In this article we interview LTC Ian Palmer, an extremely successful leader and professional team builder. LTC Palmer discusses leadership at the Field Grade level and tools he has employed over the years to manage time, tasks, and priorities.
LTC Palmer commissioned as an Armor Officer from Notre Dame in 1997. Assignments include Fort Hood, Wuerzburg, Schweinfurt, Fort Polk, The Pentagon, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and Fort Benning. LTC Palmer has served in various positions as a Field Grade Leader including Squadron S3 and XO, Brigade Combat Team XO, Stryker Squadron Commander, and as Squadron Commander for the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade.
The Field Grade Leader: You’ve been successful in numerous positions as a Field Grade Officer. What are the most tangible leadership lessons that contributed to your success?
There are a few lessons that always jump out at me when I am talking about my experience as an S3 or XO.
Number one is teamwork. Teamwork is not exclusive to being a Field Grade Officer, but Majors build and run Brigade Combat Teams. It is their ability to maintain relationships with the other S3s and XOs that enables success or contributes to unit failure. At that point in your career, the talent level, skill-set, buy-in, and investment are all fairly consistent across the Majors in the formation. You must pull together in one direction for the unit to be successful. If you can’t reach out and communicate left and right, your organization is going to have problems. So, teamwork is number one in my book.
Additionally, you have to be able to delegate, manage tasks, and develop subordinate leaders. One thing that’s different in making the transition from being a Small-Unit Leader to Field Grade Officer is that you can’t do it alone anymore. In my opinion, as a Company, Troop, or Battery Commander, it is possible to succeed just by working harder than everybody else. As a Major, that’s no longer true. Often you see officers who don’t adapt as leaders, who don’t adjust their skill-set, who don’t learn to delegate and manage tasks. These officers try to pull more into their rucksack and end up failing because they get tired or overwhelmed. People cannot maintain that kind of OPTEMPO and be successful as a Major. You can’t do it all by yourself, so you have to learn to delegate, and delegation requires task management. As an S3 or an XO, it is the first time you have Captains or Lieutenants working for you on a staff. You can dish out all of the tasks that you want, but unless you maintain visibility and follow-up through a battle rhythm event, then your delegation isn’t all that helpful.
Delegation and task management aren’t everything; you also have to develop these leaders. As a Field Grade Leader, you are at the next level of leader development. Your people will fall into one of two categories. The first is Lieutenants or Captains who are waiting for their next position as a Platoon Leader or Company Commander. You have the opportunity to make them a better staff officer and also a better leader in that next assignment. The second category is staff officers who are in their primary job. You’ve got signal officers, MI officers, AG officers, etc. You have to expand your understanding of what they do. You can look at the S1 and say, “go do S1 stuff,” or you can expand your knowledge base and learn about what they do.
Finally, you have to learn to maintain balance when you are a Field Grade Officer. You see it in any Brigade Command Team in the Army – after a year or eighteen months on the job, the S3s or XOs who know how to delegate, task manage, and have balance are still going strong. The ones who don’t, the ones who try to work harder or work more hours to compensate, fail. A lot of us wear the number of hours we work as a badge of courage when as an institution we should be looking down on that behavior. Balance is about knowing when you have to invest in your career and when you have an opportunity to invest in your family. When you look over the course of your career, there are clearly periods when you will have to spend more time at work – it is impossible to avoid. Those time are when you’re an S3 or an XO, when you’re a Battalion Commander, and perhaps when you’re a Company Commander. If you’ve got balance figured out, you have options. Different techniques will work differently for everyone, but you have to maximize opportunities to maintain balance across spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional health.
These are the key lessons I learned through a lot of errors and a lot of scar tissue from my time as a Major.
Field Grade Leader: You’ve been a successful field grade leader for years. What are the tools that you use to manage yourself successfully?
Each person’s mind is different. They process data differently and need different kinds of reminders. A part of managing yourself is the process of figuring out what works best for you. My system won’t work for you and yours won’t work for me. I may try a system that looks effective, use it to inform another system or abandon it all together if it doesn’t fit. Just trying new things is important. Additionally, your boss and your higher headquarters get a vote in your personal systems. There are some things that your higher headquarters will use to track information. Sometimes you have to figure out how to make your brain work within those mechanisms. If you don’t, you will be doing a lot of translating.
