Staff Officer

Started by Al Walsh

Being a staff officer is one of those jobs that everyone ends up doing at some point and I’ve found that not a lot of people talk about the things that separate a good staff officer from bad one so I decided to make a little list and start a discussion about it here.

  • The most important thing to understand is that everyone is busy. Everyone. Commanders above you and in units below you, your peers, the people that work for you. Everyone is busy and you have to respect their time.
  • As a staff officer your primary goal is to complete the tasks on your plate as soon as possible. You are a middle man (or woman) and you are getting something to the boss so that a decision can be made, or you are getting something to a unit so that something can be executed. The longer it takes you to do something the less time the boss or the unit has available to do their work.
  • Be prepared for meetings. When it is your turn to speak, get right to the point. Start with sentences like “we need a decision regarding,” “our biggest problem is,” “the main points are,” etc. If the person you are talking to wants all the details, he or she will ask for them. Then you can play your own small part in making those meeting we all hate a little less painful.
  • This same line of thinking goes for emails. Start every email with something like “I need you to do…,” or “Can I get ….. from you,” or “This is a follow up from when you asked me about….” Get right to the point. It’s the same old BLUF that you hear all the time and the hardly anyone does. If you feel like you need to add details, by all means add them after that first sentence but don’t make someone read 500 words before they get to the thing that you need from them. Odds are because they are busy, they won’t read it, and you won’t get what you’re looking for.

There are many more things that make for a good staff officer and a lot of them are job specific but no matter your job, the tips above can help make you one of the rare staff officers that people in the Companies don’t hate.

  • I started this one because I think it’s an important topic that doesn’t get much attention. I’d love to hear someone else’s thoughts on this.

  • Steven Bower

    Al, I agree. I think the lesson I’ve seen the most MIS-interpreted from Once an Eagle is that Command is the only way to be successful (and a good Leader) and staff officers are weasels. In reality we spend most of our careers on staff, vying for command by trying to understand the decisions and the decision making process we support. I think the lesson they miss is not being a self-serving weasel, but rather being a Leader through your service to others. In our careers we can’t forget to take care of ourselves too (although if we’re all doing it right, someone else will help), but this profession is about taking care of others first. Don’t let the only place you remember that be at the chow line.

    Other things to add to your list are:
    – At the first level of staff, the company XO, don’t brief your upcoming training the same way your commander or platoon leaders did (unless you’re at the training meeting). At the training support meeting you mention the event briefly and then go into details about all the way the support needs to happen. e.g. -BAD – “the company live fire will start with a safety briefing and then the company will depart in echelon right formation enroute to the OBJ.” -GOOD “Week 22 is a company live fire. We’ve requested range 27 and the following quantities of ammuntion, food, water, mail, (re-)fuel, (and any other relevant classes of support). We’ll need this type of maintenance support (either on hand or on call). Each item mentioned will need to have not only the delivery quantity, but time, and location. Pickup of excess needs to happen at (location, time) and we’ll clear the range immediately after. Refit following the exercise will start at this time and we’ll need inspected to ensure we’re complete NLT x:xx.” None of that is sexy, but nothing sexy will happen without you as the XO tracking every paper clip that you will need (and everything else in the plan), requesting it, ensuring that it will arrive ahead of time and be ready when needed, be legal (try getting your live fire cancelled due to a safety reg. you were supposed to know about and follow), accounting for it, and cleaning up when you’re done. If your platoon leaders don’t know to ask for and give you this information, then you are failing to help develop them (and making more work for yourself in the process).

    – never to forget to add the “so what…” (and if you’re good the 2d and 3d order effects) of that information / decision (and it is not always obvious to the person that just heard/read it).

    – Filter your own briefings through the viewpoints of the audience and ask if it answers their questions or just presents your information (and if it is the latter, is the reason it doesn’t answer their question because they don’t know about it and need informed). If it doesn’t answer their questions or present them information that they don’t know, but need to why is it there?

    – Another point of view on your briefing of details: As an officer you’ll learn to understand things (problems, exercises, etc…) like you build a pyramid, from the bottom up. Brief from the top down, brief the “weight bearing portions of the structure” first and then the rest (as requested). The first time you’re briefing the boss, expect to do the whole thing. The next time, expect to do only the critical portions. The next time, only one or two critical portions. After that the boss will understand that you normally don’t miss much and not request as much detail. You should still be prepared to brief all of it because sometimes you will be a teaching point for other briefers (so they can learn by example) and other times it will be for your boss to show you off to his boss. Don’t get lazy and plan on briefing less and embarrass yourself in either situation.

    – Understand that your position as a staff officer is all about customer service. Yes, you need to get things done, and you have hours of operation to help facilitate that, but a Soldier who will only come to your office twice in the time they are assigned to your unit (once each for in- and out-processing) doesn’t know what your hours are and is either joining your “family” or departing it. They deserve your time. If you want to talk operating hours, call their 1SG and ask for help in the future.
    – You will rarely get to be a Commander if you haven’t been the XO or the S3 and simultaneously both been and led the staff in understanding problems from the units’ and Commander’s perspective. So in reality that’s a few years to make your command mistakes in an environment that has a lot of support, and much less consequence.