In January 2021, I published a reflective article through The Cove focused on my reflections as a Sergeant. Since that time, I have commissioned and completed 12 months as a Reserve ASWOC officer employed as a troop commander (Tp Comd) and thought it a prudent time to conduct another reflective assessment.
Surprisingly, in preparing this reflection I found limited articles that provided insights into being a reserve Tp Comd and even fewer across the spectrum of command roles within the 2nd Division (2 Div). This is likely due to time; which is often the biggest challenge with reserve service. Managing a full-time civilian role, a family and Army, with any other competing priorities, is hardly a simple feat. The idea of taking additional time to provide a written reflection is challenging.
Part-time role with a full-time responsibility
The recruiting and marketing of the Army Reserve is often focussed on the idea of working for a few hours each Tuesday night and an occasional weekend; with many taking Defence up on this offer. However; with domestic operations and a heightened tempo across 2 Div recently, I have found this not to be the case. I have typically advised new Tp Comd over the past three months to strongly consider their capacity for doing multiple nights and weekends worth of work to enable the generation of their troop’s output. The rationale for this is that command is all about people.
A Reserve Tp Comd will typically manage between 30 and 40 people; however, in contrast to their full-time counterparts, these 40 people are often split across a vast geographic distance. My troop had two sections locally within the Brisbane region, a section in Toowoomba, and a section in Tamworth, NSW. When you consider that many of these personnel only parade on Tuesday nights, less your NCOs who typically do additional work during the week, it is worth considering the responsibility for these people is a full-time effort, on a part-time basis.
Time is often the biggest enemy within 2 Div. A reserve Tp Comd is responsible for the same lines of effort as their full-time peers (readiness, soldier training course management, workforce management and recruiting, readiness requirements specific to domestic operations, training programs, exercises at both unit and brigade/division) and also additional reserve pay considerations or budget management. In any given week you may be able to provide 6-9 hours (including Tuesday night) on top of your civilian role, so prioritising becomes crucial. Every time you miss something could have an impact on a soldier which could delay their pay or career progression.
It is also common to have reserve soldiers contact you frequently, whether they are in your organisation or attempting to find a new position. On one occasion I had a phone call on Christmas eve as that is when the member was able to discuss his needs.
Choose your battles
Due to competing priorities upon my time, it became clear very quickly that I needed to focus on less to achieve more. My focus became two lines of effort with a clear command intent provided to enable the span of tasks required:
- Create and drive a troop culture
- Training program
It became evident very quickly that I needed to focus on mission command with my NCOs to posture us for success. It’s important to realise that NCOs want to lead their teams, and using the principle of mission command – specifically trust and identifiable outcomes – were key to enabling the JNCOs to support the troop's outcomes.
I also used manoeuvre warfare principles in the way I managed and communicated with the team – such as mutual support, focus on the main effort, tempo, and focus all actions on the enemy. In essence, the common enemy was time and I continuously communicated in a way that drove tempo. The enemy of the section 2IC was admin, which required a high tempo to achieve rapid completion, tied to soldier wellbeing and morale. The enemy of the Section Commander was training & resources. Each group had mutual support from myself and the Troop Sergeant, provided that communication was proactive and early to maintain the initiative on desired effects.
Finally, I had a firm rule that no administration was to occur on Tuesdays unless I granted an exemption. The rationale was that Tuesday nights are called training nights for a reason; nobody wants a job where they just do admin on a weekly basis under the pretense of training. This approach very quickly created a culture with a strong level of pride, focused on outcomes, which enabled better training and good administration across all locations.
My previous experiences allowed me the benefit of understanding that training is often tied to morale, discipline and capability. As such, a key initial priority was the development of a training program which covered all locations within their resource limitations that was planned in advance of three months. This enabled Section Commanders to focus on training preparation during the week so that training occurred successfully on Tuesday nights. There were some initial challenges with resource availability; however, for the most part attendance went up in locations that met this intent, as did morale.
The challenge of distance
A number of challenges quickly arose from the geographically dispersed team setup. First was that I had no idea what resources were available in each location and had made assumptions that each location would be postured for success. Secondly, it was difficult to rapidly gauge morale or alignment to higher intent in each location due to the enemy of time and inability to regularly visit.
An additional consideration was the welfare of individuals who often felt dislocated from their unit. This was particularly difficult during the COVID pandemic where my NSW section was unable to attend most training opportunities due to state border closures.
