The NCO Solarium II was Nov. 17-20 at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The solarium, led by Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey, is part of an Army chief of staff initiative to inform and shape the future direction of the U.S. Army. November’s event brought together 60 sergeants first class and master sergeants to address topics that Dailey had identified and to provide recommendations to Dailey with “unfiltered feedback.” Dailey spoke about the challenge of nondeployable Soldiers and heard some concerns about uniform changes. But the NCOs’ concerns were wide-ranging, and many of them were related to Soldiers’ online activity. Here are some of the other topics that came up during the Solarium.
Lt. Gen. Robert B. Brown, commander of the Combined Arms Center, told the NCOs in attendance, “We wanted your unadulterated ideas. We didn’t want to influence you with our ideas and things we’re already working on. Some of you came up with solutions we’re already working on. That validated and reinforced what we’re doing.” Other ideas, he said, were fresh and from a different perspective. All ideas will be considered and taken seriously.
By SGT. MAJ. WILLIAM E. WHITE JR.
The United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps
Rating officials face significant opportunities and challenges as part of the Noncommissioned Officer Evaluation Report system update, which begins Jan. 1. Both the opportunities and challenges stem from the fact that U.S. Army Human Resources Command will be tracking rater tendencies and constraining senior rater profiles. This increased accountability will help focus the target group for promotion and increase the percentage of strong NCOs selected for the next rank. It will also be a mammoth leadership challenge, specifically for senior raters who will carry the burden of informing the majority of NCOs during their Annual Performance Review that they are not the “Most Qualified” NCO in their peer group. To achieve the potential benefit, we rating officials must accept the challenge before us — to do our jobs better and make our Army stronger. Leaders must begin laying the foundation for success now, and the key to that success is simple: effective counseling.
Consider these three facts: Inflation of NCOERs has been the accepted standard for years; the NCOER is not the problem, but rather the rating officials’ execution of the evaluation; senior raters have not previously been required to conduct counseling.
These are not easy facts to face. But, as leaders, we must step back from the situation and view it objectively. From a purely logical perspective, in any group of NCOs, only one can be the best. However, the inflation of NCOERs over the years has led to far too many NCOs receiving “1 and 1” ratings, which AR 623-3 defines as “the cream of the crop and … a recommendation for immediate promotion.” We have taught ourselves and our young NCOs that only a “1 and 1” is acceptable and, therefore, far too few of our NCOs are being honestly and accurately assessed. Not every NCO is the cream of the crop. Not every NCO deserves a recommendation for immediate promotion. If senior raters were already executing noninflated reports based on consistent counseling, there would be no reason to implement a constrained senior rater profile because senior raters would be self-regulating.
The lack of self-regulation, resulting in consistently inflated NCOERs, has led to systematic regulation: the constrained senior rater profile. Under this new system, which limits senior raters to no more than 24 percent of evaluations assessed as “Most Qualified,” 76 percent of rated NCOs will now only be “Highly Qualified” (or “Qualified” or “Not Qualified”) on their evaluations. This will be the first time that many NCOs are told they are not the best among their peers. That will be a hard pill to swallow for many, even if they know deep down that the NCO to their left or right is usually one step ahead of them. Effective counseling is the best remedy leaders have to address this situation.
Counseling by the book
We already have Army doctrine and regulations providing leaders with guidance regarding performance counseling. The current NCOER system requires raters to counsel rated NCOs quarterly. The new system requires senior raters to counsel the rated NCOs at least twice during the rating period.
ATP 6-22.1, The Counseling Process, states, “Counseling at the beginning of and during the evaluation period ensures the subordinate’s personal involvement in the evaluation process.” The primary purpose of quarterly counseling, as defined in AR 623-3, is “telling the rated NCO how well he or she is performing.” These definitions are fine minimum standards, but effective counseling is far more important than enforcing a subordinate’s “personal involvement” or cataloguing a list of tasks completed or not.
