By Lt. Col. Donna O'Harren, 311th Training Squadron
/ Published October 27, 2009
PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY, Calif. --
My first four months of command at the 311th Training Squadron at the Presidio of Monterey have already brought some important lessons learned - some expected, but others surprising. In the spirit of David Letterman's "Top 10" list, herewith is a list of my own "Top 10." Fellow commanders - both sitting and graduated - will surely relate to many of these observations. For those who are not in command, commonalities apply. Starting with number 10...
10. Motivating Airmen: Being a geographically separated Air Force unit at an Army post in coastal California in one of the Department of Defense's longest and most difficult training pipelines creates all sorts of opportunities for trouble. One of my greatest concerns is keeping Airmen motivated to stay on a positive course full of smart choices and to do well in their language studies and their professional development as Airmen. As a commander, I want nothing more than to see Airmen succeed in their mission here so they can graduate and go on to become successful linguists for our nation. That involves constant, creative motivation on the part of myself and the staff in order to minimize disciplinary issues and optimize academic success. With the high volume of turnover and throughput, this is a continuous work in progress.
9. Deployments and Medical Issues: Two issues that have required a somewhat surprising amount of attention and time for me and the unit here in this training environment are staff deployments and student medical issues. There was a time when training squadron personnel were not deployed. Times, of course, have changed, and even those assigned to training units are not exempt from overseas contingency deployments. Training unit personnel are serving important roles in overseas contingency operations and are returning to the training environment with valuable warfighting experience, making them even more credible in their duties back at home station. On average, we have approximately 10% of our squadron personnel deployed at any given time, which as it turns out, is in keeping with the Wing average. Student medical issues are a somewhat unique concern for Air Force commanders here at the Presidio of Monterey, where we have only one Air Force Physician's Assistant and one Medical Technician to serve over 1,000 Airmen (officer & enlisted) and where the nearest Air Force medical treatment facility is 3 hours away, up the road at Travis AFB. Commander involvement therefore comes into play more than one might expect.
8. Personnel Issues: Another time killer, but also one of the most important things a commander must take care of. These range widely from promotions to evals to family matters to awards and all points in between. Before taking command, I figured this would be a big area of involvement, and I was right. What has surprised me, though, are the range, scope, and oddity of some of the personnel issues that I deal with on any given day...never know what the day is going to bring...makes for an interesting work week at least!
7. Time Management: Each day and each week has become a juggling act in managing time and priorities and balancing the needs of the boss, the staff, external players, family, and oneself. Add into the mix hot taskers, meetings, disciplinary actions, e-mail, phone calls, and a myriad of other time bandits, and well - we all know how it goes. I will consider myself fortunate if I have my time management skills perfected before my time in command is up. Good thing I've invited a guest speaker to talk about Time Management at my next Commander's Call - I'll be taking notes!
6. Leadership Experience: Before taking command of the "Screamin' Eagles," I had never had a formal leadership position. While I had plenty of jobs where I exercised leadership in some form or another, I never held a position as a Flight Commander or Director of Operations. To be honest, coming to a squadron command position at a large training squadron without that formal leadership experience under my belt made me a bit uneasy. Now that I've been here for a few months, I realize that it's all quite doable, and I'm having the time of my life! (Of course, I have my outstanding staff to thank for this.) Would leadership experience as a Flight Commander or DO have helped? Absolutely. Could I have avoided some of the mistakes I've made thus far if I'd had the benefit of lessons learned from previous positions of leadership within a squadron? No doubt. However, those who haven't had those opportunities should not disregard their potential for command. Anything is possible.
5. Visibility: The visibility of the commander makes a significant impact on the pulse of the squadron. I've found that the time I spend outside of my office, chatting with staff in the squadron hallway, visiting classroom areas across the campus, networking with fellow service unit commanders, group staff, and DLI staff, walking through the dorms with the first sergeant or staff on a Friday night, and attending squadron sporting events and volunteer activities is some of the most valuable time I can spend as a commander. Not only does it give the staff and students a sense that the commander cares about what's going on in the unit and its surroundings, but it gives me an opportunity to get to know the staff and students better, which is a constant endeavor in a squadron as large and varied as this. That all adds up for a positive training environment.
4. Taking Time Out and Time Off: With as busy as things can get for a commander, it's important to take time out and time off here and there to decompress. I haven't done this nearly enough, but I recently had a chance to take a week of leave, and it was a great opportunity to recharge the batteries, get a change of scenery, and spend some much needed quality fun-time with my family. This is something all of us should remember to stop and do, whether in command or not.
3. First Sergeant and Senior Enlisted Leaders: As a "green" commander, I could not have survived these first few months in command without the sound advice and tireless initiative of our truly outstanding, experienced First Sergeant, our wonderfully dedicated Superintendent, and our amazing line-up of other SNCOs. Even a seasoned commander would agree that a good first sergeant and strong SNCOs are key to unit success. I've learned that if anything a unit such as ours (with a large population of trainees straight out of basic training) does is going to succeed, it must involve input from the Senior Enlisted Leaders/SNCOs. The times when things did not go as smoothly as they could have are the times when those valuable leaders were not consulted.
2. Team/Staff: Not only have I been fortunate enough to have a phenomenal First Sergeant and terrific Superintendent on my team, but I've also come to appreciate what else makes our team tick as well as it does, and that is the rest of our first-rate Command Section - our top-notch DO, our super Section Commander, our fabulous Secretary, our bright CSA, and our budding First Sergeant's Assistant. Collectively, they are the ones who make things happen day in and day out and ensure the mission gets done. It's inspiring and gratifying to see them in action and taking initiative. Moreover, when I'm TDY or on leave, I know everything in the squadron is well in-hand with them. I already owe them and the rest of the stellar Screamin' Eagles team a debt of gratitude for making it fun and interesting to come to work everyday so far!
1. Family: Most importantly, I also owe my survival over the first four months to my fabulous husband, who not only works full-time as an activated Reserve officer, but also kicks into overtime to take care of getting our kids off to daycare each morning, then fed & bathed back at home at the end of each day. Any family with two working parents and small children can appreciate the challenges involved, and when one parent is a commander, that adds to the complexity. I have come to appreciate the resiliency of my kids despite mom's long hours, as well as the sacrifices my husband has made - and will continue to make - so that I can not just do my job, but so that I can try to do it well. Added to that, it turns out my 4-year-old has a great perspective on things and offers some creative solutions when I share with her the details and challenges of my work day. And the 21-month-old? Well, his million-dollar smile upon first sight is all it takes to melt away the cares of a commander's day.
There are many more lessons learned dealing with finances, TDYs, teamwork, and other matters, but I've already taken up too much space. The remaining 20 months will undoubtedly bring many more lessons in command. I hope that I will be able to put my first four months' worth of experience to good use during that time so I can, as Gen Lorenz implores all squadron commanders to do, "leave the campground better than I found it."