Improving Performance at Brigade Level and Below
Improving Performance at Brigade Level and Below
You sign into your new unit with excitement to serve as a company commander or first sergeant. Leadership assigns you to the staff to learn the organization, demonstrate your competence and earn trust. Your commander puts you in charge of the brigade’s leader development program. What does this mean and where do you start?
First, know it is a compliment and an assignment with an immense amount of trust. You will impact the trajectory of every leader in the brigade. Congratulations! Now, stop worrying. There’s work to do, and it’s not that difficult.
A leader development program is a program within a larger leader development system. When the commander assigned this to you, consider the whole system and not just the program. The first thing on the agenda is finding out what the commander means by, “Translate my intent into a feasible and engaging leader development program.”
The purpose of a leader development program usually can be narrowed to three categories. It could be that the program seeks to improve performance when gaps exist between leadership performance and the unit’s desired level of leadership performance. This is the leader development version of when the company/battery/troop is “untrained” or “proficient” in mission-essential tasks.
Second, the program could support unit succession management. This is often a struggle in the brigade and battalion when units undergo annual/semiannual personnel move cycles and changes of command and responsibility. Are those in the line of succession ready to assume their roles?
Finally, the leader development program could serve to support organizational change, such as a transition from counterinsurgency to large-scale combat operations against peer and near-peer threats. What do leaders need to be successful in these new contexts?
Now that you’ve identified the program’s intent, conduct a quick assessment by speaking to leaders in the organization and find out what you’re working with. You may just need to repair rather than reinvent the wheel.
A successful leader development system has three critical components: inputs, processes and outputs. Check each one in turn and adjust your leader development program to fit your needs.
Unit commanders allocate resources toward areas important to them. Take stock of the resources your leader development program offers. Determine what resources you need. Look at the unit’s annual training calendar. Is there time allocated to your program?
If not, work to align time resources to the program. Speak to the brigade finance team and brigade executive officer or operations officer. In addition to an intimate understanding of the commander’s intent, these leaders have oversight of the financial, soldier and time resources across the brigade. How much of the unit training budget is allocated to the leader development program? If it is insignificant, consider a request for more training resources. What leader development program resources does the installation have at its mission training center? Create options for you and the commander. You’ll implement these options later.
Skilled employees with a desire to learn are critical to the leader development program’s success. To limit waste, your program must be selective. If leaders don’t want to be there, then the program loses efficacy. What leader knowledge, skills and behaviors are needed to complete your program? This step might be iterative as you build out your methods later.
Consider linking with the brigade combat team personnel team to recruit employees within the Assignment Interactive Module (AIM) marketplace for your leader development program. AIM is the Army’s program of record for leader assignments. It operates off two movement cycles each year and seeks to align personal talent with units through an application, interview and selection process. AIM utilizes knowledge, skills and behaviors to categorize candidates, and it can be a useful tool to help recruit the skilled employees needed for your leader development program.
It’s easy to assume your leader development program is a priority of brigade combat team leaders, but is that vocalized down the chain of command? A successful technique is to communicate this through the brigade combat team’s policy channels. A simple ghost write-up will help the commander articulate this program to the combat team.
That said, a policy letter is the minimum expectation and could easily be disregarded if not reinforced in other ways. Defining the standard, tracking and measuring success are critical reinforcements to the commander’s policy.
Using the defined leader development program purpose, identify the ideal leader as they graduate from the program. What knowledge, skills and behaviors do they possess? What competencies and attributes do they characterize? The Army’s Field Manual (FM) 6-22: Leader Development provides an excellent framework from which to start. Investigate whether it needs to be customized for your unit.
Once you’ve narrowed it down, put the standard in writing. List what a successful leader emulates in your unit. This will serve as your program’s Training and Evaluation Outline.
Any good program needs a way to track and measure its effectiveness. Fortunately, your standard will serve as a tool to grade against as prospective leaders advance in your program.
There are several metrics to assess your leader development program. These include, but are not limited to: the quantity of candidates ready for key leadership positions; qualities of the leader population; involuntary turnover rates due to poor skills/abilities; and organizational climate surveys. These are all good ways to assess your leader development program.
Once the metrics are identified, work to identify a recurring forum for updates. Weekly updates to the commander might be too much. What about quarterly updates? Keeping the commander updated is critical to inform decisions about ways to adjust resources that support your program.
The method used to run your leader development program is the most visible piece. You need to get this right, and it needs to mesh with the rest of the leader development system.
Five critical areas that develop leaders are: developmental relationships (mentors, coaches); developmental assignments (leadership positions, special projects); feedback processes (performance reviews, 360-degree feedback); coursework and training (civilian and military schools); and personal experiences (reading, speakers, conferences).
Design methods that align with your leader development system standard, purpose and metrics. You’ll need to be creative here. Resources like FM 6-22, members of your organization with organizational psychology or organizational development education, and West Point’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership can all be called upon for support. Experts are in your formation; you just need to find them.
To help conceptualize your methods, here are a few techniques successfully used in the past:
• Developmental relationships: Formal assigned mentorship programs within the brigade (junior and midlevel leaders); the Army Coaching Program (midlevel and higher leaders).
• Developmental assignments: To do this effectively, you need buy-in from the leader, an overabundance of support from an assigned mentor, a known standard and a weakness identified in the leader. Once these conditions are set, design a challenging assignment for the leader that effectively gets the leader outside their comfort zone. With effective support and feedback from the mentor, they won’t feel abandoned. For example, if you have a leader who struggles to plan operations, align them with a mentor who is good at planning detailed operations. Then, assign a specific operation to the developing leader and ensure the mentor consistently checks in and supports the developing leader with feedback. When the operation is complete, have the newly trained leader circle back and do the same for someone else. The transition from doing to mentoring will further solidify the leader’s development.
• Personal experiences: Rotating in guest speakers from leaders around the Army will diversify the perspective of leaders and help them better conceptualize different ways to handle challenging situations. There are numerous resources available for this, including the Association of the U.S. Army’s Center of Leadership, the Center for Junior Officers out of the U.S. Military Academy, and other senior leaders from across your unit.
After successful graduation from your leader development program, how are members recognized or rewarded? Do members get through the program and continue in their same jobs, or are they given key positions? Does your unit make it a point to recognize excellence as they advance through the leader development program? Motivation to complete your program is likely related to this outcome. Think through a way to make it count.
Before you finish your leader development program, you should circle back to the commander and command sergeant major to ensure you are on the right path. Does your program still meet the commander’s intent?
As the person in charge of this mission, it is critical to see it through to the end. The process is iterative, not linear. You’ll need to readdress metrics after defining methods, for example.
Finally, you’ll need to think through a succession plan for yourself. How will the program survive in perpetuity? With any luck, you’ll achieve something many fail to do, and create a leader development program that lasts beyond your tenure. If you’ve made it this far, well done.
Capt. Freddie Hendrickson is a tactical officer at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, and a graduate of West Point’s Eisenhower Leader Development Program. He also is the course director for Applied Leader Development through the Benavidez Leader Development Program, a four-week senior NCO development program co-hosted by West Point and Teachers College, Columbia University, New York.
This article was originally published in Army Magazine.