This article was a submission to the 2022 Cove Competition.
It happens to all of us. The eerie call of Canberra and a posting to ADFHQ to join the ‘strategic staff.’ For many officers and soldiers, putting it off for as long as possible has been the unspoken element of career management engagements from the moment they were first asked what they wanted to do next. But alas, like bad knees, it eventually catches up with everyone – a randomly titled staff job in an organisation that may, or may not, be in the military.
In all the tumult of a new posting, the requirements of being a good staff officer or NCO are often just assumed. A quick scan of The Cove reveals a myriad of articles, reports and experiences for the all-important first staff job – often at brigade or divisional level. While important, these jobs have an all-encompassing warm embrace of familiarity about them – they are still Army, and Army approaches work. A posting to Canberra to join the strategic staff, particularly the strategic joint staff, is, to put it bluntly, not what many thought they had signed up for. For some it is a posting that must be endured before they can get back to the real world of training for war. For others it is an opportunity to finally put into practice all that strategic thought covered from day one in professional military education. For many it is a make-or-break posting. The hard fact of life is that not everyone is suited to the work. Leading large bodies of soldiers well is unfortunately not directly transferable.
This short article offers my advice on surviving and thriving in the strategic centre. It’s based on multiple postings to the great magnet of Russell or its Canberra surrounds and reflective of the many bruises and scars I’ve gained over the years trying to figure things out as a SO3, SO2, SO1, Director and long-term Acting Director General in the strategic joint staff. My hope is that it may get you started strongly in what is an amazingly complex place to work, and leave better for the experience.
Here’s my guide to surviving ADFHQ with A+.
Accuracy – Former Director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recounts the importance of the ‘Powell Rule’ in effectively portraying information to decision makers to help them reduce uncertainty and better ascertain risk. General Colin Powell, a former National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State outlined his requirements to then Lieutenant General Clapper on taking command of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 1991. The ‘Powell Rule’s’ elegance is its simplicity and wide employability. As Chairman, General Powell directed his chief intelligence officer to provide him information ‘chunked’ into three categories – 'tell me what you know’; ‘tell me what you don’t know’; and ‘tell me what you think’. Then Lieutenant General Clapper quickly learned he needed to clearly distinguish between those categories in his provision of information so that time-poor and information-overloaded decision makers were best supported and didn’t run out to the President focused only on his thoughts.
The ‘Powell Rule’ underpins everything a good strategic staff officer does. At every level, those above you want facts (what you know and what you don’t know) but they also want you to value-add (what you think). It is your job to ensure that they clearly understand the difference in every engagement, whether a written brief, a PowerPoint slide or a verbal update. Accuracy in information, the currency of the strategic centre, is paramount. A misstep has significant real-world consequences for the organisation and an immediate loss of trust in you. Framing everything with the ‘Powell Rule’ allows you to articulate information in a way that accuracy is assured.
Anticipation – There is technique employed across some areas of the Defence enterprise and the Interagency known as Anticipatory Analysis. In intelligence fields it is considered an advanced technique and focuses on getting ahead of events. Anticipatory Analysis is defined as: using thought, intuition, foreknowledge, knowledge, experience or prescience to realise in advance what the adversary or competitor might do, and testing, confirming, or denying that hypothesis or postulate. Replace ‘adversary or competitor might do’ with ‘boss might need’ and you have uncovered the key to success as a strategic staff officer – anticipation. Every commander or boss is different and most will enjoy the approaches of at least two different individuals in a single posting. The last part of the definition is where you can work quickly to establish and sustain your value – testing, confirming or denying. Key is identifying the small cues, picking up the repeated themes or messages or rapidly learning from direct feedback. The sooner you arm yourself with the way your boss works, the sooner you will reap the benefits of anticipation – initiative.
The more trusted you are in enabling your boss with decision-support tools meeting their requirements for consultation, input and dare I say it, format, style and even colour, the sooner your responsive staff job becomes dynamic, inclusive and career-building. The most important thing you can do as a strategic-level staff officer is make complex information easily understood with risks, including risks associated with not making a decision, clear. If you can crack this requirement, a blend of process, deep knowledge and creativity, very quickly your ability to inject ideas into the mix are not just accepted, but highly valued. Some things you will learn through personal interaction. Some you will learn from the backseat as your boss engages with others. Some you will learn from peers in other areas of ADFHQ where work from your area is considered. Take it all in. But do it quickly. Reduce the variables by anticipating requirements and ensuring the decisions your boss seeks are best enabled.
