Staff Ninja or Staff Monkey?
By David Crosbie
The British Army, like many other armies, talks openly about being a learning organisation. Review and reflection are actively encouraged, with a view to making the institution and its people better in the long run. We even have an Army Command Standing Order for it (ACSO 1118, in case you were wondering!) Unsurprisingly, most of this thinking focuses on the G3/5/7 areas; lessons identified here save lives and generally enhance operational effectiveness. But what about reflection in the staff space?
I am part of the current cohort of Majors who are coming to the end of their first dabbles ‘on the staff’ and who are now seeing the glint of the Sub-Unit Command light at the end of the staff tunnel. It seems an appropriate time to reflect on the initial Staff lessons I have learned. For me, this period was bookended by two short but excellent articles on similar topics: Mark Shercliff’s ‘Leading on the Staff’, and Dave Chase and Joe Byerly’s ‘Seven unwritten rules of email’. I read Mark’s article towards the start of my Initial Grade 2 job and Dave and Joe’s article towards the end. Over the course of the last two years I reflected on both pieces and discussed my thoughts with other junior Majors. In the process of doing so, I noted down my own ‘lessons observed’.
In my mind the adage from operational headquarters applies here too: ask yourself – who else needs to know? Failing to pass on my own observations to only my replacement seems lazy. Whilst I may have worked in only one Directorate in a certain Andover-based HQ, I suspect the observations have wider relevance. Hopefully you find them of use, helping you become a staff ninja, slicing through confusion, rather than a staff monkey, simply tapping at keys.
Enter the Staff Dojo.
To prefix my thoughts, my opening observation is that everything in the articles by both Mark and Dave and Joe remain valid. The points they make are simple but highly important and should be read by anyone about to join the staff environment for the first time. My points complement theirs.
Displaying EQ doesn’t make you weak.
First, emotional intelligence (often referred to as ‘EQ’, versus the classical intelligence of IQ) is a force-multiplier on the staff. I have regularly been surprised (and at times a little disappointed) by the approach of some of my MTP-clad brethren. Whilst there is a time and a place for the punchy, directive military approach that works so well on the battlefield, this is often a counter-productive approach in a staff headquarters conference room anywhere. The staff officer (of any rank) who makes the time to get to know and chat to colleagues, who can sense when a different approach may be required in a meeting and who values the contribution of everyone in the room (regardless of employment type), will always achieve better results. Taking the time to build relationships pays dividends.
Know your boss but do not butt-snorkel.
Get to know your boss so you can practice good followership. I don’t mean be that guy with a penchant for butt-snorkelling, but your boss (especially at OF5/6 level) will be busy and will quickly rely on you to add value to the team. How does your boss like to be briefed? Do they prefer ‘five minutes at the desk out of a notebook’, or are they a ‘straight down the line IRTB’ kind of person? It matters not; test and adjust quickly so you are assisting their decision-making rather than slowing it down.
Also consider the first point on EQ. Remember your boss is also human. If they’ve just had seven hours of back-to-back meetings then your complicated and very, very important (but not urgent) update brief can probably wait. Scan their diary when working out your staffing timelines. Test this assumption with them early so you’re not inadvertently ambushing your own boss.
Here come the men (and women) in black…
Appreciate the Civil Servants. Obviously, this comes with a caveat. Like the military there are both good and bad ones, but especially in larger HQs the civil servants are often the corporate memory who will protect you from quickly joining the Good Ideas Club. Seek out their advice and work out where they can add real value alongside you and your military colleagues. Remember that you will be the umpteenth keen Major they’ve seen cycle through in the last decade. Draw on their experience, but don’t be afraid to constructively challenge if you sense they are being a little too pedestrian.
You’ve got mail.
Consider your email etiquette. The article by Dave and Joe covers many great points but I’ve still been amazed by the email faux pas that are regularly committed. Do not respond in anger. If you are replying in haste to an email that has got your back up, you probably need to apply the safety catch and step back. Especially if you’re about to Reply All (including the starred officers…).
