Reflecting on Part-Time Sub-Unit CommandBy Aaron P. Jackson August 21, 2020
When I found out that I was being posted as Officer Commanding (OC) of an Australian Army Reserve Infantry Company at the start of last year, part of my preparation involved searching for as many publications as I could find about the experiences of others in the same appointment. Where possible I wanted to learn from those who have come before me, rather than at the cost of making my own mistakes. Although I found some publications that discuss command in full time sub-units, or in allied part-time sub-units, I found nothing specifically discussing part time sub-unit command in the Australian Army Reserve. I am therefore hoping that this article will help to fill this gap for future part time sub-unit commanders in the Australian Army Reserve who are seeking to learn from others who have come before them. The article contains a list of observations that I have recorded from time-to-time during the first eighteen months of my sub-unit command posting. Some observations regard things that I found worked; others regard things that I found did not.
Preparation: before taking command
Read. I found as many publications to read as I could about sub-unit command. As mentioned above, what I found was written to address a full time or allied context, and for everything I read I therefore had to ask, ‘which parts of this is likely to apply to my sub-unit and me?’. Once I had satisfied myself with the answer to this question, I was able to get some good learning points from several publications. I have kept copies of, and I still add to and occasionally revisit, the list of publications that I found useful. To kick-start your own reading, a list of links to the online papers that I have found most useful is at the end of this article. The '2011 OC’s Handbook', published by the Army Lessons, is also a very useful resource (AKC's Army Lessons' Command Handbooks page is available on the DPN).
Seek guidance from past OCs and Commanding Officers (COs) that you respect. During my career I am fortunate to have served under some very good OCs and COs. In addition to contemplating what it was I thought made them good, which I might want to emulate, I contacted several of them to directly seek their guidance. I then put their replies to my emails into a folder that I could revisit as required. Frankly, this guidance was more useful to me than any of the guidance I found in the articles I read, because it was more immediately applicable to the requirements of my own posting in a part-time Australian Army Reserve sub-unit. This course of action is therefore something I strongly recommend to anyone before they post into sub-unit command. Several of the useful points of guidance that I received are echoed in the points listed in this paper and it behoves me to thank those who set me up for success by taking the time to provide me with your good advice (you know who you are; thank you).
Make as much time for handover as possible and get things in writing. I was fortunate to get a well-prepared handover brief from my predecessor, as well as being able to visit the unit I was posting into on three occasions over a two-month period before my posting started. I consider this to be one of the advantages the Army Reserve has—Reserve personnel are usually posted to other units in their home city (rather than moving interstate as Regular Army personnel often do between postings). This ‘same city advantage’ enables a face-to-face handover to occur early. Pursue this opportunity if you get it. A few visits to my new unit were much more beneficial to me than any number of emails and phone calls would have been.
On their own initiative, my predecessor gave me a comprehensive PowerPoint brief in addition to introducing me to personnel within the unit and showing me around. I didn’t realise how useful this would be at the time they gave me a copy of the brief, but I found out the value of that slide deck during my first year of command when certain issues re-emerged several months after having seemingly disappeared. Being able to revisit the information contained in the handover slides was sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly useful, and my access to this depth of information would not have been possible if I had simply been taking notes during a verbal briefing or a meeting. I therefore recommend to any incoming OC that they actively seek a written handover brief if one is not readily offered to them.
Stepping up: the first few months
It begins with a ‘drink from the fire hose’. No matter how good the handover – I had a good one – the first few weeks will still feel like trying to drink from the proverbial fire hose. No matter how well prepared you are, there is a big difference between reading about it or being briefed about it, and living it. I found the best way to get through the first month or so was to be honest with my command team about what I thought I knew and did not know, and to ask them to fill in the blanks for me as we went. The members of the command team who were posted to the unit the previous year understood, assisted me and were especially useful in highlighting to me what I didn’t know that I didn’t yet know. They also gave me the benefit of the doubt a few times when I needed something that seems simple in hindsight to be explained to me like I was a fifth-grader.
My peers were also very supportive in similar ways during this period. Plus, they gave me a different perspective to that of my sub-unit command team members by virtue of their different rank, roles and experiences. Throughout my time as a sub-unit commander to date, picking up the phone and calling one of the other sub-unit commanders or, in the case of those located on the same base, going for a personal chat, has usually been quite informative and well worth the time. But this has never been more important or more useful than it was during my first month or so in command.
