Morale Events: Good vs Great Squadrons

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A goal I set early in my command was that I wanted to set the standard for what a great squadron should feel like in the Air Force. Not good, but great. With many first-term Airmen assigned to the squadron, it was very important to me to build an experience that strived to match their expectations on joining an inclusive and diverse team that knows the importance of their contribution mission, yet also has a positive environment that seeks to grow leaders and have fun at the same time. Squadron morale events are part of building a positive culture and must have deliberate energy and tempo behind them to make the difference between a good and great squadron.

Similar to operations and development of leaders, as the Commander, you have the responsibility to set the conditions for success for morale events. This isn’t to say you need to be a pseudo-Booster Club president, but as commander, you need to contribute early and consistently to ensuring morale events are included in the overall battle rhythm of the squadron.  The first thing you can do is make time for the events. In this instance, this means making time for the squadron. Review the long-term calendar and find dates within the battle rhythm that have a lower ops tempo (the day prior to long/holiday weekends are usually a good spot) and plan backward from those dates. You’ll have to guide your flight commanders on how to professionally shut down operations within the work centers. Sometimes operations can’t be shut down, which means you’ll need to find out how to ensure personnel that must remain on shift are included. For example, our telephone operators couldn’t leave their shift for our potluck/barbeque events, so the squadron command teams would bring food to them. The important takeaway is that you must take deliberate action to carve out time for the morale event to signal the importance of the event. 

To get after the consistency of morale events within the squadron, set a recurring huddle with yourself, the Superintendent, the First Sergeant, and the Booster Club council as a synchronization event for each other. This huddle is separate from the usual Booster Club meeting, where squadron members discuss the tactical level planning of events. At your huddle, the Booster Club council can provide you direct updates on any events the are actively being worked, ask for resources, and also float any new ideas they have. Conversely, you can provide direct feedback to the council so that they can move out quickly. Key questions like “Is alcohol allowed to be at the event?” or “Can we plan to shut down operations at 1400?” can be quickly answered. Sometimes the Booster Club will know to ask these questions, which means you need to provide answers to them. I mention having the Superintendent and First Sergeant because all three of you should have enough experience to know when the planning for a morale event is on and off-target. Your job isn’t to micromanage the Booster Club, but to provide overwatch and set them up for success. Booster Clubs are usually filled with NCOs and Airmen with varying levels of experience. Regardless of those experiences, you must serve as an informal back-up to the council to ensure the morale events are executed. Review the overall rhythm of the event with the council so that the event will run smoothly. For example, if you are having a potluck or barbeque, ensure food is ready to be served on time. This means don’t start the grill at 1130 (you’d be surprised how often this happens). Timing and tempo is critical to the success of a morale event. Morale events don’t have to be executed perfectly, but for the majority of the squadron, all guidance should be well-organized and understood to minimize any excuses for everyone to participate. 

Once the morale event is underway, your presence as commander must be felt accordingly. For the major morale events such as the Thanksgiving Potluck or Holiday Party, you will be guided to provide words at certain points within the script (you’ve reviewed the script at your huddle with the Booster Club, right?), which are usually at the beginning and the end of the event. These words don’t have to be long and drawn out but should serve as the “official” start and end of the event. During the event itself, you must find the balance of personally enjoying the event and circulating around the squadron to see how everyone is doing. Key advice for the circulation is that it must feel like a genuine interaction. Your personality and the personality of the squadron shouldn’t have any barriers between them, which means you can navigate from table to table with ease. Greet your squadron teammates with positivity. If they brought their family members, be sure to greet and chat with them as well. Find your off-ramps to move on to the next table and repeat until your presence has been applied effectively. For the minor morale events such as a unit barbeque or bowling event, you can essentially use the same strategy of circulation minus the official start and end speeches. A different approach is to find a position where the squadron will come to you and you can interact there. I found that the dessert area is a common place for people to visit, so I would hang out there and chat with people as they come by. The interaction is usually brief (because they want to eat the dessert), which bakes in the off-ramp of the conversation for you! Again, conversations should be genuine and tailored to the participant accordingly. Your squadron teammate may be intimated by having their squadron commander talk to them, so it is up to you to lower that tension and create a positive memory for all involved.

If you don’t champion morale events as commander in your squadron, no one will. Morale events are part of a strong culture within a squadron and require your time and energy to recharge the team so they can tackle the mission. This responsibility isn’t yours alone, but you have a critical role in making the difference between a good and great squadron. Maya Angelou said it best: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Pro tip: if you as commander are nominated for Pie in the Face, never pay your way out of it. Everyone knows you can pay your way out of it, but that doesn’t mean you should.

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