Promotions and Mentorship: a Comment on a Comment


Noticed the quote below, posted by a Chief offering mentorship and guidance on a social media forum. Got me thinking. Thought it might do the same for you.

“Not to add to all the shock and awe in the aftermath of the MSgt release, but I must say all the questions about how the board process works AFTER it has happened [have] me scratching my head. We’ve been pushing information on how the board process [works] on this page, in AF news articles, emails, town halls, and any number of other places, yet there are still so many who failed to take advantage of any of the information available and are asking NOW. To put it bluntly, if you’re waiting to be spoon-fed information on how to succeed and how the process works, you’re probably not going to end up in the top 20-something percent of your peers. Take charge of your career. Get in the AFIs and MyPers and know the system and how it applies to you. Waiting to be told how to do things worked as an Airman (no offense Airmen!), but we’ve put the word out that we’re going to be asking more of our future SNCOs, highlighted by the fact that we’re looking at records, so if you aren’t ready to step up your game and do your part, you aren’t likely to get promoted.

There are several possible reactions to this. I had three I think are worth sharing.

(Unintentionally) Demonstrates a Communication Problem. Relying on “pull” systems to get the word out is not as effective as “push” methods. We know this, because when something is important to the generals (read that politically important, as in not doing it could threaten budget or erode authority), we push that information through the chain of command and make absorption mandatory. Yet when it comes to the new EES, we’ve chosen a pull methodology. Not only that, we’ve combined it with the tools of secrecy to leak information in dribs and drabs. It would be surprising if there were not questions or confusion about it. In a sense, the poster kind of answers the question he raises: the new system seems designed to weed out those less skilled at studying and exploiting the system.

Encourages Careerism. Why should there be so much to know in order to get promoted? Why is it essential that people understand the granular points of an administrative process? Shouldn’t knowing and doing your job, knowing and fulfilling expectations, and letting the process decide your fate be the model for success? Does the current alternative of judging success according to process mastery produce a better or worse fighting force?

Whether we should want a self-actualizing career system or one that frowns on doing things for the sake of satiating a promotion process is debatable. The problem with pushing the burden of self-promotion onto the backs of airmen and NCOs is that it literally turns them into self-promoters. Once self-promotion becomes accepted conduct, careerism and pragmatic exploitation of the promotion process via box-checking and backstabbing are all but inevitable. As a bonus, the energy devoted to these activities is no longer available to be poured into duty performance. This is only acceptable if we believe that people plateau at their primary jobs and no longer need to commit themselves to constant improvement.

For those of us who can recall a time in the Air Force when nominating oneself for an award would have been grounds for public shaming, this now entrenched notion that careerism is not only acceptable but de facto required by supervisors is grotesque. It leads to things like this (excerpted from this story).

This appeared on the Air Force's official Facebook feed to kick off 2015. At the time, I wrote that the vector in 2015 was still wrong. Are Chiefs unwittingly contributing to this mentality with their career guidance?
This appeared on the Air Force’s official Facebook feed to kick off 2015. At the time, I wrote that the vector in 2015 was still wrong. Are Chiefs unwittingly contributing to this mentality with their career guidance?

Here’s the response I left at the forum where I found the original quote:

When we get to a point where the system promotes the right people based on the results they generate for our mission … and not because they’ve studied, mastered, and skillfully manipulated the process … we’ll have arrived at the desired endstate.

Talks Down. When did it become fashionable among the senior enlisted ranks to blame individual airmen and NCOs for systemic problems? Down-the-bridge-of-the-nose gems like “failed to take advantage” and “waiting to be spoon-fed” reflect an attitude that expects NCOs to bridge policy failings with their own initiative while regarding them as feeble creatures in need of leashed guidance incapable of thinking for themselves without the tutelage of superiors.

These two ideas are incompatible. Either run a system relying on individual iniative or run one that expects the chain of command to make people smart on the processes that impact them. If the former, back out to a safe distance and let the chips falls where they may, neither judging individuals who fail to get promoted nor competing to see who can get the highest percentage of subordinates past the cutoff. If the latter, do it right and stop pushing blame for bad information onto hapless recipients.

★          ★          ★          ★          ★

To be clear, I don’t make these last remarks to critique the individual commenter. His remarks are well-intentioned, and they are commonplace. They reflect a culture. This is how Chiefs see those they supervise these days. There’s an ugly, misplaced “I got mine” sort of vibe given off by too many who have gotten theirs these days — both senior enlisted and senior officer — and it turns people off.

Chiefs have seniority. They have freedom from career anxiety because they’ve made it. In theory, this empowers and liberates Chiefs in important ways. They are uniquely capable and positioned to objectively and expertly explain things, passing along the not so much the lessons of administrative manipulation, but the secrets of sustained professionalism and performance that theoretically earned them their stripes. 

But importantly, airmen need to be able to approach Chiefs and elicit their hard-earned wisdom. If they’re going to get double-barreled judgments instead, they’ll stop asking, knowledge will not be transferred, and everyone will get dumber. Unfavorable footnote: no matter how collectively dumb we make ourselves, we’ll still promote the maximum quota allowed by law to every rank. That combination of circumstances is how we grow a fatally flawed force.

If we want to avoid doing that, we need three things from today’s Chiefs: clarity, communication, and a genuine commitment to developing airmen rather than simply making a career blueprint available online and expecting the rest to take care of itself.

One commenter said it well:

“… on the flip-side, it takes Chiefs getting [out] from behind their desk and asking the question ‘what can I teach you today.’ Remember, Human Capital is the Force’s biggest asset … groom them to take your place by providing knowledge to them …”

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