“The XO is a systems guy.” After spending the entirety of my key developmental time as an XO at the battalion and brigade level, I can say, with a good degree of certainty, that this statement is true. Systems are everything. The deftness at which you can develop and refine these systems will be a measure of your success in this position. But before you begin to wade into the never-ending minutiae of regulations, doctrine, emails, meeting notes and random statistics, you need your own routine to manage information and sustain your professional development. Balancing all this is both a challenge and a true test. The purpose of this article is to share some techniques and resources I learned to utilize as an XO to sustain my sanity while “managing up.” Hopefully, it will mitigate the initial shell shock you receive when your inbox hits the 100(+) emails a day mark.
Every Executive Officer has a green book or Moleskine that they use for notetaking. As a Captain, my notebook had little organization and I had no expectation to change my technique when I became a battalion XO. But after struggling through my first few months in position, my notebook became a disaster. The once clean green notebook was now saturated with a myriad of tasks, questions, minutes and random bits of information. In graduate school, I used my laptop to take notes. But in the field grade world, carrying my computer was not an option for me. I was losing track of information and taking heat for it. I needed a note taking system that would help me not only retain information but also add structure and increase efficiency. I began to research and ask some more squared away officers how they managed things. Eventually, I created a notebook that organized all this information.
After testing several different methods, I settled on a technique similar to bulletjournal.com. There are several great methods available to use, but the bullet journal method allows you to data mine for quick reference. bulletjournal forces you to have a table of contents, schedule and identify different categories of notes. However, the bulletjournal is not designed for the Army. So, I modified my notebook akin to what your Observer Controller at FT Polk carries in his or her notebook. For my “futures log,” I would cut and paste near and mid-term calendars and add the operational approach or campaign plan slide. The only items that were entered into the notebook were meeting notes and questions, no tasks or “to-do” lists. Tasks, items my boss specifically told me to do or things I knew I needed to accomplish, were listed on a 3 X 5 card that I kept co-located with my notebook. I borrowed this idea from my battalion commander. A date was added to each meeting and was entered into the table of contents per the bulletjournal method. At the beginning of each day, usually after PT, I would review my notecard from yesterday, cross out items that had been accomplished and rewrite it on a new notecard. At the same time, I would review all notes from the previous day’s work. This routine forced me to reflect on information that I would have previously never re-visited. As a result, I found that I was able to retain from memory data points that I could provide my boss and subordinates. The notebook/notecard combination enabled me to structure my days, and nested well with email management.
The “Smartbook” Binder
A field grade, at least in a garrison environment, needs to be able to keep a binder or smartbook with running estimates of the situation. I always viewed the binder the executive officer or S3 carried in sort of a mythical light. I asked many different people how they organized this book. What I found was that everyone has a different way and there is no single right way. You will go to dozens of different meetings. The binder cannot be just another repository of each meeting’s power point slides. The question is: how do you make it functional?
After experimenting with several ways, I realized that what was essential to the binder was information to inform higher headquarters. This information is your “bottom line” to superiors. As such, meetings with higher headquarters structured the binder. Brigade meetings organized my notebook at the battalion level and when I was at brigade, DIV and higher meetings organized it. This system can be replicated to mirror combat reporting quickly. I did not carry copies of our internal meetings because they were just replicating what we were sending higher. Consider how many slides are in a command and staff meeting. The first divider in the folder was titled “smart docs.” These were items such as CCIR lists, a chart showing the FLIPL process, a long-range calendar; basically dense information that I knew was not going to change on a regular basis. Additionally, I kept my staff notes that I put out in the weekly sync meeting. This system was not overly sophisticated, but nested with the notebook/notecard; it can very useful for an XO. The next step was figuring out email.
Emails: Welcome to Middle Management
Knowledge is power. The more knowledge you retain will contribute to your credibility as a field grade leader. For me, this means read each and every email. The more you resist this fact, the more you will frustrate yourself. Additionally, I respond to each email. The longer I served in this position, the more I realized that answering an email was either an acknowledgment to a subordinate or a reassurance to a superior. Emails come with the territory, so welcome to middle management. But with your day filled with meetings, office calls and oh yeah, field exercises, how do you manage an average daily load of up to 150 emails?
I am not advocating letting email rule your day. I am advocating a balanced approach. The balance you create will allow you to be on top of every issue. As such, the zero inbox theory I found to be the most effective method. I created different folders for the organization of emails. At any available time, I would read my emails and file them in each folder. I did not create “rules” to automatically file each email. I would manually file them after I read them. Manually filing emails is tedious but forced me to review, take notes or action each email. If an email was not acted upon, I would keep it in the viewing panel to remind me to action. As a general rule, I never left work without zeroing my inbox. This zero inbox system can be time-consuming and will incur an upfront cost in time. However, the benefits far outweigh the costs. My situational understanding was greatly enhanced by this system.