It helped me not to have an agenda before I began my posting. There is a school of thought that says that an incoming commander ought to have some idea of what they want their organisation to achieve and that they should work towards achieving this from day one. I could not disagree more strongly. From the outset I intentionally did not have a goal beyond ‘succeed’, and it took me at least a few months to figure out what that even meant. I took the time after my posting began to: gauge the unit’s and sub-unit’s existing culture, figure out which aspects I wanted to maintain and which to change, and how to do this; determine what my CO and subordinates needed and expected from me and how to achieve it; figure out the nature of the key personalities and relationships, and the best approach to working within the unit; and then finally to develop a vision and command style that was able to meet to the greatest possible extent all of the (sometimes competing) requirements placed upon the sub-unit.
Taking this time resulted in a period during which it appeared to some that I was being reactive rather than proactive, and perhaps even that I had a weak command presence. This perception was primarily the case outside of my sub-unit and I had not anticipated it. Fortunately, I received feedback about these perceptions in time to be able to act to change them before developing a poor reputation that may have stuck. The lesson I took from this is the need to better manage expectations from the outset when (if?) I next post into a command appointment. Looking back, I consider the short-term reputational sacrifice to have been worthwhile, but it was nevertheless a risk I could have done more to mitigate against.
This notwithstanding, not initially having an agenda allowed me to develop a comprehensive situational understanding before making my mind up about what issues to tackle and how. As a result, acting was much easier and smoother when I finally did set the agenda for what to achieve during the year. This approach arguably prevented me from having to make as many ‘post H-hour’ adjustments as would have been the case if I had set an agenda immediately upon commencement of my posting.
The utility of a command philosophy at sub-unit level is contextual. Developing a command philosophy is primarily the remit of a unit CO. However, the concept is taught at the All Corps Majors Course (at least it was when I did this course) and it can be useful within a sub-unit on some occasions. An OC I previously worked for had promulgated a command philosophy that had helped their sub-unit to work as a team towards common goals, and some of the advice I received indicated that this had been the case for other OCs as well. I developed my own command philosophy as part of my preparation for the posting, and at the first training activity I attended as OC I spoke to the sub-unit to explain it. It was:
1. add capability
2. be ethical
3. be brilliant at the basics
4. keep learning.
This was a useful way to explain my initial expectations to the soldiers in the sub-unit. However, I subsequently learned (later on the same day) that the CO not only had their own command philosophy, but that they tended to refer to it frequently in their interactions with unit members. I realised then what I should have earlier: that my own previous OC who had effectively implemented a command philosophy did so within a sub-unit that was physically dislocated from the rest of the unit, and in a unit wherein the CO had not promulgated their own command philosophy. In that context, a sub-unit command philosophy was a good way to provide unity of purpose and direction to company members. In the context of my own sub-unit, however, it was better that I got behind the CO’s command philosophy rather than potentially causing confusion by making my soldiers have to remember yet another list of points! I have not mentioned my command philosophy to my soldiers again, and I now realise that the utility of this concept at sub-unit level is dependent on the broader context within the unit.
Developing my own command philosophy was not a waste of time and I continue to use it to check my performance against the kind of commander I want to be. Am I living up to my own expectations as contained in my command philosophy? I periodically revisit this question and my command philosophy has accordingly become useful to my internal reflections upon my own conduct. To this end I had added three additional points to the philosophy, which I find are useful reminders for me:
5. revel in your time
6. remember that anyone, including you, can be replaced at any time
7. you are only as good as the last thing that you did.
There is noticeably much less direct contact with soldiers. Once appointed OC, I noticed almost immediately that my direct contact with soldiers at the rank of Corporal and below was significantly less than it previously had been. This is even the case relative to my time as a Company Second-in-Command. This situation is the result of the OC being the only position in the company that has at least one layer in the formal chain of command between it and everyone in the Company below the rank of Warrant Officer.
By itself, this situation is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage; which it will be depends on how it is managed. In my own case, I have tried to offset the lack of formal direct contact by ensuring that I am informally accessible as often as possible to my junior personnel, while at the same time balancing this against the need to avoid undermining the formal authority of my subordinate commanders. I do this by attending the unit all ranks mess whenever it is open after a Tuesday parade night (in my unit this is about once a month) and, when I’m not in a rush, by stopping in corridors to chat with soldiers for a few minutes instead of just exchanging pleasantries as we pass one another. This informal interaction has been a good way for me to build rapport with junior members of the company and to allow them to voice their opinions and concerns directly to me, without undermining the formal chain of command. So far this approach to creating opportunities for informal engagement appears to be working to my advantage.
It takes time to get used to command again. Before commencing my posting as OC, the last time that I had been in a command appointment was as a platoon commander in 2012. The last time that I worked in an Army Reserve sub-unit was as a Second-in-Command in 2015. Since then, I have served in instructional and staff postings. Although these gave me a great deal of exposure to the ‘bigger picture’ outside of a sub-unit, I had unknowingly changed my personal style to suit the context of either instructing or working on a team with other staff officers. Both roles require a different approach than commanding does and it took me a few months to warm back up to commanding.
