The Strength of the Clan is in The Clansman: Reflections on Company Command
By Al Phillips
The rotation of Sub-Unit Commanders across the British Army is well and truly under way with many new Officers Commanding (OC) now in appointment, and the next batch churning over the coming weeks. I was asked by a friend who is about to start as an OC, ‘how have you found sub-unit command?’ He pointed out that there were many great articles on being an OC but they tended to be from the ‘has beens’. As in those that look back on their two years in command, rather than those that are currently commanding. It is a subtle distinction, but he wanted to understand what the current lived experience is and what he would step into. My initial response was pretty poor and I also thought: ‘who am I to comment’. However, the question did get me thinking. This article offers an insight into my thoughts as an OC currently in command of D Company, ‘The Clan’, of 4 SCOTS with the aim of offering those starting on their journey some tips that will ease them into command.
Looking back, two years as a Sub-Unit Commander seemed like it would be such a long time. However, one year in and it has passed in the blink of an eye. Company command has been better than I would have hoped for and has been both hard work and rewarding in equal measure. I have found my most important lessons have fallen into three clear categories: Statements of the obvious that are so obvious that they need restating; reflections on the importance of developing your team; and some realities that took me by surprise. Some of these reflections may cause the nodding of heads and the spark of recognition which will stimulate debate, be met with agreement or simply disregarded as trivia. However, all are worth remembering ahead of assuming sub-unit command.
Statements of the Obvious
Sub-Unit Command is a G 1-9 battle
The Army expects you to be a good Sub-Unit Commander, yet all of your formal training will have focused on delivering an operational effect. Far less training is delivered to enable success in areas outside the stereotypical Sub-Unit Commander’s comfort zone. Discipline, report writing, and equipment care spring to mind immediately. The approach I have asked my Company to adopt is simple: Secure the G1 and G4 to enable exploitation of 3, 5 and 7 (see image below). Remember, SMEs are there to help you and, in any battalion or regiment will do so, just ask!
Soldiers want to soldier
Managing your soldiers time is a huge challenge, particularly with the demand many face through trawls or taskings that result in them spending time away from home. Their time in barracks is essential and plays a key part in maintaining the balance between the components of fighting power, not least the moral component for those with families. It remains true though that soldiers in my experience genuinely enjoy soldiering. Short of operational deployments this is delivered through training. Soldiers enjoy it, especially if it is delivered in a way that challenges and develops those executing it. It is often the most arduous and horrendous exercise that bonds individuals and moulds the collective memory of an organisation. I have found the balancing act of trying to preserve individuals’ time away from home (due to commitments outside of my control), against the requirement to collectively train, challenging. The way I have tackled this is to invest in the planning and delivery of training by asking the company what they feel we need to develop to achieve our training objectives.
I am blessed with a highly competent Company 2IC who I challenge to refine and compress training, to preserve weekends and to make it as interesting and relevant as possible. He couldn’t do it without input from the section and platoon commanders. He will canvass collective opinion and balance the suggested training against the required training objectives. This means the soldiers get to soldier and conduct training at a time that has the least impact on their personal lives. This has made a tangible difference in reducing avoidable personnel frictions and gets the best out of those in the company. I would commend organising training that has the buy-in of your company, is planned to avoid causing friction to your soldiers’ personal lives and allows soldiers to soldier.
Some soldiers want you to be the fittest, some want you to be there doing what they are doing. Some don’t care whether they see you or not, they just want to know you are looking after their interests and careers. What is striking is that regardless of what they individually want from you, they all want honesty. Some of the horror stories from peers or soldiers who express they have been let down by false promises or faced unexpected negative comment by people pretending to be something they are not, amazes me. I’m not naïve enough to believe all of these stories. However, to avoid this happening to those under my chain of command I have always maintained a consistent approach to being an OC. This means everyone knows what to expect. I don’t have any wild expectations, or impulses that keep people second guessing. When approaching deadlines and tasks I communicate as much as I can to keep an all informed network.
This ensures the command and management team in my company understand what I am trying to achieve, the pressures I am facing and to anticipate what I may ask from them. Unfortunately, I know that not all soldiers, regardless of rank or branch can say the same of their boss. I owe it to my subordinates and those I work with to make the process as enjoyable and painless as possible. By being authentic people know what I expect and how I like to work. It also means that people expect me to tell them the truth. Not every sergeant will be a company sergeant major, not every platoon commander will command a company. Sometimes individuals need to know these things and, in my experience, as painful as it is to hear, people would rather know. It means expectations are managed and appropriate career decisions can be made for the benefit of the individual and organisation. Ultimately, in the words of Sir Bill Slim – “Leadership is plain you. Be honest. If you try to be something you are not you will be found out”. Treat your soldiers with the respect they deserve. Be authentic and honest, even if the recipient doesn’t like what they are hearing.