Awareness – Those fears you had about Russell not being the army are mostly right. It is not – well not the tactical, comfortable, army we all love anyway. There are two things that make ADFHQ distinctly different to experiences at the tactical and operational levels. Firstly, unless you are in Army Headquarters itself, you are in the minority. Secondly, rank, previous experience and hard-won knowledge do not hold the same currency for most in Russell compared to life in a unit, brigade or even division. Welcome to ‘One Defence’. Every posting cycle there will be a few who try to bend Canberra to their will and make it more reflective of life in the real army. Similarly, there will be few that go the other way and overcompensate for new-found freedoms. The sweet spot, as it is for most things, is somewhere in the middle. Finding that middle ground which ensures greatest effectiveness requires awareness.
Core to that awareness is understanding the Australian Public Service (APS). Army is an organisation of hierarchies within hierarchies. Our structure, equipment, resourcing and prioritisation is essentially a series of decisions about main and supporting efforts. These decisions also impact our culture – a combat officer has more cachet than a combat service support officer. The APS is same-same, but different. In many respects the informal hierarchy across the APS is more pronounced with policy officers clearly the top of the tree. Status associated with rank or position, surprisingly, is far more evident across most of the APS. While most will have heard the many APS-ADF rank equivalency stories, it is ultimately a one-way deal. The first day a post-command lieutenant colonel with 20-odd years’ experience is told 'no' by an acting-APS6 policy officer who was a graduate two years ago is a cultural clash fit for a Homeric classic. It happens every day. Surviving these encounters with good grace is instrumental to a successful tour.
Aperture – From the moment we joined, there has been an overriding requirement to think about the ‘big picture’ and how our part of the enterprise nests within it. We enjoy, as officers, warrant officers, and NCOs a consecutive series of professional development courses that add stronger foundations to our careers. These foundations allow us to move from the tactical, through the operational and into the strategic. A ‘national security’ aperture is pretty wide for most by the time Russell calls. Our APS colleagues, as a whole, do not enjoy the same professional education opportunities. A very small number will join us on long courses at the Australian Defence College. Others will avail themselves of short courses at the National Security College. An even smaller number will enjoy courses with allies and partners. The vast majority rely on academic qualifications, job-specific training and experience. It is only once they break into the Senior Executive Service that concerted efforts to develop leadership, for example, are embarked on. Their aperture on national security however is equally wide, if not wider. The core difference though is the aspect of the vista we focus on when looking through that national security window. In both camps our window could do with a good clean. Some of our view is much clearer (military things) than the rest (system of Government and broader, non-destructive, national security things) but it remains an expansive vista. Your APS colleagues have a clearer view of different aspects.
Being able to step back and align/overlay those apertures as best as possible leads to greatest success in progressing ideas and work. It ensures the broadest range of opportunities to address an issue make the final cut giving those in the echelons below the greatest freedom of action. This requirement is not new. At the height of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland the requirement for greater integration between UK security forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) became increasingly apparent. A senior member of the UK intelligence community flew into the area of operations and gave a simple, but very effective direction to his team – “If necessarily, you come up with a bright idea, then … make sure the RUC man at your level that you’re dealing with thinks he had that idea in the first place and then it’ll work.” Bringing your knowledge, skills and experience into the staff work of Russell requires alignment of aperture. Do it right and the whole organisation benefits from greater freedom of action that addresses issues both upstream and downstream from problem being solved.
Advocacy – If you are posting into a director or director general’s role your leadership obligations do not stop. In fact, they probably become more difficult because the normally associated accountability and responsibility of leadership roles is, for the most part, held at a much higher level. The one place where you can have an absolute impact is on your team members. We are blessed to be in an organisation that the difference between good and excellent in terms of our people is often difficult to judge. Most importantly the vast majority of our people operate at this positive end of the scale. Those joining the strategic joint staff have usually been selected for their role based on future potential. It is here that advocacy is key. Ensuring the smart people that work in and around you gain maximum benefit from the posting, even if it comes at personal cost to yourself, epitomises leadership in a staff environment. It applies equally to military and APS personnel. It is never about you. It is always about your team.
