exercises as well as self-reflection. These are not 'hippy' things; they are proven to work and will see you grow exponentially. 'In moments of stress, you can create a change by focusing on your breathing' – Kate O, Open Arms peer worker.
- Empathy – We all bring our life experience to the table and I found that putting myself in the shoes of my soldiers, where I had experienced some of the personal and professional issues they were going through, meant I was able to relate to them and give tangible guidance and suggestions, but most of all just being a trustworthy and reliable person they could talk to. We are all human after all.
- Get to know your people early and not just on a superficial level. People are our most important resource and capability is our biggest quantifiable output. Knowing what drives and motivates them allows you to push them to grow and also you have the knowledge of when to ease off.
- Learn your own signs of stress and fatigue and do not be afraid to ask for help, talk to a colleague or seek professional help for coping mechanisms. There is no place for egos in this job and it can be your undoing.
- Stay humble – do not think you are going to be killing it in your first year as a Sergeant. Be quiet, professional and observant. Even with the knowledge I am trying to impart in this reflection, I acknowledge that I will have many years of learning ahead. Taking a step back allows you to take in a lot more information and identify gaps, inconsistencies and efficiencies. Then as a command team you can get to work to address those issues.
- People get injured. Particularly in the infantry. Get well versed in Sentinel and MILPERSMAN Part 003 Chapter 2. Nobody should be telling you not to submit sentinel reports or encouraging you to overlook welfare of your soldiers under the veil of “they’re just doing their job”. Ignorance is not an excuse for not being able to submit these reports on behalf of your soldiers and is a crucial part of the role of a Senior NCO.
The second learning point was to get to know your training/business processes. The countless hours that I wasted because I was not familiar with process, in hindsight was ridiculous. Yes, there are different ways to do things; however, ask your peers or your CSM what way they found was most efficient. Everything we do is underpinned by policy and procedure which means there is a process behind it, whether it is booking ranges, lost or damage reports, ordering ammunition, booking flights, approving leave or soldier performance management. Accountability is key here and speaks to ethical leadership. Remember, as an organisation we need to survive the physical, social, mental, moral, professional and financial wars that all have adverse impacts on our units. Your subject courses will only give you enough knowledge to survive as a Sergeant. There are a multitude of tasks that you will not have knowledge about that will be expected of you, such as planning, organising, leading and controlling courses, whilst simultaneously mentoring subordinates and maintaining training for the organisation and yourself. I learnt quickly that my job required me to be proficient on day one in the office. This saw me execute courses that were planned prior to my arrival that were of significance to my subordinates and required external instructor support. When I received two external instructors when only one had been requested, I naturally saw the benefits of being able to conduct the assessments in half the time, not realising the implication of this. When it came time to send my returns to the governing body for a desk top audit, the personnel that were assessed by the instructor not listed in the exported training request were almost stripped of their qualifications if not for the discretion of the governing body. I had to seek professional guidance and self-driven understanding of Army Training Instructions and processes. It was pivotal to the careers of my soldiers and ultimately their professional wellbeing. My ignorance and inexperience were not an excuse.
- Communicate training/business processes to your subordinates. It provides them with the 'why' and lessens the resistance you will receive from them. Touch base with your training (S7) and Ops Cell (S3) early on and get to know the process of what they require for booking training and exercises.
- Read, read and read! Cove+ is a great tool to start. Get your head around different disciplines, not just military. Being able to think on your feet and have ready to go theories and concepts that you can apply to daily life and work makes you an asset. I have left a non-exhaustive list of reading in the Bibliography. It will also benefit you to look at strategies to organise your work to save you inefficiently switching between tasks.
- Get your head in to Army Training Instructions 1-1/17, 1-2/20, 1-3/17, 1-4/17, 1-6/, 1-19/17 and 1-20/19 (found on FORCOMD webpage), LWP-G 7-1-2 The Instructors Handbook, Learning Management Program Self Service, Manual of Army Employment, Electronic Manual of Personnel Administration and the Senior Leadership Capstone documents. This is a good start to arm your self with the knowledge of how the Army’s people and training framework operates.
- Look into the Complaints and Resolutions Manual and Good Decision-Making in Defence. As stated earlier, everything is a process, and policy is there to protect everyone. To ensure you are protected by the system, get to learn how it is applied.
