Leadership

Reflections of a First Year Sergeant

By Carlos Barrera April 21, 2021


My first year as a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer 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, processes, training and the PHQ 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 solidifying our experiences in doctrine and training. Combining the SNCO “think tank” we can grow our employee value proposition for the Army.

Personnel Management

In my first year as a SNCO I deployed with a platoon from the Second Battalion attached to the Fifth Battalion. 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 stud book and knowing what qualifications a soldier had 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 that you have their best interest(s) 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 Senior NCO feels much lonelier than being a Corporal, so remember 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”[1]. Injecting specific mental training along with physical training which fosters a professional culture where intellectual strength and resilience is valued as much as physical strength. During my time as Senior NCO, 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. Ultimately allowing me to manage welfare of soldiers concurrently to my own.

Sustain:

1.         Work on your mental resilience. See www.headfit.org or www.openarms.gov.au and Dr 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[2].

2.         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 and most of all just being a trustworthy and reliable person they could talk to. We are all human after all.

Improve:

1.         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.

2.         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.

3.         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.

4.         People get injured. Particularly in the infantry. Be 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. 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.

Processes

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 speak to ethical leadership and decision making. 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[3]. 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 role 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 I had requested one, 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 was not an excuse.

Sustains:

1.         Communicate training/business processes to your subordinates. It provides them with the combat 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. Additionally, get to know Army’s training and level standards and Combined Arms Training Centres procedures and website. See handy links below.

2.         Read, read, and read! Cove plus 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.

Improves:

1.         Get your head in to Army Training Instructions 1-2/19, 1-4/17, 1-6/17 and 1-19/17 (found on FORCOMD webpage), Learning Management Program Self Service, Manual of Army Employment, Electronic Manual of Personnel Administration and the Senior Leadership Capstone documents.

Training

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 and most rudimentary and primitive techniques undermine them such as excellent field craft and navigation without aids to reduce our physical and electronic signatures. 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. 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 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 Junior NCO 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 which afforded me this opportunity. I have taken this approach and applied it to the next rank and as a Senior NCO’s we must endeavour to provide this to our junior leaders.

Fix:

  1. 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. 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, abilities and behaviours 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.
  2. The US has significantly invested in its Non-Commissioned Officers since the Vietnam War. It saw the value of leaders amongst soldiers and going by that standard we have a duty to continue on this trajectory[4]. We must seek support from our Warrant Officers, these are the men and women that 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 to produce efficiencies and to solidify our contribution to warfare - The last hundred yards.

The PHQ

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 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 in order 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 the SNCO is counselling and mentorship. Too often we let discrepancies slip which in the future surmount to large negative issues that could have been fixed at the lower levels. On the other spectrum 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. We have an honours and awards system and disciplinary system for a reason- use them.

Mentoring is extremely important as it develops the future SNCO 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 three new Lieutenants in my time. I was the first exposure they would have to a senior NCO 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 and 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 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. Neither was it 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.

Sustain:

1.         Be the example and “plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit”[5]. 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 watching and involved. 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”[6].

2.         Leadership, as you get older and you promote, gets harder. 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 lose your human side. 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.

Improve:

1.         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 it took time away from my soldiers and can erode their faith in the chain of command.

2.         Read MILPERSMAN Part 009 Chapter 2 as a part of performance management. Do some professional development around performance management cycles and PAR’s in order to influence your Platoon Commander and enable them to utilise the tool properly.

3.         Embrace technology. The proliferation of technology is growing at a phenomenal rate. IF you fail to embrace it and keep relevant in it, it will leave you behind. As an army in motion we need to embrace it in order to make our processes more efficient and our war fighting more lethal.

4.         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.

Conclusion

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 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 stature of days past and provide a compelling value proposition to the Australian Defence Force.

Bibliography

Commonwealth of Australia (Australian Army), Land Warfare Doctrine 0-2 Leadership, 2002 Chapter 1 Annex B

Kate O- https://www.openarms.gov.au/about/news/2020/what-square-away-means-kate

Henderson, W. Under whose shade. Nepean, Ont.: Henderson and Associates, 1986

Headquarters, Department of the Army Publication TC 7-22.7, The Noncommissioned Officer Guide, January 2020

Murray, K. (2004). Training at the Speed of Life. Gotha: Armiger Publications, Inc.

