Don’t Begrudge The Toughest 20% – Advice on Company Command
By Major Dave Godfrey
The sum of your experiences, deployments and courses throughout your career go some way to prepare you for Company Command. However, the full spectrum of the task at hand is rarely apparent until a good proportion of the 2 years has passed. By this time, you wish you’d known more up front.
I’m now a few years out of company command. I’ve also had the privilege of seeing others command companies through the lens of being a Brigade Chief of Staff. With the combination of hindsight from my own command and insight from my current job, I’ve reached a few conclusions about company command.
If you think of your company as the point in the Army’s hierarchy where the email stops and the people start, you get at your core purpose; translating higher intent into military effect through the application of leadership and management. To deliver this, I found there to be two overarching principles that company command requires.
Principle 1: It’s the last 20% that requires real leadership
Pareto’s principle suggests that achieving 80% completion rate in any task is simple, but that you will expend your energy in closing with the last 20%. When a 100% solution is required – vaccinations, passports, pre-deployment training – your leadership and command are critical.
Don’t begrudge the effort you put into that last 20%. No matter how effective your command team, it requires real effort to achieve that 100%.
Principle 2: You will need to balance mission command and mission control
There is a difficult balance to strike when deciding how much control to give up. The balance is driven more by personal style than anything else. Some task will require tight control, but not all of them. Just beware of your natural tendency to get into the detail.
My personal experience led me to conclude that you must actively give space to your company 2IC or platoon commanders. If you do not, they won’t ask for it. But you must provide an appropriate level of assurance. Early on, I found I had the tendency to be immersed in detail and so missed the wider command-related issues. It was particularly true when I was trying to maximise training opportunities. Had I taken a step back or had a wider view I would have spotted some obvious issues.
Beyond these two principles, there are three distinct themes that I think every company commander needs to understand: How to maximise training opportunities; how to raise your soldiers’ horizons; and how to maintain your company’s readiness. To succeed in each of these themes will require that you drive through the last, toughest, 20% and that you balance your desire to control with your need to command.
1. Maximise training opportunities
The best form of welfare for the troops is first rate training. Erwin Rommel
Within your two year command period there will be fewer opportunities for collective training than you would want. All too often your ‘train set’ will be being pulled in various directions. This can lead to frustration for your team. I think this observation is particularly pertinent if your did your early career during the Op HERRICK days. These days units no longer enter the Afghanistan MST sausage-machine. But opportunities genuinely do exist to train your company, collectively or individually.
Fight for collective training time
Regardless of the forecast of events, collective training time at company level is precious. There are, however, a couple of mechanisms available for ensuring that you get quality and meaningful training time.
First, establish ‘red weeks’ with your battalion or regimental HQ where your company is protected from the wide range of tasks and trawls. You’ll often achieve this best if you work with your fellow company commanders to ensuring that intra-company fratricide is prevented.
Second, to ensure that your manning is meaningful for a company-level event, offer other companies the opportunity to send soldiers to join you. Use the backfill from other companies at the Pte and JNCO levels to give you a full ORBAT to deploy. But be aware that this comes with a quid pro quo. When they do the same, be the team player. Remember that when your soldiers deploy with another company on exercise, it improves your company too.
Finally, maximise the value of ‘dead time’ on range weeks or other training events away from camp. For example, rather staying in camp during a week of LFTT try living in the field. Don’t damage your ability to achieve the main training objective, but think about what else you might achieve in addition to it. Teaching your company to live comfortably in the field will pay dividends when you later deploy on a WESSEX or PRAIRIE STORM.
Seek out ‘good trawls’
Compared to previous years, the rate of trawls in the Field Army has increased significantly. But remember that not all trawls are bad. Some come with significant resources. Others offer diverse and quality collective training or development opportunities at section, platoon and company level. At an individual level, acting as an Observer Mentor for a sub-unit going through a CT3/4 exercise will help develop your own command style, collaboratively learning from others.
When you are offered trawls, move fast to volunteer for those that offer an opportunity in order to get away from those that don’t.
Train and dress as you fight
The ‘fight light’ principle has rightly received much publicity over the last few years, but putting it into practice requires leadership. Setting the right culture from the outset is fundamental to making it work.
So apply the fight light principle to every training opportunity, from a day on the ranges or back area to a more formal collective event. It is enabled by simple things such as a company packing list combined with detailed inspections by your NCOs prior to training. It may seen minor, but if the hard yards are made early it soon becomes the new norm.
Learn to prioritise
It is normal to have a number of conflicting priorities: guards, duties, driver training, education, MATTs. If you resourced them all the company’s manpower would be quickly used up.
Everything has an opportunity cost. Impose realistic control measures to ensure that everyone pulls in the same direction. You can do this by setting clear training objectives or by delivering ‘themed’ weeks. These allow properly resourced and coherent training rather than a cobbled together training programme that falls at the first hurdle.
As a Direct Entry officer you might argue that the tail shouldn’t wag the dog. But when you distill it down to reality, G4 can prove a significant point of friction. A dog without a tail can’t wag anything.
When it comes to logistics, don’t be afraid to intervene in the seemingly trivial if it might unhinge your plan. All too often things are quickly fobbed off as too hard to execute. But when the detail is actually worked through and the question ‘tell me why I can’t do something’ is asked, a decent G4 team will find a pragmatic solution.