ATP 6-22.1 outlines the basic structure for counseling. Anyone in position to senior rate a NCO should already understand the four stages of counseling, the various types of developmental counseling and the three basic skills required of a counselor. One section of this ATP, however, provides important information that our new NCOER system will likely make critical for counselors.
With at least 76 percent of NCOs now assessed as less than “Most Qualified,” counselors will need to understand “Addressing Resistance.” Traditionally, resistance to counseling has been a situation associated with negative performance or disciplinary counseling. In the case of laying the foundation for success with the new NCOER, counseling resistance may become a more frequent issue to face, and as the ATP states, that resistance may come from either the counseled individual or the leader conducting the counseling.
The subordinate’s resistance is easy to foresee. More than a few NCOs will be resistant to the idea that they are not being evaluated as “Most Qualified.” This will lead to some resistance from the counseled NCO, but our current inflated NCOERs should indicate that some resistance to counseling will also come from leaders.
The leaders’ resistance may stem from a hesitance to be completely honest about their assessment of an NCO. Every senior rater would like to think that he or she is consistently providing honest assessments, but if this lack of forthright assessment didn’t exist, there would have been far more NCOs receiving 3s or even 4s on the current NCOER.
Senior raters owe it to their Soldiers and to the long term health of the Army to provide honest and specific evaluations of a rated NCO’s potential. Though we leaders are charged with developing our subordinates to the limits of their potential, we are not responsible for ensuring that all our subordinate NCOs get promoted. This false notion, however, is alive and well. Quite often, when a rating official executes an honest evaluation that assesses an NCO at less than “Among the Best” and “1 and 1,” the rated NCO is surprised by the less than stellar rating and feels betrayed by his or her leader. If a rating official conducts regular effective counseling, however, there is no reason for the rated NCO to be surprised.
Counseling beyond the book
When an NCO has just been told, perhaps for the first time, that he or she is not “Most Qualified” for promotion, one of the first things he or she will want is an answer to some version of this question: “How do I change your mind?” or “How do I get ‘Most Qualified’?” or “What did ‘Joe’ do that I haven’t?”
The answer is, there is no clear answer. The training materials for the new NCOER explicitly state that most NCOs will be rated “Highly Qualified.” Senior raters will no doubt find they have to make a hard choice between two or more competent and fully qualified NCOs. When assessed against the standard of duty performance, the two NCOs may appear virtually equal, with similar experience and results during the rating period. It will be up to the senior rater to decide who is the most qualified, and that will probably come down to small details and a subjective assessment of the NCOs’ comparative potential. In short, there is no way for a senior rater to provide a checklist of items for a “Most Qualified” rating.
Instead of providing a checklist, rating officials must be prepared to clearly define the performance standards against which the NCOs they rate are being assessed, but this is only a first step. The act of senior rating — considering an NCO’s potential — is more subjective. At some point, senior raters will have multiple NCOs who perform exceptionally well against the performance standards. This is when a senior rater must make a subjective comparison between NCOs to identify the “Most Qualified” among a pool of “Highly Qualified” NCOs. Senior raters must be prepared to “own” their assessments and use the NCOER counseling to mentor subordinate NCOs. This ownership begins and ends with honest and effective counseling.
Leaders at all levels must mentor raters and subordinate leaders on effective counseling. The emphasis here is on effective counseling. Leaders and Soldiers should not be satisfied with counseling that does little more than provide a list of tasks to be accomplished or a list of deficiencies to be overcome. Certainly counseling has to address the standard quantifiable subjects such as Army Physical Fitness Test performance, schools attendance, primary duty performance assessments and individual qualifications, but more than this, counseling has to address the intangible elements that traditionally set the great NCOs apart from the good ones. The importance of initiative, determination, resilience, lifelong learning and broadening opportunities, to name just a few, must be part of the mentorship an NCO receives in counseling.
