Senior Soldier: The Company Sergeant MajorBy Dan Ellis September 3, 2019
At any one time there are only 27 Company Sergeant Majors (CSM) in the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) and only nine, on average, selected for the appointment each year. Being selected for this role is a great achievement: it is an appointment, not just a posting! This article is designed for those about to take up the appointment of CSM and those aspiring to do so in the future. This is a collection of tips using advice, experience and comments from officers and senior soldiers from around Army. The aim is to give you the opportunity to reflect on how you will approach the appointment and identify anything you want to prepare or develop further before you arrive on day one.
Set the Example
Things have changed since you were last posted to a Battalion - Enhanced Combat Shooting, Army Combatives, Land Range Safety, First Aid and Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Defence to name but a few. Accept that you will not go into the job knowing everything and you have professional development to undertake. But that’s OK. Seize this opportunity to get to know your team as you use their knowledge and experience to further your own. It is a great chance to use the Junior Non-Commissioned Officers (JNCO) to educate you and for you to observe their strengths and weaknesses. The Battalions are either motorised, mechanised or amphibious. Understand how that impacts the way we as infantry operate. Embrace it and get involved or you will fast become irrelevant. Use the time you now have to get brought up to speed or qualified as best you can before you get there. A good place to start is the Cove; with articles like The vanguard lessons learnt combat team commander during mechanisation you get an understanding of the journey the Battalions have been on in developing a platform-enabled infantry in the last two years.
“Influence is the currency of a sergeant major, both up and down the chain of command. Do not underestimate the influence you now have on the organisation, so lead through example by setting and enforcing standards. Army has invested a significant amount of trust in you to exercise that responsibility.”
WO Grant McFarlane, OAM, Regimental Sergeant Major of the Army.
You are a role model to junior soldiers. If soldiers look at you and think “that’s where I want to be in 15 years” then you have it right. Looking smart and fit is essential when standing in front of soldiers. Your credibility and ability to inspire depend on it.
Use clear and unambiguous language. You don’t need to use big words to sound smart. If you do and you use them out of context, you can actually achieve the opposite of looking smart. Nothing should be left to interpretation: be clear with what it is you want someone to do, by when, and the format in which you want to receive confirmation the task is complete/underway. It makes it very understandable to that subordinate and increases the chances of success. But try hard to avoid telling someone how to do something unless you need to. You don’t want to stifle their creativity and ingenuity.
If a platoon is at the range or training, you expect the platoon sergeant to be there, right? It is the same for company training. If your company is there, you should be there. We have all seen it when the CSM and the OC are in the office whilst the company are at the range. You will agree that they weren’t leading from back in barracks. This is a great way for you to get to know the strengths, weaknesses and character of your team. It also allows you to reinforce your position as the master trainer within the Company. When you’re there, do the training – it keeps your skills fresh and practised, but also reinforces to the Company that what they are doing is worthwhile and relevant training.
Physical Training (PT). Most battalions and brigades have good progressive PT programs already in action. Planning and understanding of PT within units has progressed significantly in the last two years. If you are not as fit as you would like to be now, there is time to get fit before you arrive. Whatever happens, go to PT and put in your best effort. The Company will talk about it if you aren’t there, but they will talk you up if you do go and hook in. The 15th Sergeant Major of the US Army, Daniel Dailey delivered his top ten tips for Sergeant Majors when he took up the appointment. Number 1 was “yelling doesn’t make you skinny, PT does”. He said “Soldiers don’t care if you’re in first place. They just want to see you out there”. He is right!
Invest in the Mess. The Warrant Officers’ and Sergeants’ Mess is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. You can’t buy membership, you have to earn it. Seize the opportunity to use it to network, gain opportunities for your company and educate your sergeants (setting the example). It is also a great place for you to socialise with your peers, which should not be underestimated when building a network of colleagues, but also to get ideas about how you can do business and learn from the mistakes and examples of others.
The Senior Soldier
Know the Army Values and live by them 24/7/365. Everyone, up and down the chain, will compare you against these values. If your behaviour or beliefs conflict with the Army Values, then commence the separation process immediately and do not darken the Company with your presence in the first place. If your subordinates are found wanting in this area, hold them to account and address it appropriately. Do not accept risk when it comes to Values.