Specifically, I noticed that when in command one must be more cautious when voicing ideas. I prefer planning collaboratively whenever possible. Some of my subordinates, the Lieutenants in particular, were not used to this approach. As a result, some ideas that I discussed with them to seek feedback were taken to be instructions, and implemented, while I was still yet to decide upon a preferred course of action. The lesson I learned from this is to combine a little more restraint in what I chose to discuss with stating clearly upfront whether I am seeking to discuss an idea or am giving an instruction. Accordingly, after an initial period of getting used to working with each other, I changed my approach and this issue was resolved.
Steady state: observations about day-to-day activities
The constant dual up-and-down tension inherent in middle management is strong at OC level. As an OC I have much less freedom of action than I had thought that I would. Before I posted in, I thought that once my initial period of developing a thorough situational understanding was over I would be able to develop and execute a comprehensive sub-unit training program based on the strengths and weaknesses of my personnel. Instead, what I have found is that most of my time is spent either being an O4-level signature block for the vast volume of paperwork that travels from my subordinates up the chain of command to battalion headquarters and beyond, or ensuring that my company meets the training and administrative requirements set by battalion or higher level headquarters.
Even with the support of a dedicated and proactive Second-in-Command, Company Sergeant Major and Training Warrant Officer, these two things take up at least eighty percent of my parade time. Tuesday parade nights are usually purely reactionary: there are often meetings that I need to attend during the parade night, and it can take more than three hours just for me to action the emails I receive each week. This is not simply a matter of poor time management on my part either. Most of the emails that I receive are very important to someone: a Private nominating to attend a promotion course; the Commanding Officer directing me to meet a new mandatory training requirement that they are accountable for implementing; or anything in between. The tongue-in-cheek saying I’ve heard on occasion that the Army Reserve is ‘a part time Army with a full-time admin load’ did not come about for nothing! The best I can usually do is prioritise the correspondence by its urgency. There is no practical way to ignore any of this correspondence without potentially significant adverse consequences for someone.
Regarding the sub-unit training program, the requirement to train personnel in preparation for unit-level training activities has greatly limited my own freedom to set the direction of this program. Mandatory training requirements, which seem to grow each year, have been an additional limitation to my own freedom of action to determine how to use my Company’s training time.
The lesson here is that one needs to become good at accurately anticipating what the future requirements from higher levels will be, and then shape the sub-unit training program considering this anticipation. I have achieved this largely by referring to the unit training program (and, in the readying year, the Battlegroup Jacka exercise schedule) several months in advance, and assessing what lead-up training is likely to be needed for scheduled activities. This has been accompanied by the need to be vigilant in adjusting my sub-unit’s training program as higher plans are themselves adjusted. The art of sub-unit command in this area is therefore aligning my own execution as closely as possible to a higher commander’s intent. It is not in setting the intent itself, which was my initial (incorrect) expectation.
Find time to be proactive outside of Tuesday parade nights. As elaborated above, it is difficult for me to do anything on a Tuesday parade night beyond attending meetings and reacting to incoming correspondence. As a result, my advice is to plan deliberately to be reactionary on Tuesday parade nights. This generates another need, which is to plan time outside of parade nights to be proactive in managing the sub-unit. I did not achieve this until the second half of my first year in command, and I did it by taking a day a week off of my civilian job on Army Reserve leave for a period of about three months. This gave me a chance to be proactive in shaping the sub-unit’s activities. During this period I was able to realign the sub-unit training program in anticipation of higher’s intent, check up on platoon commander notebooks and get to know my subordinates better, and, in a team with key sub-unit staff, complete the planning for more detailed sub-unit activities including training weekends.
It is always hard for Reservists to make this additional time to be proactive, but it is nevertheless vital if one is to be anything other than reactionary. For me, an annual cycle seems to be feasible, but constant additional time off from work does not. After the three months in which I was able to take an additional day a week off of work for Army, there was another six months wherein I was not able to do this. The result was that I again became reactionary during this period. This on-again-off-again approach is better than nothing but is certainly not ideal. For me, the compromise has been necessary to achieve a feasible work-life-Army balance. I have had to use my proactive periods to set things up for the times when I again need to focus on my civilian work, and vice versa. Regardless of how each Army Reserve sub-unit commander is able to achieve it—the situation will be different for everyone—finding time outside of Tuesday parade nights to be proactive is vital to success.
