Decreasing Learning Curves for Recently Promoted NCOs During PME

By Peter Mikoski and Dr. Susannah Knust, Walter Reed Army Institute of ResearchFebruary 24, 2022

Decreasing Learning Curves
U.S. Army National Guard Spc. Austin Thompson, assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, Task Force Iron Valor, is promoted to sergeant at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, Dec. 2, 2021. (Photo Credit: (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Kyle Burks)) VIEW ORIGINAL

Life in the Army is full of transitions, such as basic training, a permanent change of station, the deployment cycle, and promotions. Promotions in the Army occur progressively—a sergeant becomes a staff sergeant rather than a sergeant first class—and the Army has recognized that education is important at these transition points. Professional Military Education is an opportunity where all Soldiers who are promoted can learn about leadership and MOS-specific information in a cohort of their peers. From a Soldier life cycle perspective, PME provides an excellent opportunity to aid Soldiers in their transition to a new rank in hopes of decreasing the learning curve that a recently promoted NCO may experience.

The Army Resilience Directorate asked the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research to conduct a front-end analysis of enlisted PME to inform updates to curriculum. The evaluation was designed to determine the challenges and stressors faced throughout the Soldier life cycle as well as the critical knowledge, skills, and behaviors that NCOs at different ranks need. Two thousand sixty-six Soldiers across 14 PME sites participated in surveys and focus groups to provide a developmental snapshot across the ranks.

There is no denying that the learning curve for leadership and coaching is steep, and the expectations placed on junior NCOs are demanding. From the specialist to sergeant transition, “bro to NCO” was the predominant theme, as new sergeants learn to lead Soldiers who were recently their peers. This transition is challenging because sergeants’ military social network either shifts so they face isolation as they lead those who used to be peers, or their military social network is maintained while their professionalism as a new NCO is impacted. For the sergeant to staff sergeant transition, many of their challenges come from balancing additional leadership responsibilities (e.g., mentoring new sergeants) and personal responsibilities (e.g., growing Families). Staff sergeants feel their main responsibility is to balance being a cheerleader and a “babysitter” for their Soldiers. While there is no substitute for time and experience, the mentorship and education received in PME make gaining critical knowledge, skills, and behaviors more manageable. In particular, PME instructors should facilitate discussions related to the transition to manage expectations and train mentorship/coaching practices (e.g., fixed vs. growth mindset, control the controllables, deliberate breathing) that help these NCOs become better leaders. These discussions and skills provide a framework so there are fewer surprises and less learning through trial and error.

Even as they gain experience in leading and coaching Soldiers directly, junior NCOs eventually reach another transition. The shift from junior NCO to senior NCO requires them to increasingly act as administrators, moving further and further away from the day-to-day life of their MOS. As Soldiers reach the rank of sergeant first class, their attention is increasingly redirected from direct, face-to-face leadership toward organizational leadership. Senior NCOs also face more competition for promotion. As a result, they may feel pressured to collaborate less and compete more. By this point, senior NCOs start to work with young officers more frequently, adding to their demands, as they try to help shape them as leaders. For master sergeants and first sergeants, responsibility continues to increase as they are required to deal with the more serious Soldier issues, causing some to feel like the “social workers of the Army.” Finally, the findings show that sergeants major and command sergeants major have shifted almost entirely to administrative work. Many struggle to relate to their Soldiers when they have hundreds in their formation. Further, many of these NCOs are also considering how to transition out of the Army. Senior NCOs would benefit from discussions related to how to set the stage for motivation; how to provide timely mentorship and coaching for their subordinates, reinforcing skills they learned as junior NCOs; and their transition out of the Army.

Overall, it is important to recognize the interwoven nature of experience, mentorship, and training in the development of NCOs. All three are necessary to instill not only the lessons learned and culture of the Army, but also the best practices developed by subject matter experts. Most interviewees did not highlight technical or tactical challenges or stressors, but interpersonal and intrapersonal ones. This information could be a guide for the Army as they continue to emphasize leader development. PME has the capacity to decrease leaders’ learning curves throughout their military career by incorporating sequential and progressive leader development training that focuses on interpersonal and intrapersonal challenges and stressors.