The top ten NCO mistakes and how to avoid them

“Non-commissioned officers [NCOs], promoted from the ranks, enforced discipline, managed routine administration, and socialized recruits — and sometimes their commissioned superiors — in military ways. By common consent, they formed the backbone of their unit.” –Desmond Morton

There are ten major mistakes that NCOs make, and that I have made, on a regular basis. Some of these errors have even cost some NCOs their jobs. Here they are:

Number 1: Focusing on mission and not soldiers

The NCO was once a junior enlisted troop. Based on that experience, they tend to focus their efforts in their expertise when in fact they should be looking for ways to support, enable, and improve the soldier and his working environment. In order to be successful, it is imperative that NCOs become a troop leader and turn their focus and expertise on soldier issues and problems first. The soldiers, once properly cared for, will focus on the mission. This also sets the examples we want our NCOs to follow: Develop your new and next leaders and take care of troops.

Number 2: Thinking “out of sight is out of mind”

It’s important to remember that in the military, no news is not good news. NCOs sometimes trudge along without ever looking at their progress. The most powerful task an NCO could ever do is an assessment. There are several ways to do this. You can do a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis, or you could do a full blown formal METT-T Assessment. Good NCOs will track where you are as a team/squad/platoon…. Keep those leader books current and make it a relevant and present part of your training.

Number 3: Thinking that your team has it covered

In the TV show “The Apprentice,” so many teams ended up in the boardroom because the leader delegated a job, but didn’t follow up to make sure it was done right. Following up is not micromanagement. It’s your job as a leader to ensure that the task gets done correctly. It’s no different than personnel accountability; you must be able to answer the question “where are they” in relation to their assigned tasks as well as their geographic locations.

Number 4: Not inspecting what you expect

This mistake has its roots in mistake number 3, but can be carried forward into other aspects of any mission. For instance, you could possibly expect great performance out of your equipment, but may not have a system to make sure it’s running at peak capacity. This ultimately leads to poor planning, and, ultimately, execution. If you want to avoid this common pitfall, make a comprehensive list of your expectations for your team. This could include critical tasks, equipment performance (beyond PMCS), satisfaction of supported elements, rehersal-rehersal-rehersal, etc. Double-check the list to make sure you are inspecting all expectations on a regular basis. Keep a checklist or develop a daily disciplines worksheet to follow everything that needs daily (or whatever period) inspection.

Number 5: Not creating a partnership with next line supervisors

I find a great deal of NCOs reporting to Platoon Sergeants and Platoon Leaders but are unwilling to talk to First Sergeants and Company Commanders. Granted the Chain of Command must be respected, but only by offering to your supervisor to help in reporting to his boss, can the NCO lead and influence his reports, peers, and leaders to have a maximum impact on the organization and to learn and understand the view from the next level. The quicker you can get on the leadership team, the quicker you will have the ability to execute. It’s fantastic when leaders take your development seriously (see Number 1 above), but self-development is your responsibility.

“Schools and their training offer better ways to do things, but only through experience are we able to capitalize on this learning. The process of profiting from mistakes becomes a milestone in learning to become a more efficient soldier.” –SMA William G. Bainbridge

Number 6: Burning yourself out

You can’t imagine how many NCOs have not had leave in a year or longer and routinely work over 70 hours per week. We all know the key leaders who refuse to sleep or don’t eat right, sustain themselves on coffee and making themselves sick. This is not only a mistake, but it’s a formula for disaster. Sometimes the thinking is that your business can’t live without you. The truth is, your team cannot live with you burning yourself out. It only leads to lowered productivity and, eventually, your giving up or getting disgruntled. This is also, often, a symptom of the NCO who has neglected Number 1, so she has no backup. Do yourself, your team, your troops, and your family a favor and take some time off and take care of yourself.

Number 7: Not testing your backup solution

This does not mean only equipment either. Key personnel must also be backed up. Good advice for new NCOs is that one of the most important aspects of their jobs is ensuring a reliable backup. Breakdowns in equipment and failures of the flesh are inevitable. Don’t think for a minute that if you have some spare parts and if everything looks OK that everything is ok. Make sure you do PMCS, and cross-train your troops regularly. Do test disasters (and I do mean *disasters*) and make sure you can recover.

Number 8: Not asking for help

Too often I’ve seen costly mistakes made by NCOs who try to solve an issue alone without informing anyone or even reading the manual! This is a costly mistake. If you get in over your head, do the right thing and seek help. The key to successful troop leadership is not knowing the right answers; its being able to find them and executing a solution as quickly and cost effectively as possible. Don’t hesitate to bring in the experts, from below or from above, where necessary.

Number 9: Not devoting time to personal development

There’s no excuse for this mistake. Personal development is not the Army’s responsibility–it’s yours (see Number 5 above). I can always tell a person’s success potential by the last five books they’ve read and by the training they attend. Every NCO should be devoting at least 30 minutes a day to personal development. The truly successful devote even more and, in some cases, in upwards of two hours or more per day. The most common excuse I usually hear is the lack of time or money. The answer lies in the successful management of money and time.

Number 10: Not finding a mentor or coach

Mentors are not issued. The quickest route to success is to find someone who has been there and emulate that person. The quickest road to pain, hardship, and failure is to go the journey alone. Whether you are an NCO or not, you should always have a mentor or coach and you should always be mentoring or coaching someone else. A coach will simply help you achieve more than you could by yourself by imparting wisdom, accountability, and crucial advice where necessary. By coaching or mentoring someone else, you’re doing the same, but you’re also solidifying your own concepts by teaching them to others. You want to know you know your subject—teach it to someone else.

“Sometimes you’ll make mistakes, which is part of the learning process, and you need to learn from them…. As you mature as an NCO, your judgment will improve.” –TC 22-6, The Army Noncommissioned Officer Guide


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