Receiving information from the Staff
“Seeing the field” as an XO requires that your situational understanding assists the commander in calculating the next phase of the operation. But as I discovered early on, the inertia of the organization will, if you allow it, consume your time leaving you in a pattern of only chasing near-term or immediate objectives. The doctrinal systems, such as an OPSYNCH, can be useful, however, I would contend that every staff and personality is different. The XO needs a way to synchronize warfighting functions, understand all plans and keep the staff task oriented.
I developed a set of meetings that were designed to report all pertinent information. The first item was the morning huddle. Most organizations I have been with use this meeting to go over the daily calendar and it ultimately devolves into stream of consciousness. I made this “huddle” like a mini-CUB. The first person to brief was the outgoing Staff Duty Officer (SDO). He or she was the battlefield sensor on the footprint for the night and this meeting would serve as relief of duty and assumption for the incoming SDO. It was amazing how much intelligence I could derive from this source. The SDO was followed by the Provost Marshall (PMO) who would update the commander on key CCIRs. Following the PMO, the S1 would brief the personnel status and key locations of TDY Soldiers. Following the S1, the S3 would brief key calendar events in the next 72 hours. By structuring this meeting, I kept both myself and the Commander informed of battle rhythm items. This also nested well with our staff synchronization meetings.
I utilized the staff synchronization meeting to bookend the week. The first day of every week would have a staff synch. The output of this meeting was to discuss the calendar, deadlines, key events and end states for the week. I created a notes slide that listed all these items. The “end states” were the objectives that needed to be completed before release at the end of the week. Weekend passes can be a major source of staff motivation. During this staff synch, I listed my notes to each section out on a simple single page document. At the end of the week, I would hold another staff sync and go over my notes for the week. Bookending the week and writing clear objectives allowed me and the staff to stay on task. Although these meetings were effective, they still did not gather the detail needed to understand long-term planning efforts and the direction of operations.
To fill this gap, my S3 and I developed a plans review board (PRB) or just the plans pre-brief. The meeting was run by the S3 and was essentially a brief to me, the XO. The intent of this meeting was to provide details of planning efforts and ensure that they are meeting the commander’s intent. The benefit to this meeting was that it forced the S3 shop to keep all staff functions included in the planning of operations. I fell victim to the S3 section planning in a vacuum several times and took it as my job to include all of the staff. Additionally, it helped ease potential awkwardness between the S3 and XO. This meeting illuminated the “plan to plan” and was held once a week. It was not a complex PowerPoint meeting, but rather a simple brief on all pertinent plans.
Developing yourself personally in the profession can be difficult in a job billet that requires so much of your time. When family is added to the equation, the problem becomes more compounded. But as a field grade officer, it is your personal duty to develop your skill sets both tactically and intellectually. Fortunately, twenty-first-century technology and social media is filled with professional development forums and apps. As an XO, I used both of these to my advantage and found each to be equally enriching.
For professional reading, I resolved to read at least two books a month. In graduate school, I could do 6 books a week. But with limited time, you need to use technology to your advantage. The Amazon Audible was made for field grade officers. Audible allows you to read the book on Kindle and listen where you left off while driving to and from work. I was able to retain a great deal of information using this method. For current events, there are literally hundreds of blog sites, defense forums and magazines that can provide daily “Sitreps” or “Morning Briefs” in your email, for free, without a major subscription. Foreign Policy Magazine and Real Clear Defense are two excellent examples. There are also many different peer led forums and podcasts that can be useful such as “The Military Leader” or “From the Green Notebook.” Australia’s Army has an excellent website dedicated completely to Leader Development called “The Cove.” I made sure that I did at least a bit of professional development each day, usually right after PT. Most times, I would read for about twenty minutes then attack the daily problems. Professional Development is an officer’s responsibility and these techniques allowed me to continue to develop at a high level.
The intent of this paper is to share techniques I developed as a field grade during my key developmental time to manage information and professional development. There are probably a dozen different ways to handle this issue and I recommend that each officer figure what system works best for their situation. But the leap from Company Grade to Field Grade has many daunting obstacles including the enormous change in time management. Developing a strategy to manage your routine as an XO will allow you to effectively implement the commander’s intent. Hopefully, this paper can eliminate ambiguity and assist in the development of an effective game plan.
Major David Chichetti is an infantry officer, a graduate of The Citadel and holds a master’s degree in Security Studies from Kansas State University. He served as an XO at the battalion and brigade levels for 2BCT, 101st ABN (AASLT). Maj Chichetti is currently serving is as the 101st ABN (AASLT) Chief of Current Operations.