It’s been a while since you were a digger. Soldiers may well be motivated by different things than when you were a digger. They may see things very differently. Use this opportunity to get different perspectives and ideas. You, too, have probably changed in the way you look at things due to your experience. Use that to your advantage when dealing with the team. Let them learn from you and your experiences and career so far.
As you know, looking after your soldiers whilst enforcing standards is all about balance. Being perceived as a ‘union rep’ by Battalion Headquarters or as a rigid robot by the Company will undermine your credibility and can be hard to recover from. Only you will know how to get this balance right, but it is definitely worth thinking about. A good way to look at it is, don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to see posted on live media for everyone to see, up and down the chain of command. That way you know you are saying the right thing. Being consistent in your decision-making and direction makes it easy for your subordinates too. Represent your soldiers up the chain of command but represent the organisation down the chain of command. Once a decision is made then enforce it without prejudice; own popular and unpopular decisions equally.
Morale versus mood. The morale of your company is based on how effective and professional it will be to conduct its mission, not necessarily how happy the people in the organisation are. However, you get the best out of soldiers when they are motivated, enthusiastic and feel valued. Start thinking about how you will foster a motivated workforce.
Command Sergeant Major of Forces Command, WO1 Dave Allen says “High morale and fighting spirit are key to winning battles against a near-peer enemy. High morale doesn’t mean ‘keep soldiers happy’ or avoid making difficult decisions that might upset soldiers. A leader must make soldiers feel like they can achieve anything and overcome any odds, by developing confidence, discipline and self-respect within your soldiers they will believe they can triumph over a near-peer enemy.”
Represent the chain of command. You are part of the system. Tell them the why behind what you are enforcing, that way they understand why decisions are being made or why they are being directed to do something. You know it yourself, simply regurgitating policy and doctrine at soldiers will not help them understand. This will improve buy-in and morale within the organisation, which will result in a stronger team.
Represent the soldiers. This doesn’t mean trying hard to be liked by your soldiers. This is a tactical requirement. An example of this could be organising an out-of-cycle hot meal for your recon soldiers that have just come back aboard the ship from a four-day recon task where they are tired, hungry, wet and cold. Getting them first in line for the washing machines and showers to allow them to refit, rest and be ready to go out again makes the organisation more effective but also lets your soldiers know they are a valued capability.
Always remember that in training you are preparing your company for war, not just to fight the Combat Training Centre. Fight for real when you execute anything you do as a company. Don’t let the soldiers cut corners like stashing body armour plates in the vehicle storage bins or packs. Operate as you would in conflict, and make sure you approach After Action Reviews with this attitude.
Sell your subordinates. Soldiers do phenomenal things. Tell people what the soldiers are doing and single out individuals who are performing well. It’s very easy to focus on the 1% of soldiers that are drawing negative attention, let the other 99% know their hard work is appreciated and they are valued. Invite the Regimental Sergeant Major and Commanding Officer to see the training you are doing. But as Commander Forces Command, MAJGEN Chris Field says, “seek no credit”. It’s not about what you are doing, it’s about what your subordinates are doing. To quote Harry S Truman – “it is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
Roles and Responsibilities
The CSM is not a staff officer. They are there to physically enforce and achieve the OC’s direction. If that is true then try to spend less time in your office and more time with the Company. Balancing the real-time administrative requirements of the role with getting out and being physically present is important.
Whilst the above is true, there are some things that require your personal attention, sat behind a desk. Managing discipline at the company level is something you need to get comfortable with and stay on top of. If it is not in your comfort zone, get comfortable with it by the time you are in the job because you may receive legacy issues that you are now required to manage.
Physically achieve the Company Commander’s direction. An example of this could be that the Company’s tracking of personnel and passage of information is not being effective so the OC directs that we reinvigorate morning roll calls. The very next morning the CSM should be out there ensuring that occurs.
“Go to the point of friction”, as simply put by Commander Forces Command. Transitional actions such as a company rendezvous, harbours or leaguers need hands-on guidance and coordination to work. Be out of your vehicle to guide vehicles and people to where they need to be. You are the senior soldier, and should be out there getting hands on and ensuring that these actions are achieved in an efficient and safe manner. Take control of the Company whilst conducting a refit to fight. Let the OC plan the next phase, whilst you restock the company and get it ready for the next mission. This can be reinforced by talking through role clarity with your OC. Everyone should know everyone else’s job, you included.
