Chief Chat: First Reactions

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CMSAF interacted with airmen for just under 13 minutes today, answering questions from the field delivered electronically and narrated by a spokesperson who did her best to be conversational as a device to make the format less awkward. An ornamental crowd watched in silence, ABU blouses creased, hats blocked. You know, because we have free manpower for these things. The whole thing was a little odd … like the perfunctory yet obligatory chit-chat between gameshow hosts and contestants. You can scroll through the official propaganda rendition here.

Still, the setup elicited some fine questions. I’ll dispense with further preamble and let you watch the video yourself.

First-blush reactions:

On the issue of being the smallest and busiest force in history.

It’s great to hear this acknowledged, but airmen want to know what senior officials are doing to relieve the strain. It’s become such a consistently invoked talking point that there is now a sense of resignation, as if CMSAF and his colleagues are no longer looking for ways to ease the strain caused by manpower-mission mismatch. Until the strain is eased, any number of these interactions won’t achieve anything lasting or genuine. They’ll continue to be little more than an impotent and fleeting salve.

On the justifications for endless DV visits.

CMSAF says he wants to thank airmen and their families. This is valid, though it certainly wouldn’t justify the amount of travel he does. CMSAF says he also wants a depth of interaction he can only get face-to-face. This is good in principle, but in practice it has a couple of major flaws. First, the depth of interaction CMSAF gets during his visits is probably not what he believes it to be. Airmen are unlikely to push their questions, claims, or critiques with their local leaders in attendance watching their every word. Everything is filtered. But let’s assume it isn’t. This is still a weak justification for most of the trips Cody does. He needs to get a sense of things, but not a detailed or comprehensive assessment. That’s part of what the other 2,443 CMSgts are there to do for him. If those Chiefs can’t be trusted to gather, synthesize, and present an accurate message to their big boss, that’s the problem CMSAF should address instead of traveling constantly.

On the division of ILE into distance and traditional blocks.

Cody made it sound like ILE academics were being delivered by distance because people will learn better that way. He cited uneven instructor performance. Logic alert: there is also uneven student performance, and some folks need more instructor involvement to learn what they need to know. Cody says there’s a Help Desk for those people. But this contradicts his previous answer on the importance of visits, where he discusses the importance of first-hand interaction. Why the inconsistency? Because the real answer is that this is about saving money. Airmen probably already think that, so why not just tell them? Sure, it’s a damning message to admit we’re cutting education to save cash. But it’s better than the duck-dodge-dive routine that is both defensive and irresolute.

On communication methods.

CMSAF acknowledges the Air Force needs to move into the 21st Century and use social media and other nodes to get out the word. He does NOT acknowledge that the EES/WAPS roadshow is a direct contradiction to this philosophy, but to be fair, he DOES cite the ongoing chat session as the kind of thing airmen should expect to see more. Cody and Welsh have a tough task here. Social media allows airmen to seek out information that reinforces their pre-existing beliefs, and it’s increasingly difficult for the Air Force to be the first to “ring the bell” and shape those initial ideas that will filter everything else. However, he doesn’t get a pass. Many airmen think Cody is actually too frequent a voice in day-to-day issues, and it’s hard to disagree. What Cody should do is stop trying to be the face and voice of the service on all issues, and let others step into that role. Re-connect with the chain of command and once again trust the 123,210 NCOs in grades SSgt-MSgt to do frontline communicating. It’ll force things to be simple, it’ll force the staff to be clear and to abandon lazy “management by memo” tactics, and it’ll force airmen to establish and cultivate relationships.

On not releasing the new EPR forms.

“Not ready because it’s a fillable PDF.” First of all, … what? Would you accept that as an excuse? Second, … so give people a screenshot (as you’re doing at the roadshows). “Not a secret.” So release a screenshot. If you watched carefully, you noted a telling slip: if the screenshot were released, it might generate questions. Therein lies the reason for secrecy. Airmen might pose tough questions about the form, forcing in-stride accountability and possible changes. Democratization of any process is messy. Cody gets that, which is why he reminded airmen that the form is not “for” them … it’s “about” them and “for” the Air Force. This is paradoxical. Airmen are the Air Force. If they’re not, who or what is? The Air Staff? The Corporate Board Structure? The Generals? The Chiefs? It’s one thing for the Air Force to occasionally remind airmen that it’s their employer. But that’s seldom in doubt in a military organization, and elitism is not a good approach to much of anything — certainly not here. Release the form. Provide a venue for questions. Answers those questions, pushing back as necessary and incorporating as necessary. 

On the idea that the EPR forms were created in a vacuum.

Here’s an old trick. When someone says “nothing could be further from the truth,” one of two psychological responses is indicated. Either the question is so absurd and outlandish as to be shocking, leading to a disbelieving answer, or the question hit home and the responder is trying too hard to distance himself from that truth. I’m not sure which here, but it would not be outlandish to assume the Air Staff hatched the EPR in a vacuum. That was the entire mode of the 2014 drawdown and countless other human resource snafus. Cody is trying to portray that the form was collaboratively developed, but objectively, his words create the impression it was created by Chiefs, process-checked by technocrats from AFPC, and then modestly red-teamed as a presumptively finished product by some small number of airmen who probably work in the Pentagon. If red-teaming is really the objective, there’s no time like the present, and those “modern tools” of communication make it blindingly easy.

On the idea that bake sales caused some performance to be inaccurately assessed under the old system.

Cody asks this as a “do we really believe” question. This is a tactic to push the presumption into the negative, leaving the audience with the burden of refuting. In this case, his question was rhetorical. But had airmen been permitted to respond, the answer would have been:

Yes. Yes, we do believe that.

CMSAF can’t have it both ways. The EPR is being overhauled because everyone agreed the system wasn’t accurately distinguishing between airmen on terms of duty performance. As laudable as Cody’s initiative is, it’s fair, reasonable, and expected that airmen will have anxiety about the new system falling into the same trap as the old, only with a heightened risk of non-promotion for failing to master the game as well as the next guy or gal. Given that the form hasn’t been released, airmen are rightly concerned that when it finally hits the streets, they’re going to find out to their horror that it’s designed in a way that allows the bake sale and car wash ninjas to win by creating a perceptual “tie” on duty performance and getting the “win” with eyewash. 

If Cody doesn’t get that essential truth, this proves his visits have not provided him with the depth of interaction he believes.

More later. But in the meantime, what did you think?

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