Leading as a First Time NCO

Aug 16, 2021

I've received a few questions and I've seen a couple of posts about Specialist promotables getting promoted to sergeant for the first time could be actually a Corporal as well. But regardless, it's moving into an NCO role for the very first time. Some of the challenges that presents when you transition from a soldier to an NCO, a soldier to a leader, what does that mean? How does that look? What are just a few things you can do as a first time NCO just to make the process a little bit smoother, a little clearer and not so full of surprises.

So let's discuss. I want to cover just a few things. I don't want to overwhelm you with too much content, too much data. I want this to be quick hitting, get to the point and let's get through it.

So what I want to discuss are three specific things.

The foundation, meaning what is the foundation of becoming a successful leader, a successful NCO for the first time? Number two is establishing boundaries, so important. Doesn't mean it has to be complicated or difficult. It just means we have to understand it, know it and know what it means. And then lastly, what are a few things that you can go do, specifically some action steps that you can go do to make this process just a little bit easier, make that transition a little smoother, fewer surprises, and you are off to the races.

So let's go ahead and start with the foundation. So what I want you to think about first is what is an NCO? We all know that NCO's are leaders. And what I can tell you with my experience and my background, both the military and in the corporate world, leadership is 100 percent about relationships. If you can't establish a bond in a relationship with a person, with an individual, with a soldier, you are so less likely to be successful in leading them.

NCO Leadership is About Relationships

So first thing I want you to think about is NCO leadership is all about relationships. If you fundamentally just remember that and approach all of your situations with that in mind, you're going to do great.

There's not much you can do to mess it up. If you just remember that NCO leadership is fundamentally about relationships.

Secondly, here is that your leadership will improve over time.

So when you become a sergeant, for example, you don't have to solve world hunger.

You're not expected to know everything about everything. You're going to go through cycles of learning. You're going to be put in different situations. You're going to be called to make decisions. And it's OK to make errors. It's OK to make mistakes. The thing is, do you recognize them? Do you learn from them and do you not repeat them? That's going to be key.

Improvement of your leadership will come with what I think of as experience of experiences.

The more you experience, the more cycles and situations that you're put in, the natural improvement of leadership will occur. You will get better. Thirdly, here, when you lead soldiers, we talked about NCO leadership. We talked about relationships being at the fundamental foundation of being successful as a leader. But within that, it all starts with trust, not gimmicks.

A lot of times in NCO's will try to be cute, will try to be funny, will try to leverage different things that aren't natural for them. And it does not go well. It does not yield soldiers looking at you as their leader or someone they want to follow.

Think about relationship. Think about trust within that relationship, that's the foundation.

You have to have trust. You have to trust your soldier. Your soldier has to trust you. How do you get there? Well you get there through experiences, you get there through relationship, you get there through partnering together. You get there through communication and working through issues together. It can't be you sitting in an office, them working at a shop or out in the motor pool. It can't be about that separation. It's got to be you to the leader and the soldier coming together, frequently talking through, working through challenges, opportunities and issues.

And with that comes trust. That's what you will establish over time by behaving and leading that way. And when you do that, when you have that trust and when you have those foundational relationships, there won't be anything that you cannot accomplish with your soldier. The respect level is a byproduct of that, achievement is a byproduct of that, you will be successful. It's inevitable - trust and relationships.

So I would think about this in these terms.

Who You Trust is a Good Model to Follow

Who do you trust? Think about this from your standpoint, your perspective, who do you trust? And think about that relationship that you have. Think about the way you interact with that person. Think about how you could lean on that person and communicate with that person and work through issues with that person. Who is that for you? Now, if you don't have that person that you feel comfortable with in your life, in your space right now, then that's something you've got to continue to work on.

Normally, there's at least one person, one NCO, one officer, someone in your organization, someone you look up to, someone that you trust explicitly.

That's what you want to become to your soldier. That's what your soldier needs to become to you. It goes both ways. You've got to have it once you have that foundation in place. Everything else we talk about is just so simple, so straightforward and so easy.

Starts there, has to happen. Let's talk a little bit about boundaries. Boundaries are important. Most soldiers, most people recognize boundaries.

Naturally, it's not something that we have to write down on paper most of the time, and say this is your boundary, do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars if you're playing Monopoly. But unfortunately, there are some soldiers out there that - when you get promoted and you've been their buddy, you've been with them side by side attacking the same problems and the same challenges. It is sometimes harder for some soldiers to recognize the shift in you and your leadership because you're now in a different position.

Sometimes they don't quite understand that. They take it for granted. They assume that doesn't apply to them and that's just not the case. So in these cases, what you get promoted within an organization and you haven't had the luxury to move to another unit, for example, it's great if you could get promoted, move to another unit, because then everyone knows you from the start as an NCO, as that leader, there's no gray area or adjustments that need to be made.

But the reality is that doesn't happen all the time. And frankly, it's more unusual than not for that to happen.