Regularly use non-monetary incentives to reward. In the Australian military honours and awards system, medals for conspicuous conduct are relatively rare, as are commendations, which take the form of badges that are worn on the right-hand side of the ceremonial uniform. Commendations need to be approved by an officer with the minimum rank of Major General (or equivalent). As a result, most high performing personnel go through their careers without ever receiving these forms of recognition. Over the years, I have seen many soldiers and junior officers perform above the required standard, though not so far above as to warrant a commendation signed off by a two-star. Battalion and company level awards, such as trophies or plaques presented to the best performing soldier, non-commissioned officer or officer each year, go only part of the way towards giving as much public recognition as I would like to see given.
When appointed OC, I considered what I could do at my level to help increase the recognition my personnel receive. The answer was a US-inspired practice: the challenge coin. Mid-way through my first year as OC, I designed, and had made, a unique, numbered B Company challenge coin. I then instituted a system of awarding these along with ‘OC’s certificates of appreciation’ to high performing company members. This is in addition to annual awards for the best performers in the sub-unit at each rank level. Members of the sub-unit can now ‘earn the B Company coin’ for above-average performance in a range of circumstances. Although not an official Defence or Army award, this has been a good way for me to be able to locally recognise and reward good performance within the company across a range of areas. Although other OC’s need not copy this exact system, I urge anyone in the role to consider how they use non-monetary incentives for their subordinates, and to seek a way to be proactive in publicly recognising and rewarding good performance wherever possible.
Use the military discipline system when it is appropriate to do so. Some Army Reserve officers seem to me to be hesitant to use the military discipline system. There are a few possible reasons for this, although I note that these are anecdotal. First, despite being taught how to use the military discipline system on promotion courses, there is often a time-lag of years between when these courses are completed and when Reservists are posted into command roles where they may need to employ the system. This leads to skill fade. Second, there seems to be a perception that using the military discipline system in the part-time context could act as a deterrent to soldiers parading in the future. In other words, using the discipline system might result in soldiers charged or infringed deciding not to parade again thereafter. To reiterate, these are my own anecdotal observations. Regardless of their accuracy or otherwise, there does seem to be a tendency to only take formal disciplinary measures in the part-time context when there has been a negligent or unauthorised discharge of a weapon, or when part time personnel are serving on a Continuous Full Time Service contract.
One of the things I did in the first year of my appointment was use the disciplinary system, the Discipline Officer and infringements component in particular. My use of this system was not excessive: members of my sub-unit were infringed on four occasions in the year, and the outcome on two occasions was a reprimand. This was done as a cautionary measure to deter future instances of the same behaviour. In all four cases, I found that this deterrent worked for all members of the sub-unit, not just for the member who was infringed.
Accordingly, I recommend the use of the military discipline system in the part time context, and offer the following guidance for its use. First, review the military discipline law modules of your promotion courses when you do your handover, so that your knowledge is refreshed. Second, your Company Sergeant Major, Training Warrant Officer and the unit Regimental Sergeant Major are not only trained in the discipline system, but are the subject matter experts within your unit. Seek their guidance and advice early, and listen to it. Third, be clear with soldiers about expectations, and ensure that the system is used evenly, consistently and fairly. The Discipline Officer system in particular is very useful in the part-time context, providing it is used correctly.
The easiest way to gain and maintain respect is to be fit, and to ‘put in’ during physical training. There is a different fitness requirement when commanding a part-time Infantry sub-unit than there is being on a headquarters staff. You don’t need to be the fittest person in the sub-unit, but you do need to maintain a good level of fitness. A 21-year-old soldier may not yet understand what joint pain and old injuries are, and their empathy for these ailments is likely to be nil. They will be watching you during physical training and judging you. Being reasonably fit is therefore important, and enhancing my command effectiveness has become a major incentive for the personal physical training that I do outside of Army parade times.
Perhaps even more important is to ensure that I ‘put in’ to the best of my abilities during physical training sessions. This is also a basic component of leading from the front. I have not been able to get to many of the physical training sessions that my soldiers have done, due to the other demands of my appointment—for example, I frequently miss Tuesday night physical training sessions due to having to attend meetings. But I keep fit in my own time and try to get to physical training whenever I can, as it is a good opportunity to be visible to soldiers, to interact with them directly, and to earn their respect by stepping-up to the same physical challenges as them. Being fit and putting in to the best of one’s abilities during physical training is a basic requirement for success as an OC.
