As the Army emerges from an unprecedented year marked by a pandemic and emotional calls for more inclusion in the ranks, the service’s senior enlisted leader is focused on taking care of soldiers and moving the force forward.
From improving unit cohesion and building better squad leaders to resuming training across the force, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston is calling on all soldiers to join the undertaking.
It is easy to be glum or paralyzed in a world of turmoil, but Grinston said his “complete philosophy is, these are the conditions we have; this is the world I live in. How do I make it the best world I can? How can we train in this? How can I make myself a better person? How can I move the Army forward?”
The COVID-19 pandemic ground the Army almost to a halt, slowing training and delaying permanent change-of-station moves for months. The Army has since ramped up operations, allowing soldiers to move to their next assignments and resuming large-scale training at its combat training centers, but the pandemic is still part of soldiers’ everyday lives, Grinston said.
At the same time, the force is dealing with “overwhelming emotion” on matters of race and inclusion and fighting to root out scourges such as sexual assault and harassment, he said.
“It’s emotional, and when you wrap all these emotions in, because of the global pandemic, we’re not out socially interacting with our soldiers, our friends and our families, and we’re starting to see all of that bubbling up,” Grinston said.
Returning to training has been good for many soldiers, Grinston said. “That’s helping us emotionally as we get back together, to connect with soldiers and friends we haven’t connected with in a while.”
Army leaders also have learned how to safely return soldiers to training, putting in place testing and screening protocols, and creating safety bubbles for soldiers. “There’s still some angst about can we safely train our soldiers, can we safely bring them into basic training and [Advanced Individual Training], and we’re starting to see that mitigated,” Grinston said.
As the Army looks ahead, Grinston said he’s focused on listening more as he travels and meets with soldiers across the Army. He’s also continuing to implement new initiatives designed to build better, more confident NCOs, with a particular focus on squad leaders.
“If we make a better squad leader, I think that really helps us with almost everything we’re talking about,” Grinston said. “As we move forward, how do we continue to enable the squad leader?”
Technology and Discipline
Grinston, who was sworn in on Aug. 9, 2019, as the Army’s top enlisted soldier, said from the start that he’s focused on the sergeant, staff sergeant and sergeant first class ranks, the critical midgrade NCOs the Army has increasingly leaned on as it adds more drill sergeants and recruiters and stands up security force assistance brigades.
Investing time and effort into ensuring this group of NCOs—who have been under pressure for a while—is well trained and equipped, and, in turn, empowered to lead and train their soldiers, will make a key difference in the Army, he has said.
To start, Grinston is working with the U.S. Army Futures Command to develop an app to help squad leaders better connect with and manage their soldiers. Tools to improve sponsorship of new soldiers, counseling and training management are three areas Grinston has asked app developers to focus on for now.
“The more we receive our soldiers better, down into the small unit, the more we know them, I think that’s how we’re moving the Army forward,” he said.
The goal of the app, which soldiers will be able to use on their mobile devices, is to help squad leaders across the force, Grinston said.
“When have we actually digitized and enabled the squad leader to do those functions?” Grinston said, adding that he is due to review the working concept of the app in October.
Grinston also wants to empower NCOs as they seek to take care of soldiers. A recent change in Army Regulation 600-20: Army Command Policy, makes it clear to NCOs that they are empowered to take action to correct minor acts of indiscipline.
The Army does not condone hazing and bullying, but when NCOs see something wrong, “we have to give these authorities to our NCOs where they feel OK to take some action,” he said. For example, if a soldier is late for formation, NCOs have the authority to make them do 10 pushups, he said.
As NCOs practice and become more comfortable with authorities given to them, when there’s a major event or wrong, they will be more likely to act, Grinston said.
He cited as an example now-retired Master Sgt. David Royer, a corrections NCO at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, who was on his way home when he used his car to stop an active shooter who was threatening civilian commuters on a bridge.
Royer “took action and maybe saved a whole bunch of people’s lives,” Grinston said. “That’s the kind of things that our NCOs do, but something as simple as empowering NCOs so they can tell soldiers to do a few pushups gives them those repetitions to take action, so if they were to see an active shooter on a bridge, they will feel emboldened to do something similar to what the master sergeant did.”
As part of his “This is My Squad” initiative, Grinston is gathering about 24 staff sergeants from across the Army for a This is My Squad Leadership Panel.
“These are 24 staff sergeants that inform me,” Grinston said. “Are we doing the right leadership? Are we really, talking at my level, the policies, are we getting that right? What’s hindering you? What can we do better?”
The NCOs will serve as a sounding board for him, Grinston said. “This is not to circumvent the chain of command,” he said. “You build trust over time with this group, and I can get good feedback at the grassroots level on a routine basis.”
Plans call for the panel to be finalized in October, with a first meeting to take place by the end of the calendar year.
Promotion Board Changes
Big changes also are coming soon to the sergeant and staff sergeant promotion boards, Grinston said.
The boards have “basically been the same for a long time,” he said. Soldiers are grilled on their Army knowledge, and they talk about their accomplishments and short- and long-term goals.
Grinston hopes to revamp that in the first half of fiscal 2021. Instead of talking about themselves, soldiers may be asked to talk about the soldiers on their teams or squads. “It’s backing up what we want leaders to do in their squads,” he said. “Do you know your soldiers?”
More akin to a Sgt. Audie Murphy Club or Sgt. Morales Club board, Grinston wants young leaders to think more broadly and critically and be tested on their leadership abilities and potential.
“What I truly believe is if we have a little bit better understanding of our soldiers—and we’re reinforcing this by these types of board questions—racial discrimination will be less, it’ll be more inclusive because I know my people, I understand where they’re coming from, I can identify changes,” Grinston said.
Continuing to Grow
The Army also plans to better harness NCOs’ talents and interests through two new talent management initiatives.
The Assignment Satisfaction Key-Enlisted Module (ASK-EM) is similar to a marketplace-style system introduced recently for officers. It allows NCOs to see what assignments are available and nominate themselves for jobs that best suit their abilities and interests.
A pilot program with about 700 NCOs was successful, with many reporting they were pleased with the ability to see what was available across the force and that they had some say in where they went next, Grinston said. One thing they did ask for was more communication with their assignment managers, he said.
ASK-EM will go live soon for staff sergeants through master sergeants in all MOSs, Grinston said, adding that it’s a bridging tool until the Army can fully implement the Integrated Personnel and Pay System-Army, the Army’s modernized human resources system.
The second initiative in the works is a first sergeant assessment program. A pilot program is scheduled for December, likely at an installation that’s home to one of the Army’s divisions, Grinston said.
The assessment will be similar to programs already underway to assess officers for battalion- and brigade-level command, with cognitive and noncognitive assessments, a board and other elements, Grinston said, adding that details are still being finalized.
As he looks to the new year, Grinston said he’s maintaining his focus on making the Army better.
“Keeping a positive attitude and looking for those opportunities to continue to improve the Army would be the advice I’d give the Army,” he said. “As we look to calendar year ’21, we need to keep focusing on those things.”