Teach, Coach, Mentor

Developing Subordinates to Succeed in our Profession

Prior to starting KD time, I dreaded becoming disconnected from Soldiers and junior leaders. I’m a people person, and genuinely enjoy being a part of someone’s development. From the outside looking in, it seemed the BN S3 and XO were constantly chained to their desk and had little to do with development. This perception could not be farther from the truth. Though regularly chained to my desk, I was amazed by the number of subordinate leaders who relied on me for a facet of their development. We often throw the phrase “teach, coach, mentor” around, but don’t take the time to unpack these leadership responsibilities and think about how we’ll fulfill the role of teacher, coach, and mentor. Here are a few thoughts through the lens of a Battalion level field grade officer.

Teach. Getting back into a Battalion is a great experience, but often Majors are concerned with how long they’ve been away from the fight. You haven’t trained a formation in a while, and the extend of your MDMP experience is a few reps at ILE. Though your experience may seem rusty, you’ll quickly find that you are significantly more experienced than anyone else on the staff. You’ll assume the role of teacher as you prepare the staff to execute the Operations Process and function at home station. Take time up front to establish a thorough professional development series prior to any collective training. Walk through the MDMP in detail, culminating in STAFFEXs if possible. Often staffs allow themselves to be consumed by garrison activities, executing MDMP for the first time during Brigade collective training (this is a very bad idea). Teach the operations process through repetitions, increasing complexity and decreasing time. As a Battalion S3, you’ll probably also have the privilege of inculcating new officers in the organization prior to their first platoon leader position. Ensure these young leaders receive good feedback on expectation and performance. Their careers will take root in the lessons you teach them.

Coach. When I moved to the Battalion I developed a strong relationship with the company commanders, who later deemed me the company commander life coach. I was passionate about their success and was always available to ensure they understood our commander’s intent. Coaching is a unique relationship where you can clearly see what someone needs to do to be successful, but you can’t get into the game and do it for them. Often there’s frustration at the company command level as they begin to realize they are in command, but there are other people in the chain who are in command and out rank them. Give good advice, but allow subordinate leaders to come to their own conclusions, make decisions, and fail if necessary. In other words, let them be commanders.

Mentor. I talked through this one a bit in a previous post. Being a professional mentor is one of the most important facets of organizational leadership you’ll assume as a field grade officer. As an S3 or XO, junior officers and NCOs recognize you as a model of success and one of the most experienced leaders in the formation. Believe it or not, they’re correct. As you enter this relationship, you’ll commit mental energy and your most precious resource, time, to development. Remember to listen first and give advice later. Often leaders rely on personal experience to shape mentorship. Avoid using your career timeline as a model for every leader to follow. Next, be prepared to tap into your ever expanding network to make connection for junior leaders. Lastly, it is important that you give honest feedback about their performance and potential. This leader competency is candor, something our profession often struggles with. If leaders aren’t suited for the “normal” career progression, let them know and suggest an alternate model (explore a functional area or consider a civilian career). Honest feedback isn’t always pleasant, but is something subordinate leaders deserve and need to continue their development.

“The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do. You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow.”

— General Colin Powell

Your experience is a powerful asset the organization relies on, but the most important leadership lessons you teach are through personal example. Your subordinates are like sponges, especially those just beginning their Army career. The way you interact, issue guidance, and handle adversity will be forever etched in their memory. Maintain a positive and optimistic approach. Take bad news well. Set an example when times are tough. Always remember, they’re watching you.

Looking for more tips on improving yourself as an organizational leader? Check here!