Mentor whoever shows up and wants to listen, whenever you have the time. In addition to the guidance one would expect an OC to pass on to personnel within their own company, I have also unofficially mentored half a dozen other personnel who found and connected me with me in various ways. This situation did not come about by deliberate design. Instead it happened by a series of accidents, and I am glad that it did because it allows me to pass my knowledge on and to assist junior personnel as best I can, and also to learn from people outside of my own Corps and, in one case, Service. I recommend being open to the possibility of mentoring anyone who reaches out to you, providing you have the time to do so. Of course, not everyone wants to be mentored and different mentees seek different levels of mentoring, including different frequency of contact and assistance or advice about different issues. Allow the mentee to set the type and frequency of contact you have, and seek to learn as well as to guide. This approach has worked for me so far and mentoring has been an unexpected yet rewarding part of my command experience.
Make an Outlook folder and fill it with handy links. Send yourself an email with a link to any useful internet or intranet site, or any Objective reference that you may need to access regularly or find at short notice. Make a folder in your Outlook archive and save these emails in the folder. Clearly label the subject line and type as many related keywords as you can think of into the email text. When you need to find a link in a hurry, go into the folder and type a keyword into the search field. This simple practice has saved me a huge amount of time because I don’t have to navigate through Objective and the intranet every time I need to find something. Saving links in this way in addition to saving them in my Internet Explorer favourites and Objective ‘Handy’ has enabled me to find related Objective, intranet and internet links in a single search of one location, and to find things using related keywords rather than needing to remember specific file or site names. I regret that I only started doing this in the second half of my first year in command and I wish that I had started sooner.
Leadership requires a bespoke approach when working in small teams comprised of other leaders. I most frequently interact with my ‘command team’—the members of my sub-unit at the rank of Sergeant and above. In addition to individual interactions, we meet in small groups on an as-required basis, and weekly for a coordination conference prior to our Tuesday parade nights. At this level, and with a team of ten people, leadership requires a different approach than it does when dealing with a larger team or presenting to a larger group. In the context of part time parading in barracks, it also requires a different approach than leadership in the field.
The best thing I can do is to listen and to consider the context that applies to each individual team member. I try to adapt my response to suit the member or members of the team that I am addressing. To give a simple example, the Warrant Officers and Lieutenants in my Company all require at certain times either my guidance or for me to make decisions. But each has a different expectation of how I will do so, and of how I will communicate this with them. I have found that personnel at all ranks like being listened to, but that Warrant Officers expect that thereafter I will make a timely decision, clearly and concisely communicate it, and allocate resources to support them. Usually they identify and request the resources they will need, and recommend at least one course of action for me to consider. Lieutenants prefer it when I am more conversational, explain the rationale of my decisions in more detail, and they also tend to be less likely to ask for all of the resources they need even if they do propose possible courses of action, so it is often useful to help them to identify these through a two-way conversation. Within each of these rank bands each individual team member also has their own preferred approach, too.
I also interact regularly with my peers, the other Majors in the unit, and empathy combined with a bespoke approach has also helped to build effective working relationships with them. My current unit includes two Infantry sub-units, a Cavalry sub-unit and a Combat Engineers sub-unit. The non-Infantry sub-units have very different requirements due mainly to the high number of platforms they rely upon to fulfil their roles. This results in them having a higher training requirement (it requires more courses to qualify a Cavalry Scout or a Combat Engineer than it does a Rifleman), and they need to spend more time doing tasks such as maintenance. They also need to conduct detailed planning further in advance of activities, to enable their increased logistics requirements to be met. The Combat Engineers cannot change a chain sawing training activity into a road building activity at the eleventh hour in the way I can change a defensive-focused field training weekend into an offensive-focused one, for example. Even the other Infantry sub-unit in my unit functions differently to mine, as it is regional and dispersed whereas my sub-unit is located in a single city.
Developing an understanding of the different needs and perspectives of my peers has enabled me to work much better with them. Accommodating their requirements as often as possible helps to both generate good will for occasions when I need their assistance, and to generate understanding on occasions when we are not able to support one another. Judging when to lead and when to follow is an important component of this. A strong, mutually-supportive team at the OC level also assists the CO in the management of the unit, and proactively working with the other OCs in the unit is therefore an important part of my role. Empathy enables a bespoke leadership approach, which is the key to building good relationships with other leaders.
Informal chats are one of the most underestimated command tools. Part way through my first year as OC, a coffee shop opened on the base I am posted to. Prior to this I had never realised how many people work on the same base as me. This is because the base is almost exclusively host to Army Reserve units, and as a result there tends to only be a small cadre staff at each unit during the business week. Yet all of these staffs combined number many more personnel than one would expect, and the new coffee shop tended to draw them out. As a result, bumping into people in the coffee shop has become a communication enabler between different units whose staff would usually only communicate via emails or phone calls.
Even though work itself is not usually discussed at the coffee shop, the act of chatting informally over a brew, or even just while waiting in line, facilitates good will and builds informal connections and a professional network. This is something the Army used to be very good at, when ‘mornos’ in messes was a daily occurrence. It is also something we seem to have lost in the last few decades as people have gotten busier and as mornos within messes seems to have progressively disappeared (presumably to save costs). In addition to having good coffee, the coffee shop has a significant advantage over mornos at a mess: all ranks can attend. In the Army Reserve this is especially important, as small Regular Army cadre staffs tend to be made up of people at all rank levels but of very few within any particular rank level. Getting teams together in an all-ranks environment is therefore important. Different ranks have different jobs, and building rapport over a brew with a Private soldier is as useful to successful professional networking as is building rapport with brigade-level Principal Staff Officers. Informal chats over a brew facilitate effective subsequent cooperation over formal work matters, and I therefore recommend making time for these chats.
Keep your friends close and your enemies closer… until your enemies become your friends. I was told during my handover that the year before I posted into my unit some tensions had formed between battalion headquarters staff and sub-unit staff, and in one of the first conversations I had with my CO they made it clear that they did not want these tensions to continue within their unit. It seemed to me that the cause of the problem was a lack of empathy between sub-unit and unit headquarters staffs. It was also evident that entrenched attitudes on both sides were not going to change easily. In this case I saw being newly posted into the unit as an advantage, because my own attitude could not yet be entrenched and everyone realised this.
From the start of my posting I deliberately took an approach that involved trying to develop an understanding of why battalion headquarters staff were interacting with the sub-units in the way that they were, and of visibly completing all tasks they gave to my sub-unit to the best of our abilities, even on occasions when these tasks seemed unreasonable or when it was felt within my sub-unit that a task we were given was inappropriately allocated to us. I had to get my own sub-unit command team on board to help me achieve this approach, which was not always easy.
But the approach worked and within about four months battalion headquarters staff had started to appreciate that my sub-unit command team was making an effort to assist them. Once they noticed this changed approach, they became more open to discussing the situation and tensions. Having gotten to a point where we could openly discuss these together without being in a mutually antagonistic environment, my sub-unit staff and the battalion headquarters staff were able to develop and implement solutions that helped both parties. To paraphrase an old saying, by keeping our friends close and our ‘enemies’ closer, these enemies eventually became our friends, and together we created a better work environment.
You need to look outwards more than anyone else in the sub-unit. You also need to look inwards, but as OC you have a staff to do this too and their jobs are to manage different parts of the sub-unit on your behalf and within the framework of your guidance and direction. It is not their job to look outwards; that is what you are there for. Once you have given enough guidance and resources to enable your subordinates to do their job, try to leave them alone to do it. This will have the benefit of freeing your time to look outwards, which frequently takes the form of attending meetings with personnel from unit headquarters, planning future sub-unit events, and getting support for these events from the myriad external stakeholders whose support you will need.
Sometimes looking outwards will also take the form of ‘fallout management’, or of giving your staff top cover when appropriate. The latter situation is usually followed by resolving an issue internally once the top cover has been given. Generally I’ve been able to identify these requirements only as a situation I could not have foreseen has emerged. As a result, it is difficult to proactively manage fallout. It is therefore vital to conduct a quick appraisal of the situation and to identify who you think needs to be informed about it, in addition to identifying what actions you need to take. As the old saying goes, ‘bad new doesn’t get better with time’. Managing bad news appropriately is part of looking outwards.
Whenever possible consult before delegating. I know that I can’t do everything myself, and I have a talented and committed command team supporting me. This is the first posting in my career where I have such a broad range of options when it comes to delegating tasks to subordinates. However, in addition to their own military tasks and responsibilities, these subordinates also have their own civilian careers and families to manage. Sometimes it looks to me like they are under-tasked for a period and therefore it would be appropriate for me to delegate certain tasks to them. However, when I discuss this with them, I sometimes discover that they are in a busy period in their civilian work or personal life, and have deliberately managed their Army workload so as to be less busy in Army at this time. If I delegate to them in such a period, they face a choice between either interrupting other areas of their life, or not getting the tasks that I delegate done in a timely manner.
There is an easy and pre-emptive fix to this potential problem: discuss tasks and requirements collaboratively with subordinates before delegating tasks to them. Ask how busy they are in all aspects of their lives, and base decisions to delegate on their answer, as well as your own needs and the nature of the task.
