Commentary by Chief Master Sgt. Brian Sale
50th Network Operations Group superintendent
I recently got the opportunity to talk to our newest Airman Leadership School class, where we explored the exciting next phase in their enlisted careers — becoming a supervisor. I’m not quite sure what their preconceptions were, but taking a cursory look at some of the wild experiences that lie in wait for those eager new supervisors was a resounding wake-up call. This got me thinking, for those of you who haven’t had the incredible opportunity to supervise Airmen, do you think you are ready? Ready or not, you are in for one of the most rewarding, stressful and challenging experiences of your career. So if it is your first time supervising, I have a few simple things that have helped me along the way, which can help you start out on the right path.
First of all, accept the idea that you don’t have all the answers. You may have received the latest training or read the latest and greatest on leading and managing, but the simple fact is you will probably not be prepared for the reality of things to come. Jump back 18 years to a confident Senior Airman Sale, thinking I had all the answers, when my newest Airman came to me distraught about getting pregnant in the dorms by a Marine, who was absent without leave and who Office of Special Investigations just uncovered during a drug sting. Or my commander directing me to write a retention recommendation on my second Airman because she couldn’t pass her career development course or maintain weight standards. All I could say was “wow.” I didn’t remember these scenarios from ALS and quickly realized I wasn’t quite as prepared as I thought. But what I soon learned was this was just part of being a supervisor. Helpful hint No. 2 would be critical to navigating these unknown waters: build relationships.
As a new supervisor, the relationships you build will be invaluable. First and foremost, come to know your Airmen. The best way to help them is by getting to know them. You need to talk with them to understand them, their motivations, and their aspirations. Opening these lines of communication will build trust and your credibility as a caring supervisor; these will be key to leading them, mentoring them and helping them when they struggle. Besides those you supervise, build relationships with your peers. Sharing experiences between supervisors provides a sounding board for your collective development. You will gain different perspectives and critical knowledge to help make the best decisions. Know your first sergeant, your chief and your commander. These individuals will have knowledge to help you as you grow in this new role. Don’t let your fear of not knowing what to do stop you from asking for help; you are growing in your new role and building these relationships will be critical to your success.
Set expectations and hold yourself and your Airmen accountable. You may be torn at times between thinking you are hurting your Airmen when you accurately rate their performance. As a good friend of mine said, “Don’t take simple math and turn it into a calculus problem.” Take ownership as a supervisor. Make them take responsibility as an Airman. Simply put, set expectations through clear and detailed performance feedbacks, recognize them when they succeed, document when they don’t and accurately capture this on their performance reports. I cannot stress enough that you are key to ensuring the right Airmen are recognized and the right Airmen are promoted.
Learn to write. Mastering Air Force writing will be critical as a supervisor. Although the structure of writing bullets may make your high school or college English teacher cringe, it is an art you must master. Take advantage of bullet writing classes; seek out opportunities to hone your craft. As you develop as a writer, take what you’ve learned to mentor your Airmen. Insist when they provide you input they provide it in bullet format. This will not only reduce the time to write enlisted performance reports and decorations, it will help develop your Airmen to become better writers too.
There is no denying the fact that becoming a supervisor will be a stressful, challenging and simultaneously rewarding. You will quickly find that there is much to learn, but by building relationships, by holding yourself and your Airmen accountable, and learning to write, you will be well on your way. Keep these things in mind, and take a deep breath, you are ready.