This article was a submission to the 2022 Cove Competition.
To be honest my first thought about this whole affair was oh god, homework. After some hypocritical self-reflection; I’ve written this with the intent to vicariously prepare others new to command. I was unceremoniously and unexpectedly dropped into my troop mid-March 2022 and the outgoing commander was in no position to provide a handover. My troop was established, underway on domestic operations, and my sergeant was away for months on course. Along the way I’ve lived some lessons that may benefit those in a niche position: recently commissioned platoon or troop commanders with the foresight to read. I’ll cover my two favourite interlinked lessons on opportunity and processes within processes – take them or leave them.
An opportunity lost to time is lost forever has been a guiding principle that has served me well in effectively managing the dynamism of a troop that directly supports a brigade. The challenges of simultaneously juggling training, orchestrating teams to complete missions, managing soldier welfare, and equipment husbandry need to be controlled before the problem becomes that: a problem. It’s a simple paradigm that denotes a systematic approach to how I tackled my true enemy: ‘tomorrow’. It‘s an accurate statement that we are planners, the minutia of that is we control how our team executes tomorrow, it rests solely on us, and you should be across it. I learnt to focus on what I can affect and being proactive in this space led to my largest reduction in lost opportunities.
An opportunity lost can be anything from delaying tasking your corporals, to not providing correcting guidance, or to failing to plan for an event or training serial when you had some respite in the never-ending machine that is the Army. Lost opportunities bear a cost, and it is often a cost to your soldiers. Be it rewarding courses, smooth field experiences, deployments, or expenditure of their time; it is our responsibility to plan ahead and consider the variables to complete the mission while enabling our soldiers. I’ve learnt this is a crucial step to being a successful troop commander: manage your time effectively with the priority always being your soldiers and the ‘why’ in mission execution. Be proactive, promptly seize opportunities, and oversee your soldiers as they execute the ‘how’.
What you can change, shouldn’t change, and can’t change all sound like things with clearly defined relationships that you’ll have a level of influence over. I’ve learnt from a few wasted efforts that they are in fact, not. The things you can’t change cover about 70% of everything you can imagine. The things you shouldn’t change sound like good ideas at the time, but you lack the breadth of knowledge as to why they are impractical. Now the things you can change occupy a month window (maybe two) to the immediate right – this is where I effectively fought for my soldiers, oversaw training, and found success. That window is the most effective space to live in where you can exercise control and churn chaos into order. Just remain cognisant that the “can’t” and “shouldn’t” can and do bleed into this space.
Your troop will be constructed in a way that it delivers an effect, it will be known for this effect, and it will be expected of you. The effect will encapsulate your troop, leading to culture and identity. This immediately puts you on rails before an SMAP even occurs for most field exercises. Now this is for a reason, your effects nest within the larger picture of what we call ‘capability’, but this concept also extends to the barracks environment. Army is built on processes within processes that at the best of times make everything seem like it’s planned from the cuff. Course nominations? Panelling is always two weeks out. Repairs? Depends on overall unit liability and available mechanics. Training? Hope it doesn’t conflict with an unannounced unit priority. The why to this is that everybody is busy and are all working towards the bigger picture. These spot fires are consistent, and with experience will become predictable, making you better at your job.
In closing, I’ve learnt that if you’ve prepared for tomorrow (seize opportunities) and understand that some things are unavoidable or outside of your influence (processes within processes), you’ll have a good time. If you’ve determined what you can most affect and apply your focused effort to those areas, you’ll work efficiently. Come to work with ideas, accept that some will be unachievable for reasons not yet apparent, and don’t let emotional burden pile up and affect you. Support your OC as they drive the train and always come to work with the mindset that you are here to work for your soldiers, and in return, they’ll work for you. Finally, I’ve learnt to manage my work-to-life ratio through the application of these lessons. They brought me understanding that reduced hours in the office after dark without detriment to my troop. A warrant once told me “you have no sense of self-preservation”. After some reflection I’ve been working to improve that and hope you don’t fall into any of the same traps that I did (thanks Scotty).