Achieving Honesty: Improving Subordinate Leader Assessments & Feedback

Thunder Run

Prior to commanding a company, I never gave much thought to evaluations. I am not generally concerned with my own evaluations; I firmly believe that if you take care of your Soldiers and your mission, your evaluation takes care of itself. As a staff officer and platoon leader, I was also never in a position where I was rating or senior rating Soldiers that I didn’t interact with on a daily and professionally intimate basis. Upon assuming command, my pool of subordinates that I rated or senior rated drastically increased. In my 18 months of company command, I rated/senior rated three First Sergeants, three XOs, three Operations Sergeants, nine platoon leaders, nine platoon sergeants, and over a dozen squad leaders. As much as I wanted to and tried, as a company commander, it was not feasible to work with all of these individuals personally, like I could as a platoon leader.

So, how did this impact my Soldiers, NCOs, and Officers?  More broadly, how do leaders ensure they do subordinates justice when it comes time for evaluation reports? This is a conundrum for every commander, from company and beyond.

First, I must be honest I believe the Army evaluation system is rather flawed. We assess only the rated leader’s assigned time, with no consideration for the long-term effects of their effort. This can encourage leaders to leverage rigid control and detailed command, with little consideration for unit culture, to ultimately ensure immediate results during their time in position. We do not consider if that leader established a positive culture and systems that led to a respected legacy and enduring success. Further, evaluations focus up the chain of command; leaders prioritize feeding the “higher headquarters beast” to take care of their evaluation report. However, we are routinely instructed as military leaders to focus our efforts down toward caring for and developing our subordinates. Unintentionally, leaders can be caught in a Catch-22; they want to do the right thing for their subordinates, but they simultaneously feel pressured to “perform” for their superiors.

The Army’s Multi-Source Assessment and Feedback (MSAF) tool may seem to correct this issue. Unfortunately, it is intended as a personal development tool, not as an assessment tool to support evaluations according to COL Kevin McAninch on the Leaders Huddle podcast #16 concerning this exact topic. Moreover, it’s an overwhelmingly long form to complete and it’s completely optional. This is why I personally have only received one complete MSAF report of the seven I’ve initiated since the tool was created.

So how do you create a “360-degree assessment” of a particular subordinate?

It’s important to capture the big picture, when it comes to your subordinate leaders. You need to ensure you are not fooled by toxic subordinates who, in reality, are narcissistic, corrupt, selfish, and deceptive leaders. Doing your due diligence as a leader and completing accurate evaluations requires you to take initiative and create an informal, internal system to assess your subordinates’ abilities in establishing a culture and systems within their teams, and to work with other leaders up, across, and down. My personal system was unofficial, but effective. Below, I’ve highlighted my approach to developing my subordinate leaders; an approach that helped them lead well and grow, instead of merely posturing for a positive evaluation.

  • I primarily did this “research” during my informal Leadership By Wandering Around times, casually interacting with my Soldiers. During our conversations, I included open-ended questions about their immediate supervisors. I simply and non-threateningly asked, “how is SSG X doing?” or “how has LT Y been working with your squad leaders since he/she came in?” I asked these questions to junior Soldiers of their squad leaders, platoon leaders, and platoon leaders. I also asked PLs, PSGs, and SLs about their peers. The key was making it casual and non-threatening; I just made it a normal part of our conversations.
  • I fortunately (and sometimes unfortunately) had a battalion commander that loved interacting with Soldiers. He talked to my subordinates all the time; officers, NCOs, and junior Soldiers alike. That relationship allowed me to use him as a sounding board. I talked to him about my subordinates, my assessments of them, and his impressions from his interactions. Having his experience and point of view was valuable to give me the long-view on some leader habits.
  • I often just asked Soldiers what they were doing at that moment to get an understanding of their supervisors’ time and personnel management methods.
  • I used my 1SG for his impression of the NCOs in the company since he worked with them in capacities that I did not. I used leaders external to the company when I could too; I talked to the battalion XO about my XOs, the battalion CSM about my 1SG, battalion CDR about my LTs, and so on. Being an engineer company directly supporting our infantry brothers, I had the opportunity to ask my infantry peers about my LTs and PSGs they worked with following training exercises; that was one of the most important considerations for me.
  • It is key to do this regularly. Asking such questions about leaders in the unit infrequently creates suspicion when you do. Only asking about specific leaders right before their upcoming evaluation creates concern too. Asking about all your leaders all the time keeps it low-threat within the organization and affords you the ability to gain insight over extended periods. It also allows you to improve identified issues based on feedback, not just to use it for evaluation reports.

Upon later reflection, this system accomplished much for my company and me.

First, it worked. Through talking with subordinates, I identified a seemingly organized and results-driven subordinate leader as toxic. Despite my belief that I am able to accurately read people and see through their potential deceptions, I didn’t see his/her flaws. I finally realized the truth when asking his/her subordinates and peers. It prevented me from telling the Army that this particular leader possessed unlimited potential; he/she certainly did not. This system also reminded leaders that what they do matters at ALL TIMES, not just when on parade in front of your boss. I handed over as much responsibility as I could to my subordinates; I fully wanted to empower them with initiative as much as possible. This system was one way I reminded them that I was holding them accountable for that responsibility and initiative.

What other ideas do you have? What worked for you and your team to ensure evaluations were fair and accurate, and that you took care of your top performers? How do we identify and eliminate toxic leaders from our ranks? These issues occur at numerous echelons of the military and are certainly applicable to all.

Picture credit: Cobra II Thunder Run

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