A few months ago, I had an opportunity to meet Lt. Col. Robert Dees and share some of his thoughts on counseling. After a follow-up session with him, I thought it would be interesting to hear from you all on the subject.
This blog does not reflect an official Army program, but is presented to generate a discussion on the topic.
As always, you can provide feedback directly to me through the “Straight to the CSM” portion of the blog! – Command Sgt. Maj. David Davenport, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command senior enlisted leader
The Army IS Soldiers. The Army HAS tanks, satellites, drones and weapons of many forms designed to help Soldiers win in a complex world. Recent “Straight from the CSM” blogs talk about the concept of achieving synergy in Multi-Domain Battle by matching the physical domains of land, sea and air with greater emphasis on space and cyberspace. As we watch what is happening in the world, it is no stretch to see that conflict is becoming more complex and that the constant is change.
However, let us not overcomplicate things: SOLDIERS fight and win or lose wars. As we move forward, the bottom line is that leaders must get back to the basics:
“If today’s leaders do not adequately develop their subordinates through personal example, counseling and mentorship, then today’s leaders have not succeeded in accomplishing tomorrow’s mission. Senior leaders must hold subordinate leaders accountable for leader development and reward those who take this to heart.” – NCO 2020 Strategy
Leaders must be both managers and mentors. Leaders are accustomed to managing our equipment to accomplish the mission; we do this through maintenance in motor pools and maneuver on the battlefield. We have publications and processes in place, but it is people who perform. People are the Army’s primary resource, and therefore talent management is in the middle of our mission. At the level of first-line leadership, counseling is used to understand and fix problems and coaching, alongside our Soldiers creates a desired future. Counseling and coaching form the core activities of talent management.
While there is much talk about talent management, our training and tools haven’t caught up to the conversation. Across the Army today, we counsel and coach with highly varied levels of competence. We all know that some leaders get caught up in copying and pasting counseling statements and checking the block. On the other hand, some leaders do a great job of counseling and coaching. Fundamentally, our talent management training and tools should help leaders have quality counseling and coaching conversations, while also holding them accountable for doing so; such tools should help people make better personal decisions and help organizations make better personnel decisions.
WholeSoldier counseling is a talent management tool designed to improve the current Department of the Army Form 4856, for use in routine performance counseling. The automated WholeSoldier counseling system is currently part of an ongoing pilot with leaders and junior-enlisted Soldiers in units at Fort Hood, Texas. A sample non-fillable and non-automated WholeSoldier Counseling Form is currently available for review here. The benefits of WholeSoldier are discussed as we describe the tool.
Any talent management strategy must involve talent measurement, and we must define what we want. The Army Leadership Requirements Model in Army Doctrine Reference Publication 6-22 defines that the Army wants the leader attributes of character, presence and intellect; the attributes enable the leader competencies of leading, developing and achieving. These six areas form the basis of assessment within the Noncommissioned Officer Evaluation Report to measure performance of leaders. As the future leaders of our Army, we want Soldiers who exhibit strength in the domains of heart, body and mind; we care about the whole Soldier. Army leaders and publications talk about the whole-Soldier concept; WholeSoldier performance counseling provides a tool to better practice what we publish.
Based on years of consulting with many levels of leadership within the Army, WholeSoldier Performance is broken down into attribute groups to further clarify what we mean by strength of heart, body and mind.
These 12 attribute groups form the basis of the WholeSoldier assessment for use in counseling conversations. Leaders may care about the attributes with different levels of importance based on military occupational specialty, but they care about the same attributes in all Soldiers regardless of MOS. The attribute groups serve as a clear message to Soldiers about what the Army wants from them, and also serve as a framework to help leaders discuss performance in counseling sessions.
Much like the current DA Form 4856, WholeSoldier includes leader facts and observations to support the assessment. In conversations amongst leaders about Soldiers, it is immediately clear about whether the leader has a good, neutral or bad impression concerning Soldier performance. The rest of the conversation clarifies how good or how bad performance is. As such, the seven-point WholeSoldier scale provides multiple levels of good or bad to follow the natural mental framework of leaders. Additionally, WholeSoldier offers behavioral examples of both positive and negative performance in each attribute group to assist the leader in accurate assessment and discussion of performance with the Soldier. The Heart portion of the WholeSoldier assessment is shown below.
As Soldiers, we understand the importance of a tight shot group. The WholeSoldier shot group is a snapshot of the leader’s assessment of the Soldier’s performance. It offers a picture to the Soldier about how they are viewed by their leader, while facilitating quality counseling conversations. Along with the shot group that is automatically generated based on the leader’s assessment, the leader provides commentary about performance as a whole – affirmation of strengths and areas for improvement. Also, the leader talks about observed risks, root causes, underlying factors and a strategy for improvement. On a rifle range, leaders look at a Soldier’s shot group and conduct an analysis. Then, based on the leaders’ experience and expertise, they coach the Soldier about underlying fundamental problems with steady position, aiming, breath control and trigger squeeze. This is similar to how a leader uses the WholeSoldier shot group in counseling and coaching the Soldier; it is what leaders do.