When you get promoted, you have to establish some boundaries with your soldiers and they don't have to be complicated. Again, they don't have to be, you know, like a Rubik's cube and hard to figure out. They could be very basic. But they have to be understood and they have to be clear. The first thing here is boundaries are always there. They're always present whether you want them to be or not, whether you decide for them to be or not, they are always present in the environment.

How do you respond to them? How do you react to them? How do you adjust to them? Just knowing that will cause you to think about doing something intentional about boundaries.

Navigating Friendships as a First Time NCO

So let's discuss friendships. And this is probably the most common thing that I see. When soldiers get promoted to NCO, they have to recognize they're in a leadership role. The friends that they've had now become maybe a little more complicated. And it's how you approach this that will determine how successful you are transitioning to an NCO.

So the levels of friendship here, just the first thing to remember is that you're still people, even though you're now a leader, you're still people, you're still the same person. Just because you have a stripe on your collar and you get a little bit more money in your check doesn't cause you to be just a different person altogether. But you just have to recognize that you're now a leader and they have to recognize your soldiers have to recognize that you are now their leader and have to treat the friendship accordingly.

And, you know, maturity plays a key role in how soldiers will handle the friendship. And it's going to be key for you as well on your level of maturity. So just think about who are your soldiers, think about the friendships you've had and think about if they really need to change. A lot of times you will not have to change a thing in your relationships because they are already appropriate.

So don't think you have to all of a sudden disconnect, unplug, not have any friends that you used to have and you have to make all new friends. That's just not the case. What's important is you have to just understand and they have to understand that the friendship now has a little bit of a different perspective to it. You're a leader. You can be friendly with them. You can still lead them.

But they just have to recognize that the best way to do that is just sit and talk with them, sit and talk with them, talk to them about the relationship, talk to them about the friendship and where NCO's fail is they tend to make assumptions. I know I did this as an NCO. I just assumed that everybody knew since I got promoted that, yeah, everything's different until I realized that it was important for me to sit down and talk with my soldiers about this.

Then there was still some kind of uncertainty and how would that really manifest itself? So it's just something to think about. Good communication solves all of these problems. Friendships can still be in place. Just recognize that there is a little bit of a different perspective to that friendship. Now, you can't switch off friendships just because of a new rank on your collar, it just can't happen. It can, but it really pollute the relationship. It will cause you to be less successful in getting things done with your soldiers.

So just think about that, because at the end of the day, you are the same person. They are the same person.

You just have some new responsibilities. Don't overcomplicate the relationship from a standpoint of you can't be friendly, you can't be friends, you just again have to recognize those boundaries, and then know your limits here. This is an important point here around boundaries, know your limits. You don't have to have a PhD in "knowing your limits", common sense is your best guide.

If it doesn't smell right, it doesn't feel right, it doesn't look right, chances are it's not right.

You will know that as a person, you will just sense that, feel that and see that. You can make appropriate decisions, be transparent and frank. Also, don't try to play smoke and mirror games. No one appreciates that. Think about when you were a soldier and your NCO tried to play games with you and tried to pretend that things were different than they were. You know, we're we're all smart people here.

We all can read the tea leaves and see how things are going. So just make sure that common sense is guiding you a lot of the time. You be completely transparent and frank with your soldiers to the extent that you can. Obviously, there are some things you can't share or communicate. You will know what those are.

It will either be made explicitly clear to you or again, back to common sense, you'll know I'm not going to go share certain information with my soldiers. Don't try to overcomplicate this.

Know Your Limits and Your Soldiers Know Theirs Too

And then lastly here around limits is do not assume that your soldiers know or understand the limits. It's kind of counter intuitive to what I said initially, which is common sense as your guide transparency and frank.

Be that way with your soldiers. It would be great if we all just instantly got that and I know you do, but they may not. And you can't always assume that they do. So if one out of 20 soldiers doesn't understand or doesn't get it, that means that you have to be very clear with all 20 of your soldiers because you never know who that one is going to be.

You have to just be very clear, be very matter of fact, be that transparent leader, be frank, use common language. Don't try to overcomplicate or be too cute.

And then you let common sense guide you through all of that.

And then you will establish that relationship, create the trust that you need to work together, be friends, but yet still have separation of authority, ability to direct and lead them to the tasks or the mission at hand. And you could still have a great relationship and a great team.

3-Easy Action Steps for First Time NCO's

Now, let's finish this off with three things you can do specifically to make this process easier when you are a first time NCO, when you're making that transition from peer to leader as a first time NCO, not going to give you 20 things here.

We could go for days on all the things you could do, should do, might do, would do.

But they're noise. Do these three things. If you do these three things, you're going to be well on your way to becoming an NCO of consequence of significance, of influence and an NCO that people and soldiers want to follow and appreciate because you are doing the right things for your unit, you're doing the right things for them.

Number 1, you want to extend an olive branch. When you get promoted. You don't want to be that guy or that lady who kind of sits back and, you know, everything comes to me. Oh, everything comes to be on the boss. I'm the leader on the NCO. You do what I say! That only is going to get you so far.

You can have role power as an NCO and it'll work to an extent or you can have real leadership influence as an NCO, which is when soldiers want to follow you because they know they can count on you, trust you and believe in you and your decision making.

