Stuff I Learned At Work – A Retired USAF Colonel

By Gary Alexander

1) Provide honest, critical feedback. 

When somebody performs a task above standard, we have no problem telling a person they did a good job.  However, when somebody fails to perform as expected, or has room to improve, providing feedback becomes more difficult.  We let emotion get the best of us, as we don’t want to hurt feelings.  Unless you tell the person they didn’t do a good job, why, and how they can improve next time; chances are they won’t improve.  We always strive to improve.  We want to get better at whatever it is that we’re not great at.  Don’t worry about the emotional aspect of providing feedback, be honest, be critical, and be professional.

Have I always provided the critical feedback, unfortunately no.  I’m guilty of not providing honest, critical feedback more times than I care to admit.  I improved over my 22 year career.  I only wished I had started sooner.  Because, what I learned is that when you provide the honest feedback, it shocks people at first.  But, after that, they expect the critical feedback.  And what’s even better, is the individual wants the honest feedback.  They don’t come into your office with thoughts of recognition and complete admiration—after all you’re not their parent.  They come to you wanting to know, and expecting to hear from you as a leader, how they can improve. 

2) Receive honest, critical feedback. 

Just like you provide the feedback, keep the emotion out of it.  The person is not attacking you.  Listen to what they have to say and don’t make excuses or interrupt them.  Receive the feedback with an open mind and make yourself better.

Two years into my career as a young First Lieutenant flight commander, my Director of Operations sat me down for over an hour giving me my annual feedback.  It was conversational as he provided me real-life examples of what I had done correctly, but more importantly, what I needed to do to improve.  I can’t remember a single thing about what he said that I did well, but I’ll always remember, “Stand up when you address the room.  You’re in a leadership position, act like a leader.”  Funny thing was, it wasn’t just about standing up to address the room.  That was one small thing that needed correction.  He made me realize that expectations were set higher for me on a daily basis, and I needed to be a leader.

3) Make eye contact and say “Hello”, it sets the tone for the day. 

It’s real simple, and doesn’t require much effort.  I’ll bet as you’re reading this, you’re wondering what in the hell does smiling and saying “Hello” have to do with anything?  It makes you more of a professional and it makes you more approachable.  If you have a tough guy/girl image to maintain, this won’t effect it.  If you’re an introvert, eye contact will help you socialize more.  Computers, cell phones and social media have pushed people to become more heads down focused on their screens, rather than observing the situation directly in front of them.  As a professional, even a quiet professional, knowing your surroundings and being approachable is critical to success.

As a guy at an operational unit, I tried to make sure that no matter how tired I was, no matter my mood; when I walked in the door that morning, I would make eye contact with everybody and say “hello”.  My attitude and outlook affected others.

Making eye contact and saying hello became even more necessary during my staff time at headquarters.  I crossed paths with hundreds of people walking in-and-out of the building.  I’d try to make eye contact and say hello, but unfortunately receive little to no response.  I’m not sure the exact reason, but I have a pretty good idea.  Regardless, you know whose attitude was affected…mine.  I found myself getting angry and my attitude plummeting all before I had even sat down at my desk in the morning.  By the end of my staff tour I had given on up on eye contact and salutations.  I didn’t like the person I had become.

It’s now taken a concentrated effort on my part to return to making eye contact and saying hello.  I’m happier now.  I know that I positively effect people the moment I say hello.  I have become approachable again and learn more about the things I can’t see on a daily basis.  If I don’t say hello, I become part of the problem and less professional.  So do everybody a favor, and say hello.  If not for your benefit, than for the person that you say “Hello” to.

4) Reward yourself for that “extra”ordinary thing that you did. 

Chances are, you’ve earned it.  And chances are, you will find a reason to discount your own self-accomplishment:

I can do better next time.

It’s not that big of a deal.

I don’t have time.

