Company command. Like so many young officers before me, I looked forward to and worked hard for the opportunity to lead a company of American soldiers. But also like many before me who earned that privilege, I had to do something else first: serve as a staff officer—in my case, at the division, brigade, and finally battalion level. Each of these experiences was uniquely rewarding and fundamental in my development as an Army officer.
After serving twenty-five months “in the queue” of multiple staff positions before assuming command, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to learn, grow, develop, and serve as a staff officer to some of the most lethal, capable, and professional formations in the Army. My singular advice to anyone with the prospects of assuming a new position within a unit staff is that bringing daily positive energy, vitality, and commitment to the task at hand will yield both deep personal and professional satisfaction, even during the longest days and nights behind the desk and at the keyboard. Beyond that, in practical terms, I offer five recommendations based on my experience.
Read and Absorb your Doctrine
Staff officers, in their role of supporting the commander, must know the doctrine governing both their respective warfighting functions and that of the operations process. The acute challenge for company-grade officers and NCOs is that their professional military education thus far tends to gloss over relevant doctrine for staff operations in order to dedicate more time on doctrinal education for leadership duties. This requires a concerted individual effort on the staff officer to read, study, and take notes on relevant doctrine. Use staff-duty time wisely—perform your mandated checks, drink coffee, and get ready to read. But before you dive in, build a framework for how you will read and learn your assigned doctrine. Rather than attempting to read cover to cover, begin at the table of contents, reading each chapter and sub-chapter title to understand the broad framework of the publication. Read the introduction page for a description of each chapter. Next, as you work through each chapter and subchapter, highlight what seems important and take notes on key points and definitions in the introduction, important figures or charts, and the conclusion. The goal is to retain the most relevant knowledge while reading at the pace required to finish the publication within the time available.
I recommend that each staff section develops a hardcopy library of relevant doctrine that can be sealed in a tough box for expedient mobility and reference. Additionally, I recommend developing a larger digital library with hyperlinks to both relevant doctrine and publications that are peripheral to your immediate needs but may become important when integrating with enablers or partner-nation forces. By reading, taking notes, and absorbing your staff section’s relevant doctrine, you and the section you lead are setting the conditions for the next recommendation: preparing for decisive action.
Prepare for Decisive Action
As the Army trains forces for decisive action, rotations to the Army’s combat training centers (CTCs_ are often the most crucial measure of unit combat readiness. While company- and platoon-level actions are an important evaluation for overall unit readiness, CTCs primarily focus on evaluating the ability of the battalion- and brigade-level staffs to plan, synchronize, and execute all warfighting functions against a determined opposition force. Evaluators at CTCs consistently reiterate that prior preparation for executing decisive action by the staff is key to success. While not all-encompassing, my experience has taught me a few important lessons to prepare for success at CTCs and beyond.
Deliberately execute the Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP) for every training event. The greatest challenge units often face when preparing for decisive action is finding the time available to do so, when the vast majority of a staff’s time is consumed by non–decisive action training events, taskings from higher headquarters, and other necessary garrison functions, which will never go away. Staff sections, led by the executive officer, should conduct MDMP for each major training event (ranges, gunnery, etc.) and significant garrison events. The unit commander must drive this process, receiving each brief and providing guidance for the staff for the next step of MDMP. Although the process may be cumbersome, inefficient, and time consuming to begin with, continuous repetitions will develop the staff as a team, optimizing the team to meet the commander’s intent well before stepping into “the box” during a decisive-action CTC rotation.
In addition to conducting MDMP for each major training event and garrison operation, units should conduct at least one staff exercise (STAFFEX) prior to the brigade field training exercise that typically precedes a CTC rotation. Ideally, a unit should schedule two STAFFEXs, with the first conducted at its home-station mission training complex (MTC) to conduct decisive-action-focused MDMP in ideal conditions, where time and available space are maximized without any opposition force to disrupt the process. Although units must manage risk to other important staffing requirements, deliberately taking the staff away from their desks and into the MTC optimizes focus and significantly reduces outside distraction. Following the after-action review of MDMP at the MTC, units must refine both their planning and tactical standing operating procedures (PSOP and TACSOP), placing multiple in-progress-reviews before conducting a second STAFFEX. The second STAFFEX should be conducted under canvas to simulate field conditions, to include multiple command-post displacements (TOC jumps) and additional refinement to the PSOP and TACSOP. Of note, the unit executive or operations officer may want to consider conducting an MDMP refresher course for the staff in order to establish a level base of understanding and codify expectations from each section and warfighting function.
To build proficiency at TOC jumps, units should consider executing as many repetitions as possible before a CTC rotation. Physical readiness training can be selectively utilized to conduct multiple iterations of TOC setup and tear down, interspersed with high-intensity, short-duration physical exercises, to build staff proficiency and unit cohesion well before the stress of major collective training. The unit operations sergeant major should have primary responsibility for planning and leading this particular training event.
