Rules of communication

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mark Guerber
  • 16th Space Control Squadron commander
The van pulled up along the wing headquarters building... and exploded. It took out part of the operations support squadron and the wing command section. Both the wing and squadron commanders and their deputies were gone in an instant. Left behind were the 21st Operations Group commander and a seven-year captain who knew a lot about training, but had never led a squadron, and he certainly had never re-established one following a major emergency.

Good thing it was an exercise. It gave the commanders a lot of extra time to sit and ponder if they were teaching their replacements the right skills for success. In the end, we're all able to improve our organization's responses through communication, delegation and documentation.

Over the years, I've seen dozens of officers burn out, while many of their subordinates sat back, disenchanted and disconnected from the mission and wondering what their supervisors were thinking. How do we repair the damage?

There are thousands of books on communication, so I'm going to sidestep a detailed discussion of that issue by pointing out two rules that have worked for me. 1) The rule of three: when your boss says something, repeat his or her guidance in three additional venues with your personnel. Your boss' message never gets lost; rather, it's multiplied by a factor of three. Applying this rule in my squadron, the entire unit would know my intent in just four steps. 2) Repetition implies pattern, pattern implies theme. Figure out what matters and make it your soapbox. At a macro level, our national leaders call this policy, at the squadron level, we call it consistency. It lets people know where you stand and what's important; it will guide their actions without any effort from you as a leader. When taking command, I decided that one of my most important themes had to be that NCO leadership is the backbone of the Air Force.

Remember the disenchanted masses? The leaders in the previous paragraph mistakenly thought that every problem required an officer solution. Ridiculous! When you read AFI 36-2618, commonly known as the Brown Book, you learn that NCOs accomplish the mission of the Air Force! They participate in the organizational decision making processes, execute the mission, train younger generations, and uphold our standards and values. That's a lot of work, and anyone trying to do it all will quickly exceed his or her span of authority. Delegation is essential, and an area many space officers need more practice.

What to delegate is one of the most critical decisions a leader can make. Napoleon used the directed telescope. He focused his attention where he made the most impact as a commander. In our recent combined unit inspection, we focused our attention on the most important issues by defining them in terms of complexity and criticality. The higher the score in both categories, the more senior leaders took a direct role in shaping the task. Note that I said "shaping," not doing or executing. The NCO corps is expert at implementing; but, the senior leader and the organization operates more efficiently when they prioritize, communicate intent, identify decision points and follow up.

So how do we know what to delegate? Impact. Sit down and identify the unique things that your position brings to the organization. Commanders issue intent (purpose, key tasks, end state), they describe sequence and priorities, policy, only commanders issue NJP, etc. Flight commanders translate the relevance for their specific flight, identify implied tasks in the commander's intent, assign tasks to their NCOs, and set goals and expectations. I recommend that the expectations include a mid-term progress check of the basic solution (to avoid train wrecks later) and an 80 percent check to ensure completeness and proper coordination with external organizations. These techniques work from commander to NCOIC, and the progress checks ensure that whenever the boss asks, leaders at every level can answer questions at a second or third level of detail.

But how do we make these techniques take root across our organizations?

Everything we need for success, we learned at a young age. We've all had a teacher who said "practice makes perfect" or a coach who made us drill the fundamentals until our muscles could perform a skill without our brain thinking about it. Incorporating these leadership techniques into our daily cross-check presses them into our memory and allows us to look at the broader picture when crises arise. Creating and documenting our processes is how the Air Force institutionalizes our best techniques into repeatable effective habits.

Like the athlete who's developed the muscle memory to react in an instant, this frees our attention, and allows our organizations to focus on what's new and different, leaving the intellectual overhead we need to respond to the unexpected. Semper paratus.