(Note: This article was modified from an article I wrote that was published in the Winter 2019 issue of the Army Chemical Review, the official publication of the U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear School (USACBRNS), where I have worked as a Department of the Army civilian for nearly twelve years.)
As I reflect on my military experience over the past 34 years, I am ever mindful that God led me to serve in the Army. He brought me through every challenge I ever faced. God enabled me to perform beyond my expectations. He used me in my military service to love my neighbors and meet their needs. God put me in my current position as it clearly fits my unique skill set and background. God continues to use me in a critical role to advise Army leaders and staff. (See article I wrote where I reflect on my Army career.)
By God’s design, I worked in operations from company to corps level for thirteen of my twenty years while on active duty. During my time in civilian service, I have worked as the Operations Officer at the USACBRNS. In this position, I have used my operations experience to take care of my leaders at the school and Soldiers around the world, contributing to the defense of this Nation. God has given me wisdom. Perhaps it is time I shared some of the operations lessons I have learned and offered some best practices so that those who work in operations at any level can be more effective in their work.
I have only been successful in this position because of the great work of the professional noncommissioned officers (NCOs), officers, and civilians who have been part of our operations team. You may find it hard to believe, but just over one hundred employees have worked for me in the past twelve years. (I can actually name them. I have a list.) I have had much experience in team-building here in this job because I have had to constantly fine-tune my efforts as the membership of our team changed often as people came and went.
Besides me, the operations section is authorized only two NCOs and one civilian. The NCOs were normally here for a year or two; some less than one year. They were the backbone of the section. They made things happen. I also had numerous lieutenants and captains that worked here as temporary augmentees on a limited basis either before or after coming here to attend a course.
Combinatorial Theory Applications
One of the most fun classes I took when I was a college student earning my mathematics degree was Combinatorics. Wikipedia defines it this way: “Combinatorics is an area of mathematics primarily concerned with counting, both as a means and an end in obtaining results, and certain properties of finite structures.” Okay, sure. So what?
Decades later, I have found a useful application that I believe many others who manage a team of any size will find to be extremely helpful.
We can use what I learned about combinatorial theory to compute how many distinct relationships we had in our section of four people. It is a relatively simple mathematical formula: n x (n-1)/2 (where n is the number of people you have). Let’s see how this turns out.
With four on your team, you merely multiply it by three (which are the three other people that everyone has to work with) and then divide it by two. (The reason is simple: you do not need to count relationships twice. My relationship with you is the same as yours with me). In this case, four x three = twelve, divided by two, yields a total of six relationships.
What if you add two good lieutenants to the mix? (I am grateful for the help!) Now you have six on the team. How many distinct relationships do you have? Using the formula, it looks like 6 x 5 / 2 = 15. Fifteen! So, by adding two more people to your team, it is not just two more people to care for. It requires you as a leader to maintain nine more relationships from the six you had earlier. (Each of the two newbies has to relate to the previous four and relate to each other.)
These calculations have some serious implications. Every relationship is important and needs to be monitored by the leader. The chain is only as good as its weakest link. Everyone has to relate to each other, not just to the boss. Where there are more people, there is more potential for conflict. With so many relationships to maintain, we each have to work hard to communicate positively with everyone we work with, and resolve conflicts at the lowest level possible.
I praise God for the team I have been entrusted with and for the opportunity to serve with them. (See article on how God worked through my team to plan, prepare, and execute events for the 100th anniversary of the Chemical Corps in June 2018.)
In terms of building a team, maintaining positive working relationships between team members is absolutely essential. However, there is an individual aspect to team-building that is equally important. We call this process mentoring. I developed a slightly different approach to this topic.
We are all taught to mentor those who are subordinate to us, to make on the spot corrections, and to develop character. Those things are all very important. However, I have to wonder if this is being done on a consistent basis by very busy leaders. Who is mentoring those above us? I have observed that we cannot assume that someone higher is looking out for him or her and helping them to develop as a leader. Who is mentoring your boss? Your boss’ boss?
The process of 360-degree mentoring is an approach where everyone on the team consistently cares for and makes an effort to develop everyone else: below us, above us, and right next to us. The goal is to improve the entire team. If we are able to tactfully mentor our boss occasionally, they can mentor us better. If our employees mentor us when needed as we mentor them, we can take better care of them. Everyone benefits when everyone intentionally mentors one another.
God speaks of mentoring: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. He who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and he who looks after his master will be honored” (Prov. 27:17-18).
Collaboration with Counterparts
We have discussed the process of building our team from within. But what about how we relate to our counterparts from outside organizations? I have found that these relationships also need to be maintained to be successful as an operations leader at whatever level I have served.
Who are your counterparts? I use this term frequently, but others may not know what I am referring to. These are people who are at the same rank or pay grade as you, who are serving in the same function in a different organization on your left and right. It also refers to someone who is at a higher or lower rank or pay grade than you, who is serving in the same function, but with a different organization above or below you. Let me give a few examples.
At the USACBRNS, we have a taskings NCO who has counterparts in the other two schools here. This NCO also has a counterpart at the center above and at the brigade that falls under the school. Another example is the battalion operations NCO who would have counterparts in the other two battalions in the brigade, on the brigade staff above, as well as each of the companies below.
What do we do with our counterparts? Here is what I have learned here:
- Coordinate with and share information freely with counterparts on your left and right
- Coordinate with and receive guidance humbly from counterparts above
- Coordinate with and mentor your counterparts below as needed
- Handle things at the lowest level (i.e., operations channels vs. command channels)
- End State: Establish and maintain a good reputation with all counterparts (build trust)
By the grace of God, there is a great deal I have learned along the way as I have served in various operations positions as an NCO and as a civilian. I am hoping these insights I shared will be helpful for many, and will enable you and your hard working team members to be more successful in doing their seemingly unending and thankless jobs.
Know this: your work truly matters!
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.