The biggest lesson from the challenge of distance was that if the section commander had a strong command presence and understanding of intent, they would do what they could to achieve the outcome. It is crucial to have open communication channels to these locations and the support wherever possible to maintain wellbeing and morale. This may take precious time; however, it is extremely rewarding for both the Tp Comd and the soldiers in each location.
Communication amongst reservists is challenging. It’s important to remember that your team are part-time, but also realising they need to remain informed. The key element I found is that consistent communication with deliberate language was far more successful than constant communication with continuous requests for information.
There are a number of communication channels used by reservists which deserve some analysis. First is ForceNet. ForceNet offers a powerful communication channel which is available via an app on most devices. ForceNet allows informing users in a group on the required information relating to their service. Over time, I developed a rule that this platform would only be used for a weekly, consistent messaging platform. This was for several reasons.
As it is a part-time role, it’s important to allow soldiers time away from Army. Often soldiers are a part of many groups. A group for their unit, their sub-unit, and their troop. If each group were to communicate once a week, that represents three messages a week outside of paid Army time for what is considered a part-time role. As such, I highly recommend that a ForceNet relational structure is understood at various levels of command with a synchronisation across the various spheres of influence to ensure that communication is consistent, but not constant. This increases the likelihood of members reading a post regularly and reduces the chances of disengagement.
The second is Signal; which is often used for recall purposes, typically established within each sub-organisation from unit to section. I trialled various mechanisms of use for this platform over the year. I tried providing a weekly orders format, using it only as a recall or immediate time frame platform and everything in between. Similar to ForceNet; too much communication can result in disengagement, and when you do need to enact a recall it would of course become harder if members turn notifications off. By the end of the year I only used this for recall and short notice timeframe messaging and found that the engagement levels were mostly consistent.
The last medium of communication for consideration is verbal orders. Typically, a Tuesday night will capture sub-unit orders; however, if a Tp Comd were to then conduct their own analysis and orders verbally while their team is parading, not a great deal of training occurs. I found over a few months that the best method was to capture my orders in my weekly ForceNet post. Again, the emphasis was on consistency and that when members were together for a training activity, I would ensure to speak to as many of the different locations as a priority to maintain my finger on the pulse of each location, each level of command, and the overall morale.
I strove to ensure I had informed all ranks of all outcomes in addition to the ‘why’ via ForceNet. My messaging on ForceNet started a running joke amongst the troop that I didn’t know what a short post looked like; but conversely, they were often the best-informed troop with the least amount of disturbance on their lives, further enabling the strong troop culture and pride.
This encapsulates my key reflections; however, there are two topics which I would also offer up to round this out.
Firstly, as can be implied through this article: the role is busy, but it is also part-time. A reserve officer must find a battle rhythm of their life which allows for full time work, Reserves, family, and any other hobbies or things that support a strong mental state. It is important to realise that many trade-offs will need to be made to prioritise your time and commitment to achieve the best of what you can with the time that you have.
Secondly, I have some observations on the Army Reserve Officer Training Continuum (AROTC). Having been both an AROTC instructor and having worked with my peers, who are a product of this system, and had challenges because of not having previous experience in Army to contextualise against.
The Army Training System is rightly focused on the need for soldiers and commanders to be able to deploy into a threat environment and either win or support the land battle. The AROTC does this by having five training modules which see an officer cadet trained in the tactics needed at both dismounted infantry section and platoon level to achieve success in the land battle. As a result, newly promoted LTs arrive at a unit having never discussed or witnessed some of the key elements that would provide a more well-rounded officer and reduce the pressure on units to upskill their junior officers – where time is the biggest enemy.
These aspects are the use of Objective, resource management, and the understanding that being an LT is like an apprenticeship.
In terms of Objective, like most Army personnel, the LT will spend a significant amount of their time on administration. As such, the ability to use Objective at a practical level, would be of enduring importance. Currently an LT may take months to learn this system, in addition to required Campus courses to optimise their Objective skills.
A unique component of the reserve is that there is a direct cost associated with the soldier parading and completing their spectrum of responsibilities over the financial year. An understanding of these costs and how to optimise personnel management within this constraint at troop level would likely provide an enduring benefit to Army.
Finally; it’s important to remember that being an LT is akin to being an apprentice manager. While you have a significant level of output and responsibility in this part-time role, your commanders and other unit staff will expect you to make mistakes. The key thing to remember is to not make the same mistakes consistently and to take responsibility of those mistakes for your personal development. It would be beneficial to expose officer cadets to the roles of key staff at sub-unit level and the role that a regimental sergeant major may play in mentoring as well. This would posture them for success by understanding key roles quickly rather than learning this over time through hard won experience.