Education is Key to Success
You, or rather your Company, is only as good as the collective team, this means you need to invest in training them; if you don’t, collectively you will fail. This is true for all areas of the G1-9 battle and is compounded by the inexperience of many individuals, particularly officers working in your company group. I doubt any company commanders go into command thinking “I’m not going to develop my people”. In reality, doing this is often more difficult than expected, it takes time and should be a deliberate and continuous process. Through experience I have found a few simple ways to mentor. Firstly, have an open-door policy and be accessible. By doing this it makes your subordinates want to share their challenges with you. This has been the simplest way in not only dealing with issues but imparting experience and advice to officers who may have been in the Army for a matter of months. Other approaches to mentoring are more targeted and are based on specific requirements. For example, prior to every report writing period I conduct a clinic for the platoon commanders and sergeants to ensure they understand how to construct and upload reports. I also red-pen all their drafts so they can see where they have gone wrong. This ensures rapid improvement, building trust and delivering for soldiers. The final method I have found to be invaluable is to encourage all commanders in the company to mentor their subordinates. It has also been a great way of improving overall performance. It means that individuals are encouraged to teach, debate, read and signpost amongst each other developing that ‘learning culture’ that is so critical to ensure continuous improvement. As an OC I enjoy being mentored by the CO and learning not only from superiors but also from peers and subordinates. Mentoring your subordinates enriches the team and enhances overall performance.
Leadership is also about followership. We all have a boss and we all form part of a bigger organisation. The vision for our part of that organisation must synchronise to meet and execute our higher commanders’ intent. This is the key to empowerment: being a good follower and earning your superiors trust ensures that you are given the freedom of mission command. By earning this it means that you are less constrained and can therefore delegate greater freedoms and mission command to your subordinates. The saying “credibility buys you freedom” epitomises this. Followership requires effort and education. As a commander being a good follower is as important as being a good leader, it reduces friction and brings coherence. That does not mean you shouldn’t challenge or raise issues with your boss. Just know when to do so. Educate your subordinates in the concept of followership to assist them in becoming better leaders.
Time on exercise in the field as a company group is limited. Using wargaming in the form of table-top exercises or as a rehearsal of concept drill is essential to maximise the training benefit of time in the field. Prior to any company exercise I conduct a MAPEX to talk through each company action that is likely to be conducted. Wargaming is key to ensuring Company SOIs are understood by all and it provides a useful and interactive revision of doctrine and tactics, techniques and procedures. The most successful method I have utilised to do this is to get a 3km squared area of mapping enlarged to fit on two six by two-foot tables and create a set of generic terrain board. This board is then used in conjunction with internet purchased 1inch square cubes or tokens to represent callsigns (down to section and vehicle level) to wargame scenarios. Conducting this with all platoon commanders, sergeants, the CSM and CQMSs along with my LAD SSgt ensure that the whole company group are represented and talk through their part of an action. As a handrail and because of the unit in which I command a company I use Army Field Manual – Warfighting Tactics 5b – Mechanised and Light Infantry tactics.
The general flow of a session will be that as the commander I lead on talking through a doctrinal concept using the tokens. Once the action or activity is understood tasks are allocated to each platoon and as a company we each talk through its conduct. As we do so we highlight all the frictions, ask the SMEs to comment on how we should incorporate them into the activity, for example vehicle recovery or casualty evacuation and note it down. The final stage is to run through the activity again in full incorporating the ‘actions on’.
This approach has paid dividends on the last two company exercises deployed on. It means that routine things, like occupying a vehicle hide, or conducting a rolling replenishment are understood and visualised by the commanders completing the task. Once the company has done this the platoons then rotate through the map board with their section commanders and vehicle commanders. I also use the same tokens when delivering formal and hasty orders to bring the orders to life and cement understanding. The use of wargaming has made a tangible difference in our ability to operate in the field and will be utilised again ahead of the next company deployment later this year. The idea of wargaming isn’t necessarily cool but its utility should be taught to all commanders and enablers in the company. It ensures common understanding and avoids friction in the field.
Realities of Company Command
Commanding your company in the field is a challenge, but as previously mentioned, you are expected to be good at it. It is likely however that you will be judged on all the ‘other stuff’ you are tasked to do. As an OC I am also OiC sports, the battalion lead for Mech Inf tactical doctrine, lead for ensuring the battalion is ready to receive its first female SCOTS soldiers, responsible for JNCO development and am about to be the PMC. (So what?) These additional tasks contribute to the fabric of what it means to be in the Army for Officers, SNCOs, JNCOs and Soldiers alike. They are all as important as each other on any given day. Clearly you will not be able to complete all of these tasks at the same time. A mistake I made early on was to focus on the soldiering side of company command, as it is within my comfort zone. I soon found that people were more interested in the ‘other stuff’ so I had to re-focus. A fellow OC helped by offering advice on how he had dealt with his tasks.
