Educating yourself about your people: It's more than academic

Lt. Col. Robert Marrazzo, 14th Operations Support Squadron Commander

Lt. Col. Robert Marrazzo, 14th Operations Support Squadron Commander

COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- You'd pretty much have to be living in a vacuum not to realize that education is vitally important to both a military and civilian career. Higher than normal promotion rates are a direct reflection of an above average number of folks that took extra steps in furthering their professional military education and advanced academic degrees. This could be seen in last week's E-6 and E-7 promotion results. Our level of education directly impacts whether or not we get a senior rater endorsement. The type of education I want to talk about is different and applies more to supervisors than our Airmen on the front lines. However, since these Airmen will someday replace today's leadership, the lesson is just as important to them.
The type of education I speak of requires us to get out of our cozy office, away from our computers, away from our meetings, to cancel a few appointments and maybe even to cancel a flight or a bit of free time we wanted for ourselves. We may have to "cramp" our already busy schedules, but this education is far more valuable than anything we can do from the office. Whether you lead an office, flight, squadron, group or wing, are you getting out of the office or your comfort zone to go see what your people are doing? Does your schedule contain time to just "walkabout" and see what is going on in the trenches? If you visit, do you really take the time to listen to them or do you go there just to feel good about yourself? It's all too easy to rationalize that this kind of thing should be handled by the first line supervisors, flight commanders and so on. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. If you don't get down to see your people, you're cheating yourself out of a hands-on education about what they are doing to support the mission. You also aren't giving yourself the opportunity to know what makes them feel good, bad or otherwise. You don't learn who they are as human beings. Even more importantly, they never get the opportunity to know you as a human being, rather than just a commander or boss.
I'll be the first to admit that staring at nametags to learn names, especially in a darkened room like the RAPCON, was tough for me at first. I figured out quickly that my personnel didn't care; they just cared that I wandered around to see them in action, to sit with them during a break or look over their shoulders while they worked. I think they liked the fact that I asked them about their weekend plans, about their spouses, newborn babies and future goals in life. In time, as I performed my walkabouts, I began to learn names and felt less uncomfortable about what I was doing. Today, there is nothing I enjoy more on my schedule than performing a walkabout. Besides, as a squadron commander, my primary duty is to ensure my personnel have what they need to perform the mission, have their problems taken care of and have the opportunity to provide me with ideas that may have gone unheard at a lower level. Most important to me, they see me for what I am; just another individual trying to survive and raise a family, with the same dreams as anyone else about someday building a home, sending the kids to college and living happily ever after. Often times, I get invited to things that I would never have known about; a social gathering, a paintball session or an informal farewell.
Take a moment to see if you can squeeze in a walkabout, rather than holding another important meeting where often little gets accomplished and much is learned third-hand. Get down to the trenches; get to know your people by name and on a human level. Educate yourself on what they do, who they are, who their families are and what is important to them. I know from personal experience that they will see you in a different way, rather than just some unapproachable decision-maker. All the other "important stuff" can wait just a little longer. Put down the keyboard, pen, folders and telephone and go see your people in action. They will thank you for it and you will gain an education that a classroom and instructor can never teach.