In addition to the shot group and leader insights, the analysis section contains Soldier readiness data, which is primarily an individual responsibility as supervised by the first-line leader. The assessment and analysis sections are filled out by the leader prior to the counseling and coaching conversation. After these sections, the conversation shifts from counseling about the past to coaching about the future, and the leader and Soldier fill out the agreements section together.
In contrast to the current “Plan of Action” and “Leader Responsibilities” sections of DA Form 4856, the WholeSoldier agreements section provides more than a blank box by offering more structure to guide conversation between leader and Soldier. The intent is to help both leaders and Soldiers take a more comprehensive approach to building a personal plan of action across various areas: professional focus, fitness and food, finances, family and friends, fun and faith. The first step is to discuss what the Soldier wants, or their long-term aspirations in each of these areas. Then, the leader advises the Soldier and helps to develop a short-term specific, measurable, action-based, realistic and time-bound set of constructive actions to reach the Soldier’s aspirations. Last, the leader and Soldier agree to assistance and accountability the leader will provide. It is a coaching conversation that results in an agreed-upon contract between leader and Soldier.
In order to counsel well, the leader must care and be competent in counseling and coaching conversations. If a leader doesn’t care about counseling and only checks the block, then that leader shouldn’t be a leader at all. WholeSoldier is designed to help leaders who care to conduct competent counseling conversations within the intent of Army standards. It will also help platoon and company-level leaders enforce the standard and counsel the counselors, thereby developing junior leaders. We, the Army, must re-create a culture of leaders who care and are competent counselors, as alluded to earlier in the NCO 2020 Strategy.
As shown, in the automated WholeSoldier system, company-level leaders receive a roll-up and summary of counseling conducted during the month. This sample roll-up shows one infantry company’s junior enlisted Soldiers from the initial WholeSoldier study. Names have been deleted, and Soldiers are ordered based on WholeSoldier Performance. Company-level leaders can immediately see how many counseling statements – if any – are missing and hold leaders accountable to complete counseling without having to collect packets. Second, platoon and company-level leaders are also able to quickly perform quality control, meaning that they can inspect to see if they agree with the assessments provided. In this way, platoon and company-level leadership are better equipped to counsel the counselors in order to build competence and incentivize caring.
‘MICRO’ and ‘MACRO’ TALENT MANAGEMENT
Talent management equals messaging, mentoring, measuring and matching talent to tasks in teams. In the Army, we often hear complaints of micromanagement. As stated, counseling and coaching to mentor Soldiers is the core of talent management at the first level of leadership. WholeSoldier provides a tool and puts “micro” talent management back into the hands of noncommissioned officers, which comes with the responsibility to do it well. It facilitates conversations at the platoon and company level about who we assign to which position and how we balance our teams. It informs collective and individual training strategies to improve at the lowest level. It helps to consider schools and referrals to other resources provided by the Army. WholeSoldier also helps us to think at the company level about who we want to retain and who shows potential for promotion or separation. The underlying intent of WholeSoldier is to provide a tool to help leaders conduct counseling conversations with Soldiers to help them develop and make better professional and personal decisions, while also helping leaders at the platoon and company level make better personnel decisions; this is the starting point for talent management.
At the “macro” talent management level, the Army can use aggregated WholeSoldier data to inform talent management policy. In particular, it will help the Army to understand the qualities present in junior enlisted Soldiers, and how the Army might adjust recruiting policies and focus recruiting resources. It will help Army leaders to determine the effectiveness of resources that the Army provides, like resilience programs or other resources that leaders have available to help Soldiers. Essentially, by giving NCOs a vote in each and every WholeSoldier assessment, we put the NCO back in the middle of talent management. As a result, the Army will be able to consider what NCOs say about their Soldiers, and that will help Army leadership provide resources. There is nothing of greater importance than counseling and coaching Soldiers to develop the leaders of the future. Our future as an Army depends on getting back to these basics, and WholeSoldier provides an improved tool that leverages today’s technology in the fight.
Pictured above: Staff Sgt. Shannon Knorr, Headquarters and Headquarters Company 1st Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment, and 1st Sgt. Bryan Smethurst, first sergeant HHC 1-211 AR of the Utah National Guard, conduct an end-of-tour counseling session in Kunduz province, Afghanistan, on Nov. 18. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Duncan Brennan)