We are master trainers and our skills on and off the battlefield must reflect this. We must deliver world class training and implement techniques backed by science and proven in combat to train our soldiers. We are in an age of technology that has significantly increased our training liability amongst mandatory training such as Land Range Safety. However, we cannot afford to neglect the fundamentals of soldiering such as shooting and living in the field. These tough experiences build resilience and creates bonds within small teams. They may be rudimentary and primitive; however, they are still the best methods to undermine near peer technologies as they reduce our physical and electronic signatures. To assist in becoming a good trainer, I found I had to explore and learn the strategic training and development processes, learning pyramids, 'Performance, Standard, Condition' (PSC) theory and types of learning outcomes to implement during training. There are numerous theories and methods out there and a simple YouTube or Google search will give you numerous avenues to delve in to. Ultimately, teaching subordinates increases proficiency and your ability to retain and recall those skills, keeping you relevant.
In my experience as a JNCO, I sought professional development both, civilian and military, and delivered training to all ranks. I was fortunate to experience mentorship and leadership from soldiers I hold in high regard. I have taken this approach and applied it to the next rank, and as a SNCO I endeavour to provide this to my junior leaders.
- Educating Corporals on 'how' to train so that they are prepared to lead, mentor and train in a multi domain environment in a 21st century defence force is more important than “what” to train. It is extremely hard for Corporals to understudy the Platoon Sergeant, therefore you must make time to take them aside and teach them the skills, knowledge and abilities that will be required of them when they pick up their next rank. Teach them how to conduct a training needs analysis to identify the gaps in skills, to then be able to build a relevant training program with specific and measurable outcomes to keep soldiers engaged. This will assist in convincing JNCO’s to become SNCO’s.
- The US has significantly invested in its Non-Commissioned Officers since the Vietnam War. It saw the value of leaders amongst soldiers and we have a duty to continue this trajectory. We must seek support from our Warrant Officers, these are the men and women who talent manage to ensure the brightest and best calibre promote and get rewarded whilst simultaneously ensuring the organisation takes responsibility to develop those who do not meet the standard. We police and own training and development, and as such we owe it to our soldiers and our future Sergeants to see that they receive the most up to date, modern and leading training and development to get the job done and continue to evolve. The 'Fix' to producing valuable Sergeants begins with education. This will produce efficiencies and solidify our contribution to warfare - The last hundred yards.
The last but very valuable lesson I want to reflect on was what I learnt about the PHQ command team dynamic. Decisions made at PHQ or higher must be considered carefully for they all have second and third order effects on soldiers. To care for your people, we must consider those second and third order effects to lesson how it impacts on their morale, performance and their families. Every command decision needs involvement from the Platoon Sergeant and the Platoon Commander to ensure fairness to the NCO’s and soldiers beneath them. This is achieved through the PHQ working harmoniously and supporting each other and optimally have a planning system in place that works and is rehearsed to enable, facilitate and support the team leaders on the ground.
Communication played a large role in forming my experience as a first year Platoon Sergeant. It is key and starts with the PHQ being in sync and not working in isolation. The workload within the PHQ must be shared and they must rely on and trust each other to match each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This allows for decisions to be made in the absence of one another without having major implications on their return.
A neglected skill in preparing people for the transition to SNCO is counselling and mentorship. Too often we let indiscretions slip, which in the future can grow to large negative issues that could have been fixed at the lower levels. On the other hand, all too often we neglect the positive things our people do. Counselling should be given often for both negative and positive behaviour displayed by our subordinates. This continuous feedback is part of the performance appraisal report process, in which PHQ should have outlined at the beginning of the year what the metrics and performance standards are for each aspect outlined in the report (AE150).
Mentoring is extremely important as it develops the future SNCOs and is our legacy that we leave behind for our individual Corps. I have had the privilege to serve and be part of a command team with two new Lieutenants in my time. I was the first exposure they would have to a SNCO and it was not lost on me the impact I would have; big or small, positive, or negative on their careers. We have incredibly smart officers joining our ranks and they can be eager to make their mark. As such we must harness and mentor their energy so that they can focus on their spheres of control and influence. Their first exposures to NCO’s and soldiers will have a lasting impression when they are senior officers. We have a responsibility to show them that the people that implement their plans are intelligent, proficient, mature, ethical and can be trusted to do their jobs so that in future their decision making can be based on positive experiences and enable mission command. Further, it was not lost on me that I was a mentor to the junior NCO’s below me, which was my motivation to keep current on my tactical knowledge, conduct and fitness.