2. Raise People’s Horizons
Working hard is great, being lazy sometimes is great, but failed potential is the worst. Campbell Scott
Book adventurous training
33% of your soldiers should go on at least five days AT each year. At sub-unit level this is a low target and it’s easily achievable. The real difference you can make is by getting soldiers on AT qualification courses. Take the opportunity to get young soldiers and NCOs away on those AT courses that result in a foundation level certificate. If you can get in early you might start an AT passion that will bear fruit as they progress up the qualification ladder.
Audit and deliver education
Literacy, numeracy and CLM are now directly linked to promotion. Give them the priority they deserve. There are two focuses: ensure your soldiers are qualified for promotion and help soldiers address education issues from their school years. Both maximise career potential.
Conduct an education and CLM audit in your first month of command. It will help identify any issues early and allow you to take be proactive rather than reactive. Do the same for your apprenticeships.
Use Standard Learning Credits to the company’s advantage
Every soldier gets £175 of Standard Learning Credit every year. The scope of the scheme is wide and the courses the soldiers can attend are varied. Get your team to identify 6 – 10 courses that might be of interest, nominate an officer or SNCO lead for each and then encourage every soldier to take up a course.
3. Maintain Your Company’s Readiness
The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable. Sun Tzu
Everyone in the field army should consider themselves at ten days notice to move. Readiness is not just about training and G1. It is a mind set and it requires effort. But having a ‘ready’ sub-unit provides opportunities. It keeps you in the fight for potential deployments and interesting tasks. If the choice for a potential deployment is between two sub-units then the one with the best G1-9 ‘health’ is more likely to be selected.
Do just a little, but often
Maintaining readiness is multifaceted and complex. Personnel documentation must be in order, MATTs complete and vaccinations in date. As I’ve already said, getting your company to 100% is tough. But fight to get there early.
Once you are there all you need to do is schedule regular, small top-ups. If you need to move quickly it will be easier to apply for 2 passports than 20, or book 3 dental checks than a dozen.
Know your way around the managerial systems
To keep on top of the company and prioritise your effort you need to know your way around the managerial systems. It should come as no surprise that there are a significant number of systems that record, manage and measure the health of a unit. It may sound dull, but an important component of maintaining readiness is ensuring that the data on the Army’s various systems is accurate.
You won’t be an expert on these systems when you arrive. In fact, you probably won’t even know about them. But you don’t want to wait until its too late to learn about them. For each one, at least have an account you can log on with. When you arrive, get briefed on each of these:
ODR: for MATTs
ODR is the single tool used to record MATTs. Whilst it is company 2IC business to enter data, provide some managerial oversight. Have your own ODR account to get ground truth using the excellent reporting tools.
JPA: Wills and passports
Both wills and passports are a commonly used readiness metric. The JPA managerial reports allow you to get a very quick handle on those who either need one or are about to need one.
DMICP, JPA: for vaccinations and dental
The JPA managerial dashboard and reporting function provide a useful tool for checking your company’s vaccination and dental status. Do not underestimate the significant work your CSM will have to do to keep on top of these stats.
PAPMIS, DMICP and JPA: for downgrades
Inevitably any sub-unit will have downgraded personnel. Make sure you know your way around the PAPMIS and RECU systems.
WISMIS: for wounded and sick
Soldiers who are long term sick at home require careful management. WISMIS is the Army system that tracks and manages long term sick soldiers. Your brigade HQ will get a red flag if you miss a visit to these soldier. No surprise – your CO will not want this.
FISS: for fitness
FISS is solely administered by qualified PTIs. Requesting regular reports from your PTIs is recommended.
JAMES, MJDI: for logistics
Very much the domain of your CQMS and/or Tech Sgt. JAMES is the most useful management tool, giving you a quick oversight of your equipment availability. Ensuring this matches reality is a challenge. It requires continued engagement by you and your team.
I offer everything above as food for thought prior to assuming command. It should also provide a handrail for the first few months.
It is not exhaustive. Other issues will arise and other problems will confound you. But these points should offer you some guidance from the start. They represent the things I wish I had known when I began my time as a company commander.
Like many in my peer group, my junior command experience and azimuth was dictated by the two major enduring operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whilst operational command opportunities still existed when I became on OC, my company command reflected different and new challenges. During my tenure, there are two stand out memories that underpin what I have penned here.
The first was being asked, at 6 weeks’ notice, to prepare, train and deploy my Company on what would have been the first iteration of Op SHADER – it taught me the importance of readiness. The second was planning and mounting a Company group OTX to the Republic of Georgia – reinforcing the importance of mission command. Both had their unique challenges.
In my time as a Brigade Chief of Staff I have been struck by the enduring currency and importance of ‘the company’ and its commander. I have seen company commanders delivering high profile Defence Engagement exercises in the Middle East, working to intent with huge autonomy. These commanders have delivered the whole lifecycle of an operation in all but name: recce, plan, prepare, deploy, execute and recover, often dealing with strategic enablers to deliver military effect.
Company command is a diverse and empowering challenge. Never forget that it must be built on a firm foundation: the ability and agility of your people. Invest in them early and the dividends will continue to be paid out.
If you want more advice for sub-unit commanders then check out the Sub-Unit Command Series. It is a series of articles written by brigade commanders, senior officers and former sub-unit commanders, all aimed to make you the best OC you can be.