Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. James McConville wrote, with Maj. Gen. J.P. McGee in a December 2019 War on the Rocks Commentary, “Battalion commanders are arguably the most consequential leaders in the Army. Their experience, placement, and influence give them an out-sized ability to shape the future service of the soldiers they lead. They train and develop our young soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and officers and have more impact on their decisions to continue serving (or not) than any other leadership position.”
I assumed command of the 2nd Battalion, 11th Infantry Regiment, which runs the Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 2009. During our first week together, the command sergeant major and I agreed upon three priorities for the battalion:
- Build and sustain a positive command climate.
- Foster cadre leader development.
- Ensure students can develop, brief, rehearse, lead and conduct after-action reviews of platoon-level operations in both training and combat.
We did our best to focus our time and energy in support of these priorities, however, I struggled during my first year in command to provide my teammates with the consistency and depth of initial, informal and performance counseling they deserved.
This article is designed to help current and future battalion commanders build or improve their counseling programs. Your commitment to counseling will build a cohesive team, develop leaders across the formation and inspire talented officers to continue serving in uniform beyond their initial obligation.
Set Standards Early
I conducted physical training with all newly assigned officers before our initial counseling. This one-on-one session helped me assess their physical fitness and our unit’s sponsorship/reception programs. It also gave me insight into whether the officer needed assistance with housing, finance, etc.
I shared my Officer Evaluation Report Support Form and a counseling document with the rated officer 24–72 hours before our initial counseling session. I expected the officer to study both documents and come prepared to have a two-way discussion.
I spent several hours preparing my evaluation support form to ensure my performance objectives were aligned with the intent of both the brigade commander and the commanding general. I articulated the battalion’s three priorities across the areas of leading, training, maintaining and caring. I recommend that battalion commanders share their support form before initial counseling to role-model how trusted Army professionals communicate with each other.
The current Officer Evaluation Report Support Form, dated March 2019, is significantly different from what I used as a commander, but it helps leaders evaluate themselves using the attributes (character, presence and intellect) and competencies (leads, develops and achieves) expected of Army leaders. I also recommend that commanders use the support form for self-reflection and personal assessment at the conclusion of a major training event, deployment or rating period. I encourage commanders to distribute their updated Officer Evaluation Report Support Form to foster transparency and trust.
I typically blocked off 60–75 minutes for initial counseling. I started every counseling session by asking a series of questions designed to help me understand the officer’s background, current situation and any family concerns. We then discussed the officer’s hobbies and what they enjoy doing off duty. I asked what they like to read to gauge their self-development efforts and approach to lifelong learning.
I then asked the officer to describe both their short- and long-term goals. We discussed where I could help them personally and/or professionally. I had each officer identify three personal strengths and three areas that needed improvement. I reviewed those strengths and weaknesses throughout the rating period and tried to put them in situations that would professionally challenge and stretch them. We then spent the bulk of our time discussing the officer’s reception to the unit, our organizational priorities and my expectations of them during that rating period.
There is simply not enough time to provide subordinates the coaching, counseling and feedback they crave and deserve. My solution was to combine counseling with other battle rhythm events such as physical training and meals. We conducted monthly battalionwide physical training or stress shoots with all the officers. I usually selected the newest officer to the unit as my partner to gauge their grit and get to know them better. I found that sweating together for 60–90 minutes was a great way to create shared understanding.
I used foot marches and long runs to conduct informal counseling. For example, each company conducted a 16-mile foot march at the conclusion of the final field training exercise. The officers knew I would walk with each one of them (out of earshot of their students or fellow cadre members) for 15–30 minutes. This gave them an opportunity to provide me with invaluable feedback about our program of instruction, their family situation or anything else on their mind.
In most cases, the officer talked, and I listened. I compared their feedback with my own observations and often modified the quarterly training guidance or my points of emphasis at the next battalion training meeting.
If I needed more time with an officer, we would eat breakfast in the mess hall or a brown bag lunch in my office. This technique enabled us to focus on specialized topics such as live-fire scenario development, the complexity of life after the birth of a child, future career aspirations, etc.
I tried some new things in my second year of battalion command that provided additional opportunities to develop my subordinates. I spent more time attending company-level training meetings to publicly support and reinforce the company commander and first sergeant. This also provided the junior leaders with opportunities to ask me questions or provide feedback. At the conclusion of the training meeting, I sat down privately with the company commander to answer questions and provide coaching.
I conducted an officer professional development session at the 18-month mark of battalion command that reflected myriad formal and informal counseling sessions. We discussed my role as a senior rater and how I evaluated the performance and potential of each officer. I showed them examples of previous Officer Evaluation Reports (with names removed) of the No. 1, No. 5 and No. 12 captains in the unit to reinforce how I identified the officers with the greatest potential to Department of the Army promotion and selection boards.
I served in the Army 10 additional years after completing battalion command and made several adjustments to how I counseled and developed my teammates. These techniques may help current and future battalion commanders.
I shared my Outlook calendar with all my subordinates. My intent was to encourage transparency by showing my teammates how and where I spent my time. This also enabled my subordinates to find opportunities on my calendar to discuss what was important to them.
I primarily rated and senior-rated infantry leaders as a battalion commander. I was responsible for the professional development of leaders from multiple branches and multiple year groups for the remainder of my career. I researched Department of the Army Pamphlet 600-3: Officer Professional Development and Career Management before counseling. I also had my subordinates research this pamphlet so they understood the specific requirements and unique opportunities of their branch. This became a discussion point during both initial and Officer Evaluation Report counseling.
I shared my rater and senior rater Officer Evaluation Report profile. My intent was to reduce stress and minimize unhealthy competition. It helped me demonstrate the stewardship responsibilities of a senior rater and deepen organizational trust.
Lastly, I led a diverse group of advisers from multiple units during a deployment to Afghanistan. I provided the field grade officers with a draft Officer Evaluation Report at the halfway point of the deployment. I asked each officer whether this was an accurate reflection of their performance and potential. I also asked them whether they agreed with my assessment. This provided the strong officers with confirmation that they were successfully accomplishing the mission. Likewise, it provided the weaker officers with an opportunity for self-reflection. I was pleasantly surprised by the accelerated growth and performance during the second half of the deployment after these candid conversations.
Counseling subordinates is an investment in the long-term health of the Army profession. You will be thankful that you prioritized counseling when you proudly watch subordinates build and lead great teams, get promoted and get selected for battalion command.
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Col. Scott Halstead, U.S. Army retired, is director of the Association of the U.S. Army’s Center of Leadership. He retired from the Army in 2021. He served as an infantry officer and deployed to Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and Resolute Support. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, in 1991.