BLUF – Every singular presence of you as the commander within the work centers of your unit has the potential to add up to building a stronger team, so you must employ a strategy that optimizes your overall presence.
Being shackled to your desk sucks, and as the commander, you must have a strategy to minimize this situation. Your time will also be sucked up by internal and external meetings throughout the week, so you need to make sure you don’t forget to employ the other side of your “public engagements” – developing your physical presence around the unit. Your presence within the work centers can have huge impacts on morale, cohesion, and overall trust. But you can’t just simply show up and call it a win. You must employ a strategy that fits your style of leadership so that each engagement is genuine. Every singular presence of you as the commander within the work centers of your unit has the potential to add up to building a stronger team, so you must employ a strategy that optimizes your overall presence.
In general, there are two strategies of ensuring you can apply to shape your presence around the unit: Planned and Unplanned. The Planned Strategy is where you block out time on your schedule to visit work centers. Similar to other meetings on your schedule, this method can be set as a recurring event where you can rotate the work centers you are visiting. This method provides a great degree of consistency for yourself and the squadron, who can prepare accordingly for your visit. This method is commonly applied by commanders to ensure they get out of office, often with their Superintendent or First Sergeant. Personally, I’m not a fan of the planned/recurring method for two reasons. One, I don’t want anyone to prepare for a visit for me. You may be familiar with the term “dog and pony show”, where visits are carefully orchestrated for leadership to highlight specific subjects. These often feel over-produced and don’t necessarily promote an environment of true and honest conversation. The last thing you want is for every visit you conduct to have your personnel saying “Yep, everything is fine here. Nothing to see.” Secondly, the predictability of the visit can put personnel in awkward positions to have to come up with subjects and conversations. I can imagine the conversations of “Here comes the boss again…” and trying to scramble and figure out something to occupy the entirety of the time block. Depending on the type of work center, they may or may not have anything drastically change from the last visit to talk about. This dynamic could work to your advantage, where the search for conversations and subjects force the work centers to discuss ideas they wouldn’t normally.
The Planned Strategy requires you to be confident in your “gift of the gab” ability to generate conversations with everyone in your unit (that ability should be inherent with any great leader, but I digress). If you prefer the Planned Strategy, you can (and should) shape the environment by sending forward a specific topic you want to discuss, thus removing the thought exercise from the work center. Target an on-going project applicable to the shop, or even talk about a unit-wide policy and ask how the policy affects them. By providing a prompt for discussion prior to your visit, you can turn your planned visits into valuable info-gathering events for both sides. While the Planned Strategy isn’t my personal preference, the approach can work very well when properly applied.
The Unplanned Strategy is the method I prefer. No set or recurring schedules, just drop-ins on work centers to see what’s going on. Sometimes I have a subject in mind, sometimes I don’t. Even though I’m calling this the Unplanned Strategy, you need to have a general sense of how often you get out of the office. Instead of the formal “Thursday at 1400 work center visit” meeting, you need to know where you can fit a visit in and not have too much of a lapse from your last visit. You don’t have to schedule these alone either; talk with your Superintendent and First Sergeant to “spread the love” of leadership presence throughout the squadron. Once you have some targets in mind, look at your schedule and find time to visit. This doesn’t have to turn into a formal event on your schedule. Often times you can visit work centers when you are transitory. If you have a scheduled meeting near a work center, plan to visit before or after. This method also provides you an “exit strategy” just in case you need one. Regardless, your unannounced presence can provide a great break in the day for all involved. Some work centers would prefer you not drop in unannounced, but those preferences can be easily managed. If you make your drive-by visits non-threatening and the word gets around the unit, most work centers will look forward to your visits.
Most of my drive-by visits within my Unplanned Strategy don’t even revolve around work. I like to ask more social questions: what is everyone doing this weekend? Did you buy advance tickets for the next Marvel movie? Anyone going to family-friendly events, like the Renassaince Fair? Which team are you rooting for in the Big Game? I engage in low-threat conversations that remove the formal commander-subordinate relationship and just talk to each other like ordinary people. Times like these can slowly build more trust and strengthen the team because you show interest in them as a person, not just a co-worker. Again, the “gift of the gab” comes in handy for the unplanned strategy because you need to know and remember your audience to weave a seamless conversation that leaves a positive impact. The Unplanned Strategy isn’t for everyone, but when used properly can build a strong team and be time-efficient for all involved.
So between planned and unplanned, which strategy works the best? This question is very similar to “Which diet or fitness program works the best?”, and the answer is similar as well: the strategy you can consistently stick to. The underlying intent of both approaches is for you to show genuine interest in the on and off-duty lives of the teammates assigned to your squadron. By promoting an environment of conversation and discussion, you open up the doors for personnel to talk about the more difficult subjects in life. Those doors won’t open unless you gain and maintain trust with one another, and your presence throughout the unit as commander is powerful. No matter which strategy you choose to apply, you will have to work hard to have a consistent and genuine presence in your unit. Eventually, the time spent won’t feel like work at all, but rather the right thing to do as the leader of the unit.