Most importantly, counseling should be a frank, two-way discussion between the counselor and the NCO that includes the NCO’s strengths and weaknesses and how those strengths and weaknesses manifest themselves in the performance of daily duties. This requires a balanced discussion involving both positive reinforcement of what an NCO is doing well, along with candid feedback about where the NCO needs to improve. The leader must also listen to the Soldiers and their perception of their own performance, strengths and weaknesses in order to fully understand their developmental needs. Having had that two-way discussion, the leader can then focus on mentoring the subordinate on ways to emphasize strengths to minimize or mitigate weaknesses and providing resources and opportunities to the counseled NCO to directly address those weaknesses.
Of course, the subordinate NCO also has a role to play. The best mentorship in the world is wasted on an NCO who does not want to accept constructive criticism and seriously consider how to apply it to grow. These NCOs exist throughout the Army and are the ones most likely to be upset and vocal when they find they are among the 76 percent rather than the 24 percent. Frankly, NCOs who consistently refuse to accept and apply counseling provided to them should be rated “Not Qualified.” Refusal to seek and apply constructive criticism is a failure of the Leader Attributes “Character” and “Intellect,” and the Leader Competency “Develops,” and should not be assessed as “Qualified” at any level.
It is critical that we all recognize that counseling requires preparation on the part of the counselor and the individual counseled. This preparation and counseling require a commitment to consistently make the time. Time is a leader’s most precious resource, and a leader’s time should be prioritized for those activities that only the leader can do and which provide a high payoff when the leader uses his or her time for that activity. Counseling must be a leadership priority.
Effective counseling is a consistent dialogue between leader and Soldier that provides mentorship, direction, coaching, development and, perhaps most importantly, trust on both sides. Ultimately, this is where the NCOER process transitions from an administrative responsibility to a leadership function. With coordinated effort among raters and senior raters to produce honest NCOERs supported by frank counseling and dedicated mentorship, the NCOER process becomes a real tool for leader development and enhancement of potential. Long-term dedication to this effort will benefit the Army exponentially as we grow a more competent and potential-laden NCO corps. If the next generation of leaders maintain a dedication to mentorship and counseling, they will be capable of propelling the Army further than the current generation can conceive, and that will be the measure of our success.
All the ideas above are quickly summarized in the words of retired Col. Joe Buche, who said, counseling “is not designed to make you feel good about yourself. It is designed to help you improve your performance and therefore feel good about yourself. … Graduate-level leaders listen to counseling and use it as they approach the future. Amateurs leave counseling sessions [complaining] about their boss. Decide to which group you wish to belong and act accordingly.”
Let us, as an NCO Corps and as leaders, decide to be graduate-level counselors who build graduate-level leaders for the future of our Army.
Sgt. Maj. William E. White Jr. is the sergeant major of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.
The idea began with six-foot avatars interacting with students in a classroom, and matured into computer-based simulations to help Soldiers with counseling.
Emergent Leader Immersive Training Environment software, known as ELITE Lite, can now be downloaded by Soldiers (with a CAC card) from the Army MilGaming portal at https://milgaming.army.mil/.
Soldiers can select whether they want to be a virtual officer or NCO. Then they interact with uniformed avatars that have problems ranging from disagreements with their platoon sergeant to driving under the influence and sexual harassment. Responses provided to the avatars determine the direction of the counseling sessions.
Five ELITE Lite training modules are now being used as part of cadet leadership classes at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. And the virtual scenarios may soon be part of the curriculum for junior NCOs in the Warrior Leader Course.
This new type of interactive training is the wave of the future, said Marco Conners, chief of the Army Games for Training program at the National Simulation Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Today’s training tools need to have an element of “captivation and entertainment,” he said.
“Soldiers today have grown up in a digital age,” Conners said. “Students tend to learn faster and more if you place it into an interactive game environment instead of standing up there with a butcher board.”
Simulations fill a vital need, he added.
“It’s critical that our young leaders learn how to counsel Soldiers,” Conners said. “Counseling skills help these leaders prepare Soldiers for any mission. Just as important, ELITE helps Army leaders develop to their full potential.”
