One of the interesting things about switching from enlisted to officer is now it seems like everything is a subtle competition. It all started when people were jockeying for Distinguished Graduate (DG) or other awards in OTS or in tech school, but as I have progressed in my career it has become less clearly defined. Little things such as who will get selected for what SOPS (unit) or who will become a mission planner first are always in the back of our minds. As Captains or senior Lieutenants it will grow into who will become the Flight Commander of the most prestigious flight or who will be re-assigned to the other BA unit. I saw this in a limited way as an Airman or NCO periodically throughout my career, but now it seems like it more like the “norm.”
As an officer there is more to promotion than just rank. Regardless of who you are there is an unwritten and sometimes unknown hierarchy that you will fall into within your peer group. This is more clearly defined in OTS or tech school because everyone knows there will be a DG at the end of the course, but how does this look in the operational Air Force? If you are one of eight vehicle operators, are you the best one or middle of the pack? Out of all of the Lieutenants in your squadron, does the commander know your name? I should remind you all that I am a 13S so I am sure this looks very different in my career field vs. others.
In my career field or in my unit there are general things people who are considered successful have done, and some people may say that a successful person would need to do this or that. Some examples could be if someone said you have to be a space operator, then mission planner, then flight commander, the mission commander, or perhaps someone said you have to be an exec or instructor at some point in your career before you can get the best job. Graduating from weapons school is another common thing which people associate with success. I will do a later post specifically on weapons school.
The Key to Success
So how do you navigate through your career with this subtle pressure or within this unknown hierarchy of success? The key to success is this: none of it matters. You need to know how it works, but you don’t need to play games to get to where you think you need to be. The more you worry about what you did and whether or not you are on the right path, the farther you get from focusing on your people and your mission. It may seem counter-intuitive, but focusing solely on how you can better accomplish your mission and fulfilling the needs of your people will give you the right perspective or visibility, and success will in turn find you, not the other way around.
Look at it this way. You are one of 20 vehicle operators at your unit and you are worried because it is hard to stand out. Instead of trying work yourself into a higher position or becoming best friends with the flight commander of mission planning, become the best vehicle operator you can be. Learn every aspect of your job and learn from your mistakes. Instead of just following the TO, learn why each step in the TO exists, then start thinking about how it could be improved. Ask the hard questions like ‘why do we do this’ and seek the regulatory requirements which drove the action.
Once you become good at all of that, you will be known as a good operator. Not only will your crew commander notice, other crew commanders will begin to notice. Flight Commanders such as mission planning, Stan/Eval, training, or Ops will also start to notice, and you will begin to build a foundation of people who are willing to indirectly (or directly) look out for your best interest.
Understanding How it Works
I can’t stress enough how important it is to understand how things work. One of the main reasons why I do this blog is because I have seen first-hand in my career how understanding can directly lead to once in a lifetime opportunities. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I was ignorant to how retraining, assignments, or commissioning worked in the Air Force.
Regardless of what your job is there will always be something next for you to do. In my unit we all start as vehicle operators and from there people are pulled to mission planning, training, ops, etc. Once there is a need in one of these positions, leadership looks at the pool of vehicle operators and reviews the list for who would be a good fit in the position. Leadership will likely dismiss who they don’t even know and identify the other potential 2-3 from the list. They may reach out and ask the crews commanders or other flight commanders if they know the potentials, and they may look at other things such as when the person arrived or when they are due to leave the unit. Good leadership will already know their people well enough to make the decision for themselves. After they finish their process to include inquiring if the person is interested, if everything works out the right people will be chosen.
This is why it is important to be known for being good at your job. When these decisions are made they usually have to be made fairly quickly. If you are known as a bad operator or no-one really knows you or how well you do your job, once they start polling the potentials it is too late to change that impression. In this way the cream really does rise to the top and is skimmed off by leadership for these other opportunities.
If you continue to move from one position to another in this way, you will make a really good name for yourself. In a four year tour you could move from several different jobs, and if you do them all well your commander will make a solid push for putting you in another unit of outstanding opportunities. You will probably end up with a good officer performance rating, and more importantly, the people you have worked with who are elsewhere in the command will know your reputation and who you are. This will come in handy later in your career.
Mission First, People Always
If you have a choice you should always try to stay as close to the mission as possible. It is a shame when a unit loses sight of the people actually doing the mission. Surprisingly, this is more common than it should be in Air Force Space Command. People get so worked up about being part of the booster club or the spouses group that they forget to be good at doing their job, or performing the mission. Sometimes units get tied up thinking training is more important because of some mindset they want you to adopt, but they make you train on your days off so you aren’t as sharp while on console. Sometimes Flights worry more about making the right decision for an appointment letter but forget the ops floor doesn’t have what they need it needs to adequately do their job. They are so tied up with administrative nonsense that they forget that their sole purpose in life is to get the ops floor the support they need. The closer you stay to the mission, the harder it will be to lose sight of the mission. Even if you get moved to one of the above support shops you can be known for always getting the ops floor the support they need. Everything should revolve around the mission, not the other way around.
Lastly and most importantly, you need to take care of your people. As a leader you have to fight for what is right for your people. If someone is trying to take away their days off, intervene. If someone is trying to make your troop stay after a mid shift for a late morning appointment, tell them no. If your troops’ secure phone on the ops floor hasn’t worked in weeks and it is impeding mission ops find out why, who you have to talk to in order to get it fixed, and aggressively follow up until it is done. If leadership is telling you to do something but it is a waste of man-hours, respectfully find out the “why” behind the decision and fight to make it right. This is the type of leadership that your troops need, and this is the type that is not common enough in Air Force Space Command.
So what does this all have to do with promotion? If you learn to take care of your Airmen and become well known for accomplishing the mission well, things such as awards, inter-unit promotions, or other opportunities will come automatically. More importantly, your Airmen will be good at their jobs and know that you have their back. As an officer, and especially as a 13S in Air Force Space Command, your reputation really does precede you. If you work hard and do your best at every job you work, the reputation and accomplishments you built as a Lieutenant and a Captain will all culminate as a BA Major board score and superb opportunities for your DO and commander tours. It is okay to be involved in your unit in you spare time but be good at your job first, and limit it to what you are personally passionate about, not what people are telling you that you should do. It may take a career to master all of these skills, but that is what makes life fun. Good luck!