Being able to advocate for the professional development of your team is a direct result of building trust. It is why accuracy and anticipation top the A+ list. Those two attributes, more than anything else set an environment where you, and by extension your team, are trusted. This trust opens doors. It allows young officers to sit in on calls with most senior military leaders in the world. It lets your staff use their knowledge, skills and experiences to greatest effect because of the reputation you have generated in the cloistered environment of Russell. Most importantly though it means a staff job is not a burden that must be ticked before returning to the warm embrace of tactical Army and instead becomes core to unlocking that future potential DOCM or SCMA have identified. Guiding and mentoring the smart people that work for you rather than directing and controlling them gives the greatest opportunity for the future, even if it means you must take on some of the heat if the final product is not quite right the first time around. It means leaving your personal foibles on words or design at the door and focusing on only those things you know engage your boss. Giving the team freedom to run on intent and use their networks for creative solutions is what makes centralisation in Russell highly effective if you allow it to happen. Ensuring your team understand the privilege they are being granted through access to sensitive discussions and managing it appropriately is the only path to success.
Russell can unfortunately become a mechanistic production line, the much-maligned staff churn, if you don’t take positive steps. Gaining early agreement that you will bring relevant staff to meetings, have them brief their work and gain the direct feedback from decision makers is critical. Doing so means those decision makers understand you are intimately involved in seeing work through but also focused on developing your team. They will hold you responsible but engage closely and constructively with your team. Our senior leaders love nothing more than to use these simple everyday engagements as learning and development opportunities. Taking personal risk to advocate for the professional development of your staff at every opportunity is one of the ways you can leave Russell everyday thinking you made a positive difference.
Adaptability – Seems strange to include a trait or behaviour that forms a core element of annual reporting for officers and soldiers, but there are some who struggle with the loss of routine associated with barracks life in a unit. No longer are you training for a possibility. Your staff work is real and is affected by a range of external influences. You are, to use an army allegory, in contact, everyday. Reprioritisation is constant in all but a very few roles. The requirement to keep across work within your branch, division and at times, group, because it could suddenly come to your team is important. The ability to drop one task, quickly pick up another and then return to the original work within changing deadlines only increases the higher the echelon. While the work is expansive, the people to do it are far less. Directors are on the tools alleviating the load from their limited staff. Often directors general close the door and write comprehensive briefs from scratch. Solely acting as a clearance officer for the work of your team does not work and will quickly build resentment. Everybody fights. Adaptability is core to excelling.
A sub-element of adaptability is acceptance. Before arriving at the strategic centre, the ability to visualise effort through to effect for work you have been involved in is very clear. Planning a complex exercise to increase the combined arms potential of your soldiers, focusing on enhanced marksmanship or an intensive period of strength and conditioning for soldiers. These all have tangible outcomes that you can measure and gain a sense of accomplishment in. Much work in the strategic centre seemingly ‘disappears’ into the bureaucracy. Those tasks that draw the closest scrutiny during development very quickly enter echelons and orbits that you are not intimately involved in. A lot depends on the approach of your boss as to how much you actually ‘know’. In some cases you may be supporting work that is underway at a higher classification. In others it may be something that the senior leadership has identified as required to advance a long running discussion within whole-of-government circles. The outcome is often not action but increased understanding. The tangible result is often not instantly observable. It requires a real mindset shift that is perhaps one of the greatest requirements for excelling in Russell. Acceptance that you are no longer the lynchpin of work you do is core to adaptability.
Authenticity – Russell can do funny things to some people. Perhaps it is the proximity to the seat of Australia’s national power, or the perceived opportunity it provides in becoming ‘known’ among senior leaders, but some experiencing the strategic centre for the first time use it as an opportunity to instantly ‘reinvent’ themselves. Don’t. Inauthentic behaviour stands out. Particularly in an army the size of ours where we are all only one or two steps removed from someone we know, well. Senior leaders quickly distinguish between ‘nervous desire to make sure everything is right’ and ‘orchestrated efforts to individually impress’. They have, as the old saying goes, seen it all before. The place where people really come undone is when they place self before team. And it unfortunately happens. A lot.
The other aspect of inauthenticity that causes immediate issues in the strategic centre is an inclination by some to become their boss. Dropping a name to achieve an outcome is highly effective and makes you look efficient but must be used sparingly – and only with the agreement of your boss. Russell’s corridors echo with time-critical demands. Adding to that cacophony by dropping the rank or position of your boss, unless they have specifically requested something, nearly always backfires. Not surprisingly the professional network that you have with peers plays out at every rank level and our seniors talk, regularly. Your boss will soon know that their name has been dropped in vain, often to your detriment. Nothing marshals antibodies to your presence like inauthenticity. Live those stated values and behaviours. Everyone is watching, always.