One of the greatest challenges when advising senior leaders is a lack of significant academic theory or practical guidance on advising as a discrete task or duty. In business, government and military environments, very few individuals are purely advisers – rather they wear multiple hats, with advisory tasks as secondary or tertiary responsibilities. This is in great contrast to most Army nominative-level sergeants major, who have advisory tasks to their leaders and organizations as primary duties.
Over the past three years, the Executive Leader Course, created by the U.S. Army War College, prepared 160 command sergeants major and sergeants major from all Army components for their initial nominative-level assignments. At the request of Sgts. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler and Daniel Dailey, the USAWC’s Center for Strategic Leadership developed the initial ELC concept, executed each course and then repetitively refined the course concept. The course will continue to grow, reaching a full capability of three 40-student classes per year in fiscal year 2019, with a student body that fully represents the total Army nominative CSM/SGM population requirements. Throughout this effort, the ELC team has collected post-course surveys and examined academic studies and business leadership publications, in order to develop a recommended personal preparation process and to identify critical common characteristics that lead to success as an advisor at the highest levels of command, government and business.
While there are many useful takeaways from business and academic literature, the conclusions from these documents are simple and obvious: strong communications skills are critical, effective personal relationships are key, trust is the most important factor in adviser-leader relationships, and understanding context, problem identification and pattern recognition matter. These conclusions are consistent with Army leadership theory, as should be expected. We also recommend using a structured process to ensure that you know yourself and address your shortcomings, know your boss and the organization, and determine and document your roles, relationships and responsibilities. Based on a thorough analysis of multiple sources and ELC lessons learned, the ELC development team suggests that new senior advisers use a deliberate five-step process to accelerate their preparation for their first and subsequent nominative assignments.
The proposed preparation process for nominative (senior) adviser positions has five steps that should be sequentially executed, and then re-executed as the situation evolves:
Step 1: Who am I? – Personal Expertise Determination
Step 2: What’s my organization? – Environment Assessment
Step 3: What are my key roles/tasks/relationships? – Expectation Management
Step 4: What are my daily actions? – Effort Expenditure
Step 5: What value am I providing? – Effectiveness Evaluation
Personal Expertise Determination is the first step, where you determine, in detail, what you know about yourself. If you are an adviser, you are automatically considered to be a subject matter expert; the challenge is to determine the specific areas of your expertise. The sources of this expertise are numerous; review your previous experiences, training, education, hobbies, previous employment and other areas. In addition, re-examine Army doctrine to determine the areas where your expertise is assumed, just by virtue of your military rank, position and military occupation specialty. Execution of this step also requires a detailed personal assessment of personality, attributes, attitudes and behaviors. There are numerous assessment tools that are available to help assess these areas, but these should be augmented by informal self-assessment, peer counseling, discussions with current leaders and mentors and similar activities. ELC is designed to assist with the expertise determination step of the process – each student leaves with an initial personal individual learning plan that identifies personal gaps in his or her general knowledge of higher-level organizations and addresses ways to address shortfalls.
Environment Assessment is probably the most complex step in this process, as it requires a detailed look at your new organization, how it fits in the bigger Army enterprise, and an understanding of organizational aspects such as mission, objectives, vision, team members and customers, rhythm, lifecycle and current and future challenges. It also includes detailed understanding of the organization’s leaders and key internal and external leaders and staff members. The sources of data for this step are multiple: organizational documents and websites, key leader biographies, discussions with current Soldiers and civilian employees, appropriate doctrine, and similar products. If you are lucky, your predecessor may have already collected and provided much of this information. In business terms, you must remember that you must support multiple customers: the leader, the staff and all members of the organization; your assessment must be sufficiently broad and detailed to cover all of these customers.
Expectation Management is the step where you determine your specific roles, responsibilities and relationships in your new organization. The task requires face-to-face discussions with your boss and should be explicitly documented in a form that can be distributed throughout the organization, such as your duty description or terms-of-reference. The attributes – the knowledge, skills, and abilities, or KSAs, required in the specific adviser position you will assume should then be compared with personal expertise inventory developed in step 1. A comparison of the two lists will result in the identification of personal KSA gaps which you will have to address in order to fully prepare for the new position. Throughout this process, you should be up front about the areas where you do not possess requisite knowledge or skills to provide quality advice, and identify those individuals in your organization who do possess the necessary attributes. While there is an ongoing effort to formally document generic Army CSM and SGM KSAs and roles, we recommend that you identify traditional CSM/SGM roles and responsibilities for your position and then detail organization- and commander-specific roles and responsibilities.
Based on the results of the expectation management step, the next step, Effort Expenditure, focuses on how you will actually execute those roles, responsibilities and relationships that you had previously identified and documented. What is your personal battle rhythm? What tasks are your priority responsibility? What is your role in proposed actions? How and when do you communicate with your commander, the staff and others in the organization? As earlier, your predecessor may be able to assist and provide personal lessons learned on what worked and didn’t work for him or her.
The final step, Effectiveness Evaluation, assesses the value of your efforts within the organization. The bottom line for this step is that you must continually evaluate whether or not your actions are providing the desired value to your commander and your organization. You will never have enough time to do everything; you must prioritize your actions on a daily basis. This is a difficult step for most people, as it requires a critical introspective look at your personal daily performance, in concert with honest consideration of candid input from a wide variety of sources both within and outside your new organization.
As you execute this process, which you can apply to any new position, remember that it is not static – as leaders, organizations and their challenges evolve, so too must senior advisers. Remember the primary reason we have nominative-level senior enlisted advisers: senior CSM/SGM are assigned to nominative positions based on their extensive military experience, education and leadership expertise to provide critical advice that improves the effectiveness of their organizations and leaders. If you are not providing useful advice that improves organizational and leadership effectiveness, step back, reassess and make changes to your plan . . . and then execute vigorously.
*At the conclusion of ELC 1702, April 7, 2017, the name of the ELC will change to the Nominative Leader Course.