You’re Never Done Teaching

Think back to when you started out. If you’re military, think back to when you reported to your first unit. If you’re a civilian professional, then it’s showing up for your first day as a full-time employee. Doesn’t matter how big the organization was, doesn’t matter what your prior experience was. Now how would you have felt if the trainer or manager charged with your onboarding led off with one or two of these motivating statements:

You guys have it so easy now …

You have no idea how hard we had it before …

Six shifts a month is nothing, team members are so soft now …

The way we’re doing it now won’t work, we should go back to the old way …

Our team members are getting dumber.

In early 2016, while assigned to an ICBM squadron as an instructor team lead, the commander asked me to take over the unit’s onboarding program. It was up to my section of five and me to ensure new arrivals received sponsors who could help locate housing, support family transition needs, and guide the uninitiated through different personnel processes on the base. Sponsors made sure new folks found their way to the squadron successfully. Once my training team received them, we brought them in for an hour-long classroom session. Repeated about every six weeks, the sessions addressed training and performance expectations, shift scheduling, how team assignments are built, and most importantly–our mission and vision as a unit and the type of culture we were building. Of all these elements, vision and culture were the foremost priority. Our commander was clear that the squadron was a family, a group of men and women dedicated to each other beyond the length of a shift, all striving to make each other better and focused on caring for each other’s families as well as their own.

We’d heard snippets of what our new team members were hearing at formal training–a 100-day program designed to impart technical skills and in each team member ahead of their assignment to an operational unit. Several of the instructors at the formal training unit were my age and so remember, as do I, the worst of the ICBM community’s old culture. By 2016 we were more than a year into a cosmic cultural overhaul–a first in about four decades–that rippled throughout the community and larger Air Force. Many of my peers emerged embittered from the many changes; they’d survived a toxic leadership environment and ‘succeeded’ in spite of it. Now their successors would ‘grow up’ not knowing such pain and suffering. Despite reports that many of our new Airmen were excited to join the community, those same Airmen showed up at our squadron troubled by what they were told in training–that the community had devolved, that we were bad at our jobs, coddled and wholly incapable compared to the previous generation. My instructors and I learned quickly that our first task wasn’t to ‘train’ these new Airmen, or even to try and contradict what they’d been told. Our task was to ‘teach’ these still impressionable men and women … to teach them what kind of unit we were, what type of community they were joining, and what our values were. And we realized none of that was going to happen in that one-hour classroom session.

In my last post, I talked about high investment-low return–you have to put way more in than you expect from your students and new team members. It’s up to you to provide the foundation, the starting point, and to enable them to learn about the organization and its leadership. Before they learn about their role. Before there’s pressure to perform. The other reality about the ‘teach’ phase I learned through onboarding, though, was that it never stops. Our new team members left the one-hour session and started qualification training to prepare them to perform the mission on a daily basis. But even as they trained they were watching us. The older unit members, the team leads and operations officers and the commander, we all were teaching whether we understood it or not. In order for the vision and culture lessons to ‘stick’, we had to be ready and willing to teach them every minute of the day. Because our Airmen were watching, learning, to see who we were and what kind of leaders we were. To see how we dealt with problems and interacted with the squadron. To see if we put our money where our mouths were, if all the talk about family and high standards and having fun was just that … talk. Or if it was something more, a real driving force that kept the organization driving forward with confidence. It was high investment-low return to another dimension, incumbent upon us designated as “leadership” to pour our heart and soul into what the unit should be about, expecting nothing in return. But hoping. Simply hoping that we could maintain the example we wanted to set, and that the example we set would be an example worth following.

Building Your Foundation

Since we last talked, I’ve taken on a new role teaching and training a university cohort of about 125 students, freshman through senior, who are learning the fundamentals of leadership, communication, and decision-making. I’m also lucky enough to teach courses in history, team-building, and military doctrine. While the hours have been long and days unpredictable, I wouldn’t trade the opportunity. No amount of thought experimentation would have prepared me for the impact my fellow instructors and I can have on these students—young adults all living in, arguably, their most formative period as they develop their skills and motivations as self-sufficient leaders. Beyond what I hope to do for my students, my new role also affords me fresh perspective on what it means to “teach” … and the distinction between teaching and training.

