BLUF – As a new commander, resist the urge make changes early on…unless the change makes sense for the team.
Original illustration by Victor Bregante
Either before or after the start of your squadron command tour, you will have mandatory “commander charm schools” you must attend. These are week-long seminars usually hosted by your MAJCOM and/or your functional community where you obtain a firehose amount of advice. Some of this is advice is mandatory (i.e. you must receive the briefing as a squadron commander in accordance with regulations), and some of the advice will be unsolicited (i.e. Colonels that were former squadron commanders will use the opportunity to share their advice, whether they were asked to share or not). Within these seminars, you will receive advice that for the first 30 to 60 days you should be primarily in observation mode and not make any drastic changes to the unit. Any changes you make could be seen as abrupt and shortsighted because you haven’t spent enough time with the unit to have a good understanding as to why a change might be necessary. This advice sounds logical but is only that: advice. When used correctly making small changes near the beginning of your tour can rally your team even faster to focus on larger challenges ahead.
The distinction between small and large changes may not be immediately apparent as you settle in as commander. The way to measure the change is based on the amount of impact that is already present within the squadron. There are several ways for you to gather a sense of how the squadron is currently operating. The most obvious is through the in-person conversations you will have with your new teammates. Through regularly scheduled battle rhythm events, one-time immersion events, or even informal conversations, you’ll gather a sense of subjects that are sensitive in nature to discuss. These subjects aren’t sensitive as they should never be discussed in public (those are private matters, probably in the realm of discipline), but rather they involve something that people are passionate about and have an opinion on why the current state of the squadron works or not. As the new commander, you have the opportunity to listen to as many opinions as possible and make a determination if the cumulation of these opinions is pointing at a change that should be made sooner than later. Again, you’re not obligated to take action on everything you hear or see at first glance, but repeat items pointing to a small change should definitely be taken into consideration instead of waiting for some arbitrary number of days to pass.
The following change is an example I made within the first 30 days of taking command. Some may consider this small, others may consider the change large. I considered the change necessary. Our squadron used the PT program that offered different approaches based on your active PT score. If you had a score above 90, you were able to PT on your own. If you had a score between 80 and 89, you had to schedule your PT with an available PTL and be led through the PT session at least once a week. If you had a score lower than 79, you had to schedule your PT with an available PTL and be led through PT sessions three times a week. This program is fairly common and offers an incentive to those who have high scores to maintain their current fitness regime that is clearly delivering results. In my opinion, this type of PT program delivers the opposite effect. Instead of incentivizing fitness, this approach punishes the individual with a lower score and creates a negative divide within the squadron. This opinion as not only mine but also shared with me by the individuals who were assigned to this group. PTLs are trained on how to run a PT session or facilitate an official PT test, not necessarily how to run a group that contains various weakness areas that need improvement. Placing this type of responsibility on them seemed out of place to me, and I wasn’t even sure if that was the goal placed on them. Again, these opinions were shared with me as I spoke with the PTLs. There also wasn’t a way for the individual to get out of their assigned fitness group until they tested again in six months. What if they improved in three months? What near-term incentive do they have to work towards? Bottom line, I wasn’t a fan of how the unit PT program was shaped because it was placing artificial divides within the squadron, and I decided to make a change in less than 30 days.
