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Commentary: what now, senior NCO?

By Lt. Col. Dear Beloved | Director of Operations, 326th Training Squadron | June 13, 2018

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas —

Two years ago, in June 2016, the Air Force gave me the rare opportunity to be a part of Basic Military Training, where elite Military Training Instructors train the future with pride, passion and professionalism.

These noncommissioned officers and senior NCOs immediately blew me away with their high levels of dedication and initiative. Armed with skills forged by taking thousands from recruit to Airman status, the MTIs taught me more about leadership in one year than I had learned in the past 15 years.

Only in my second year at BMT did I truly start to pay it back through mentoring, especially on the NCO to SNCO transition.

The Air Force recently selected 6,176 technical sergeants for promotion to the rank of master sergeant and more importantly, the grade of senior NCO, or SNCO. As a brand new SNCO, you may have wondered “What Now?”

This amazing achievement signals by a shift in focus from technical expertise to organizational competence.

Technical skills made you successful as an NCO and provided a great foundation for success as a SNCO, but it is no coincidence that two different events follow the promotion release results – the Master Sergeant Release Social and the Senior NCO Induction Ceremony.

Continued success is marked by your ability to perform, not just as a master sergeant, but as a SNCO leading and managing teams at all levels, inside or outside your comfort zone and independent of your duty position.

In 2004, Capt. Raymond M. Powell told “The Master Sergeant Watershed” story in Air & Space Power Journal of a highly-successful “Tech. Sgt. Smith,” who received a Stripes For Exceptional Performers promotion and was one of the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year, who became miserable and would retire from active duty within one year of making master sergeant. What happened?

At the organizational level, your ability to lead within and across teams will be directly impacted by other people’s perception of you as a leader.

If a gap exists between your self-perception and the organizational perception, you must:
1. Detect the gap
2. Take action to close it.

You detect the gap by aggressively seeking feedback on a continual basis up and down the chain. You take action to close it by listening to the feedback and being humble enough to acknowledge room for self-improvement.

Resist the natural instinct to reject or refute feedback and listen as if the other person is right. This will allow you to achieve high levels of mission effectiveness when leading within and across teams.

Just as important, new SNCOs must be comfortable operating outside their comfort zone. For some this comes naturally, but not in all cases, especially if your success as an NCO was mostly based on strong performance in your primary field of expertise.

As a SNCO, the biggest opportunities for success will often come by connecting outside of your comfort zone. For an introvert, this might require deliberate thought on how to actively engage your peers and external stakeholders to achieve positive outcomes.

And while position power may seem to be the obvious answer, very rarely will you obtain it, and even if you do, you will not have full control over those people needed to ensure mission success.

A broader horizon for thought and action is also required as a SNCO. Use of shaping and influencing actions that directly link to commander intent will produce the desired end state, but rarely can this take place in a day or two. It’s a long term process, driven by deliberate thought and sustained action.

When you master this proactive-based mode of operation, opportunities materialize in unexpected and positive ways, and you begin to emulate that high-performing SNCO, ready to take our Air Force teams and mission to the next level.

Now is the time to reflect on the past journey and the path ahead, and to introspectively ask, “What Now?”

(Thanks to Chief Master Sgt. Philip Eckenrod, 37th Training Wing, and Chief Master Sgt. Jon Kristof, 326th Training Squadron, for their editorial reviews.)