If you’re new to this site or to me, I encourage you to read my first post that explains what we do and our governing philosophy. The Teach-Train-Lead™ model is predicated on the notion that you must establish a foundation, through high investment-low return education, from which to build adaptive, challenging training that prepares and enables independent action. That foundation must be normative; that is to say, you have to start somewhere—a place grounded in a sense of what should be, where that sense may be tested via rigorous inquiry, to ensure the standards continually improve and reflect the best the organization has to offer. So you may ask, aren’t “teaching” and “training” the same thing? The answer is an emphatic no.

We’re going to dig into teaching over the next few weeks … what it looks like, and why this early phase is critical for any organization’s success. For today, we’ll start with two elements I argue are key to any teaching environment.

The first element is a guiding assumption, an approach that presumes you as teacher expend the majority of effort while your students do little more than ask questions (assuming you’ve set the correct tone). This is the high investment-low return assumption—the idea that before you can present then assess the skills your team needs to move the organization forward, you must impart to them the ideals your organization holds most dear. Remember when we talked about lasting vision? This is where your team’s education begins, with the vision you have set. A vision that is properly developed then shared through the education of new members provides a backdrop for everything that follows. This is the time to present the organization’s core values—those principles of behavior that are non-negotiable. Each of the military services has a set of core values—expectations meant to transcend every conflict, every operating environment, every change in senior leadership. An education that starts with vision and core values, without an expectation of return from the learner, inaugurates a firm standard in each person. The more effort we put into that presentation, the more effort we put into each student’s engagement with those ideas, the more likely we are to build a team that is well-rooted in those standards, and therefore, prepared to take on new skills and responsibilities with a high level of motivation and mutual trust.

As for the second element … it’s not enough to come prepared with your vision and values, to present it all in a well-packaged lecture. You must empathize and communicate. We fail often at this, across industries. Especially when we’re certain of how ‘good’ our system is. A self-assured outlook on our vision and values coupled with a lack of empathic communication drives us to one-way conversations—where we present principles of behavior without soliciting engagement in the opposite direction. Allowing our students to ask questions, and more importantly, ask why the vision is what it is … and why those values are what they are … then allows them to apply their own perspective to each idea, which better equips them to internalize those principles for themselves, which in turn makes it more likely they’ll stick to them when confronted by the real world. We must also be willing to meet students at their starting point and take the time to understand where they come from, how they ended up in your organization, and what their intended role is. By definition, those answers will result in a unique combination that will force you to adapt your approach to each person. As you adapt, you’ll create different examples and meter your delivery in a way that seeks each individual’s comprehension. And each person walking away understanding what the team is about and what part they play … that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Okay, so you may not have signed up for a post that’s heavy on philosophy and light on how-to or “practical” examples. But before you turn away, hear me out. In order to take on the challenge of leading a team, or opening a business and building a team from scratch, you should take some time to sit back and think about why you’re doing it and where you’re trying to go. Then take some more time and think about how you’re going to get there. Putting mental energy toward these questions sets you up for when the going gets tough and its difficult to keep pushing, whether for fatigue or heavy workload. If you haven’t thought through these ideas and built a program based upon them, you won’t be consistent in how you treat new team members and no two onboarding experiences will be the same. If you’re inconsistent for folks at the start, how well do you think you’ll keep the team together after a couple years navigating the ebbs and flows of today’s operating environment?

In my next post, I’ll share what I learned when I was responsible to onboard every new person in my unit. While we were focused on cultivating in each of them the same high standard of performance and familial attitude, I found over time that often I had to overcome a distinctly negative bias in many of them, a bias perpetuated by older generations of operators and trainers who had grown up differently. And who were wholly outside my span of control.