Instead of the decentralized PT program, I directed a change to once a week, mandatory formation for everyone. High scores were not going to excuse you from this formation, and everyone was given one week notice to ensure they could attend the 0700 event accordingly. There was definitely some immediate feedback: I’m clearly fit since I have a score of 92, why do I have to attend this? What time are we supposed to be back into work? What about those who have childcare that doesn’t open until 0700? I held on to those questions and eventually answered them, but not until the desired effect from the small change was sparked. When the first event took place, I saw the spark. The most common phrases used that morning was, “I didn’t realize we had this many people in the squadron,” and “I only recognize 40% of the people here.” I saw that this change revealed to the squadron that they did not spend enough time as a squadron. The previous PT program was creating divisions of “have and have nots” instead of being used as a unifying event. Through repetition, this degree of unfamiliarity with each other would slowly be dissolved. In addition, I informed the PTLs that they only had to run a session for 30 minutes, and allow the other 30 minutes to be used that the discretion of the individual to work on their weaknesses…and all of us have a weakness area, regardless of our score. The PTLs were expected to run an organized 30-minute event. Could be stations, could be a long run. As long as the session was organized, they were cleared hot to run the session as they saw fit. Over several weeks, the first 30 minutes continued to get better and even offered some variety so that the squadron didn’t get bored. I would mention out loud that if you weren’t a fan of how the PTLs were running PT, then you should sign up to be a PTL and make the change you want to see. Before we broke out for the individual portion of the PT session, we would huddle and up and I would use the opportunity to share some near term announcements in person. This method served better than email because I could deliver my message with emphasis and also answer any questions immediately. Our Superintendent and First Sergeant also had a consistent opportunity to share what they wanted to share, often without any prior coordination or discussion with me. I trusted them to say what they felt appropriate and moved on. I offered any last rounds for questions or comments, and then closed the huddle with our squadron chant. I started to use a different squadron chant than the currently established one, sort of as a beta test and also another symbol of something starting my tenure as the new commander. We clapped it up as an entire squadron and I led the call/response chant of “WIRED UP…FIRED UP” three times. This ended the first half of PT with a bang and allowed everyone to use the remaining 30 minutes to work on their weaknesses. Everyone was expected to return to their work centers by 0900, which was more than enough time to shower, change and grab something to eat. Just like that, a new PT program built with purpose and intent for the unit was initiated.
We continued this method over the duration of my command tour, and I can confidently say this was the right choice to make early on my tour. I mentioned earlier that there were immediate questions to the new program that I answered over time. Here are the answers I publicly gave to each:
- I’m clearly fit since I have a score of 92, why do I have to attend this? You have to attend because I need everyone to see what an example of “Excellent” looks like. You can serve as an inspiration to others in the squadron, and you could even be a mentor on weakness areas for others. If they see you are a fast runner, they now have someone to directly ask “Can you help me with my running?” And I expect you to be a good teammate and help them accordingly.
- What time are we supposed to be back into work? By 0900. That means you need to prep your personal time and make accordingly. You have more than enough time to get back to the dorms, shower, and grab food from the dining facility. Or this means you need to shower at the gym and have your breakfast prepped the night before. Your responsibility is to report to work on time, and I expect supervisors to hold everyone accountable.
- What about those who have childcare that doesn’t open until 0700? Work out this situation with your supervisor. Our PT program isn’t meant to incur any financial costs on you, and I trust the right decision will be made.
The comments about not knowing or recognizing the squadron as a whole were the most alarming, and also feedback that the change I was implementing was the right one to make. We needed to spend more time together in an event that was independent of our individual work centers. By focusing on identity as a squadron, I wanted to bridge those gaps and bring everyone together. The workouts were never that difficult, and I also said out loud that the point of our PT program wasn’t to get you in shape or prepare for your PT test; those are individual responsibilities I expect everyone to work on. Instead, our PT sessions were designed as camaraderie events where we gather as a squadron once a week, put eyes on one another for those who might need a little more attention on fitness, and share announcements in person to continue to build personal connections instead of communicating over email. All of these positive effects were made due to my decision as the new commander in delivering early change. I could have waited to make the change to the PT session or found different ways to bring the squadron together more often, but this felt like the right type of change to deliver the right type of positive effect. I delivered the change with as much transparency as possible. Did everyone like my answer? Probably not, but at least they received an answer. As new personnel entered the squadron, they asked if a different kind of program could be implemented, which was actually asking to revert back to the “incentive/punishment” program. I replied with my logic as to why we weren’t going to revert back, and also said that this program was only valid while I served as commander and they could bring up the recommended change to the next commander. I’ve never felt that any solutions or ideas I come up with are permanent. Change shouldn’t be feared, and you shouldn’t be afraid to make changes as a commander no matter what the timing is if you feel the change is right.