Over the past five years, the Combat Readiness Center has noticed a marked increase in the number of incidents occurring during the fourth quarter of the fiscal year. Cumulatively, these incidents account for almost double the number of incidents of any other quarter. During this time, there are varying issues that contribute to this increase, but one of the most notable is the transition of leadership, formal and informal, during the late third and early fourth quarters. The summer months account for the largest number of permanent change of station movements during the year and the largest turnover of leaders at all grades. Units and leaders must manage these transitions.
During transitions, outgoing leaders typically plan transitions based on the operational environment they faced and what worked well for the outgoing chain of command. However, in the course of operations, a large number of leaders get stuck in the “that’s how we’ve always done it” mentality and may or may not have evolved with the changes in rules, regulations, and doctrine over their tenure at the unit. Unfortunately, the result may be a unit that, while well-intentioned and seemingly well trained, is actually operating outside of the established Army standard and the expectations of the new leadership. To determine how best to lead a unit, incoming leaders must conduct an initial assessment, establish a baseline, and then continue conducting continuous assessments of the efficacy of the unit at executing its mission essential tasks to standard.
How does a commander determine if his/her unit is achieving the standard?
Regardless of echelon, commanders are responsible for everything the unit does or fails to do, and charged with ensuring their units operate to standard in all operations – administrative, tactical, supply, maintenance, etc. However, opinions vary on the professionalism and efficacy of a unit based on proximity to the unit, necessitating assessment from multiple sources. External evaluations provide an unbiased evaluation of the unit based on doctrine, regulations, and higher-level guidance. Internal evaluations enable units to validate if they are operating within the guidelines and limits set within the unit. Finally, command assessments validate if the unit is operating within the commander’s guidance and vision. In order to assess their units, commanders need to use varying techniques that provide a holistic review of their organizations.
External Evaluations - The View from the Outside
Historical external evaluations are an excellent tool for new commanders to gain an initial assessment of their unit. Some of these inspections include the organizational inspection program (OIP), staff assisted visits from the higher command, the FORSCOM Aviation Resource Management Survey (ARMS), or external “Objective T” evaluations (EXEVAL). Conducted annually or during significant unit events, external evaluations use checklists derived from doctrine, regulations, and Army-level directives to ensure the unit is achieving the minimum requirements established for like units across the Army. The checklists provide objective questions to evaluate the unit’s incorporation and enforcement of required standards into their operations. In most cases, the results of these inspections must be maintained for a minimum of two years while noting particularly outstanding performance, but also requiring documented corrections bringing the unit into compliance with any failed standard. By reviewing previous inspections, commanders can see where the unit typically excels and where it has challenges achieving the standard.
Internal Evaluations – The View from the Inside
One of the largest challenges when arriving at a new unit, is determining the overall command climate which alludes to the performance of the unit. Whether intentional or not, each unit has a certain culture associated with it based on the leadership inside the organization. Good units have the following: self-disciplined Soldiers, leaders who enforce standards, standards-based training, clear/practical standards, and support for task performance (DA Pam 385-1 *obsolete). While the regulation summarized may be obsolete, the statement remains true as a measurement of a good unit – disciplined Soldiers regularly achieving the standards enforced by leadership.
In order to assess the unit internally, the commander has various tools at his/her disposal to anonymously survey the members of the unit and, while not peculiar to aviation, definitely assess the health of the unit. Required within 60 days of assuming command, one of the key surveys offered to commanders are the command climate survey which evaluates the climate and culture of the unit. The survey asks questions related to organizational effectiveness as observed from all pay grades in order to develop themes throughout the unit. Often these themes indicate how well the unit communicates, enforces standards, and treats personnel.
Additionally, at the battalion level, the commander must complete the Army Readiness Assessment Program (ARAP) survey within 90 days of assuming command in order to assess the safety climate and culture in the organization. The ARAP survey addresses and scores five segments: process auditing, reward systems, quality control, risk management, and command and control (C2). Historical data shows that units that score in the bottom quartile may be twice as likely to have a Class A mishap than units in the top quartile. Commanders can combine the results of these two surveys to have a fairly sound understanding of the culture in the unit. Is the unit “a good unit”? Do the Soldiers see it that way?
The Commander’s Assessment – The View from the Commander
Being the new commander is a challenging position when it comes to assessing the unit and becoming immediately responsible for the entire unit following the passing of the guidon. However, it does not have to be difficult since commanders are chosen and trained for their positions. You don’t have to wait 30 days to decide to take action; have a plan of assessment ready prior to the ceremony. I had breakfast with LTG(R) Hal Moore one morning and he gave me four leadership points to guide me as a leader:
1) Three strikes and you are not out;
2) There is always one more thing you can do to influence any situation;
3) When nothing’s wrong, nothing’s wrong other than nothing’s wrong;
4) Trust your instincts. These four points of leadership can guide commanders in assessing their units and developing a course of action.
In the paragraph above, each leadership point indicates how important leadership is when assessing a unit. First, three strikes and you’re not out. If you see the same failure three times, ask yourself why and what you as a commander need to do to prevent it. Second, there is always one more thing you can do. As the commander, you have the ability to resource and provide guidance to vector your formation to success. Third, when nothing’s wrong, something is wrong. If you are not continually assessing your formation and evaluating ways to help it become more successful, you’re wrong. Always seek to exceed the standard, be your team’s biggest fan to them and higher, and ensure continuous growth. Finally, trust your instincts. When you look at something and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, something is probably wrong. Always look at your unit in a constant state of assessment to bring it to the next level.
While Army Aviation has seen an increase in accidents during the fourth quarter over the past five years, our branch is a learning force and can eliminate this spike. Increased transitions during the third and fourth quarters will remain as part of the manning cycle. However, properly managing these transitions both before and after they occur will ensure success. Using external, internal, and commander’s assessments, coupled with candid feedback from leaders at all levels, will provide the commander with a holistic assessment of the unit and vector the force to success.