In his book, McCoy's Marines: The Darkside to Baghdad, John Koopman[i] explains what sergeant majors can do within a warfighting organisation and why they are an invaluable command resource, using real-time experience from the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Director Soldier Career Management Army, COL David McCammon, who put me onto this book, sums up its practical relevance by saying, “His sergeant major’s call sign is ‘Two Eyes’. He is the CO’s second set of eyes within the fight, he does not stay with the CO. But instead is at the CO’s main effort; clearing blockages, reinforcing the Commander’s intent and encouraging the Battalion. They come together to reaffirm what needs to be done, then he gets on and does it.” A great summary of how a sergeant major can be effective in the field.
Esprit-De-Corps. This is your company now, make it the one people want to be in. Build the team ethos. Your soldiers should be proud to serve within your company. If they are not, come up with a plan to fix that. Try to avoid talking about previous units and companies you have served in and comparing it to your current one; your team won’t appreciate it. There is no template to achieve a strong esprit-de-corps within a company. Each team is unique.
Know the Manual for Army Employment (MAE) specific to Employment Category Number (ECN) 343 Rifleman. That way you can effectively propose career management solutions to the RSM that best fit your soldiers . Failing to develop your soldiers’ careers in accordance with the MAE will have a negative impact on that soldier and the organisation. Using “continuity” as a reason for not developing and progressing soldiers is unacceptable. Take the time to talk through career opportunities and future plans with your soldiers. Interview all of your JNCOs early in the year and discuss their five-year plan. Offer guidance where needed to educate them on the career milestones and expected timelines that constitute a career pathway.
Relationships = Influence
Everything you do is about relationships. Those relationships will decide how effective you are at getting things done on behalf of and within your company.
Trust. Good relationships are all about trust. Defining trust is difficult, but a good place to start is Ian Elliot’s model (The death of trust and its resurrection[ii]); he describes trust as (Authenticity + Abilities + Actions) x Alignment. Ask yourself if you are genuine, have the right skills and knowledge, are able to harness these abilities into tangible outcomes, and if you are aligned to the organisation’s values and direction. Does my boss trust me, and, if not, why not? The Army Leader, a UK PME site, recently published an article on trust in command. Whilst aimed at junior commanders, the premise and concept of trust are relevant to senior soldiers and the relationship between you and the Platoon Sergeants.
Company Commander. Work out the Officer Commanding (OC) of your company early on. Determine how best you can complement his command and personality. Establishing a relationship that allows you to comfortably offer a differing opinion to theirs, behind a closed door will set you up for success. But whatever decision they then make, you need to support once the door opens again. LTCOL Anthony Birch, Deputy Commander of the 7th Combat BDE says, “Sergeant Majors need to be fearless and honest in their private advice to commanders and then staunchly aligned to command direction once decisions have been made”. Make the OC’s decisions your decisions when enforcing them “I want you to” sounds stronger and like better leadership than “the OC has said”. When addressing the Company try to have a quick run through of what the OC will talk about, beforehand. That way you don’t step on each other’s toes. If you utter the words “to reiterate what the OC just said”, you should hang your head in shame. Be loyal to your OC. That doesn’t mean blindly agreeing with everything he says, but it does mean being professional and not undermining them at any stage.
You do not have to go everywhere with your OC. It was a highly debated topic when putting this article together with many people having very different opinions. You and your OC will establish the best way for you to work as a command team. But if the OC is waylaid with PAR writing, then leave him in the office and go out to see training without him. Whilst he is planning the next part of the operation, you should be out and about checking the platoons and troops (combined arms) are getting themselves ready. It’s OK for you to not be together at all times.
Company Second-In-Command (2IC). Find out and establish clear lines between who is responsible for what at the Company level. All companies do it slightly differently, in order to play to everyone’s strengths. So, don’t assume it will run just like the last time you were in a company. This relationship was commented on most, by those that contributed to this article, and it was strongly encouraged to develop this relationship in a ’teammate’ type fashion, but it was also unanimously agreed that ‘banter’ was essential to the CSM/2IC relationship.
