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NEWS | Aug. 14, 2009

‘Tear down this wall’ between leadership and feedback

By Lt. Col. Trey Meeks 1st Helicopter Squadron commander

We are rapidly approaching the 20th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. America's Armed Forces paid handsomely for the theoretical "Peace Dividend" that followed the Wall's fall - a dramatic reduction in our forces still being felt today as we have continuously rolled from one theater of operations to another without the stability offered by bilateral superpowers. How has the U.S military been able to pull it off, especially in light of manpower intensive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and burgeoning requirements in Africa? Better leadership and better training have played a pivotal role, but I would also offer that our young captains and staff sergeants who make the mission happen every day are simply that much better.

If you can accept the premise that our newest generation of Airmen is capable of unprecedented technological "thrust," how are AF leaders doing in providing the proper "vector?" Empirical evidence says we are doing a fine job at providing a vector through timely application of feedback; however, if you are simply meeting the feedback guidelines outlined in the Officer and Enlisted Evaluation System guides - that is highly doubtful. Per the guides, an individual receives three mandatory feedback opportunities - initial, mid-term and a review of the performance report itself. With a constant flood of supervisor changes brought about by expeditionary warfare, initial feedback is, at worst, getting to know the individual, and, at best, providing clearly articulated expectations. The actual report is a summary of highlights, but rarely includes any form of constructive criticism. In such an environment, I hope supervisors are recognizing mid-term feedback for the golden opportunity it is. A cautionary note: leading experts outside the AF would say we aren't coming close to meeting our subordinates needs if we aren't creating additional "golden opportunities."

An expert, commonly cited by the "Better Business Press,", is a prominent organizational researcher who has published numerous studies that chronicled the need for more and more focused feedback for the newest generation of workers, such as our young Airmen. The most exhaustive survey of its kind, "The Under-Management Epidemic," chronicled 500 middle managers and the input of 10,000 other participants. The researchers first defined a universally agreeable "Five Management Basics:"
   1. Clear statements of performance requirements and standard operating procedures related to recurring tasks and responsibilities.
   2. Clear statements of defined parameters, measurable goals and concrete deadlines for all work assignments for which the direct report will be held accountable.
   3. Accurate monitoring, evaluation and documentation of work performance.
   4. Clear statements of specific feedback on work performance with guidance for improvement.
   5. Rewards and detriments distributed fairly.

   Next, the researchers compiled the following alarming results:
   99 percent of managers DO NOT provide direct reports with all five basics once a day.
   90 percent of managers DO NOT provide direct reports with all five basics once a week.
   75 percent of managers DO NOT provide direct reports with all five basics once a month.
   35 percent of managers DO NOT provide direct reports with all five basics once a year.

In a well-received recent update titled "Managing the Generational Mix," one of the key takeaways was that the newest generation needs much more feedback than its predecessors. Daily has always been the optimum, but now it is almost a mandate. The good news is that the return on investment for this additional specialized attention appears to be off-the-charts - this is a generation not content to punch a clock! Instead, they are focused on being value-added from their first day on the job. The surprising thing is that they are consistently able to deliver at such a high level - a level my generation rarely could.

My constant struggle is to wedge myself into that top 25 percent that give their direct reports all five management basics at least once a month. I'm pretty sure those 10,000 individuals surveyed didn't have to overcome a Team Andrews type schedule with 24/7/365 alert operations or distinguished visitor trips spanning the globe, but as is generally the case, the leadership challenge is irrelevant. It's simply a necessity to provide people with the feedback they deserve - no matter the cost. I have personally witnessed leadership that was so unconcerned with feedback and development that a generation of new flyers was told to "go chairfly in the hangar." To those unfamiliar, "chairflying" is a mental simulation used by young aviators to prepare for an upcoming flight. Although a worthwhile training activity, it is hardly a substitute for time in the air.

Other than keeping them safe, I view the constant leadership challenge to provide feedback and continuously develop our Airmen as my most sacred trust. When I look at the incredibly talented Airmen under my command, I realize that I am but a stepping stone that becomes a launching pad for what our Airmen are capable of and how far they can take the Air Force, and our Nation, in the decades ahead. Taken in that context, our charge to continuously update each young Airman's vector through the timely application of feedback may not be simple, but it is certainly sacred.