A Veteran’s Perspective on Training and Development
By Richard Clark
Jocks, NCOs and officers are now far more transparent about their successes and failures than they were in my day (All those years ago!). It is a good thing, too. When I left the Army several years ago it was rare to talk about the challenges one went through and the failures and near-failures one had.
The increasing openness and willingness to communicate successes and failures we have made is to be celebrated. It must not abate. Discussing failure and explaining how you improved is critical to training and development, to getting the best out of yourself and your team. As part of that continuous process I will share some of my failures. In doing so I aim to highlight my thoughts on development, training and how to motivate others to take ownership of themselves and team members.
My Platoon Sergeants Battle Course was a winter course. In the January of 2010 on Sennybridge Training Area, in the windswept hills of Wales, it was ridiculous. The blokes on the course were forever freezing and I was no different. Having just done an operational tour in Afghanistan I thought I had all the answers. I would soon realise how wrong I was!
On the Platoon Sergeants’ Battle Course (PSBC) students are given a variety of command appointments. My first attempt at being the Platoon Commander failed miserably. On the very first attack of Week 2 I felt it right to question the need to drag a man 2 kilometres when we could (in theory) call in a helicopter. After all, I was told repeatedly during the pre-course that we should ask for anything and everything as you just never know what you might get. It would seem that a norwegian of hot tomato soup at 0200 in the morning was doable, but a heli? Not so much.
This heli request, something that I considered a pearl of wisdom at the time I offered it, was met with utter disdain by my Directing Staff (DS), an ‘old school’ RRF chap. He wasn’t interested in practising at training with the current Standard Operating Procedures. He wanted to see the guys on the course sweat, to bleed if necessary. In his view, the point of the course was not about using the resources available. It was to endure the hardships of a casevac. To this day I am not sure who was right and who was wrong.
Fast forward to the next serial. I was stood up, unexpectedly, to be the Platoon Commander. My DS wanted me to feel pressure. He wanted to prove a point, I guess, and prove a point he did. In the five minutes I was given to prepare I naively condensed my briefing to the section commanders and as a result I paid lip service to marking up our maps, setting a Line of Departure and pointing out other relevant locations. What ensued was less a platoon attack and more a ‘cake and arse party’. My DS had achieved his aim. I lost my momentum and ultimately failed the command appointment. It was a bitter disappointment; I was embarrassed and very deflated.
How to Command an Attack
Sometime later my platoon was finishing off a week of attacks with a live-firing platoon attack, the type where all the head-shed come along. I recall the CO and RSM being around and perhaps the OC.It was a live platoon attack so there was likely to be a lot going on. The Platoon Commander appointment was given to a Parachute Regiment lad. He was exceptional and I remember vividly how well the attack went. For my part, I was a section commander and by the end of the range I was blowing out of every hole in my body. I really dug-out for the guys. There could be no complaints about my commitment to the section commander role. I knew the job inside and out and thrived in that position. In the subsequent debrief my DS stood in front of the entire platoon and said, “Gents, that’s how to command an attack”. He was full of plaudits for the attack and, to be honest, I could not help but agree.
But moments later, to my utter surprise and dismay, he went on to compare this exceptional attack to my failed appointment. I was blown away. I had essentially been ridiculed, my capabilities had been questioned and at that point I had zero ability to challenge it. In fairness, some of the lads came to me later and said that the DS was wrong to have pursued such a vendetta but, for my part, I was gob smacked. PSBC was really important to me and despite suffering for much of the course with a significant hip injury I tried my bloody hardest, apparently to no avail.
The DS had a bee in his bonnet and, try as I might, there was no changing his mind. I was keen to resolve the issue and so I went to another member of the DS to seek advice. He was a Welsh chap I had previously served with at the Infantry Training Centre and a guy whose opinion I valued. He suggested that I should simply speak, one to one, with the DS.
After five weeks on PSBC there was a mid-course feedback session and it seemed to me to be the perfect opportunity to speak up. I remember standing in the corridor late on a Sunday night and being really nervous. I was basically going to say to the DS that his opinions of me were wrong and that if I had in some way offended him then I unreservedly apologise. I walked into the room and let him speak first. I listened to him and recall very little of what was being said, so determined was I to give my piece. I had obviously started to zone out. “Do you have anything to add?” he asked. I basically put it all on the table. I assured him that despite his thoughts towards me I was on the course to learn, I was not infallible and if I had made mistakes then I would work doubly hard to prove myself. Sadly, there was nothing much in terms of response from him. I left asking myself what the point of a feedback session was if he was not willing to hear my feedback.
Looking back there need not have been such an issue. Whilst the DS was ‘old school’ and, I suspect, having spent 2-years at Brecon had somehow become stale, my course was to be his last as he had picked up promotion and I wouldn’t have to deal with him much longer. He was replaced on the course by a Royal Anglian Regiment Colour Sergeant and the difference between temperament of the SNCOs was like the difference between night and day. His replacement seemed to recognise the vitally important role he had to play in developing the next cohort of SNCOs.
As a result of the episode I learnt several lessons. The first Colour Sergeant taught me that you have to be open to criticism if you want to improve. The second, Colour Sergeant Armon, taught me the importance of developing others. And I learnt for myself that if you want others to enjoy being developed you need to encourage collaboration and ownership, not confrontation.
In the years since undertaking PSBC I have evolved as a person. I am less sensitive to criticism. If it is well intentioned, not given just for the sake of it or to embolden the person giving it, then I actively encourage it. I know that I will learn and develop even further as a result of it.