- Be the example and 'plant trees whose shade you do not expect to sit under'. Every decision, action or failure to act is going to get scrutinised. You do not know who is watching and your choices will have lasting second and third order effects on those emulating you. Make values-based decisions and remember: 'If there is any doubt, there is no doubt! Check safe and take some time to come up with an informed decision'.
- Leadership by example gets harder as you get older. Keep up your fitness, keep learning and most importantly do not lose your personality. Do not get sucked in to becoming the rank you wear and losing your human side or compromise your professional standards. Stay relevant because it is only going to get harder to lead and no one likes to have an out of shape and out of touch senior.
- Get together as a PHQ element as early as possible to learn each other’s personalities, strengths and weaknesses, leadership styles and to figure out the mission and goals for the platoon. Also outline the expectations of the soldiers and JNCO’s in the platoon so that they have clear left and right of arcs when it comes to job performance, behaviour, governance, and other relevant aspects to the platoon. This is also a good opportunity to get buy-in from your JNCO’s and will alleviate administrative issues throughout your tenure.
- Keep your team informed. Under time and work pressures there were times I received information that my soldiers needed. When I finally remembered to pass it on, I had taken time away from my soldiers and this can erode their faith in the chain of command.
- Read MILPERSMAN Part 009 Chapter 2 as a part of performance management. Do some professional development around performance management cycles and PAR’s to influence your Platoon Commander and enable them to utilise the tool properly. Feedback should not just be given at the interim and annual PAR.
- Embrace technology. The proliferation of technology is growing at a phenomenal rate. If you fail to embrace it and keep current with its functionality, it will leave you behind. As an Army in Motion we need to embrace it to make our processes more efficient and our warfighting more lethal.
- Technological literacy. A good place to start is investigating add-ins for excel and word such as developer to make your documents 'smarter', whilst enabling you to create formulas for excel and utilising tools such as Adobe Pro.
My experience is my own subjective reality that I believe is not too dissimilar from many of my peers, not only in the Infantry but across wider Army. I believe sharing this experience is pivotal in learning from previously made mistakes and lessons learnt thus enabling a more rapid growth cycle within the next SNCO cohort. I hope that we may develop professional relationships not only with our peers across corps and services but with our partner militaries overseas to raise the potential of future SNCO’s. I believe that with collaboration we can project the SNCO passed its revered status of 'days past' and provide a compelling value proposition to the Australian Defence Force.
- LWP-G 0-5-1 Staff Officers Guide (don’t judge me)
- LWD 0-2 Leadership, Chapter 1 Annex B
- Dr Joe Dispenza
- Military Personnel Policy Manual Part 3, Chapter 2 – Australian Defence Force Military Employment Classification System
- LWD 0-2 Leadership, Chapter 12 Problem Solving and Decision-Making
- LWP-G 7-0-1 The conduct of training: Interim – Chapter 2 Training in Army, Section 2-2 – the army training continuum 2-8 levels and standards
- Combined Arms Training Centre
- Army Training Instructions
- Learning Management Plan Self Service
- Manual of Army Employment
- Electronic Manual of Personnel Administration
- Senior Leadership Capstone Documents
- Performance Standard Condition Theory
- The Learning Pyramid
- Training Needs Analysis
- The Non-Commissioned Officer Guide, January 2020
- Honours and Awards
- Complaints and Resolutions Manual
- Military Personnel Policy Manual – Part 009 Chapter 2 – Discipline and Unacceptable behaviour, Formal warning and censures in the Australian Defence Force
Recommended Reading List
- Brain Rules by John Medina
- Crossfire by Robert Kerney and Peter Haran
- Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
- Emotions Revealed by Paul Ekman
- How the Brain Learns by David Sousa
- Leadership and training for the fight by Paul Howe
- Left of Bang by Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley
- MGMT 3rd edition by Williams, McWilliams and Lawrence
- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
- Sharpening the Warrior's Edge by Bruce Siddle
- The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
- The Last Hundred Years by H.J. Poole
- The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle
- Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
- Training at the Speed of Life by Kenneth Murray
- Verbal Judo by George Thompson
- Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman