Staff Skills

Reflections of a Sergeant

By Aaron Thomas January 21, 2021


This article is aimed towards those who are about to promote to Sergeant in the posting cycle.  It shares lessons I learned over my time in this role and is focused on Troop/Platoon Sergeant role specifically. Please note that this is not designed to be an exhaustive list of a DS solution, but a mere slice of knowledge for consideration.

The promotion from Corporal to Sergeant can feel like a daunting experience and equates to a significant increase in responsibility and influence within a Unit. Often promotion courses will discuss the changes to some degree to assist in preparing junior leaders to become a mentor, coach and representative of the Army to the soldiers.

Sergeants do not have positional power which allows them to make decisions, rather their position is one half of a marriage, with the troop commander being the second half. The symmetries between an OC/CSM and TP COMD/ TP SGT are near identical, the key differentiator being the sphere of influence that the relationship and individuals have within the organisation. That said, here are some lessons in the role of Sergeant I learnt over time.

Expectations 

Often, RMC will inform future Lieutenants of what to expect from their Sergeant. This is often informed based on their experiences and are highly subjective. Throughout RMC, their experience of a Sergeant is limited to their drill Sergeants, who are in a role with a specific purpose and not necessarily indicative of a Troop Sergeant role.

Likewise, the Sergeant has been around for quite a few years and had many LTs and SGTs over the years. Subsequently, there is a bias, overt or unconscious, as to what a good SGT and LT looks like, and what it does not look like. This is likely paired with a strong desire to fix what the role could be.

I recommend that upon meeting your partner at the Troop level for the first time, that the immediate order of business be a clear, transparent discussion around expectations. Cover off on things that are not read on PSS or in a biography. The important components are:

  • What your LT can expect from you (with CHQ, with the soldiers, with the CPLs and in private)
  • What you hope to see from your LT (across the spectrum above, PT, dress, etc)
  • Ask your LT to treat you as a confidante in Troop processes and acknowledge that you will not disagree in front of the troops
  • Ask your LT for an insight into what they would like to see from their SGT and unpack this until an agreed approach is evident. This will rapidly enable a joint HQ approach with the Troop and ensure the united front at all times.

This meeting will provide firm footing for the foundation of the Troop way of working and will ensure that the TP HQ is always a united front, which will build trust from both SQN HQ and your subordinate soldiers.

Self-Awareness

It is easy to utilise the PAR process each year as a function of professional development; however, doing so will mean that you are simply telling your subordinates how to improve and your perception of them; which doesn’t involve much from their perspective.

Ask your CPLs to send you a monthly (equiv.) report on themselves. A key component to effective leadership is the ability to observe and assess others, but this starts with having the humility to assess yourself.

Once they have provided their insights, offer yours and consider if they are aligned or miles apart. Discuss and document, not just the behaviours that are observed but how they can improve in the next 30 days, and also offer some learning material to consolidate it.  Consider the same process within the TP HQ.

This process will help your team understand their own strengths and weaknesses as individuals and team members while also consolidating your perceptions.

Influence – up, across and down

A SGT needs to be effective in influencing outcomes and voicing the concerns of the Troop in various directions.

Across – If an effective LT/SGT relationship is created, the SGT can act as a reverse mentor to the LT and assist in shaping the LTs understanding of effective leadership in a military environment which will likely provide a solid foundation to them as an OC and CO.

Down – Your JNCOs and soldiers will also need you to influence them towards achieving outcomes and tasks to meet higher intent.

Up – At times a SGT may need to engage with CSM/OPS/OC as an SME or mentor within the organisation to provide insight or voice concerns. This is often done concurrently with the LT doing the same with the officer equivalents (OPSO, ADJ, OC). This will demonstrate a united front at TP HQ and build the level of influence that the TP HQ has to assist its soldiers and provide capability to Army.

There are various ways of influencing an outcome within leadership theory. Gaining support from other TP HQ, OPS cells (coalition tactics) can sometimes be effective and also using evidence and policy to support your positions (rationale persuasion) also works effectively in the Army environment and these are the two most likely methods needed at SGT level.

