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Owning Your Professional Military Development – Junior Officers

January 3rd, 2018 by Clare O'Neill


Doctrine Man recently penned the well-known military adage that “no one can manage your career better than yourself”. Deployments, top jobs and plum geographic postings won’t be handed to you on a silver platter. This adage has a similar application when discussing professional development – the most important person managing your professional development is you.

Junior officers often comment that they want someone to ‘professionally develop’ them. They wait. Career courses are perceived as a tick-in-the-box attendance rather than professional development for future command roles. Post-graduate formal schooling, often squeezed into a posting as a part-time endeavour, is also often viewed as a tick-in-box requirement for promotion consideration rather than for personal intellectual growth. When attempts are made at formal development, complaints ensue that the topic didn’t interest them. And still they wait.

I cringe when I hear professional development being put into a box as if it is something that can be delivered in a two-hour session on a Friday afternoon. The concept of professional development is holistic not stop-start training periods. Professional development is always. It includes the formal and the informal.

Formal professional development has recently been vibrantly discussed over at The Bridge during their military as a profession debate. I’m on the side of military officers being professionals but only when we actively and consciously pursue this path. You don’t get to call yourself a professional by virtue of rank alone. If you’re getting your Masters for a tick-in-the-box then that’s your decision not ‘the system’.

Informal examples of professional development includes the role-models you look up to and try to emulate, the chats with your boss mulling over the best way to manage a soldier, and the passionate debates in the Mess about the relevancy of tanks and artillery in the future operating environment. Conversational learning is also important. If you’re an optimist, informal professional development also includes those postings where the only thing you learnt from your boss was how not to be a leader. That in-stride verbal blast received after a CONOPs back-brief is a form of professional development whether or not you enjoyed the experience. Not learning anything on your career course? Take ownership of your learning instead of just waiting to be professionally developed. Look sideways at your classmates – you will learn a great deal from those sitting next to you rather than just the lecturer standing at the front of the classroom.

Professional development is a holistic endeavour with opportunities during everyday interactions. It is easier to see where you fit into owning your professional development when you start to deconstruct what professional development is. Three useful categories as a starting point for consideration:

  1. Well-rounded military officer: topics from leadership development, tactics training, strategic thought, public-speaking refinement to history lessons.
  2. Corps expert: technical training, reading, debating, innovation and experience count to become an expert in your Corps role or specialistion. It doesn’t end with ROBC/LOBC.
  3. Your professional interest – your passion: your individual talents and interests matter here. This is what we usually invest the most time in as an individual as it is the thing we enjoy doing. Even at 4am in the morning like Matt Cavanaugh over at WarCouncil or training for that triathlon in two months time.

Professional development should be steered by your boss, particularly to make you a well-rounded officer and expert in your corps role. (Issues and reality discussed here on the QuadShot Warrior Blog). However, your Career Manager is to your career what your boss is to your professional development – important but without your proactive effort, they are highly likely to fail at matching you with your desired endstate. Your boss also may not match your professional interest and that’s when you’ll be left complaining that professional development sessions don’t interest you.

An example: I once had a boss who deemed professional development to be cross-fit training with PowerPoint sessions on nutrition and muscle dynamics. Without making comments that would ostracise every cross-fitter out there, I was less than keen. I freely admit to making off-hand comments about wanting ‘real’ professional development sessions during this period of my life. I have since had a subordinate who was a mad-keen cross-fitter and it struck me that he would have relished a boss who shared his passion. With their powers combined, Paleo Ration Packs would have infiltrated our supply system in no time. Instead, he was stuck with me and I don’t own a single kettle bell. I didn’t share my boss’ professional interest in cross-fit all those years ago and likewise to my subordinate years later.

Junior officers are encouraged to take charge of their career management by balancing Corps roles, higher headquarter staff jobs, instructor positions and so forth over a number of years. This plot in the Australian Army looks very much like the Five Year Career Planner. Real-time posting orders may or may not match up with your plan (we’ve seen it: service need not matching personal desire) but the process of thinking about your future career instead of just your Career Manager doing all the thinking is important. You may also find yourself actively taking measures to strengthen your career profile after you feel the devastation of an unexpected posting order.

You should do the same for your professional development. Having a roadmap over a number of years is useful to devise a holistic approach, adjusting it annually to match reality. This helps for those occasions when you get paired with a boss who doesn’t share your professional interest or a boss who only professionally develops you for their passion instead of the first two categories. Instead of waiting (waiting, waiting) you may like to take ownership of your development instead. Professional development isn’t going to be handed to you on a silver platter. An interesting post on your professional resiliency when military life becomes overwhelmed with events and deployments can be found here.

As a plug for the power of social media (see here) and the benefits it has for your professional interest: pick your topic and you can be networked into a community of experts. You will find cyber-warfare experts, junior leadership development groups, Clausewitz enthusiasts and yes, even cross-fit is there. Don’t think about social media as technology, think about it as a conversation – the one you’re waiting for. Said eloquently here:

 “This aspiration to grow and advance is innate to humanity. It is the reason why the digital revolution is so exciting; it gives us the power and freedom to change our circumstances and the world around us. In fact, it has the capacity to catalyse a great human revolution. In the convergence of a host of powerful new technologies and concepts — from artificial intelligence to design thinking, deep analytics to ubiquitous authoring — we will now see ordinary people tapping into their inborn creativity and becoming creators of extraordinary solutions.”

Social media essentially provides professional development to junior officers for free. Online platforms including social media sites, individual blogs and collective group websites allow for the exchange of ideas more broadly and quicker than the traditional publication of journals. Virtual networks of talented and emerging leaders across brigades, corps, services and coalition partners are created, enhancing intellectual capacity and collaboration. Best of all, social media isn’t constrained by geography so if you just got posted to the Back of Bourke your professional development doesn’t have to be suspended.

Professional development requires a strong personal commitment. It includes developing you as an officer right now and preparing you for future roles. It not only benefits you as an individual but also strengthens Army’s human capital to face future operating environments.  It grows the future generation of top-tier commanders from an early age and as highlighted here: “forming the habit of strategic thought should start at a tender age”.

People are our key to the future and as Doctrine Man pointed out – you own your future – both your military career and the professional development that underpins your options. Your professional interest – your passion – is also great for Army as diverse thinking across mainstream to obscure subjects makes us stronger. Professional development starts with you. Still waiting?


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