Tips for new frontline supervisors – moving from ‘bro’ to ‘boss’

  • Published
  • By Col. David Miller
  • 21st Operations Group commander
As the chief and I were wrapping up the global change of command season in the 21st Operations Group, we had some great discussions with the next generation of leaders in our Air Force. As we saw several young Airmen reconciling their new-found responsibilities as first-time, frontline supervisors, we thought it was a good idea to continue our leadership dialogue with our Airmen. In particular, we wanted to focus on how new leaders in the Air Force should view their positions and how they might want to confront the many challenges they will face leveraging lessons from their peers.

First and foremost, our batteries remained charged over thousands and thousands of miles of air travel because our Airmen and their families are amazing. Each has an interesting and, at times, humbling story of how they joined the Air Force and came to serve their country. In particular, our frontline supervisors, the young senior airmen or staff sergeants, and the lieutenants and captains leading a workcenter, section or flight, remain the true center of gravity for our Air Force. Their ability to lead from the front, set and enforce the highest standards, and take care of our mission and our Airmen is what assures us we will remain the most dominant and lethal Air Force the world has ever seen.

Nevertheless, the transition from being "one of the guys" to leading a group of Airmen to accomplish a specific mission can be daunting. Therefore, we thought it fitting to pass along a few tips for the new supervisor to consider as he or she takes on this new role.

We call this first opportunity to lead Air Force Airmen the transition from "Bro to Boss." It is a critical point in the development of young leaders and we have discerned three basic lessons that have proven successful for our young leaders in the 21st Operations Group. Hopefully these lessons, and the accompanying anecdotes, will prove a useful tool for discussion with the young leaders in your organization.

Lesson 1 - We put you in charge to develop solutions and not simply to point out problems. This first lesson was identified during a question and answer session with some young NCOs. One of the young workcenter supervisors stood up, pulled out a list he had obviously put a lot of time into and began reading off things he did not like in his work center. It was nothing staggering and there was no crisis. It was basically a list of things or materials which could make things "nicer for the Airmen" in his shop.

In an era of constrained budgets, I think this young Airman was anticipating a response that would focus on belt-tightening and "sucking it up." Instead, I simply asked the Airman whether he had brought any of this up his chain or tried to pursue funding through his unit (as we knew other young leaders had done). He admitted he had not. I then asked him if he had gone to Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office or a sister unit on base to look for some of the supplies as others had done. Again, he had not. Finally, I asked him if the unit had a morale fund or booster club and whether he had pursued alternative funding option. Once again, he had not. All of my questions to this young Airman could have been summed up this way: "What have you done to provide for your Airmen other than point out problems?"

As most commanders and senior enlisted leaders would agree, we try to be very deliberate about who we put in charge of our finest resource -- our Airmen. We do not just look for smart people with demonstrated proficiency in a particular skill. We look for people who have the capability to lead and who understand our fundamental responsibility as leaders is to give our Airmen the tools they need to succeed.

"Airman Smith" above had the right instinct to take care of his Airmen and improve his work environment, but his execution was wrong. Rather than focusing exclusively on a list of problems, he should have spent more time finding answers. What he failed to understand as a young leader of Airmen is that leadership is about developing solutions for our Airmen and their families, not simply pointing out problems that you already have the power to solve. In short, we need leaders who own their mission, which means owning decisions and actions that are yours to execute and developing solutions for your Airmen! Trust me, "Airman Smith" gets it now, feels empowered to act, and is doing a great job stepping up to make things better for his Airmen.

Lesson 2: You are responsible for a positive, success-focused work environment! During our unit visits, the chief and I routinely go off schedule and script to find as many opportunities as we can to talk to them directly and, whenever possible, engage their families. One of these discussions reminded me of a lesson I saw firsthand when I was a squadron commander.

Shortly after taking command, I was talking with some unit spouses at dinner and it was evident some of the younger families were having a difficult time adjusting to life in the local area. This was troubling because I knew that our command team had worked hard to set up family activities, sponsor and Key Spouse programs, and other initiatives designed to keep our Airmen and their families engaged and aware of opportunities in the local area.

