What Got You Here Won’t Get You Further: On Success, Culture and Communication
By Maj Will Meddings.
If you are soon to take over your sub-unit, I expect you are feeling pretty good about yourself. I know I was. Over the 12 or so years leading up to company command I’d thought a great deal about who I wanted to be as a commander, what I wanted my company to be and how we would go about doing it. As a platoon commander I had (what I thought were) great ideas that I was too junior to implement. As the RSO I wished OCs would invest in their signallers more. As adjutant I learnt how the MS and G1 swords could be wielded to best effect. I also saw the criteria by which two COs judged their company commanders.
Our experiences define what kind of commander we will be and how we will operate. I now look back on my company command through the lens of more experience; I have spent two years at the Centre for Army Leadership. During that time I’ve thought long and hard about what I got right and wrong. With hindsight, I have two observations on the role of experience in sub-unit command.
1. What got you here won’t get you further. To get to sub-unit command you’ve proved you were successful at all those jobs that came before. Just acting on the lessons you learned in those jobs isn’t enough to make you successful in sub-unit command. You may have seen previous sub-unit commanders get things wrong. They were as experienced then as you are now. So remember that what you’ve learned so far won’t automatically make you a great sub-unit commander.
2. Beware doing the job of your subordinates. After about 12 years in the army, you’d make a great platoon commander. In fact, you’d undoubtedly be the best platoon commander (and company 2IC) in your company. But that’s not your job. If you try and make it your job to be great at your subordinates jobs you’ll fail: They won’t grow and you won’t be able to do your actual job.
I’m not arguing that you throw your experience out of the window when you arrive. The point I’m making is that sub-unit command has some important differences to your previous command and staff roles. Success is about understanding those differences and acting accordingly.
These are the three differences that I observed and have reflected on, two years since I finished sub-unit command.
Define success right
In most branches of the army the sub-unit is the smallest formation than can support itself. Sub-unit command is often the first time you have subordinate officers and a staff (small though it is). And sub-unit command offers unprecedented level of freedom.
All that independence and can be focussed when you realise that, for almost every person in the company, you get to define success.
That might seem an odd thing to say. Surely the CO defines what success is? But the reality for your company is that he or she is distant and removed. You will look people in the eye when they complete a task and deliver instant (often visceral) feedback. So how you define success is critical and powerful. Be careful not to misuse that power.
My advice? If you think of Adair’s three circles, your criteria for success should include a combination of performing your mission, developing your people and building your team. Even more importantly, it should have medium and long term elements. Measuring success is about how your sub-unit performs during your tenure, and whether or not you leave it in a better place than when you arrived.
As an example, during my second year of command I defined success as my company being the company of choice for the brigade commander. My measurement of that was in how the company performed in Kenya on Exercise ASKARI STORM. Which was taking place the year after I left.
Yes, I measured my success on how well my successor’s company performed. In my second year we ran another company’s MST package, went through our own MST (which the CO validated) and we trained from ACMT to company-level field firing. I could have defined all of those events as key success criteria. I found that defining success as something that I could not gain credit for (but could be blamed for!) was hugely useful. It allowed me to worry less, focus on long term value, treat training as an opportunity to learn and, I believe, made the company better.
So think long and hard about how you will define success. It will have a huge effect on the sub-unit.
Set the culture… deliberately
Once you know what your aim is you can set about creating the culture that will deliver it. Doing this is a deliberate act.
This means that everything in fitness, skills training, tactical training and conceptual development should be underpinned by the culture you are trying to inculcate. But it’s also more than that.
I recently did some leadership and performance work with Saracens Rugby. Their exceptional team psychologist explained that they broadly had four lines of operation: Fitness, technique, tactics and culture. Other teams believed that culture was a by-product of the other three. At Saracens they believed culture was an activity in itself that required deliberate investment. It’s a view I subscribe to.
When I was in command there were a whole load of activities I pigeon-holed under ‘team cohesion or ‘retention-positive’. I now look back and consider those as vehicles to reinforce culture. My favourite definition of group culture is from anthropologist Clifford Geertz: “culture is the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves.” When you are doing all those ‘team cohesion’ events make sure they are underpinning the stories and messages at the heart of the culture you are trying to build.
For me it was about being an inclusive, learning and improving organisation that unlocked people’s potential in order to better the Battalion (not just the company). Decide what yours is then set about reinforcing it as a deliberate line of operations.
It’s different now, so communicate differently
For everything I’ve said above, the biggest difference between sub-unit command and what has come before is about how you communicate. As an OC you are right at the edge of the boundary between being a team leader and being an organisational leader.
You will be able to remember the faces and names of all of your troops (although I often struggled to put all of those names to faces). But only a tiny proportion of the influence you have over your troops will be face to face – you will project your leadership through your immediate command team.
This means that when you interact with your command team you must always think about the second order effect of that interaction. Your direct interaction will influence less than 10% of your sub-unit. The most junior 90% (the ones that deliver the mission) will be influenced by the ripples. They won’t hear you – they will hear their platoon commander’s interpretation of what you said and feel the effect of your message, not the words.
Similarly, the face to face interactions you have with those outside the team will be less regular but more significant. You will touch people’s lives less often, but the finger prints you leave will be much deeper. The most junior soldiers will remember what you did and how you made them feel more than what you said. Again, the ripples in the pond have the widest effect, not the stone.
If you throw the stone wrong, you’ll get the wrong ripples. It’s the ripples that matter and you don’t have many opportunities to throw stones. So think about the second order effect of your actions all the time.
Enjoy the ride
Sub-unit command was the first level at which you have no choice but to lead through others. It’s also a level where you gain a significant amount of autonomy.
These are what define its difference. Understanding culture and communication is important to every leader. To a sub-unit commander, defining where the team is going and then creating the environment in which your people can get there is a major part of your job. It is all underpinned by consistent, constant communication that is designed for second-order effect.
There is, of course, much more than this. I could add thoughts on including your attached arms, building relationships with those above you and to your flanks, and the importance of knowing the G1 system inside-out.
Nor would I suggest that I got all of this right. I missed many opportunities. I took control when I should have loosened the reigns. When things went right it was often because I had given my people the freedom to use their initiative and rectify my mistakes. I rarely got angry; when I did I always regretted it. My biggest regrets are from when I didn’t look after my people as well as I should have done.
In all, I would recommend you enjoy the ride. You will never spend enough time sat under a poncho in the rain chatting with your soldiers. Fit in as much of that as you can.
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.