Platoon Commanders. You are now in a position of influence over junior officers in platoon command. Establish a relationship with them early and be ready to give them advice when they come for it. If they’re not coming to you for advice then ask yourself why. Never betray the confidence of a Platoon Commander to the OC; this will erode the trust the other junior officers in the unit have in you.
Platoon Sergeants. Actively monitor and advise them. You are there to coach them and develop them in their role. You are the Company Master Trainer/Technical subject matter expert, they are for the Platoon. Make this their goal to achieve, show them you value this role. Observe the relationship they have with their platoon commander from a distance. If you are not checking what they are doing, no one is – so do it. Easy to trust, safer to check. Educate them too. Show them what you are doing with your work in the company discipline registers and Prohibitive Substance Testing. It is good development for them in the future. Talk through how battlefield clearance will work, how the reorg phase will play out and how company harbour routine will work – don’t wait for Exercise HAMEL to have that conversation. A great start is Jason Jackson’s Battlefield Clearance Team article.
Section Commanders. Encourage their creativity and ideas. As an Army, we will not develop a competitive edge if we do things the way we’ve always done them. Learn lessons from history, but readily give new ideas a crack. Don’t chastise soldiers for giving something a go and failing. Instead be comfortable in “training to fail”. This is reflected in the Commander Forces Command’s Top Ten. Encourage them to try a different way or congratulate their initiative, or use it as a lesson as to why a certain doctrine works. Engage with section commanders on the management of their section to truly give them ownership of their team. Educate them in why decisions are being made; it helps them understand and relay that understanding to the soldiers in their sections.
Lance Corporals and Privates. Start developing them as leaders now. Waiting until they are section commanders could be too late. This is a great development opportunity for platoon sergeants or corporals.
Battalion Headquarters. There is a balance between getting what you want from your higher headquarters and being perceived as a whinge. The operations cell does not hide resources from you, they will give you things if they can get them. As with all relationships, it is a human endeavour that relies on human interaction. So being perceived as a ‘good bloke’ will help you succeed. You attract more flies with honey…
Other companies. We are all on the same side. You will be judged on your relationship with the other companies in the Battalion. It shows you are thinking about the Battalion team, not just your company. Be a team player!
Attachments – The Combat Team. It is unlikely that you will participate in a major exercise and not be in a combined arms setting. You may even work in a joint environment with other services or nations. Anyone attached to your company, immediately becomes part of the team. Ensure they are looked after as well as the rest of your company is. Making people want to work with you as a team builds trust in your company across the organisation but also makes it a more effective fighting force.
Being selected for the appointment of Company Sergeant Major is a fantastic achievement and you should be proud to hold the appointment. Never forget the trust being placed in you by Army. You will only get to do this once, so enjoy every second of it and be the very best you can be.
Thank you to those that contributed to this article:
MAJGEN Chris Field, AM CSC, Commander Forces Command; WO Grant McFarlane, OAM, Regimental Sergeant Major of the Army; WO1 Dave Allen, OAM, Command Sergeant Major of Forces Command; COL David McCammon, DSM and Bar, Director Soldier Career Management Army; LTCOL Steve Dickie, Commanding Officer, 8/9 RAR; LTCOL Anthony Birch, Deputy Commander 7th Combat Brigade; WO1 Brad Doyle, OAM, RAINF Career Advisor; WO1 Trent Morris, OAM, RAINF Career Advisor; WO1 Jason Watene, CSM, Regimental Sergeant Major 8/9 RAR; WO1 Jason Sten, CSM, Regimental Sergeant Major 2 RAR; MAJ Chris Johnson, Military Strategic Plans; MAJ Jack Westhorpe, Australian Command and Staff College; MAJ Cliff De Laine, Second-In-Command 8/9 RAR; MAJ Pat D’Arcy, Company Commander 8/9 RAR; MAJ Dave Evangelidis, Company Commander 5 RAR; MAJ Leigh Brown, SO2 Combat Arms, HQ CATC; CAPT Chris Freeman, HQ SOCOMD; WO2 Scott Case, Career Advisor; WO2 Dan Nawrocki, RAINF Career Advisor; WO2 Matty Rhodes, Guard Sergeant Major of Australia’s Federation Guard.