I like to keep things simple. I like to fight off of a simple calendar. While I was deployed as a Squadron S3 in 2009, I didn’t even carry a notebook. Instead, I kept a packet of paper. The front sheet was a calendar for that day, the next sheets were calendars for the following two weeks. The calendars were very basic Outlook format with a column for notes. I could make adjustments to the calendar on the fly, note tasks that I needed to add to my task tracker, and keep track of random thoughts. My end of the day ritual was to revisit the notes, make adjustments to the calendar, adjust the task list in Outlook, and reprint the packet. That closeout became the culminating event for me where I could gather my thoughts and look at the day in retrospect. Once I walked away from my desk, I was somewhat free from work for the night.
I’ve gone through several iterations of task trackers. It all depends on your job. As a Squadron XO and Brigade XO, it was much more extensive, but still simple in nature. I used an Excel spreadsheet, broken out by staff section, highlighting: the task, when I needed it done, and when the last time I checked on it was. As a commander, I keep track of priorities on my whiteboard. This serves as a mental trigger to revisit and stay in touch with those priorities.
Throughout the course of my career, I’ve tried different organizers and notebooks. I struggled as a Major and as a Commander to figure out an effective smartbook. I’m not a data guy, it just doesn’t sync into my head. If someone starts to ask detailed questions about my PERSTAT or non-deployables, I’m not good at recalling that information off the top of my head. I need a reference, but I didn’t want to carry around a huge binder. I started to use a notebook called a Levenger as a Battalion Command – thanks to Steve Puthoff for introducing me to it. The Levenger allows you to keep a notebook and binder in one piece of kit. I could add my battle roster, PERSTAT, and all of the hot ticket things that I needed to have readily available. I could separate the information into tabs and reorganize notes as needed. I added the Division Commander’s leadership philosophy to the front of my notebook along with other key documents. I’d run across these key documents by happenstance throughout the day and have a quick self-check on my performance.
Field Grade Leader: You talked about developing systems as a process to improve your leadership capacity. What other tools do you use for self-development?
I have a variety of self-development interests. First of all, I subscribe to the Field Grade Leader. In all seriousness, I subscribe to all the military blogs that are out there – Task and Purpose, War on the Rocks, The Military Leader, The Field Grade Leader. Those are the ones that jump out immediately. I subscribe to a little bit of current events, a little bit of military news, and a little bit leader development. I also enjoy podcasts. When I’m working out on my own on the weekend, or when I’m hanging out in my office and nothing is going on, I’ll listen to a podcast. A lot of good blogs have podcasts that go with them.
I also like to read, although I don’t do it as much as I used to, unfortunately. My approach to reading is to stay on a rotation of topics. I’ll read something military in nature, then something to do with leadership, then something that has absolutely nothing to do with the military. I’ll rotate between these categories so I don’t get bogged down in one or too far away from self-development.
The last piece is just staying current with what’s going on in the world. Not just what’s going on in North Korea or what’s going on in Syria, but also what’s going on in our own government. We can be apolitical and still know what’s going on politically. Staying current with world affairs and what’s going on in the news is important to me.
I try to vary what I’m reading or listening to so I can touch a variety of topics. I don’t get too far down in one topic very often, but instead, try to have a light touch on a lot of different things.
Field Grade Leader: Is there anything we missed?
Yes – humility as an S3 or XO. Up to this point in your career you probably spent a lot of time being “the guy.” You were the platoon leader, the company commander, and now you find yourself in an organization where your boss is “the guy.” He’s been around the Army for 18-20 years and he has the responsibility to lead a large organization. So as a Major, you make recommendations to “the guy.” That doesn’t mean you abdicate your responsibilities as a leader. You are there to support the chain of command in the direction they want to take the unit. As long as it isn’t illegal, immoral, or unethical, you are there as a supporting effort. That was difficult for me. There were times when I thought the unit should go one way and the commander was taking it another way. Well, it didn’t actually matter which way I wanted to take it. I needed to be the best subordinate I could be and take it in the direction he wanted it to go and less in the direction I wanted it to go. Being a Field Grade Officer is a lesson in humility and you see that with new Majors as they learn their role. How can you be the best subordinate and leader possible within that framework?
Later down the road when you make the transition back from being a supporting S3 or XO to being a Battalion or Squadron Commander, it looks a lot different. Now you’re the one setting the climate, managing talent, and driving leader development on a broader scale. Of course, you have priorities from the Brigade Commander and Division Commander that you’re following, but it is a lot different from when you were a Company Commander. It was a good retrospective on my time as a Field Grade Officer to see the differences in the roles of Commander, S3, or XO. The Commander should be setting the course or azimuth for the organization and his Field Grades and other staff leaders move the organization in that direction.
Looking for more tools to develop yourself as a Field Grade Leader? Look here!