Becoming better is a lifetime pursuit. We must all accept that we will never know everything and that someone else will have the knowledge. Therein lies the opportunity.
Develop Your People
Equally, NCOs and officers have a duty to actively encourage their people to seek empowerment through personal development. Almost everyone has a contribution to make to the team’s objectives. Training people in skills that go beyond the core military syllabus is as vitally important as training them to shoot an HPS in their APWT (or whatever it is called nowadays!)
I don’t want to dwell on politics but having recently read through Lord Ashcroft’s 2014 Veteran’s Transition Review and 2017 follow-up there is a lot to consider. Only 8% of Army personnel use their Standard Learning Credits which offer eligible service personnel funding for up to 80% of fees, up to a maximum of £175 per financial year. Not enough use their Enhanced Learning Credits, worth significantly more. The reasons for such a low uptake are many but I would suggest the largest of these relates to the need for someone to do the all-consuming paperwork. Yes, I acknowledge that operational tempo will play a part but using this entitlement has to be a key priority. Allowing people to develop away from the confines of ‘green kit’ will not only add value to the team but set them on a path of professional improvement in preparation for when the time comes to leave. Leaders should not worry; external training in a civvie environment will not necessarily hasten their desire to leave!
No one should feel any trepidation when they send their people away to be better, whether that be in a civilian or military context. To use a good example, a friend of mine, a highly regarded Warrant Officer, has just taken up an appointment as a social media conduit for the Army. This will undoubtedly expose him to a civilian world that may not have been possible for a Warrant Officer even a few years ago. The benefits of his appointment will pay back ten-fold as this exposure will broaden his understanding and give him an insight into the civilian world.
Resources and opportunities must be made available to all ranks in order that they may seek professional development. The advantages of seeking such skills should be equally emphasised from the outset of training. Developing our soldiers for their future careers, both in the Army and in civvie street, is vital. As Richard Branson said, “train people well enough that they can leave, treat them well enough that they don’t want to”.
Encourage Collaboration at Every Level
That said, how you involve people in their development matters. Command and control has its place in the Army but it is evident that the way we command must evolve. In training we do as we are told by those in command and in the past this robotic and hierarchical mechanism may have worked. Back then, our standard enemy seemed to consist of dug in troops with inferior training and capabilities. Sadly, when faced with a different type of enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan I found our command and control style to be too restrictive. As a 2013 NATO study into command and control noted,
The Task Force [in Afghanistan] failed to respond sufficiently to the complex environment and began to sub-divide into two C2 structures: official and informal. An informal networked structure began to emerge responding effectively to the complex environment, while the formal C2 structure became increasingly irrelevant.
In Team of Teams (and quoted in the UK’s Joint Capability Note on Future Command and Control) General Stan McCrystal reinforces this view. He says “…the difference between command and control on the one hand, and adapt and collaborate on the other, was the difference between success and failure.”
If you want your people to engage in their development you cannot simply direct them to develop themselves. First you must inspire a culture of shared awareness between the soldiers, NCOs and officers. Doing so will help them understand why they need to develop and will motivate them. But also remember that the foundations of motivation are trust, transparency and clarity of purpose. Do not presume what is known by one is known by all and, even if it is, challenge the interpretations of the youngest soldier and even the senior commander. This is not to embarrass them but to ensure clarity of the mission and to promote confidence that everyone is on the same page – if they are, they will be motivated to improve. Let me provide an example.
In 2009 I joined my battalion half way through an Operation HERRICK tour, having spent 2-years at Catterick as a section commander. Unlike in previous tours there was extra emphasis on ensuring everyone knew their role. I recall a pre-operation wargaming session that saw everyone from section commander upwards coming together to talk about the impending operation. Gathered around a model, questions were asked about commanders’ intents, schemes of manoeuvre and missions. Platoon Sergeants were asked about possible eventualities such as causalities and how others in the operation might react to assist. I remember leaving the meeting with a deeper sense of ownership. It was clear that I, along with everyone in my platoon, had a role to play, we weren’t just along for the ride. I was motivated to take part but I was also motivated to take my team away and develop ourselves to achieve the mission.
Training and Development
The British Army is evolving, things have changed irrevocably and in the past failure was seen as a black mark and seldom looked at beyond ensuring a single person was held responsible and accountable. This blame approach stifles innovation and curtails a willingness to take risks. We stagnate.
Failure is a natural process. Of course it hurts, emotionally and physically, but how better to evolve than by accepting this and sharing it, warts and all, so as to allow everyone to move forward. There is an inherent need to accept that we don’t know it all, we can’t know it all for a variety of reasons, but therein lies the opportunity. Don’t be offended by feedback, be humble and accepting of constructive criticism. Invite and celebrate it at every opportunity knowing that doing so will not only make you better but also improve your team. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different result is insane!
The days of treating people like cannon fodder, demanding that they go over the top, that they ask how high they must jump, have long since passed. Service personnel are better informed and have access to more information resources and technology than ever before. I implore you, there is money in the system and serving personnel should maximise this to broaden their horizons. Do not wait until the 21-year point. Start now, claim your educational entitlements or lose them forever – and encourage and motivate your people to, too
The fantastic Colour Sergeant instructor mentioned in this article went on to be a Regimental Sergeant Major and to write one of our most popular articles. It is less than 1,000 words and has some of the best leadership advice you will ever get. Check out some RSM Common Sense