The key has been to forecast activity. This may seem an obvious point and I’m not suggesting an annual synch matrix of what will happen throughout the year. However, by plotting key dates under each area of additional responsibility, it has been easier to prioritise work and therefore apply effort accordingly. For example, in my near future, planning the battalion inter-company sports competition requires extra effort after summer leave, whereas the deployment of my company to Canada needs effort now. Prioritisation is key, be prepared to receive a host of responsibilities that don’t necessarily align to what you view your job to be and remember you are likely to be judged on the extra things you do, not your core job.
A week in the life as a Sub-Unit Commander isn’t fulfilled unless you have completed a serial number check. Your team are experts and all departments across the battalion will support you. I have found the quantity of checks and audits extremely time consuming, but it is worth remembering that the checks form part of a wider inspection regime and must be completed diligently to maintain combat effectiveness and give assurance to the CO. While no-one necessarily wakes up and thinks ‘I’m going to mess this up today’, failing to conduct these checks will end in disaster. I inherited a G4 department that was not on-top of its game, not through malicious intent but purely due to operational and other commitments. This resulted in near disaster with a last-minute effort and application of combat power to comply with policy and meet the required inspection standard. It was not a comfortable experience.
To rectify this, I implemented a more methodical approach to checks and asked my account holders to schedule time with me to ensure I complete the relevant checks. As I always tell them, “I don’t know what I don’t know!” An approach the QM has implemented in my unit that has been extremely helpful is to publish the mandated quarterly inspection regime. I have this information on my board and it ensures that when planning activity, I factor in the kit inspection requirement. This ensures my aspirations are not unhinged by last minute inspections and ensures that the QM has timely and accurate reports on my sub unit holdings. Make time to ensure you conduct routine and thorough management checks, reputations can be lost due to poor G4 management.
Whether one agrees or not: perception counts. If your company parades on time every muster or you are regularly finishing well in inter-coy events, a perception of competence will pervade across the unit. People will look at your company and assume you are all over it. Maintaining this perception ensures you have the freedom to genuinely cover all the bases and are not constantly having to justify your approach. Unfortunately, this can work the other way too. If you are frequently going to the CO with issues relating to ill-discipline or infractions, a negative perception can develop. That Is not to say you should hide things, far from it, your CO will encourage you to raise issues and assist you in solving them. Work hard to be good at what you do. Perceptions matter. If you can build a perception of excellence it will smooth the way for your company. So next time you are on inter-company PT, make sure to win!
Finally: Empowerment = Responsibility
As an OC I genuinely feel empowered to run D Company as I deem appropriate, train how I wish within the resources available to meet my CO’s intent and the specified tasks set. I am keenly aware that this freedom carries significant responsibility. If I fail to meet the required standard, I am accountable to the CO. I have tried to pass this approach down my chain of command by giving tasks to Platoon Commanders and Section Commanders, resourcing activity and giving them time to complete it. Platoon Commanders are incredibly keen and hardworking; however, they are not trained in the workings of the Army machine. To maximise empowerment you need to train, mentor, assist and accompany until you can let them get on with it. At times they have failed to deliver training because they have overlooked the specifics, such as booking transport or ammunition. These failures are incredibly frustrating but fortunately the same mistakes have not been made twice and are therefore a positive learning experience. Critically, individuals and commanders in the company have learnt that empowerment is both hard work and rewarding, but ultimately they have responsibility and, as their OC, so do you.
Moving forward I have an exciting year ahead; as I write my company is currently deployed to BATUS with the 1RRF Battlegroup. In the autumn I will conduct Exercise WESSEX STORM and the winter will see us conduct mission specific training for deployment to Kabul in spring. The lessons I have learnt from my first year in command have set the conditions for success. Although every OC’s sub-unit command experience varies It is worth remembering and considering the statements of the obvious in your approach to command; Sub-Unit Command is a G1-9 battle, soldiers want to soldier, and you must be authentic. If not you may well be caught up in avoidable friction that will dampen your Sub-Unit Command experience.
I have found that education has been a key part of ensuring that my time as an OC has been enjoyable. Invest in mentorship, know when to be a good follower and explain the idea of followership to your subordinates. Utilise wargaming to develop and practice company tactical action before deploying in the field. This will ensure you get the most out of your precious collective training time. Finally, I would encourage any incoming OC to consider what I have found to be the realities of command. Additional responsibilities are as important as your core role and often more time consuming: you will be judged on how you perform in them. Management checks are critical, failure to comply will ruin you. Trusting is fine, checking is better. Remember, perception counts. If you look the part and perform, you will be empowered and given the freedom to act.
As my CO advised in my initial interview, “Sub-Unit Command is all consuming! Enjoy!”
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Media Credits: Images Crown Copyright shared under the Open Government Licence, and author’s own.