Take photos and have group photos taken; you’ll thank yourself later. Most people only get posted as an OC once, and in the Army Reserve you often only get to do certain posting-related activities once or a few times. Even if you do complete the same activity multiple times it is almost certain that the composition of the team will change for every iteration of the activity, due to the nature of part time parading in the Army Reserve. One day, when it is over, you will miss it. A photograph—group photos in particular—captures the moment for posterity and will become more valuable to you over time. For example, it is now eight years since I deployed to Timor Leste as a Platoon Commander. The Platoon photos I have from that deployment, which at the time were just an extra set of photos in a folder on a drive, are now fond reminders of one of the highlights of my life. I expect the same feeling of nostalgia will apply to my time as an OC, so I ensure that group photos are taken of sub-unit members who attend activities such as field training exercises and ceremonial parades.
Already I am finding that these pictures are becoming the embodiment of my nostalgia. My advice to anyone who may be appointed OC themselves is therefore to ensure that photos are taken of your sub-unit activities. Get these photos cleared by Public Affairs too – not only is publication of these photos a good way to enhance Army’s positive presence on social media, but it also means that you can keep copies of the photos on unclassified devices without any potential security or other issues.
What we’re here for: command in the field
Revise sub-unit and combined arms tactics before attending field training exercises. I completed the Combat Officers Advanced Course in 2015. Between then and when I commenced my appointment as a sub-unit commander there was a three-year period during which I had two postings. Neither of these postings required me to exercise sub-unit tactics. As a part time OC, there has been at minimum three months between each sub-unit level field training exercise that I have attended, though this gap is usually more than six months. As a result, my knowledge of sub-unit and combined arms tactics has atrophied several times, and I have identified a need to refresh myself before attending each field training exercise. This can be done by re-reading the relevant doctrine (Land Warfare Doctrine 3-0-3 Formation Tactics is a good starting point), as well as any relevant standard operating procedures (SOPs) and tactics, techniques, procedures (TTPs). Quick decision exercises can also help you refresh, though these are only beneficial if there is time to discuss your solution with somebody else who can identify shortfalls and offer guidance on how to improve.
Pre-H Hour planning will set you up for success post-H Hour. I travelled to the first major field training activity I attended as an OC with the advance party from my home unit. Once in the exercise area, the extra two days I had taken off from my civilian job enabled me to read into the problem and develop a detailed initial plan. This set me up for success once the exercise commenced and my planning times became greatly compressed. The lesson I learned from this is that pre-H Hour planning sets the conditions for success post-H Hour as it generates good situational understanding. This is useful even when the plan needs to be changed completely in light of unfolding circumstances. The best way to make time for this pre-H Hour planning is to be on the exercise advance party. Since my first field training exercise, when I found this out by accident, I have tried wherever possible to get myself on the advance party for other field training exercises.
Good time planning is vital. At one extreme, I had 45 minutes to develop a course of action for moving an entire Combat Team into a new area of operations. At the other extreme, I had almost two days to plan a Combat Team handover then route clearance. As the saying goes, ‘any task will take whatever time is available to do it’. Developing a planning timeline as well as an operational timeline was vital to enabling me to have a scheme of manoeuvre ready by whatever deadline I had to meet. I would not have been able to complete a Combat Team-level Combat Military Appreciation Process in 45 minutes if I hadn't started by figuring out how long I had to complete each component.
Correct use of military terminology is a key indicator of professionalism. Being in the military for only part of the time, it is easy to unthinkingly use an ad hoc blend of military terms and other terms that are prevalent in one’s civilian endeavours. I noticed this tendency the first time that my part time sub-unit was attached to a Regular Army unit. I subsequently noticed that when I correctly used military terminology while omitting civilian terminology that referred to the same things, this seemed to generate a disproportionately positive effect on how professional I was perceived as being. In other words, correct use of military terminology was perceived by my Regular Army counterparts as a key indicator of my professionalism. Adherence to timings was another key indicator, and this had the same disproportionate effect on perception management. This reinforces my previous observation that good time planning is vital. Correct use of military terminology, particularly when describing tactical situations and tasks, and adhering to timings are both easy ways to demonstrate one’s professionalism.
Mission command can be as easy as remembering to ‘plan two down, task one down’. For any platoon commanders who may be reading this: when you are given your specified tasks and attachments, ask why you have them. For example, if you are tasked to conduct a community engagement patrol in a small town and you have civil-military liaison team and a Combat Engineer reconnaissance team attached, why do you suppose this is? If you are tasked to establish a defensive position for a ground-based air defence asset and you have a joint fire team attached, what might your commander’s thought process have been when they attached this to you? Odds are that this has happened because the OC has thought about not only what they want you to do, but also about how they would do it themselves if they were commanding your platoon—then they have tried to maximise your chances for success within the framework of their own broader plan, while still allowing you the flexibility to develop and execute your own plan in your own way.
