Bloom where you're planted

  • Published
  • By Col. Charles Arnold
  • 21st Mission Support Group commander
As a colonel and group commander, I often field requests from young officers and enlisted members who ask to get on my schedule for "career advice." Invariably, this leads to a discussion where they lay out their well thought out, long-term plans for career success. During most sessions, I stop the young officer or enlisted member and share a story with them that I think captures the danger of over-planning.

As a young second lieutenant at Eglin AFB in the early 1990s, I took a call from a fellow second lieutenant one morning. She asked if we could meet for lunch at the club to discuss her career plan. Since my career plan at the time was to just survive each day, I was interested to see what she had mapped out. During our lunch the eager young personnel officer outlined her entire career in detail and at a high volume.

I may miss a detail or two here, but as I think back 20 years later, here is how I remember the tale. She was currently a section commander, but she planned on finagling a position in the military personnel flight within the year. Next she would PCS to an overseas base, where she would be an MPF commander. While excelling as the MPF commander, she would clearly catch the eye of the wing commander who would hire her to be his or her executive officer. Of course the next natural step was an aide de camp position for a general officer, which would lead to selection for a below-the-zone promotion and what was then Intermediate Service School in-residence. After school, she would be selected for a high- visibility mission support squadron commander position ... and, well, you get the picture. Suffice to say that her plan concluded with her as a general officer.

Now, sitting at the table next to us was a crusty old colonel (who was probably younger than I am now) and his wife. The colonel appeared to be listening to my friend throughout her lengthy diatribe, a fact which was not lost on her. At the end of lunch the colonel and his wife got up to leave, but after taking a few steps towards the register he turned around and came back to our table. He leaned in to my lunch companion and quietly said, "I couldn't help but hear you have your whole career planned out." My friend beamed and stated, "Oh yes sir, I think you need to have a plan." The colonel then said, "Would you mind a little advice from a guy who has been around the block?" My friend exclaimed, "Oh yes sir, that would be great." To which the colonel leaned in and said, "Why don't you just [insert choice word] focus on making first lieutenant." The colonel then spun around and hustled to catch up with his wife, while I nearly spit my ice tea across the table.

A few years later I had the pleasure of listening to Maj. Gen. Susan Pamerleau, then the Air Force Personnel Center commander, give a speech where she stressed that the best thing one could do for their career was to "bloom where planted." Pamerleau's point, which has stuck with me until this day, was that the most important job you would ever have is the one you are currently in, and I couldn't agree more.

Every senior enlisted leader, colonel, senior civilian or flag officer can share a story that starts with his or her selection for a position that was not part of the grand plan. For me, the first time that happened was when I stepped off the plane at Anderson AB, Guam. I had PCS'd with the understanding I was going to be the MPF commander, which was a job I coveted. Imagine my surprise the next day when the wing commander "congratulated" me on my selection to be his new chief of protocol. Not being the smartest young company grade officer I replied "Oh no sir, I'm going to be the MPF commander, I've already been a chief of protocol." After a long pause the wing commander, who was a bear of man with an Alabama drawl stated, "Captain, I'm not asking." Now I had two choices: whine that my career plan had taken a wrong turn, or salute smartly and be the best darn protocol officer in Pacific Air Forces. I chose the latter, and everything worked out. A year later the wing commander rewarded me by ensuring I moved over to the coveted MPF position.

So what is my point? While it is fine to have a long-term career plan, the real key to success is to "bloom where you're planted." Now admittedly I'm an eternal optimist, but I genuinely believe that great work, commitment and loyalty will stand out regardless of position. By focusing on your current assignment and striving to excel, you will be noticed and you will be rewarded. If you simply "bloom where you're planted," the successful career you desire will materialize.

Now back to the start of this story ... how did my second lieutenant friend's plan play out? Within months of our memorable lunch she ended up separating from the Air Force before completing her first tour. Somewhere a crusty old colonel is smiling...