Counseling the 33%: An Approach to One-on-One Development

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By Jeffrey Meinders

All of our subordinates fall into one of three categories: top-third, middle-third, and bottom-third; few people will dispute that simple math.  The problem exists when the middle-third think they are in the top group, and the bottom thinks they are in the middle, creating 66% of your subordinates who believe they are among the best.  This confusion is understandable; we encode our current evaluations with very specific language which is hard for junior officers to decipher. This confusion leads to almost half of your best receiving OERs they think are unfair and unwarranted.  Today’s digital age compounds the problem; where less and less face-to-face interaction occurs.  This may complicate closed door conversations for leaders and their subordinates.

I received my first real counseling after nine years of military service.  The counseling was thorough and straightforward; I since modeled all my future counseling and this article after it.  It is disappointing our profession struggles with this basic of leader development.  My battalion commander once told me “I don’t need to counsel you, we talk every day.” They do this because it is peaceful, they don’t want to upset you. Most leaders prefer the easier development, like group book reviews with junior officers, or brown bag lunches with the commander. Not only do we fail at individual counseling, we also fib on the front of our evaluations with made up counseling dates.

To give junior officers a recipe for success, I discuss the four types of counseling every Soldier deserves: initial, quarterly, performance, and evaluation.  This method will save you time and help you separate the ‘wheat from the chaff.’  I also acknowledge while this is method simple, it is not easy.  There are ten other things every day that will take time away from your plan, but I argue there are none more important than one-on-one time with your rated subordinates.

1. Most important is the initial counseling; I prepare my support form as soon as I arrive at a new unit, whether I receive one from my rater or not.  Concurrently, I inquire about everyone I rate, and ensure it is an official rating scheme signed by the commander.  I send the rated individual an email requesting three things; ORB/ERB, completed support form, and an autobiography of ‘life outside the military.’  I ensure 1-2 weeks notice, giving them plenty of time to gather the materials for this critical meeting which should happen within 30 days of your/their arrival.

My agenda for the initial counseling is simple; learn who they are as a person, their background, and their goals, all while reciprocating my vision and how I operate.  The autobiography they write is a great tool to assess their ability to communicate using the written word. You don’t want to find out they write like a 1st grader the first time you ask for a summary or white paper on a subject.  I also don’t require a certain length or format giving them the boundless creativity to share who they are, the most important topic of the counseling.

The counseling starts with me laying out my autobiography, and how I operate (guided by the results of a Meyers-Briggs personality test) as a leader.  Next, I read their biography, asking lots of questions to give depth to their story, and transitioning to their ORB.  We then talk about their support form and my goals for their 1st quarter of rated time.  We finish the hour-long meeting with my pet peeves as an officer and any lingering questions they may have.  I also set a time for the quarterly counseling. It is no surprise when 90 days will be, so make it a priority and put it on the calendar. At their next counseling, they must bring the counseling packets of everyone they rate.  This interval ensures compliance with Army regulation, and hopefully, shows them my commitment to building junior leaders.

2. The quarterly counseling is the most difficult.  This meeting is where you find out which grouping of thirds the person across the table thinks they sit.  I start by asking them to grade their performance.  If they believe they are struggling, you can dedicate the counseling to understanding why this is and how you can help raise them to the next level.  If the soldier thinks they walk on water, and you agree, then this is the time you can challenge them even further.  If you disagree, then some evidence must be presented to come to a common understanding.  This is the most difficult situation a leader will experience; honesty and tact are crucial in this counseling.  Your goal should be to show them the truth, not merely tell them their performance lacks.  We finish the counseling by spending 15 minutes discussing their subordinates’ ranking and challenges they face with their subordinates. This counseling reoccurs every 90 days until their evaluation thru date.

3. Performance-based counseling is underused in my opinion.  Any test of the soldier (collective training, special project, comprehensive briefing) can be used to reinforce your quarterly counseling.  After observing their performance, I jot down a couple of strengths and weaknesses and cover in the counseling.  Sometimes it is minutes after the event, others after they have time to reflect. The notes I take in my green book go onto the last quarterly counseling as topics covered. This performance review is an ideal opportunity to give positive reinforcement or to course-correct a soldier not meeting your intent.

4. All this formal counseling lays the groundwork for your OER out brief, which should be consistent with earlier counseling.  Your top-third performers should feel rewarded for their hard work, your middle third should know they performed well, but have room to get better, and the bottom third should not be surprised by the generic language and slower than average career recommendations for their next assignment.  If not properly counseled, most officers in the middle or bottom third will question what they needed to do to get the evaluation they thought they deserved.  Leaders should be ashamed if subordinates don’t know, in writing, what their shortfalls are.

Honesty and trust are critical components of mission command and the basis of successful relationships. Regular counseling can be a tool to help leaders navigate the human dimension and establish your mentorship role. So, if leader development is important to you, make the time to counsel your subordinates at every opportunity.  

Jeff Meinders is an avid writer who enjoys writing on the human interaction as it applies to military leadership and professional development.  He completed his bachelor’s degree in Business Marketing at Missouri Western University and his Masters in National Defense and Strategic Studies at the Naval War College.

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