• T. Kearny Vertner, III

Three Expectations

As a senior enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, I have three expectations of officers.

Photo by Senior Airman Luis Loza Gutierrez, USAF

A senior non-commissioned officer - or SNCO - carries a wide range of responsibilities in the U.S. military. Depending on their position, they are expected to be the top-tier technical experts, competent administrators of enlisted-specific issues, supervisors, program managers, functional managers, or principal advisors. One of their key roles is to mentor our officers and help them grow into the leaders we need. To that end, I encourage young SNCOs to consider this deliberately and develop a focused approach.


I firmly believe that an officer has a few essential responsibilities, and I expect them to fulfill them to their upmost ability: liaise, resource, and trust.


Liaise


For the most part, enlisted personnel are highly technical, oriented strongly around their given occupational specialty. As a result, they tend to be laser-focused on their single slice of the mission pie. If they are skilled at repairing aircraft, they may understand little about what that aircraft does, what threats it faces, how it is protected on the ground, how their parts arrived, or key partners (or customers) in that aircraft's mission. Often, they'll understand even less about who the people are that perform all of those other functions and how much they must pour into their respective trades. As a result, enlisted personnel spend most (if not all) of their careers necessarily focused on their tribe and may lack the understanding to articulate their organization's mission, story, and needs in a way that others will understand. This isn't a negative; their responsibilities primarily rely on a "down-and-in" approach to accomplishing a unit's mission.


Officers, on the other hand, are groomed for breadth. From very early in their career, they are actively discouraged from focusing too much on a technical specialty; instead, they have to learn a new unit's mission quickly, understand all of the external units essential to their unit's success, and become comfortable translating the jargon used between all of them. In contrast to the enlisted "down-and-in" approach, officers are often taught to look towards "up-and-out."


Thus, I expect an officer to focus on that "up-and-out" of whatever function they are assigned. If they are in charge of a team inside a unit, they will be the ones to go outside of that team and build relationships. They are also the first ones I expect to go outside of the unit and forge a "team of teams." I expect a good officer to liaise with other units, tell his personnel's story, and connect key technicians.


Resource

Get that bread!

Enlisted personnel are notoriously good at ferreting out a unit's problems and supplying solutions; however, the best ideas often end with "someone" or "they" should do something. In many cases, the answers will rely on acquiring resources that aren't organically available using channels that may be completely unknown to most enlisted. Officers are uniquely situated to address this challenge if they are liaising well.


I expect an officer to use their unique perspective and relationships to get resources. This includes manpower, money, training, equipment, buildings, etc. This responsibility is a double-edged sword; in some cases, I also expect them to be able to survey the broader landscape of units, missions, and priorities and explicitly understand when their unit is not on the top of the list or is already comparatively well-equipped. In this case, they must help their unit understand why the correct answer is no.


Trust

Get that trust!

Just as resource leans directly onto liaise, so too does trust lean directly on both of them. As we've seen, enlisted personnel bring tremendous strength to a unit. They stand ready as expert technicians, dedicated to their trade, and willing to provide unfiltered advice on how best to employ their skills to a mission. That said, even the youngest officer will outrank the most senior enlisted, making the disparity between a senior officer and a junior enlisted borderline comical. Officers - on the whole - are smart, motivated, and curious about whatever unit they are leading in; many will work tirelessly to study even the smallest technical details so that they can better understand and lead their personnel. This can sometimes backfire, where an officer will determine that their months of study are better informed and more useful their enlisted technicians' comparative years.


This can happen for a variety of reasons. In some cases, the unit has a technical function that an officer may find exciting, spurring a burst of energetic study. Just as many enlisted personnel remain in technical fields they find satisfying and enjoyable, some officers (that might have been better off enlisting) find themselves inadvertently satisfied by performing those same roles. Other officers are legitimately so well-educated and brilliant that their quick study truly does rival some senior technicians; these are the most dangerous because they are the least likely to have trust in their technicians.


I expect an officer to trust their enlisted technicians. If a Captain (O-3) is invited to a meeting on a highly technical subject (because they have been a good liaison and their rank opened a door), it is incumbent upon them to bring the Senior Airman (E-4) subject matter expert into the meeting with them. Doing so ensures that they'll have the expertise on hand when a question comes up that they can't answer; or when they aren't sure what question they should be asking. Officers that go into highly technical meetings alone demonstrate a dangerous level of arrogance that can - at best - disenfranchise their enlisted personnel and - at worst - jeopardize their mission.


While trust is easily the most important of these three, it does not alleviate an officer from determining who to trust. One of an officer's most vital skills is determining who is skilled and who is trustworthy... and who is both. Leading and managing people effectively will rely on the ability to quickly and accurately assess these traits and positioning folks accordingly.


Bonus: Visibility


This one is a little something extra that I add for officers assuming unit command: be visible. I know that it's hard between the endless meetings, ceremonies, e-mails, luncheons, etc., but personnel need to physically see their commander walking through their spaces. One should make it a point to come through regularly, chat for a minute, and talk about what's going on. A commander's senior enlisted should be doing this as well, but the goal is slightly different. Their job will be to ask questions and observe deeply on how the mission is getting accomplished and how folks are feeling. On the other hand, the commander's role is to simply be seen and convey why the mission is getting accomplished. The senior enlisted are the commander's eyes and ears, but folks still need to hear the commander's voice. Don't let a unit-wide meeting be the only time a unit sees its commander.


Conclusion


Just as supervisors should have realistic but specific expectations for their direct reports, a SNCO needs to develop clear expectations for their officers. Mine are simple: liaise, resource, and - most importantly - trust. If the importance of trust sounds familiar, you may recall it from my recent discussion on COVID-19 and mission command; it's a core component. Our teammates deserve to be well-led. As a SNCO, I am ill-equipped to provide much advice on what will help an officer promote to the next rank, but I can absolutely offer guidance that can help one to be a good officer. With any luck, these will prove to be the same thing.


Fellow SNCOs: what are your expectations of your officers? Officers: what SNCO mentorship has helped you the most?



Drop Me a Line, Let Me Know What You Think

© 2020 by T. Kearny Vertner, III. These are my views and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Department of Defense or its components. Proudly created with Wix.com