The same happens from Battlegroup to Combat Team level, and figuring out why the CO had allocated various attachments to my Combat Team and what they might be expecting me to do with them greatly contributed to my identification of various implied tasks, required coordination measures and ensuring that I was able to achieve my commander's intent and prioritise their main effort. This type of consideration worked very well for me, both in determining my own implied tasks and in being able to exercise mission command when tasking my own subordinates.
Regarding being appointed as Officer Conducting the Exercise / Director of Practice (OCE/DPRAC). This can be a stressful appointment because there are a lot of little things that need to be perfectly. Running a range, and making sure it is done safely, requires a high level of attention to detail. Being OCE/DPRAC means doing this for multiple ranges, which may be operating concurrently. Success in these activities requires a balance between personally ensuring the ‘one percenters’ concerning safety are in place and executed correctly, and stepping back to let the Officers-in-Charge of individual range practices do their jobs without obstructing or micromanaging them. I found I could achieve this balance by doing two things.
The first was conducting thorough pre-commencement of practice checks for each range. This included personally confirming that all the paperwork had been completed correctly, that the correct items were in the range trunks, visually confirming that all required safety equipment was at each range, and receiving detailed backbriefs from, then quizzing, the Officer-in-Charge of each practice to confirm that they were competent in their own appointments and knowledge. I could then take a hands-off approach during the practices themselves, maintaining radio communications with each range from a centralised command post without needing to physically be at each range at these times.
The second thing was surrounding myself with good staff. I ensure that the Officers-in-Charge of practice that are working for me are good operators, preferably people that I have worked with before during blank firing field training activities. Personnel who are qualified to be Officers-in-Charge should be appointed as Safety Supervisors instead if they are not yet at the experience or confidence level to be an Officer-in-Charge. In an Army Reserve unit, organising who will fill Range staff appointments several months in advance is essential, as most people can more easily secure time off from their civilian work if they have a lot of advanced warning. Select who you want to be Officers-in-Charge of range practices and get them to commit to the activity early.
Even more importantly, I ensured that I had some great Warrant Officers in my command post who had been Safety Supervisors or Officers-in-Charge during more range practices than I will probably ever see. This is one of the best uses for Regular Army cadre staff that I have seen in the Army Reserve. Run everything past these Warrant Officers, especially matters concerning safety, and listen to their advice. Two or three heads together think better than one head alone, and they bring a huge amount of relevant experience to the conversation.
Signallers and signals-qualified personnel are a critical vulnerability. When planning field training activities, I have found that signallers are always in short supply. Although my unit is taking measures to address this shortage, the outcome of these measures will be mid-term due to the time it takes for part time personnel to complete all of the required training courses. Until then, the number of available signallers is a critical vulnerability that needs to be proactively addressed when planning for field training activities in my unit. I am not sure if this is the case elsewhere, but this situation nevertheless yields a general observation: identify as early in your planning as possible what critical vulnerabilities might affect your activities. Once these have been identified, take appropriate measures to ensure these vulnerabilities are adequately mitigated.
I hope that the observations will help to prepare future Australian Army Reserve sub-unit commanders through learning from my successes and failures and to better set them up for success in their own appointments. To that end, I conclude this article by offering a final observation.
Find time to reflect, and to consciously learn as you go. This article is the outcome of self-reflection that I made time for despite always being busy. Between our Army service, our civilian careers and our personal lives, Army Reservists are always time poor. Yet finding time to reflect and learn is nevertheless vital. Last year I jotted down observations from time-to-time as dot-points in the back of my notebook. Early in January this year, as my first year in command came to a close, I found a few hours to reconsider these observations and to type a refined list in a word document. This list became most of the paragraph headings that appear in this article. It took me the first seven months of this year to finish the rest of the article by adding the paragraph text as well as a few additional observations that I made during this period. I did this mostly in short spurts while travelling for my civilian work. This ad hoc commitment of several very short periods of time has been sufficient for me to reflect on what I have learned so far during my sub-unit command, and to consider how I can implement these lessons going forward. The final piece of advice I offer in this article is, therefore, to make time to critically reflect, even if it is only opportunistically and for very short periods. The results are worthwhile.
List of useful online readings about sub-unit command
The following is a list of links to papers about sub-unit command in full time and allied militaries. These papers helped me prepare for my own sub-unit command, and I am hoping that they will also be useful to readers. All links were active at 14 June 2019.
- This link requires a log in, which is free when you register using a valid email address. Once logged in, you will need to scroll down through the issue to the article titled ‘Training Observations’: https://www.tjomo.com/volume/2/issue/1/