Requests to develop counseling simulations came to Conners, in 2011, first from the Maneuver Training Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia. Then about a week later, the same request came from the Fires Center of Excellence at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Only a few weeks after that, a request came from West Point.
For a solution, Conners turned to the Army Research Laboratory’s Human Research and Engineering Directorate, Simulation and Training Technology Center, or STTC, in Orlando, Florida, and the Institute for Creative Technologies, or ICT, at the University of Southern California.
The ICT had been working on a similar effort for a number of years. The ICT was a natural fit as it is a combination of computer scientists and researchers, and “there’s some Hollywood state-of-the-art stuff that they do,” he said.
ICT’s first idea was to have life-like avatars interact with students in a classroom setting. They put together a demonstration at Fort Benning’s Clark Simulation Center. The technology “floored” him, Conners said.
Soon he realized, however, that avatar classrooms would need to be built at least on 14 posts, camps and stations where the Warrior Leader Course was taught. So his team determined that computer-based avatars would make more sense.
ICT first developed three virtual scenarios: In one, a Soldier could not get along with his platoon sergeant. In another, a Soldier was bouncing checks. In the third, a Soldier had a DUI.
A team from ICT went to Fort Benning to develop the DUI scenario by interviewing Soldiers and leaders. They listened to the vernacular of how Soldiers talk.
“They captured that very, very well,” Conners said.
Then in January of this year, officials decided that perhaps SHARP-related scenarios ought to be developed. Conners contacted G-1 staffers at the Pentagon for ideas.
Two scenarios were developed with help from the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention, known as SHARP, office at the Pentagon.
In the first scenario, a Soldier gets into a physical altercation with his squad leader. When the lieutenant interviews the Soldier, he finds the squad leader was making inappropriate comments about women in the squad. The Soldier couldn’t take any more, Conners said, so he took a swing at his NCO.
“That’s a pretty difficult dynamic for a young lieutenant to look at,” Conners said.
In the second scenario, a young female Soldier wants a transfer because some Soldiers in the unit are making inappropriate comments about her. The lieutenant needs to figure out that a transfer is not what is really needed — what’s needed is to get a handle on the situation and stop the comments.
“Through the scenarios, ELITE teaches new leaders interpersonal communication, critical thinking and problem solving skills integral to nurturing a climate of dignity, respect and mutual trust that result in lasting cultural change where sexual harassment and sexual assault cease to exist,” said Dr. Christine T. Altendorf, director of the Army SHARP Office.
Conners said ELITE software can become a platform for other training needs.
“The beauty of ELITE Lite is not just that it will teach counseling, but you can use it for a multitude of different things,” Conners said. ELITE is a platform that can be tailored to provide training for different professionals, he said. “You can use it for doctors to inform patients that they have a terminal disease.”
ELITE Executive will eventually be developed to train specialty branches such as chaplains, doctors and lawyers, Conners said. More immediate, however, ELITE Professional will be aimed at the company level.
“We want the counseling to be at the next-higher level,” Conners said. ELITE Lite is for platoon and below. ELITE Professional will be for company-level leadership: commanders, first sergeants and platoon sergeants.
ELITE provides consistency and standardizes the counseling process, Conners said.
“When you do peer to peer (training), it’s really catch as catch can … some people take it seriously and some don’t,” he said.
ELITE, he explained, “allows Soldiers to see how counseling should be properly done.”
The ELITE content incorporates Army-approved leadership doctrine, according to the MilGaming portal. It goes on to say the software incorporates evidence-based instructional design methodologies and ICT research technologies such as virtual humans and intelligent tutoring.
The Institute for Creative Technologies, however, did not design the software alone.
Help was provided by the Army Research Lab’s Human Research and Engineering Directorate, Simulation and Training Technology Center.
Another organization in Orlando, the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, helped develop long-term logistics support for sustaining the software, Conners said.
Then the National Simulation Center team at Fort Leavenworth oversaw verification, validation and accreditation.
