A Junior Officer’s Thoughts on Staff Leadership
By Maj Mark Shercliff
We are taught to equate military leadership with the adrenaline and tempo of operations in the field, yet the reality is that many of our opportunities to exercise good leadership are actually in the different (but still challenging) environment of a staff headquarters. Staff roles, even staff leadership roles, are frequently unpopular. This is often because a staff headquarters feels separated from the reality and enjoyment of soldiering. It’s also often because it feels like there is a lack of leadership and a lack of need for you to lead. These are, in fact, two sides of the same coin – a feeling that leadership on the staff is neither required, expected or perhaps the same as the leadership practised elsewhere in the Army.
Those three feelings are incorrect.
This article is a crystallisation of views on both leading and being lead on the staff, gathered from a number of junior officers, both SO2s and SO3s.
1. Whenever you can, apply the practices and principles of leadership that you would anywhere else in military life.
This must be the first observation. For an Army Officer, the adjustment from Regimental Duty into a more faceless and less physically dynamic staff environment can mean the fundamentals are forgotten. Interview your subordinates. Treat them as well as you treated your platoon, company or battalion. Remember to assess regularly that you are doing this, even better by seeking peer and subordinate input if you can. You are still every bit the leader.
Listed below are themes informed by the experiences of a cross-section of SO2s in the Army HQ. They are advice to every staff officer, irrespective of rank or post.
2. Give clear and early direction, and encourage a culture of checking intent.
Your staff want to produce the best work for you to solve the problem, and they rarely set out to deliberately answer the wrong question. Arm them with relevant information, time and clear boundaries (such as what isn’t required, and when work should be paused). Make it clear that they should come back to you with progress updates (according to their experience and competence) to reduce nugatory effort. Take the time to understand where your staff aren’t clear on their role or boundaries, or which of your many priorities really is important today/tomorrow/this month.
3. Expose them to the wider context.
Share the background of your in-tray with them, and those of peer branches, and of course the 1up and 2up – as you would on the battlefield.
Your subordinates will want to join the dots of a problem, to help give you a better answer. They can’t without sufficient understanding of how their work fits with the whole – or the challenge facing the wider HQ or organisation. Invest the time to share the background of your in-tray with them, and those of peer branches, and of course the 1up and 2up – as you would on the battlefield. Take your staff with you into senior briefings, and have them lead – even if they or you are uncomfortable initially. You will be absent the next time the call from your boss comes; they need to cut their teeth as soon as practicable.
4. Understand the motivations and capabilities of your team.
It is your duty to create situations where your team are able to relax together, and individually, outside the office
The variety of experience and aspirations within your team may be significant. You must invest the time appreciating who wants to go the extra mile, who can’t, and who won’t – conversely those who have a hidden skill that won’t necessarily be apparent in a static, desk-based environment. It is your duty to create situations where your team are able to relax together, and individually, outside the office – you will discover much to make you a better leader of them. On occasion you will get the best results by structuring around experience and personality, which maybe at odds with a formal rank hierarchy – encourage the right culture within your team to enable this.
5. Remember – you are still on parade.
Particularly in an open-plan environment, your team will see your interactions with peers and subordinates far more frequently than you might be used to in more conventional military environments. It may not always be apparent to others how much pressure you are under, or vice versa; they will assume how you act with others is how you are as a person You team will take their lead from your engagements with others in the HQ and outside – and they will live with the frictions ensuing from any strained relationships you have created in your network.
6. Be open with your team.
Know when to go home, or conduct your work elsewhere, to leave the team to it.
Anything other than total transparency in your dealings will likely be counterproductive; enforce robustly a collegiate approach. Whatever you pronounce on work-life balance, back it up with action and behaviour – this is more important than a glib exhortation to knock off early, the clichéd cry of ‘why are you still here?’ when the team’s answer is probably simply ‘doing the task you just set us’. Know when to go home, or conduct your work elsewhere, to leave the team to it.
7. Take time to mentor.
The pervasive deadline culture of most staff environments places the onus on you to create time in diaries (theirs and yours) to mentor your team. The investment will be repaid in spades. Some may need a nudge to respond to personal development, others will have the desire but not the wisdom and advice that you can offer. Get it right and your team will thrive in your absence, for the right reasons, releasing more of your time and effort for focus elsewhere (and to do more mentoring). Consider all of your team, military and civilian. There is a natural military tendency to focus on our own, a habit which, in leading by example, you can address.
8. Challenge upwards.
Sometimes your own staff will sense impending challenges or ‘car crashes’, but they will need you to take the bold steps
As well as moral courage, this will also require a keen sense of when your team are running at their maximum capacity – fostered by a close understanding of where their frustrations lie, and the causes. Sometimes your own staff will sense impending challenges or ‘car crashes’, but they will need you to take the bold steps of engaging upwards to avert the crisis (which they will be working late to resolve).
Frequently the concern will be more prosaic – ambiguous or conflicting direction from your superior, which you have failed to challenge before passing the work downward to your team. When you intervene to avert wasted or duplicated effort, no one will thank you. But if you regularly don’t, the morale of your team will suffer.
9. The Thank You.
Orchestrating a walk-by from a more senior officer to thank an individual or team has a disproportionately positive effect. Great leaders recognise achievement. Arrange for it to happen. If you don’t make it happen your boss may be too busy to realise it needs doing. It will cost you and them little, while the gain for your team will always be worth it.
When you move from command into a staff appointment, remember that your responsibility to lead, mentor and develop your team moves with you. Whether your team at staff is military or civilian, concentrated, dispersed or virtual, they deserve from you exactly the same attention to their needs and motivations as your previous platoon, company or regiment.
There are seven more pieces of advice about leading on the staff, from managing emails to look after the back-room team, in Staff Ninja or Staff Monkey? If you are on the staff, check it out.