The Science and Art of Being a Major

There are a ton of resources out there for Captains before they take command. From books to blogs, there’s an abundance of information readily available. However, there’s usually a cognitive gap between completion of ILE and your first KD job, often separated by an assignment to a Corps or Division staff. Here are some key thoughts to get you thinking about KD, broken down into two categories — Science and Art.


Science

Don’t Fight Fires — Curate Systems. As an S3 or XO you are an organizational manager. You’re a corporate man. You’re a middle manager. You’re the guy who makes sure the trains run on time and that each TPS report has the appropriate cover sheet. This is likely the first time in your career that responsibilities are beyond your direct reach. In other words, you have more to do than you can personally accomplish. As a field grade officer your job is to implement, manage, and optimize systems that keep your organization running. At first it will seem there’s an overwhelming flow of problems constantly arriving at your desk. That’s life as a field grade. Rather than only solving the problem at hand, often a symptom of a larger issue, look beyond to the root cause. So subordinate units are constantly late on suspenses? Who manages your task tracker and how is it distributed? The Companies continually turn in late requests for land and ammo? What’s the system used in your internal Training Resource Meeting and who is the point of contact? Remember that if two or more subordinate units make the same mistake, it is likely a systems failure. I often compared curating systems to spinning plates (imagine an old school circus act). Spend too much time on one and the other systems come crashing down. Your time is limited, there’s only so much you can invest in a system before another one falls apart. Assess, optimize, and give it to someone else to manage directly.

Manage Your Time Effectively. One of the most striking facets of KD time is scarcity of time. Your inbox is an all-consuming monster that can destroy your schedule all by itself. Subordinates line up at the door with issues and questions. That’s more than enough work to fill your day, but you’re also the guy who goes to every meeting at the Battalion and Brigade level. There’s a lot of work to do, and little time available to actually do it. Come in to the job with a strategy to manage your time. I’m a morning person, so I’d arrive at work early and get myself set for the day. I’d beat the majority of the unit in and spend that quiet hour and half ensuring the calendars were synced, updating my task tracker, and working through e-mail. After the majority of the staff left in the afternoon, I’d “grade homework,” marking up OPORDs and slide decks. Regardless of what your strategy is, come up with a concept prior to taking the job.

The Task Tracker. Your task tracker is an integral tool the entire organization relies on to manage the flow of information. Your brain is very large, and filled with all kinds of important information. As a Battalion S3, you’ll spend the day sitting through countless meetings, briefings, IPRs, and other forums where information is distributed and decisions are made. You’ll take copious notes, accumulating guidance and tasks for subordinates. The trick to being successful is consolidating this information, distributing it, and ensuring tasks are completed appropriately. As a Battalion and Brigade S3, I employed a digital task tracker. I took notes in Evernote on my iPad, marking tasks for consolidation during my morning administrative time. My Knowledge Manager was a ninja and created a system to iteratively publish my task tracker for collaboration and viewing online. Additionally, I distributed the task tracker twice weekly via e-mail along with calendar highlights and key priorities (another system). Though the task tracker may sound trivial, it is essential given the volume of information that flows through you.

Art

Learn to be a Mentor. When I started my KD time, I was surprised by how many junior officers asked for professional advice — they were looking for real mentorship. As a Company Grade officer you are an example to junior officers and NCOs, but the majority of Soldiers you interact with work for you directly. That’s an important relationship, but a bit of a different dynamic. Now, you are seen as a successful leader with abundant professional experience. You are one of the most senior leaders in the Battalion. You’ll be approached by officers and NCOs from across your formation, from new platoon leaders to staff Captains considering separation from the military. Being a mentor is an honor that should not be taken lightly. It is a two-way relationship and an important responsibility. Listen first, give advice later. Gain an understanding of the individual, their goals, and their situation instead of giving them a speech on what made you successful as an officer. On that note, resist the urge to guide leaders towards the career choices you made. Your path worked for you, but is not the only way to succeed in the Army. Be willing to research and make connections on behalf of the officer. One of the strongest attributes you possess is an expansive human network. Allocate time to mentorship and professional development.

Be a Team Player. I talked about this one in-depth in a previous post. Being a team player is an essential facet of being an S3 or XO in a Brigade. How will you contribute to the peer group, the team, and the organization at large?

Take Care of Yourself. I consider myself to be pretty physically fit. I eat well, work out hard, and attempt to limit alcohol (beer doesn’t count, right?). Going into KD time, I had aspirations of maintaining a demanding physical fitness regime and continuing to compete in CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting. After a few months in the job, I realized my goals were beyond reach. I became so busy that I’d often run out of time to eat, and was frequently interrupted to talk business during PT. I drank way too much coffee. I was working a lot, and it reflected in my alcoholic intake and sleep quality. Though this sounds like a grim reality, it is shared by a good number of S3s and XOs. Prior to starting the job, think about how you’ll maintain yourself during KD time. First, make sure you eat. This may sound silly, but I know a number of guys who simply don’t eat because they don’t have enough time. Pack a lunch that you can eat on the go as well as several snack. Drink water! Think about your fitness schedule and ensure PT remains a sacred time on the calendar. PT is also a great opportunity to learn more about your leaders with staff PT or by working out with a platoon. I would do each once a week as a Battalion XO. Lastly, do your best to leave work at work.

Seek Balance. Balance is something we discuss frequently in the Army, but is extremely hard to achieve while working tough jobs. I define balance as effectively distributing time, energy, and commitment to both your professional and personal life. The reality many S3s and XOs face is that there is far too much work to equally distribute time to family life. Regardless of how you manage time, KD will be a trying period for you and your family. The key to balance as an S3 or XO is maximizing the time available with family, even if it isn’t as much as desired. Talk through it with your family before hand and look at the things that are important to them. Once you’re in the job, remember your family’s priorities and contribute to them whenever possible. Don’t drag your work home and leave it at the office over the weekend. Additionally, make sure your family is connected to the organization.

Being an S3 or XO at the Battalion level is an extremely important job. Your performance is essential to the unit’s success and you are viewed as a mentor to many young leaders. Your personal example contributes to perceptions of the Army as a profession and your organization. Take the time to think through the tools required for success before entering your first KD job. Once in position, iteratively reflect on your performance and optimize your own personal systems.

Looking for more tools to improve as an organizational leader? Check here!