Command Sgt. Maj. Marissa Cisneros has served as Logistics Noncommissioned Officer Academy (LNCOA) commandant since August 2020, when she became the school’s first female leader. The LNCOA — located at Fort Lee, Virginia, operating within the Combined Arms Support Command’s Army Logistics University (ALU) — offers professional military education (PME) for all quartermaster, ordnance, and transportation NCOs in a blended learning environment that has evolved over time to continually meet the sustainment needs of the Army and joint force. Army Sustainment sat down with Cisneros to discuss the LNCOA’s key education modernization initiatives, which ensure the Army sustainment enterprise’s backbone is collectively postured for future competition, crisis, and conflict.
What are the LNCOA’s mission and vision for the staff sergeants and sergeants first class it is called to train and educate? Has this adapted over time, or have the LNCOA’s key tasks in the PME world remained enduring?
The LNCOA trains and educates sustainment NCOs through 40 courses across each logistical branch, operating in three locations throughout Virginia: Fort Lee, Fort A.P. Hill, and Fort Eustis. We aim to empower NCOs through agile and adaptive training and education aligned with the Army’s overarching NCO strategy. To ensure we’re evolving at the pace necessary for our NCOs, we constantly collaborate with the varying branch proponent schools to update our curriculum as necessary. We take course feedback from students to adapt the way we deliver education. That’s an ongoing, fluid process that naturally helps us modernize year in and year out.
How have the PME and leader development available to sustainment NCOs evolved and adapted throughout your career?
The Army is continuously evolving, and that certainly has held true both institutionally and operationally throughout my career. You need to look no further than sustainment common core, which recently evolved as a result of internal research and direct feedback from the field. We now have a common core that is sequential and progressive and fully aligned with the NCO common core competencies. We’ve effectively leveraged technology to deliver our training and leader development, which undoubtedly would not have been possible or even considered earlier in my career. We have placed an enormous emphasis on content digitization to make it as accessible as possible to every Soldier. Collaboration tools such as Blackboard and Microsoft Teams have transformed the military learning environment in ways not possible 20 years ago. Soldiers can access educational materials from wherever they are, in both synchronous and asynchronous learning environments. Project Athena — the Army’s leader development program that informs educational programs of instruction — is another example of the evolution that has taken place. Our approach now, thanks to efforts like Project Athena, effectively integrates training and leader development in a much more holistic manner. The integration of Project Athena coupled with PME modernization accounts for a Soldier’s unique skills, capabilities, and behaviors and shores up areas of weakness while amplifying strengths. The support from Training and Doctrine Command has been phenomenal. There is no question certain parts of our curriculum are still best delivered in the traditional classroom setting, specific to mentorship and coaching, so we’ve been able to strike a healthy balance in this regard while developing our instructors to be prepared to deliver their curriculum in a blended or hybrid environment.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 seemed to greatly limit the LNCOA’s ability to train and educate students in the traditional sense. Before the pandemic and in the last year, annual throughput at the academy topped 6,000 students, but that figure only reached about 3,200 as COVID-19 spread and in-person activities were halted. How did the LNCOA operate in such a constrained environment to continue training sustainment NCOs throughout 2020? What lessons learned have you carried forward?
The pandemic acted as a modernization forcing function for the LNCOA, and we have made the necessary adjustments over time to ensure our students receive the training and education they deserve while also emphasizing their safety. In October 2021, we began a pilot to digitize our curriculum, validate lesson delivery, and certify our instructors to operate in a blended environment. Lasting for three quarters, the pilot demonstrated how we could continue to train and educate thousands of NCOs in both distributed and local settings. We worked in tandem with ALU’s Operational Research and Systems Analysts team to survey our students and garner reliable feedback to help us shape future delivery options. Feedback from students proved our staff and cadre were prepared for the challenge of COVID. I am extremely impressed with our team’s ability to adapt lesson plans and exams during the pandemic while optimizing technology to enable learning. Through feedback, we have been able to make incremental updates as necessary while solidifying flexibility and agility in the entire education delivery process. As I mentioned, COVID has been a forcing function to ensure we’re modernizing in an adaptive and flexible way that will be enduring in the future as we train and educate the next generation of sustainment NCOs in a safe and challenging environment.
Building on those lessons learned throughout the pandemic, how has the LNCOA balanced training and leader development in a blended learning environment?
I believe Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth put it best: the Army can’t simply train its Soldiers through PowerPoint. We have worked tirelessly to move away from this highly static training method. While there’s a time and place for standardized delivery through PowerPoint-based lectures, this methodology cannot pervade our pedagogy for the sustainment NCO corps. We have been fortunate to find balance by nesting our learning continuum with the Army Leader Development Strategy. This enables us to ensure our blended environment accounts for learning across the institutional, operational, and self-development domains. We have leveraged the Experiential Learning Model (ELM) to enhance collaborative discussions among students and bring to bear their varying experiences to benefit the entire group. ELM has proven to be useful in helping students share their unique knowledge, skills, and behaviors to teach other students in ways that extend beyond traditional lecture-based instruction. So much of a Soldier’s learning happens out in the field, in the operational domain. We would be at a loss if we didn’t apply that knowledge and integrate it into the classroom setting. We think this is at the core of training sustainment NCOs. Within LNCOA, we have modernized our education activities to address sustainment gaps and develop multifunctional NCOs. Sustainment common core allows us to develop sustainment NCOs that can break down the sustainment warfighting function into those individual parts that enable maneuver. We train logistics planning tools, the military decision-making process, and components of sustainment, to name a few lessons. The culminating event is a student-led concept of support — a value-added assessment that builds confidence and understanding. For the first time in our history, we are developing multifunctional NCOs that can operate in ambiguity, intellectually advise their officer counterparts, and piece together a holistic mission support plan.
What advice would you offer to sustainment NCOs preparing to advance throughout their careers?
First and foremost, everyone should participate in a mentor-mentee relationship. Having someone help you widen your aperture within and beyond your areas of expertise is critical for development. Second, create an individual development plan for yourself. Identify your goals and chart short-, medium-, and long-term actions you will take to achieve them. Be willing to be agile and adaptive along the way by maintaining an open mind to new challenges. Finally, ensure you understand the importance of the other logistics branches outside your own. That’s step one to being truly multifunctional. Suppose a broadening opportunity arises in one of those external branches that interest you. In that case, you should feel ready to take that opportunity to learn, grow, and develop as part of the critical backbone of the U.S. Army.
Mike Crozier is a strategic analyst in the Army G-4’s Logistics Initiatives Group. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Georgetown University.
This article was published in the Winter 23 issue of Army Sustainment.