Life after S3 and XO – Recommendations on Proactive Assignment Planning

A Guest Post by Rick Montcalm and Adam Brady

‘Tis the season of reflection. All the leadership and military blogs are awash with articles from Majors completing their key developmental jobs, capturing fresh insight and prime takeaways from what has likely proven the most demanding 18-24 months of their military careers to date. Every unit is different. Every commander is different. Therefore, every experience is a bit different. The number of articles and essays and the breadth of their focus demonstrate the complexity and challenge of key-developmental assignments. This article deviates from those highlighting the incredibly important processes, roles, and systems that make or break S3s and XOs. Here, the focus is on a matter that is often overlooked or overcome by competing demands: the planning process for post-KD assignments.

Nov. 6, 2014

Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy J. Fowler

No formula exists for what right looks like for all officers. This is one account based on an individual experience in a Brigade Combat Team, but the principles are sound and transferable across branches and positions. Aside from planning for myself, I worked with numerous assignments officers at HRC on behalf of all my brigade’s S3s and XOs to provide my brigade commander a more comprehensive view of his field grade officers. The process provided some hard lessons learned, clarity on HRC’s assignments system, and a list of things I might have changed had I known up front what I learned in this year-long experience. The three lessons below focus on how to approach the process, when certain steps should be taken, and the resources available to aid in the process.

  1. Engage your rater, senior rater, and mentors. The degree to which you engage each of these three is largely based on access and the relationship you have with them. During my KD time, at both the Squadron and Brigade level, access to senior raters was irregular due to deployment and training cycles. Not a dig – just a result of uncontrollable circumstances.
  • At the expense of sounding pedestrian and diminutive, I think it is important to understand that mentor means something specific. They are more than “old-timers” with great bits of advice. A mentor is someone with whom you have regular contact and who takes an interest in your personal and professional development in a more formal manner. The key with mentors is ensuring he or she knows you view them as a mentor. If you are unclear or want someone to fill that role, ask them.
  • Though not always possible, I recommend having more than one mentor. Having one who is finishing up the next type of assignment you’d like to have and another who is a few more years senior provides two levels of perspective as you consider future assignments. At those two career points, they can provide a better understanding of some assignments since one or both may have better knowledge of what a certain command may do. They may also be able to connect you with officers serving in the command who could provide clarity on particular positions or offices.
  • Your rater will presumably be the most reliable and frequent source of counseling and development, is generally the person closest to you in terms of timeline, and holds the position for which you’d like to be selected. Most will advocate on your behalf with your senior rater for evaluations and senior KD positions, where applicable. He or she will also be your best point of leverage with your assignments officer and branch chief, especially if you are in a low-density branch in your brigade. Bottom line is to engage your rater, be honest about your goals, and see what they think.
  • One consideration with this group is they may have an opinion (sometimes very strong) about the path to success. While they can provide invaluable insight and counsel, their advice may be dated or simply based on their own preferences, experiences, and observations.
  1. Schedule a timeline and file review with your assignments officer. Because every Major will enter into KD time at different points in their overall timeline and with a variety of pre-KD assignments, I recommend having your file reviewed at two points.
  • The first should take place before KD time begins, just to get an idea of how your file looks and what affects your timeline may have on post-KD prospects. If you have questions on specific post-KD assignments, especially if it is one with an application window that precedes your first evaluation, this is a good time to discuss it. Discuss what options you should consider based on the remaining time between KD completion and promotion board dates. Within my brigade, majors were completing KD time with anywhere from 5 months to 4 years before their primary zone promotion board. Time isn’t necessarily a critical limiting factor but should be a consideration.
  • The second and more important of the reviews should take place as soon as you receive your first KD OER. Your collective OERs remain the single greatest narrative of your overall performance and potential, and your first KD OER will determine what options are open, which may be closing, and delineate more clearly how you compare to your peers. Generally, your senior rater will tell you during your first OER counseling whether you will move to a brigade level job or remain in the battalion. Armed with this information, your assignments officer should be able to tell you where you fall within your year group, your relative competitiveness for promotion and command, and what types of assignments you can expect to be available to you.
  • Remember this: while your assignments officer can’t predict the outcome of future boards or assignment cycles, he or she can certainly provide some insight into historical trends and context. However, because his or her perspective is based largely on trends, the assessment should be taken into a greater account along with recommendations from your rater, senior rater, mentors, and personal aspirations.
  1. Think critically about your personal preferences, priorities, and goals. Ultimately, this is your career. While personal preferences are not the most important assignment consideration, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having them. When you receive your assignments worksheet approximately nine months before your PCS cycle opens, you’ll be asked to rank order them. Your assignments officers do, in fact, try to match officers with their preferred assignment. Is that always possible? No, and there are several reasons why, including qualifications, assignment timeline, and how you stack against others who may also want a certain job.
  • How you navigate through the Army’s assignment process should align with your goals. I started with feedback from assignment managers, raters, senior raters, and mentors intentionally because each provides a certain flavor of advice and hopefully, candor. The first time I was asked about goals was as a young company-level commander. My boss wasn’t satisfied with my canned, and quite frankly disingenuous, “I’ll serve where needed” response. When I told him my goal was to command a battalion, my boss replied, “Very good. Let’s talk about how you do that.” Being able to articulate goals and preferences is not selfish; on the contrary, it provides some framework against which you, your assignments officer, and your raters can discuss a path forward.

Taking a proactive approach in the post-KD assignments process does not signal a lack of focus on the tasks at hand, and it shouldn’t be viewed as selfish careerism. Since key developmental assignments mark such a critical juncture in your professional progression, it goes without saying that appropriate focus and rigor will be applied. Opening the floor to assignments discussions enables your mentors, leaders, and assignments officers to provide thoughtful advice, and may shed light on opportunities that may not have been considered previously. As you read through all the lessons learned articles, don’t forget to look past the 25 and 50 meter targets.


MAJ Rick Montcalm is an Armor Officer with garrison and deployment experience in Armor, Stryker, and Infantry BCTs. He completed his Squadron and Brigade KD time in 1/101st Airborne Division and is currently assigned as the XO to the TRADOC Deputy Chief of Staff.

MAJ Adam Brady is an Armor officer with experience in Armor and Infantry BCTs both in garrison and deployed. He completed his KD time with 1-77AR, 3/1AD (ABCT) and served as the Brigade Rear Detachment Commander for 3/1AD (ABCT). He is currently deployed as the Command Inspector General for CJFLCC-OIR and 1st Armored Division.