Surviving When You’re Stuck on Staff

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for the “tips for new lieutenants” blog posts that folks are always writing. My LT days are behind me, but there’s a certain fun I associate with reading the articles and nodding along emphatically, maybe forwarding it to a shiny young new lieutenant who I think could benefit from the reflection. Angry Staff Officer recently wrote an excellent list full of appropriate snark that you can read here.

There are literally an infinite number of “new platoon leader” posts on the interwebs, including this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and this. To name a few.

I like them, but not everyone does. Take this lovely comment from the Army subreddit for instance:

“I die a little inside every time some company grade officer is so full of himself that he thinks he’s doing the world a service by rewriting the same 10 steps to success as a platoon leader. Listen to your platoon sergeant? My God, how did we never think of this before? Give this man an MSM and make him a CGSC instructor immediately.”

The thing is, I was never a platoon leader. For all the platoon leader preparation I received in ROTC, at LDAC (it’s not even called that anymore), and through BOLC II, I commissioned as an Adjutant General Corps officer. Primary job as a lieutenant? Staff. Key Developmental (KD) job as a captain? Staff. I had leaders gracious enough to give me the privilege of command, plus I did some cool stuff in Afghanistan, but my Army existence has largely kept me in headquarters units.

Here’s where that comes in handy.

I’m talking to the brand new 2LTs now: while you may be super stoked about taking over your platoon, there’s an awfully good chance one isn’t available for you to take over just yet, so you get the distinct pleasure of marking time on staff until it is. Since you’re already loaded down with tons of resources on how to act as a new platoon leader, here are the Bourbon & Battles patented tips for surviving when you’re stuck on staff.

You’re being judged, so do your best

Being stuck on staff is not a dig on you, it’s just a matter of personnel management. The old guys need to finish up their full time–trust me, you’ll want the same consideration for yourself later on.003-l

The time also serves as an opportunity for the bosses to size you up and figure out where you might fit best.  Some organizations like to meticulously match up leadership teams; weak platoon leaders with strong platoon sergeants and vice versa.

It goes without saying that you should do your best. But that’s harder than it sounds, especially since your commissioning source and every other training you’ve attended to date is aimed at tactical platoon leadership, not staff work. That said…

Learn from the masters

Battalion and above staffs are full of senior subject matter experts in your branch and many others, including sustainers, commo folks, and intel secret squirrels. Your time hanging out on staff is the best opportunity you’ll get early in your career to learn as much as you can from these SMEs and to build the relationships with them that’ll help you out once you finally get to your platoon.  If you’re like most officers in this scenario and get lumped into the S3, you might have the opportunity to get in good with the Land & Ammo, Training, and Plans & Ops leaders. Couldn’t hurt to at least learn some names.

Take advantage of being close to the boss

While you’re getting in good with those awesome staff SMEs, you’ll probably be working on products for your senior rater, maybe even briefing him or her. Don’t miss the opportunity to impress.

I’m not saying brown nose or be anything other than yourself (unless “yourself” is a dirtbag). I’m saying your senior rater won’t see a lot of what you do as a platoon leader in the future, and it’s probably a good idea to create a positive link between your name and face early on if the opportunity presents itself.

Appreciate the perspective

It’s an old trope. When you’re at the company, the damn battalion is always tasking you. When you’re at battalion, the damn brigade is always tasking you. And so on. A good battalion staff works to serve as an umbrella for the companies, protecting them as much as possible from the externalities. That umbrella cannot work 100% of the time, but if your perspective is nothing but from the company level, you’d be surprised to see how much bullshit a battalion staff deflects to protect its companies’ time and resources.

To add to that, you may be surprised to learn that staff work can actually be hard. Make sure you gain an appreciation for the work the staffers do. To be clear, though–staff work is often tedious and thankless, but the mission of a staff is to enable and support its subordinate organizations. Your appreciation for the staff’s work will equip you with proper expectation management and interpersonal perspective.

Read

Seriously, just do it. I’ve written before about professional military reading (in which I argue for you to include fiction on your list), but here I’m talking more specifically about doctrinal reading. Dig into doctrine. You can check out the US Army Combined Arms Center website that contains a pretty handy doctrine collection, and of course I have to recommend the Army Training Network.

Everyone recommends reading, so let me break from the pack to elaborate. Generic leaders never crack a single book because “real world experience” and OJT is what they think really matters. OF COURSE THAT MATTERS, but reading why the stuff you learn through “real world experience” works is a whole new level of understanding. The Army needs tactical, small unit leaders who know what the hell they’re doing, but it also needs to cultivate its future strategic-level leaders, and you can bet those are the ones who are reading.

Oh, and I wouldn’t be a good AG officer if I didn’t recommend reading AR 25-50. You can only avoid writing for so long.

Get Ahead

If you know what platoon you’re taking over, it doesn’t hurt to get a jump on learning about your future organization by talking to the guy you’re replacing and your future platoon sergeant. But stay the hell out of their way. It’s not your platoon until it’s your platoon. Like the time-in-position thing, you’ll want the same courtesy extended to you when your replacement is identified.

Meet your future boss, maybe have lunch or do PT with the LT you’re replacing, get some insider baseball from your future right arm. You’ll have plenty of time to get your hands dirty with training plans and whatever else once you’re in charge.

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Being a green-tabber and leading troops is the best job in the Army, hands down. Being a staffer is not. Guess which one you do more of as an officer throughout a career? That doesn’t mean that staffs are the purgatory that leaders meander through between green-tab jobs (check out this recent post over at The Military Leader to see what I mean).

While you wait for your platoon (and reading back through this, a lot also applies to post-CCC captains waiting for their command), make the most of it and try not to completely dread the day you have to leave your troops and return.

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