“Not Exactly” a Good Message


I call your attention to a peculiar and cringe-worthy screed penned by the 60th Dental Squadron commander from Travis Air Force Base. Therein,  Col. Robin Fontenot warns airmen that they shouldn’t misunderstand Gen. Mark Welsh’s straight talk on volunteerism. What the General really meant to say, argues Fontenot, is that there is still an expectation of volunteer work to get promoted. 

Before we proceed, check out Fontenot’s commentary, which first surfaced on the Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page, for yourself. It’s linked here, complete with zero comments even though many have been submitted. In this case, I’ve also provided a native copy below, since it’s likely — based on recent observations — that Public Affairs will take the piece down.

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In his article, Fontenot refers to a video clip within which CSAF discusses the central issue. Take a look at the clip for yourself and decide whether you believe the Colonel is faithfully transcribing the General’s intent. For what it’s worth, I believe this clip showcases Gen. Welsh at his best, and is worth your five minutes no matter how you feel about this issue.

The gist of Fontenot’s message is never mind what you think CSAF said. It’s more complicated than he makes it out to be. Here’s what he really meant … and it’s bad news for those of you who thought duty performance was enough to get you promoted.

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Now, it seems to me the guy is basically refuting CSAF’s straight talk and clear intent by re-interpreting his message, somehow finding it to be a restatement of the same tired drill of the last 10 years: coerce people into a time-sucking obligation while calling it voluntary … all the while belching folksy platitudes through a toothy smile that pretends there isn’t a flaming, pulsating contradiction at the core of the entire proposition.

Fontenot, like many managers preceding him during this period of cultural rot, is like a parent sitting a kid down in front of a huge bowl of oatmeal and proclaiming “you can’t be healthy without eating this!” … and then adding “but doesn’t it look great?!”

Only in his case, he’s doing it after the Surgeon General has informed all kids that oatmeal need not be part of a healthy diet. The analogy is especially fitting given the condescension in Fontenot’s commentary. On behalf of airmen … current, future, and former (myself included) … I implore the Fontenots of the world: please do not ever use the phrase “not exactly, buckaroo” for any reason when addressing them ever, at any time, no matter what, for any reason. They’re not your kids.

But lest we bite down too firmly upon the idea that this is all the handiwork of a well-meaning but misguided officer who has perhaps seen the business end of a few too many corroded molars in his time, it’s important to keep the bigger picture in view. He’s not responsible for creating this mess. What we’ve got here, if you’ll permit the term being used at street-level, is a clusterfuck of a size and magnitude only achievable by collusive negligence at the highest levels.

CSAF says promotion is based on job performance.

CMSAF says he’s confident commanders will push promotions based on job performance.

A1 says flat-out that volunteering will not help you get promoted.

From all that, airmen conclude that they needn’t volunteer to get promoted.

But then along comes this guy, mental floss in hand, and says “[n]ot exactly, buckaroo.”

Who is right?

Well, we might just say “CSAF is always right.” But we know that’s not the case.

We might say “CMSAF is the expert on enlisted matters, so he’s right.” But we know that’s not the case.

We might say A1 is the personnel guru, so he’s right … but we know that not only is A1 at least partially responsible for advising CSAF and CMSAF to sell this bill of goods, A1 also does an ever better job of confusing everyone in the field … all the while fueling a self-obsessive, individualist, dog-eat-dog culture that incentives careerism over teamwork.

This leaves only the good Colonel and his advice. But we’ve already kinda decided he can’t be right.

So … who is right?

No one. No one is right. By definition, no one can be, because those speaking have (supposedly) equal (alleged) expertise, and their conflicting messages are cancelling one another out. This kind of default leadership been the problem for as long as anyone can remember, especially on this issue.

Real leaders – good ones – understand volunteer work has a place in any organization, but that place is not in the promotion or evaluation systems. They operate thusly, and are too often confounded by others quoting rulebooks which somehow, by the magic of the Air Force’ special aromatic blend of rotting logic and moral shirking, manage to make volunteering … mandatory. Or, as Fontenot elides — likely to soften his contradiction of Gen. Welsh — “part of the total airman.” Whatever the hell that means.

Someone will be quick to say, pedantically, that volunteering is only mandatory if someone wants to be promoted. Someone else will reply, rightly, that in an up-or-out system – especially one with quotas for promotion recommendations – tying something to promotion makes it effectively mandatory. And in this dialectic, we don’t even get into the other bad things that happen to people who opt out of playing the game. Short-notice 365, anyone?

The sad thing is that Chief Cody had a chance to fix this with the new Enlisted Evaluation System (EES), and I was one of the fools naïve enough to believe he would. It was a reasonable belief based on his own assurances at the time. But then, he didn’t. The new forms leaked out and the “Whole Airmen Concept” was slapped right there on the front of the form. There was push-back, which was answered with talking points to the extent it was answered at all. For whatever reason, Cody and the others with him in the inner sanctum of the new EES decided to corrupt it with mandated volunteer work.

That decision is a chicken now coming home to roost. The lore of the new EES is already populating with stories of superior performers outpaced by social climbers willing to embrace the bake sale culture out of sheer, understandable pragmatism. In other words, the new system is just like the old one … only now it has an explicit zero-sum feature to dial up the coercive pressure even more.

What should happen here is that the AFI cited by Fontenot should be interpreted in light of the statements made by Gen. Welsh. Since he’s the service’s senior-most leader, his interpretation is the one that arguably surmounts others and carries binding force.

Here’s what he said in the video, just to refresh:

“Promotion is about job performance. It’s not about who volunteers the most.”

along with

“If you have things at the unit level that are driving people to believe they must volunteer … then you guys need to change whatever is driving that.”

Interpreting the AFI in light of these comments, airmen who do good work should expect to be promoted before others whose work is not as good. Period.

By this interpretation, Fontenot and those like him are horribly out of step and doing a great job of subverting efforts at the very top to fix something.

Then again, by this interpretation, there shouldn’t be anything to interpret … because the EES, new EPR forms, and AFI should have been aligned with the Boss’s vision for the Air Force. He says elsewhere in the clip

“[i]f there’s things … Air Force Instructions that drive [this], we’ll change ‘em. Help me figure out what they are.”

This is where Fontenot’s otherwise regrettable vignette serves a constructive purpose. He cites chapter and verse from AFI 36-2618, unwittingly pointing out that it is lagging behind CSAF’s clearly stated intent. That needs to change.

The new EPR forms also need to be rewritten. The guidance accompanying the new EES needs to be updated to explicitly bar commanders like Fontenot from tying volunteerism to promotion, both in their messaging and in the awarding of recommendations. 

The message for CSAF and CMSAF here is that big change can’t be an exercise in strategic messaging after a closed staff process. It needs to be open, energetically deliberative, and accompanied by educational and persuasive efforts in the field as well as coherent adjustments to all applicable guidance. Even when all of that is done, cementing change means playing a little bit of whack-a-mole. When a Luddite attempts to destroy the machinery of change, his attempt must be halted and repudiated.

This is something Gen. Welsh can still correct in his remaining time, should he so choose. The video clip of him putting volunteer work in proper context is the CSAF at his very best. The way he implemented awards as a wing commander is the example thoroughbred airmen are chomping at the bit to experience for themselves.

But unless he chases his stated intent with bureaucratic action and proactive change management, it’s all just interesting theater … in this case (as in many others recently) made more interesting by a contribution from Travis.

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