Be succinct but also be polite. You can be pithy and direct without sounding like a fool. If in doubt, get a colleague to proof-read emails first. If they inhale deeply and look at you whilst they look for the right words, you have probably got it wrong. Finally, do not add the ‘To/Cc’ addressees until after you’ve composed that important email. There is nothing like a good email ND to a wide-ranging audience to make you look like an amateur.
Amateurs study tactics, Masters study logistics (or: get to know the people behind the scenes).
Whilst I would never for a second suggest that some people reach a rank where they think administration just happens, I would observe that many hiccups on the staff environment are caused by very busy people overlooking the ‘admin people’. In a large HQ where numerous functions are either out-sourced or executed by a mixture of civilian and military staff, it pays to get to know these people. The Mess Manager and Mess staff who magically make the coffee and biscuits arrive for that important working group. The conference management team who can make the VTC work or provide that elusive HDMI cable when you really need it. The design studio who will produce whatever you need for that critical conference. It really is worth giving these people the time of day, and not treating them like mere lackies as some people seem to do. If anything, it’s just good manners.
Practice what we preach (and teach).
Get your boss to follow our doctrine. For example, Integrated Action is not new anymore. It is referenced in multiple supporting documents. The concept of OOEA (Outcome, Objective, Effect, Action) is taught at staff college and widely referred to. We know we should be talking in outcomes; this encourages mission command from subordinates (and staff) who can work out the ‘how’ to the ‘what’. Too often I hear senior leaders still talking in the language of ‘do something ’. This is ambiguous and wastes staff time. Invariably, the ‘thing’ you spend hours/days/weeks doing is not quite the ‘thing’ your boss really wanted, and the goalposts move again.
Talk in terms of outcomes and encourage your boss to do the same. As a staff officer, I’d recommend employing David Marquet’s language by saying “I intend to…”. It saves time and forces some clarity into the staff process. If your boss makes the desired outcome clear and you make the proposed route clear there is far less room for misunderstanding or ‘translucent goalposts’.
Like a bridge over troubled water…
Good staff officers seem to smooth the water. This is no different to being at Regimental Duty. At company-level, the Battalion HQ are often viewed with irritation: seemingly sitting on trawls, compressing your timelines, and issuing direction with no perceived care for your company. At BHQ-level, that company can be an equal irritation. Always late with returns, causing the HQ G1 and G3 headaches and appearing needy and demanding. In reality, everyone is usually half-right. The same is true between desk officers and staff branches, and principals and outer offices. It is conversation and engagement between the levels that allows issues to be worked through and prevents tempers boiling over and commanders getting unnecessarily irritated. Good staff officers will equally smooth the water. Trusted to engage, they will work through the knotty problems and ensure the relationships between headquarters (or staff branches) upwards, downwards and sideways remain cordial and professional. Spot the friction points early and work out how to overcome them.
Be the Staff Ninja
Whether the heady days of ICSC(L) are coming to a close, or you are joining the staff environment for the first time in another rank or position, I believe the observations above will be of use. Ultimately, Mark Shercliff’s words still ring true:
“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”
By reflecting on the observations of others, and adding some of my own, we may collectively begin to move from ‘lessons observed’ towards ‘lessons learned’. The points above can be neatly summarised:
- Hone and use your EQ as a strength
- Get to know and understand your boss
- Appreciate the Civil Servants
- Think before you click – email etiquette counts
- Make time to know the people behind the scenes
- Talk and work in outcomes; test assumptions early with “I intend to…”
- Build bridges upwards, downwards and sideways
Others – including you – will no doubt have their own observations and lessons in this area. If this article has either helped you or resonated with you even a little, then consider building on it with your actions and your words.
If you are looking for more advice on leading on the staff, check out Mark Shercliff’s article A Junior Officer’s Thoughts on Staff Leadership with nine superb tips on how to lead better on the staff.