Verification ensures the software is stable, Conners said. Validation makes sure it can achieve the training objectives and tasks that it is trying to achieve. Accreditation is when a general officer reviews the training tool and certifies it. That was done in August by Brig. Gen. Joseph Martin, deputy commanding general of the Combined Arms Center–Training, Fort Leavenworth.
Validation of ELITE Lite involved students from both the Warrior Leader Course and Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Benning. Students found the virtual training helped boost their confidence and self-esteem, Conners said.
By SGT.1ST CLASS JANICE WRIGHT 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment
As a human resource professional, I was intrigued by the opportunity to serve in an infantry battalion. I was soon amazed by a very training-focused, disciplined and performance oriented organization. After my first day on the job, I was convinced the infantry is about caring for Soldiers and training.
Here, training and caring for Soldiers are synonymous. However, I was surprised at how often administrative actions took a back seat to training. Paperwork was routinely relegated to a lower priority. As a noncommissioned officer I think all leaders should place a renewed emphasis on paperwork to maintain our highly proficient force. Both training and administrative actions are key ingredients to maintaining the all-volunteer force.
As a career S-1 (personnel and administration) Soldier, I am humbled by some of the awards and evaluations I have read that document Soldiers routinely doing the impossible. The training they received and the leadership they were provided facilitated their actions and, ultimately, the unit’s success. These warriors earned the accolades they were given.
Similarly, I have read administrative actions that poorly portrayed the excellence achieved by a Soldier. As the last person to read an action before signatures are added, I ask that Army leaders recognize that accurately documenting our subordinates’ strengths and weaknesses will help groom Soldiers for today’s challenges as well as mold them into productive leaders for the Army.
After training and deploying with infantrymen, I am even more convinced of the importance of managing administrative actions. Planning, preparing and training are essential components of a successful mission. Soldiers will excel in difficult situations based on the confidence they have in the plan, but even more so on the confidence they have in their leadership taking care of them.
Just as it takes countless hours of planning, preparation and training to ensure a successful mission, leaders are in a contractual relationship with their subordinates to spend adequate time preparing evaluations, writing awards and ensuring emergency documentation is accurate. The last 12 years of war have validated to me that failing to take care of a Soldier’s administrative requirements is a failure to take care of the Soldier.
The Army’s evaluation systems are primarily designed to offer official feedback on an individual’s performance. Whether it is officer evaluation reports or NCOERs, these documents serve as indicators of exceptional, marginal or sub-standard performance. Additionally, written counseling provides more frequent feedback on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis. However, the strength of these evaluations rest on the evaluator. Particularly with sergeants first class and above, the rated Soldier does not stand before a promotion board, so the document provided by the evaluator is the only thing a board member sees during the promotion selection process. Therefore, failing to properly articulate the extent of one’s performance during the rated period hurts both the individual and the Army.
Imagine 10 superior Soldiers competing against 10 marginal performers. The senior leaders who are members of the board will make their selection based on the strength of the written evaluations that make up a board packet. If the superior performers’ evaluations are written with marginal effort, the Army suffers because strong performers will likely be placed in marginal jobs. The individuals will be deflated because their evaluations poorly depict the time and effort they gave during the rated period. Equally problematic for a promotion board is the marginal individual who should have received a marginal evaluation. Instead, the writing of the evaluation artificially inflates the NCO’s actual performance. Leaders must be able to articulate the strengths— marginal or exceptional—of their subordinate’s performance. Their efforts to craft a well written evaluation must match the exemplary efforts of their subordinates. The “cut and paste” technique is not good leadership and not worthy of the sacrifices today’s men and women in the Army make.
Awards are another area in which leaders can highlight exceptional service. Unfortunately, I have often seen the same template used by entire units with very little thought from the person who submitted the award.
The award system is part of the Army’s history. A Soldier—regardless of rank or military occupation specialty—who performs exceptionally above the standard is deserving of an award. Associating rank with an award, instead of with an associated action or exemplary service, demeans the principle behind the award system.
