Asking the Right Questions

A Junior Officer's Perspective On Making the Most of Professional Development

Australian Army Major Claire O’Neill recently published a compelling article charging junior officers to take the reins of their professional development. As I read the article, in the background the movie I, Robot was playing and something stood out to me with regard to this subject. Will Smith is on the hunt for a scientist’s murderer; with a holographic recording of this scientist to guide him. This hologram would prompt Smith to ask questions that would help him uncover further clues. Every time Smith would ask such a question the hologram would respond with “That, Detective is the right question.”

As I read O’Neill’s charge to junior officers, myself included, I felt daunted by it. I’ve had the privilege of serving my country for a little less than four years, but am still unaware of the vast amount of opportunities afforded to military members to further their professional development. Furthermore, it would be incorrect if I said I knew where to even begin looking for them. After posting some thoughts on twitter in response to the article and the conversation that ensued; I began thinking about what the “right questions” should be for young officers.

As the former Director of Operations of my squadron once told me, the most dangerous thing you can hear from a lieutenant is “in my experience”. It is true statement about young officers yet standing in contrast in every unit are officers that have that experience. These are our senior captains to lieutenant colonels who fill those vital first line leadership positions and have the most influence over young officers’ development. Yet due to the current operational tempo and the ever increasing amount of taskings from above, I see my leadership’s time and resources being eaten away; leaving little time for mentorship or professional development. So what are the right questions we can ask to open that door and how do we follow through to make us more educated and informed junior officers?

What’s your background?

Unless the officer in question is your squadron or battalion commander, chances are they don’t come with a published biography of their military career. Due to the vast amount of schools, assignments, fellowships, staff positions or other career options, officers can have a varied and unique background. Some of those opportunities are easily identifiable by the presence of an Air Force Weapons School patch or an Army Ranger tab, but programs such as the Olmstead Scholars, SASS, or SAMS fellowships are not. The easiest way to find out is by asking a simple question such as “what’s your background?” or “what was your last assignment?” These questions allow the respondent an open platform to tell you about their career, where they have been and what they have done. I have yet to meet a military member that doesn’t have a condensed timeline of their career memorized. This simple question allows one to learn about the unique opportunities or maybe just personal perspectives, which are often the most powerful. Whether you learn about a new opportunity or just about their previous assignment, you walk away from the conversation with more knowledge than you started with.

How did you get to that opportunity?

Once you have found out about a program, it’s important to figure out how you can set yourself up for such an opportunity. There are usually prerequisites or preferred experience that is needed to make one competitive. Figuring out these things can allow us to advocate at the appropriate time for special training or the next assignment; this is one of my biggest takeaways from Major O’Neill’s post. Commanders can have hundreds of people assigned to them and it is not possible for them to know the ambitions or goals of every member of their command.

What if you aren’t interested in that opportunity? One day some of us (junior officers) will be those squadron/battalion commanders and as such handed the responsibility of leading and grooming the next generation of military leaders. Leaders have the responsibility to place members where they not only will personally flourish but advance the military as a whole. Many of these special assignments or schools have been developed over time to produce officers with specialized knowledge and skills that makes our military force as a whole better. U.S. citizens have spent millions of dollars and years of time investing in military members, I can think of no worse outcome than squandering an officer’s talents due to the ignorance of opportunities that would develop them further.

How did the opportunity benefit you?

This question has a two part answer first it allows you to learn what the person learned from it and secondly show what further opportunities opened up. How a particular opportunity affected a person or what they learned from it should be the ultimate goal of these questions. Professional military education should not be a box we just look to check, nor should we look for the most prestigious box. We should evaluate our goals and how we can use this experience to benefit the military. Furthermore, understanding what opportunities opened up or closed because of it is also important. There are many opportunities out there that I would jump at the chance to attend however they wouldn’t line up with my own goals for my future in the military. We have a finite time in the military to take advantage of and therefore need to be aware of how taking a one to three year assignment will affect us upon in the future.

In closing, for junior officers, our own career development is our responsibility first and foremost. It is incumbent upon us to seek out those opportunities and figure out how to make them happen. We all know that this isn’t a democracy and unfortunately we always don’t get a vote in such matters, however, I firmly believe that being proactive and advocating for our own career development can make a difference. Otherwise, we just become one of thousands of boats freely being tossed around in an ocean of the personnel system; grab a paddle and start rowing towards where you want to be.

To senior officers and leaders, we need your guidance; tell us about your experiences. Professional development is a two way street, there are dozens of other questions I would like to ask but haven’t thought of yet. Help. Fostering that dialogue whether through in-depth briefings or over lunch will pay dividends by creating educated junior officers with long term goals that they can work towards obtaining.

Dan Ryan is an U.S. Air Force officer. He is an Associate Member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force.

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