For my battalion, in particular, the end state of MDMP consisted of nine deliverables to our subordinate companies:
- Operations order. No more than two pages using Microsoft Excel, digitally published via Joint Battle Command–Platform (JBC-P), with a hard copy as a backup.
- Operational graphics. Published digitally via JBC-P, with laminated hard copies produced for each company.
- Decision support matrix.
- Information collection matrix. Of note, this is a refined product from what is doctrinally published following Warning Order II.
- Execution matrix.
- Execution checklist.
- Target list worksheet.
- [Optional] Course-of action sketch with terrain features. While not doctrinally required, company commanders found this hardcopy document extremely useful for rapidly visualizing the general movement, sequencing, and actions of each company at the operational decisive point.
- [Optional] Sustainment concept and sketch. This document helped company commanders visually understand the general sustainment concepted detailed within paragraph IV of the operational order. Importantly, this is not a replacement for sustainment requirements detailed within the operational graphics.
Be a Leader and a Team Player
Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, Army Leadership and the Profession states that “an Army leader is anyone who by virtue of assumed role or assigned responsibility inspires and influences people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.” It isn’t just those serving in formal leadership roles or with official command responsibilities who lead. Officers and NCOs working on staff must lead, as well. The longest and most difficult of days in garrison or collective training are often the most developmental, transformative, and fun (sometimes in hindsight) when officers and NCOs from each section bring the energy, determination, and leadership required to survive, fight, and win. The best way to be a team player is to help your staff counterparts during the most difficult portion of MDMP for their particular warfighting functions. All staff primaries should assist the S2 intelligence section during mission analysis. Each warfighting-function representative should help the S2 paint a feasible, acceptable, suitable, distinguishable, and complete enemy course of action. This maximizes the commander’s ability to visualize the upcoming fight, provide clear guidance for course-of-action development, and provides him or her with the utmost confidence the staff can work together as a team. Following mission analysis, the S2 will gladly return the favor and assist the staff through the rest of MDMP.
Continuously Evaluate and Improve
In my experience, weekly touchpoints with the commander are often the best way to provide updates and receive feedback on taskings and staff actions. It is far better to discuss a project that is in its initial stages and receive feedback than to bring a project that is near completion but that may not meet the commander’s requirements and will, as a result, require a complete overhaul with limited time. Weekly face-to-face touchpoints with the commander help staff officers to routinely sharpen their work so it can be easily understood by the commander, who will then be able to give clear guidance to his or her subordinates. Self-evaluations are also an important component of professional growth as a staff officer. As you master routine tasks, identify what competencies need refinement and ask for help from a peer, superior, or subordinate who may be particularly knowledgeable or adept in this area. By leaving your pride at the door, you are building a professional organization of trust and teamwork while sharpening your skills as a leader among the staff.
As stewards of the profession, it is our duty to give back to the profession that gives us so much. Perhaps the best and most immediate way to give back is to create a continuity binder, both hardcopy and digitally via your unit’s shared drive. After that, take the opportunity to write about your experience and lessons learned. The end result of gathering and consolidating your recommendations on paper may give much-needed confidence to a junior NCO or officer stepping into a new staff assignment for the first time and will be personally developmental and rewarding for yourself. Finally, be sure to clean your desk on the way out.
For leaders who are about to have the privilege to serve on staff—and after twenty-five months, that is precisely what I’ve come to see it as—I encourage you to approach each day as a new chance to grow, develop, and enjoy the opportunity as a servant leader within the profession of arms. Personally, I had a blast thanks to an incredible group of peers, subordinates, and leaders who are my eternal brothers and sisters in arms.
Capt. Harrison (Brandon) Morgan is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Modern War Institute and is privileged to command the soldiers of Attack Company, 1st Battalion – 18th Infantry Regiment (Mechanized). Prior to command, he thoroughly enjoyed his service on staff as a Liaison, Battle Captain, and Planner at the Division, Brigade, and Battalion level. He commissioned from the United States Military Academy in May 2013 and has overseas service in Iraq and the Republic of Lithuania. Find him on twitter @H_BrandonMorgan.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Nicolas A. Cloward, US Army
Good article. Also as an instructor at the Sergeants Major Course, I believe this is something that I think is useful for future OPS SGMs. Most will have to serve at least a year even if they move into the CSM track. There are huge lessons to be learned in a staff position that will serve as developmental experiences for their time in that job as well.
I would add that as a junior staff officer, never forget that you are being watched by the people who make decisions that affect your future. How you carry yourself, treat others, and react to receiving the really nasty assignments- all those will form the basis of your military reputation.
Great article. Only question I have is how you managed to get all 5 paragraphs of an OPORD with the relevant information on it boiled down to 2 pages of Excel.
Great Article. I have yet to be a staff officer, but should be getting that opportunity in the near future. I honestly think this is a must read for every Officer and NCO.