Properly assessing performance is a leader’s responsibility. Leaders must have the intellect to adequately articulate actions or service that is deserving of an award, regardless of the type. Leaders should also have the integrity to not submit an award for someone who failed to earn one. As with evaluations, Soldiers do not go before commanders when they are considering the approval or disapproval an award; the DA Form 638 “Recommendation for Award” and accompanying documentation does.
Emergency data information is another key component of taking care of Soldiers’ administrative needs. I have heard horror stories about deployed Soldiers whose leaders failed to ensure their DD Form 93, “Record of Emergency Data,” was updated. Some of these Soldiers gave the ultimate sacrifice while honorably serving their country, but the notification of their death and the benefits they allocated for their loved ones were delayed because their leaders failed to understand the importance of paperwork. Leaders include pre-combat checks and pre-combat inspections during operation order briefs. The dangers involved with training and deployments should convince us, as an Army, that emergency data should also be part of pre-combat checks and pre-combat inspections.
Many times we counsel a Soldier to correct errors. But how often do we counsel and award Soldiers for the good things they’ve done? As leaders, it is our job to promote success and enforce standards. Leaders must chronicle achievement with details and provide a thorough explanation of the Soldier’s efforts and contributions to the mission. Paperwork must really portray the Soldier as they are—outstanding or mediocre. A well-articulated evaluation or award is the difference that separates a marginal Soldier from an exceptional Soldier.
My views about the importance of timely and accurate paperwork are reinforced daily in my current assignment as a senior human resource manager.
While deployed, my command stresses the importance of updating the DD 93s daily. The Army’s system of notifying next of kin following a casualty is compromised if the paperwork is not updated. The notification process is prolonged, and the Army must improvise by contacting friends and known associates to identify the actual location of the next of kin. Unfortunately, during one of my previous deployments, the unit I replaced was forced to exercise this scenario because they failed to validate paperwork. I empathize with the family of the fallen hero whose mourning was prolonged because paperwork was outdated.
Another example of the importance of paperwork deals with one of my Soldiers from a previous assignment. Through a series of mistakes, my command was considering barring one of my troopers from re-enlisting. However, I endorsed the Soldier and his desire to remain in the Army, and I had the counseling to support my dissenting opinion. My paperwork facilitated a good Soldier remaining in the Army, and he is now being groomed for the staff sergeant board. His current command sees what I did thanks to adequate documentation.
As the Army reduces its end strength, evaluations and awards will become a significant factor. Far too often leaders take evaluation bullets from generic websites or copy-and-paste bullets from previous evaluations. Soldiers deserve a better effort from their leaders, particularly with the demands we place on our Soldiers.
We already know the U.S. Army is the best-trained, best-equipped and best-led fighting force in the world. As an observer from the S-1 section, I recommend we also strive to be the best at everything we do, including taking enough time and putting forth maximum effort when writing evaluations, awards and counseling statements. Taking care of the administrative requirements is an extremely important component of taking care of the Army’s most important resource—our Soldiers. Well written evaluations will set our Soldiers apart, regardless of their branch or MOS.
My experience with the infantry has been a highlight of my career. The people I have met and the leaders I work alongside have proven the strength of our Army is the outstanding men and women who volunteer to serve this great nation. Leaders help determine the strength of the Army’s future. With tools such as the evaluation and awards systems, we will build better Soldiers, better leaders and a more cohesive Army. We all take pride in our jobs and should expect that our efforts will be properly documented. Paperwork can be tedious, but it is an essential component of our Army. Our Soldiers have earned the right to expect their leaders will provide feedback fitting for their efforts. The Army must embrace the mentality that taking care of Soldiers includes taking care of paperwork.
Sgt. 1st Class Janice Wright is the S-1 NCO in charge of 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, based at Fort Riley, Kan. She is currently deployed to Afghanistan with her unit and is responsible for processing and overseeing all administrative actions in her battalion.
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