Followership - Active and enabling

The military is an environment where soldiers are taught to actively follow their leadership, and as junior soldiers this is highly effective. However, often in a Troop environment, you will have senior soldiers and also JNCOs who are vying for promotion and looking for examples of both good leadership, to replicate, and bad leadership to avoid. 

Explain the ’why’ to your team as often as possible. Human nature and significant research shows that if a human understands the what, why and when of a task they will likely work harder towards achieving the outcome. They will also align to the leaders intent, perhaps offering suggestion of better ways a task could be done, which maximises the strengths of your team for the betterment of Army.

Understand your JNCOs at the individual level and spend time with each of them as a mentor, providing a road map to their own leadership development and professional growth. This comes under a leadership technique called leader-member exchange which suggests that if you as a leader focus on a member and work to maintain a solid working relationship with each individual, the person will be more likely to be retained, and satisfied in their role within the workplace. This approach, in turn will increase the followership of your team towards the TP HQ.

Authenticity

A common mistake seen in junior SGTs is that they will try to act how they perceive a SGT to be and often this is only sustainable for a short time frame.

Effective leadership and mentoring as this article has attempted to highlight, is about trust and the best way to build trust is to approach your role with a solid understanding of your own values and leadership style and impart this from day one with your Troop.

Trust

Firstly, your LT needs to trust you to enable an effective TP HQ environment. Your LT needs to be able to bounce ideas off you in an environment where no embarrassment or judgement is created which may reduce the transparency of the relationship.

Furthermore, when things go wrong as they sometimes do, the LT needs to know that you will not undermine their authority with the OC/CSM or the subordinate soldiers and NCOs.

By planning and discussing everything together and using the experience you bring to the table and the training in command and management that they bring to the table, a TP HQ which is highly effective to the COY HQ and the team will be evident.

Trust is also the enabler to effective mission command. Do not solve all the problems for your TP all of the time, but allow your NCOs an opportunity to grow and demonstrate their ability to problem solve. Allow them the room to make mistakes and take the heat off them when they do make those mistakes. In my experience, NCO’s only make the mistake once. By allowing your NCOs room to grow, they will be more confident in your leadership and mentoring and this also demonstrates the Army values of followership and good soldiering.

Policies and Processes

Army and Defence is a large organisation with a complex layer of publications, resources, directives and guidance.

A SGT needs to have a decent appreciation for Army and Defence policy, procedures and publications. Often times it is a significant value add to your TP Comd when you are able to use your experience and link it with the relevant policy framework to assist a COA being achieved or successful. This knowledge will also enable your team to use you as a trusted resource when they are going through problems, as you will be able to offer useful insight into both the personnel management and Army processes to the member.

Importantly, it is not required that you know all of these publications and guidance from memory, but rather you are able to quickly locate the resource and navigate the tool in a timely manner.

The role

Notwithstanding an Operations Sergeant, the role of a Sergeant is many and varied, with the only exception being that the decision does not rest with you. You are a mentor to junior officers and this is achieved through a professional, transparent relationship as highlighted above. You are a coach and mentor to your CPLs and LCPLS and to some extent, your soldiers. They look to you for guidance and experience and you should return that favour by guiding them on their leadership journey and on their professional mastery journey, regardless of Corps. You offer insight, lessons learnt and confidence to the Troop planning process and to the administration process. Remember, that while historical lessons are important, so too is innovation and new ideas.


Portrait

Biography

Aaron Thomas

Sergeant Aaron Thomas joined the fulltime-Army in 2006 and transitioned to Reserves in 2017 with RACT and is currently posted to Army School of Transport on Service Option C. He has recently been accepted under the ASWOC Scheme to commission to Lieutenant WEF 2021. Aaron holds a Masters in Business and a Masters in Project Management and is currently studying a Masters in Leadership.

 

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

Aaron has this spot on. The best LT/SGT relationships I had were indeed like partners. It helps if you are the same age and stage in life, but this is not always the case. An older SGT needs to avoid the temptation to be the father figure to both LT and CPLs. A united front is a great model and is made easier if you have a model OC/CSM partnership as an example. Many years on from LT/SGT years, I am not surprised to see the SGTs from those best partnerships I had, being very successful in their post-Army lives. I will be interested in a follow up article from the author on his ASWOC experience!

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