After a particularly busy week working in Operations, the squadron Operations Superintendent came into my office at 4:00pm on Friday with a 6-pack of beer.  He cracked two open and put one on my desk.  I told him I still had a bunch of work to do and would join him later.  He laughed and told me that we could both keep working until midnight, and we still wouldn’t finish what needed to be done.  He was right, 75% of our squadron was deployed at the time, and we had pulled 12+ hour days for five days straight making sure the team downrange had everything they needed.  Half-way through our first beer, one of the NCOs walked into Operations asking for help with something.  Normally, we both would have been happy to assist.  Instead the Ops Sup told him to come back at 5:00pm  if it was that important because we were taking some time for us.  We finished our beers, reminded each other of how hard we had worked that week, but most importantly took time to reward ourselves.  When 5 o’clock rolled around, nobody came to see us.

When my wife and I first started dating, I told her that I drank a beer when I got home after each military jump.  She asked why?  I told her, because jumping out of a plane is something extra”ordinary” in my job.  I asked her what she did when she did something “extra”ordinary for her job.  She said, “Nothing.”  She was a Physician Assistant for a cardiology practice at the time.  About two weeks later she told me she drank a glass of wine on a Tuesday night(she didn’t usually drink during her work week).  When I asked her why, she told me because she had to resuscitate a person in the hospital who had flat-lined while performing a heart stress test.  He lived to go home to his family that day.  Yep, she earned it.

5) Invest time in your top performers. 

I’ve heard people say “That guy/girl is ‘fire and forget’.”  For those unfamiliar with the term, a “fire and forget” person is somebody that requires little to no supervision.  They understand the task at hand, the overall objective, and what needs to be done in order to complete the project.  They are both formal and informal leaders.  They are the all-stars of your unit, company, or organization.  But, they need just as much mentoring and grooming as anybody else.  However, too often, we give our top performers more work.  Why?  Because they get things done.

During a deployment to Afghanistan as a senior Captain, I had a boss who would call me from his location in the Middle East 1,200 miles away every Friday night.  The calls would last only 20-30 minutes.  But, those 20-30 minutes lasted a career.  We would talk about what happened that week around the Area of Operations, what operations were  upcoming, and he would then help me realize how it all tied together.  I never dreaded those phone calls, but I never fully appreciated them until later in my career.  When I was a senior Major six years later back in Afghanistan, I would take 15-20 minutes each week to do the same thing with a young Lieutenant.  We would discuss air-to-ground fires at a tactical level.  Four years later, when we crossed paths, he told me that he appreciated those discussions.  And he then used them with his young troops.

It sounds simple, because at the most basic level it’s mentoring, which is what a leader is supposed to do.  However, too often it’s overlooked or not enough time is invested in the top performers.  According to the Pareto Principle, 80% of outcomes result from 20% of causes.  The “fire and forget” are the 20% of your organization that are producing 80% of the results.  Yep, make sure you invest the time to professionally develop and guide them.

6. Over-Communicate and Over-Inform. 

I had a boss once who stated, that including him in the “CC” line of an email was a waste of his time because he received over 100 emails a day. Each time he had to look at an email, took time away from him. What a missed opportunity.

Yes, it’s frustrating to watch emails build in your Inbox at a demoralizing pace throughout the day. The constant knocks on your door as you try to accomplish a task take time away from you. The ringing phone interrupts the project that you are working on. But those emails, knocks, and phone calls help you grasp the challenges individuals face.

In my leadership roles, I stressed that when in doubt, include myself and anybody else in the email.  Is this micro-management, I would say no; and here’s why:

(1) The emails allowed everybody to stay updated with the most current information.  More often than  naught, somebody in the “CC” line had information that effected the subject at hand and resolution became more rapid.

(2) The flow of information allowed me the opportunity to understand a person’s train of thought–good or bad.  Which, in turn, allowed me to mentor the individual (see point #5).

(3) The information kept me in touch with what was going on outside of my office consumed with too many staff meetings, teleconferences, and performance reports.

Captain Phil Harris from Deadliest Catch used to say, “You can watch things happen.  Make things happen.  Or wonder what the hell just happened.”

The moment you act like you’re too busy to learn something about your organization, is the moment that you’ve lost touch.  It takes less than a second to delete the email, but chances are your understanding of the situation increased immeasurably.  I would rather spend the time making the decision to delete an email if required, than wonder what the hell just happened.

Mr. Alexander is a recently retired US Air Force Colonel who spent his career in Special Tactics.

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