Morris, T.  2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, Mandatory Unit Briefs, Regimental Sergeant Major’s address, January 2015

Handy links:

Personnel management

Processes

Training

The PHQ

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

 

 

[1] Commonwealth of Australia (Australian Army) 2002, Land Warfare Doctrine 0-2 Leadership, Chapter 1 Annex B

[3] Murray, K. (2021). Training at the Speed of Life. Gotha: Armiger Publications, Inc.

[4] The Noncommissioned Officer Guide, January 2020

[5] Henderson, W. (1986). Under whose shade. Nepean, Ont.: Henderson and Associates.

[6] Trent Morris 2015, 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment Mandatory Unit Briefs, Regimental Sergeant Major’s address


Portrait

Biography

Carlos Barrera

Sergeant

Sergeant Carlos Barrera was born on 07 October 1989 in Melbourne, Victoria. He enlisted into the Army Reserve on 03 April 2007 as a rifleman in the Royal Australian Infantry Corps.

Sergeant Barrera completed his Initial Employment Training at Murray Bridge, and was posted to the 8/7 Battalion, the Royal Victorian Regiment. On the 23 October 2009, he transferred to the Australian Regular Army and posted to the Second Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment.

As a private in Reconnaissance Platoon he was awarded a Soldier’s Medallion for assisting in training and implementing patrol signallers in the suite of Harris Radio systems. During his tenure at the unit, Sergeant Barrera served in Signals Platoon as a detachment commander, in Reconnaissance Platoon as a patrol commander, in a Rifle Company as a section commander, in BHQ as the Regimental Police Corporal and Alpha Company as a Rifle platoon Sergeant.

In 2017, Sergeant Barrera posted to the School of Infantry as a Combat Shooting Instructor in Specialist Wing. Sergeant Barrera is currently posted to the Second Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment as the Signals Platoon Sergeant.
During his time in the Army, Corporal Barrera has served on operation at home during Operation VIC FIRE ASSIST in 2009 and abroad in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2019. He was awarded the Australian Active Service Medal with clasp ICAT, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Infantry Combat Badge, Australian Defence Medal, NATO Article 51 medal with clasp ISAF, NATO Article 51 medal with clasp Afghanistan, Operational Service Medal and the United States Army Commendation Medal.

Sergeant Barrera has two children Lola and Coco. Sergeant Barrera enjoys spending time with his family outdoors, going to the beach, shooting and gardening.



Comments

SGT Barrera, Well done. These are some of the most impressive and insightful reflections I have seen from a SNCO in our Army for a long time. Not only do I think you have it on the heart of your role as a SNCO ( Lead, Train, Develop ), the fact you took the time to reflect, document and then share your thoughts speaks volumes for your professionalism. Keep it up

SGT Barrera, Well done. These are some of the most impressive and insightful reflections I have seen from a SNCO in our Army for a long time. Not only do I think you have it on the heart of your role as a SNCO ( Lead, Train, Develop ), the fact you took the time to reflect, document and then share your thoughts speaks volumes for your professionalism. Keep it up

Thank you for sharing these observations. They’re a great summary of the considerable roles and responsibilities of a SGT in a unit. Many of your recommendations about self-reflection and taking the time to know our people are relevant to leaders at all levels and we’d all be better off if we checked on whether we’re applying them too. I agree with your advice about the dual mentoring role of a SNCO; both for the junior officers and for the JNCO. It’s a critical and unique responsibility for our SNCO that if done right will let both groups professionally grow and develop. It also helps to explain role clarity, a topic that seems to be raised as a friction point by some of our teams. Your advocacy to embrace technology is timely and a key way for us enable learning and simplify process. Please continue to champion. Thank you again for taking the time to publish your well-considered observations.

Congratulations and well done Carlos. Great reflections. It speaks volumes of your professionalism shown throughout your article and willingness to share your experiences so others can become better. Great to hear you have continued to develop, grow, learn and inspire others to do so as well. I feel you have captured the essence of 'being good at being a soldier, rather than just being a good soldier'. Awesome stuff.

Hello Carlos, You have done an outstanding job capturing the essence of what is required of our SGTs today. You have hit on a number of key areas that still need support from wider Army and it is fantastic to see that you have identified them and offered solutions. It has been an absolute pleasure to see your growth over the years, and I am sure you will continue to be an amazing asset, role model and mentor for Army. All the best WW

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