So extend an olive branch, meet me halfway. You don't need to go all the way over to the other side and say, I'm going to do everything for you as an NCO. You don't even have to think for yourself. Absolutely not. But what you're going to do is you want to extend that olive branch and say, hey, I'm coming to the middle here, I want to be a leader that you can trust and count on, I want to have a great relationship with you, be a good communicator and make sure that you have everything you need to be successful as a soldier, because I'm going to help you be successful. I'm going to help you get promoted faster.

I'm going to be there for you. You do that by extending the olive branch of support of help of trust.

And when you do that, they will extend back across, meet you in the middle. That's creating a very strong, influential relationship from the very start. Number two, and I want you to think about this with this very first word, intentional, intentional means don't sit back and just wait for something to come to you. You make this happen. I want you to intentionally reset the relationships that you have with clear expectations.

Common sense is going to guide you through most of this. But if you sit back and assume that your soldiers get it, understand it, recognize it, will do all the things to be successful, it's likely not to happen with some of them intentionally reset the relationships with clear expectations.

This is how that might look. I just got promoted to Sergeant E-5. There is a big ceremony. We all witnessed it. Everybody witnessed you getting promoted.

Five, you have your team, you have five soldiers that report to you directly. You were friends with them, for example, and now you're their NCO.

You're their leader. What you do is you pull that team together and you talk about, it doesn't have to be more than a 5-minute talk, but you pull them together and say ultimately the message is, hey, I'm the NCO now, I'm the leader. Now, here's how this is going to work.

But you say it like this.

Hey, team, I want you to know that I'm here to support you. I want you to know that there's nothing that we cannot accomplish together as a team. I'm here for you. I want to make sure that you have everything you need to be successful. I want to support you in your personal goals, in your professional goals. I want to support you being successful in our unit. I want to support you on the next mission that we go on. I am here for you 24/7, 365. Here's my number. I know you probably already have it. Here's my number. Make sure you have it. I'm here to support you.

It's that simple, guys. Now you've reset the relationship from friend or peer to NCO and leader. Very intentionally. Not complicated, but very specifically and intentionally. And now you're beginning to set those clear expectations, expectations around accountability, expectations around where they need to be and when they need to be, their expectations around where do they go if they're struggling or need help or support.

You have set that with them in a two or three minute conversation. Now, I think you should go beyond that and have more communication, but it doesn't have to be up front. It can be as simple as that. So number 1, extend the olive branch. Number 2, intentionally reset relationships with clear expectations in the third action step here is - if you have these five soldiers, a one on one discussion with each soldier on your team, and this is a good time to pull out good old DA 4856 and do that initial counseling on them or that performance counseling or that monthly counseling or wherever you are and that aspect in your unit with those requirements, whatever that is for you, start that process because it's going to establish a little taste of formality with them to say, hey, this was my buddy and now he's my NCO buddy. So really not to worry about anything. No, when you sit down one on one and you have a counseling form and you go over some basic things with your soldier, each one of them that you want to focus on and how to be successful, things like that, whatever that is for you, there's really no wrong answer here.

It's the act.

It's the behavior that is the moneymaker. It's the sitting down, the establishment of this formal relationship with a one on one and a counseling session with your soldier, that's documented. It's going to set the tone for the expectations that you have and the influence that you have with them. So do that form. Sit down with each one of your soldiers for at least a half hour. Have a good, frank, open conversation.

Talk about them more than you talk about you talk about their situation, their performance, their opportunity to improve their next promotion, their family, their kids.

Those are the important things. It's less about you and more about them. Document it on a 4856. It's going to reinforce and cement in expectations and your role as their NCO. Extend an olive branch, reset relationships with intent and do a one on one discussion counseling documented on a 4856 with each one of your soldiers.

I do all this within the first week or two. You should do it in the first day or two if you can. As soon as you get promoted, because every moment, every day, every minute that goes by, that there's clarity that is not in place, chances are it's going to be harder and harder to reel that end. They've seen you get promoted. They've seen things not really change for, let's say, a week or two weeks or a month. And then all of a sudden you start doing these things.

It's going to be a little bit harder for you to dial that in because they haven't seen it. So why all of a sudden are you doing it? So set the tone immediately as soon as you get promoted, if you can. If you're not able to do that because you're deployed or you're separated from your soldiers for some reason or they're on leave or you're on leave, or obviously there are going to be circumstances beyond your control. You can't pick up a phone and call them.

You can set the tone in different ways if you can't do it in person. In person is obviously ideal, but do it in whatever way you can. And then when you get together, make sure that you're doing it very intentionally, very specifically, and you'll be on your way.

And then with that, with relationship, with the trust, with extending the olive branch, resetting the relationships. Good one on one, formal discussions with your soldiers.

You are off to the races.

There's nothing you can't accomplish. There's nothing you can't do.

Your soldiers will absolutely respect and appreciate the amount of time, effort and energy you're spending with them. With that, I hope, this was a helpful, quick hitting training.

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