After a bit more digging, it was clear the root of the problem was not the overarching unit approach but rather the execution of frontline leadership in one particular flight. One young officer in particular did not like his job, thought he deserved more responsibility and authority, and took every opportunity to let his Airmen know it. He would only pay lip service to unit initiatives designed to engage our Airmen, and typically wise crack about how those programs "wouldn't work." Needless to say, his Airmen and their families were hesitant to participate in unit programs and generally developed a poor opinion of the local area. Ironically, during this young officer's feedback session, he self-identified how much trouble he was having motivating his Airmen, as well as his frustration at some of the proficiency and fitness challenges in his work center.

What this young officer failed to realize was he was responsible for creating a positive work environment and his failure to do so was directly contributing to the sub-standard performance of his Airmen. Many of you may recall one of Gen. Colin Powell's leadership lessons states, "perpetual optimism is a force multiplier." Logic dictates the converse must also be true and a persistently negative attitude will be like a cancer and, if left unchecked, will destroy morale and undermine mission performance. After some direct mentoring and feedback with this young officer, it was evident he was not ready to lead our Airmen and their families and we needed to put him into a position of decreased responsibility while he worked on developing his leadership skills. The message to frontline supervisors is simple: A positive command climate starts and ends with you.

Lesson 3 - It takes Air Force families to lead Air Force families! On our most recent change-of-command swing, the chief and I visited one of our top performing units. By almost every objective measure this unit was a high-performing team and the outgoing command team had a great deal to be proud of. They led the way in operations excellence, unit and personnel recognition programs, innovation and efficiency initiatives, etc... You name it, they were good at it.

What quickly became obvious to the incoming commander and his spouse was just how integrated family members and the local community were to almost everything the unit did. In just a few days of overlap, they appreciated just how successful a unit can be when every member of the team, whether Airman, spouse, or family member "grabs an oar" and starts rowing in the same direction.

Now this phenomenon is nothing new to the Air Force or the military. Since the dawn of airpower more than a century ago, our leaders have understood the contribution of the Air Force family to mission success. The rationale is simple: Leaders that have the support of their family and local community have more resources to address problems, access to a wider support networks, and, when needed, access to alternative communication networks to monitor the health and status of our Airmen. That said, if you have been in the Air Force long enough, you also understand the negative effect a dysfunctional Air Force support network can have on a unit. Many have heard about the "gossip groups" who only seem to focus on spreading rumors, the cliques that exclude rather than include, and perhaps even a commander's spouse with a misplaced sense of entitlement who lost focus on their role supporting the unit Airmen.

The focus of any family or community support network must be clearly and unambiguously on our Airmen. Every action must be focused on helping to ensure our Airmen and their families have the tools they need to succeed both personally and professionally. That is why whenever an incoming squadron commander's spouse asks me, "Do you have any advice for me?" I try to emphasize those themes. It should be no surprise leaders actively supported by their families and local communities are more effective than those without. Observing those relationships for the past 20-plus years, I think there are three keys to success when engaging family and local support networks to support our Airmen and their families:

- 1 - It is not about you, so stay focused on our Airmen and their families. In other words, spouses have no rank, and no institutional authority to direct action. What spouses and community support networks have is experience, access to resources, and the wherewithal to rapidly marshal those resources in a time of need. Accordingly, our Airmen need to understand their well-being is a primary consideration in every decision the leadership team makes.
- 2 - Stay positive. Even high-performing teams can have bad days and it is during those rough times where the spouse and community support will shine the brightest. In short, people will be looking to see how you react, so stay positive and remember rule 1.
- 3 - Don't be afraid to make a difference! The family and community networks are not garnishment. They are not there to be seen only at big events and celebrations. The work of the Air Force family is often best done behind the scenes. How many times has a spouse alerted leadership to warning signs, like a change in behavior? How many times have our community partners stepped up in a crisis to support our Airmen in times of need? Even if that support was just a meal or a ride home, it made a difference and you should let our Airmen know how important they are. Like any family member the proof is in the pudding, and the true measure of effectiveness is who is left standing when times are at their toughest. In short, whatever you do close on the commitment to our Airmen and their families.

I hope these lessons will prove useful to your young Airmen making that move from "Bro to Boss." While every unit is different and each scenario is not necessarily transferable, what is transferable is the need to "own your mission," solve problems for our Airmen, and maintain a focus on the entire Air Force family. As I said at the outset, frontline supervisors are the center of gravity for maintaining a positive, success-focused command environment. Our Air Force needs you to succeed and we look forward to watching you develop the best generation of Airmen the world has ever seen.