Wait, did I just accuse you of being afraid? After all, we are leaders who face grave danger in training and combat aren’t we? If it is not fear, then how do we explain why our people are not being counseled? Some might see it differently, but I argue that too many of us have either never experienced counseling or been counseled only a few times in our careers. In a career spanning 27 years, I could count on one hand the number of times I was counseled effectively, meaning my boss invested time working with me to identify the obstacles standing in the way of my growth and advancement.
Why is this so? One reason is our competing task load. Prioritization is the way to overcome that obstacle especially if you consider the growth of your people a high priority. The bigger reason, in my experience, is that we are afraid.
There’s that word again. Use uncomfortable if you like but the point is that it’s not a natural act to confront the weaknesses of another person or tell them that they have failed. Even as parents we struggle to criticize and correct our own children. I have even witnessed general officers uncomfortable in counseling sessions, seemingly afraid to have a hard conversation about the weaknesses or poor performance of a subordinate.
I too felt this fear even as a Colonel and commander of a brigade and I am not ashamed to admit it. I had high-performing subordinates; educated, experienced, combat veterans who the Army had selected to command battalions. My choice was to ignore the requirement or over overcome fear and grow my leaders. I chose the latter. I knew deep down it was my duty and I could not turn away from it. To overcome my fear, I placed emphasis on preparation. As I would prepare and rehearse a brief to a senior officer to overcome fear and perform at my best, I did the same for a counseling session. Use this methodology to combat your own fear.
Prepare for the Counseling Session
- Establish the Environment
- Allocate Sufficient Time
- Gather Supporting Documents
The counselee will arrive having thought a lot about what they will say or how they will address your questions and potential criticism. You should arrive equally prepared. I spent my preparation reviewing key documents such as the individuals’ biography and previous counseling. I might talk briefly to immediate supervisors to gather their perspective. I’d finalize my notes, printing off any professional articles I wanted to use to reinforce my points. I also had a look at their personal data sheet to see if there were any significant personal or professional events coming up for them. Lastly, I would write out how I described the individual’s performance based off the performance objectives I outlined in our first session.
Establish the Environment
Though sometimes I would go to the office of my subordinate to see their environment (indicator of performance) I would usually conduct counseling in my office where I could obtain a professional article as needed and use my dry erase board to illustrate a point. Regardless of the location, my cell phone was off and away from me, my computer screen was shut off, the conference table in my office was cleared of everything except the documents pertaining to the counselee and my dry erase board was sterilized.
Allocating Sufficient Time
I would schedule counseling for one hour. Depending on what I had next on my calendar, I would let the session extend beyond one hour if needed. My intent was to counsel to standard (achieving the objectives) and not to time (one hour then stop). If I had a follow-on appointment, I would offer a follow-up with the individual. Along with sufficient time to conduct the session, I would avoid bad times like very early morning or late afternoon, especially Fridays. Mornings were my preference, and I avoided Friday afternoons, but I would not stop from scheduling counseling during these times. It had to be done so I would do it whenever I could.
Gather Supporting Documents
My counseling packets contained a personnel data sheet, an officer’s career and records summary, previous efficiency reports (if the officer was willing to share, because legally I could not direct this), a biography and a career timeline. The career timeline included promotion and command selection board dates for that specific officer so that we could explore potential career opportunities. I also had ready the new counseling form that contained my thoughts and review of their performance aligned with our unit’s vision and values. I could add documents as needed based on my counseling objectives. For instance, I could bring in performance statistics from that person’s unit if I needed to make a point. This, I believed was enough to help me properly counsel a subordinate. I would not refer to all these documents, but they were there if I needed them.
Focus on Growth
Preparation complete, I was prepared enough to handle a contentious meeting if it came to that. I always came from a good place which helped me overcome my fear. I wanted to help a person learn and grow from their faults as I did in my career, not destroy them. I wanted to hear from the counselee and be willing to have my criticism challenged. It wasn’t a contest of right and wrong. My delivery would be calm, and I would allow the counselee to be heard. I always tried to have them identify their own weaknesses and their failures and causes before I did. If a subordinate was unable to accept criticism and grow in a counseling session, this would indicate a bigger problem, one which might lead to their removal. Whatever the outcome, I would not assume risk in preparation or change my demeanor.
Whatever word you choose to describe your fear, use preparation to overcome it. Counseling remains one of the most sacred duties of a leader. Your subordinates are in a continuous stage of growth and require it. Of the few counseling sessions I did experience, one of them, at the 25-year mark of my career, was invaluable. My boss may have experienced fear as we tackled my weaknesses, however, I found him well prepared and because of this he performed well, provided value to me as an officer and a person. I grew as a leader.