Assuming that you’re about to take command of a company and have a First Sergeant who’s been there for a while, he or she will be one of your best sources of information about the unit. You’ll certainly want to be able to hit the ground running. You also want to know that you and your new First Sergeant will mesh well. Knowing the right questions to ask will help you zero in on crucial knowledge that will bring you success in your new command. That being said, here are five questions every Company Commander should ask their First Sergeant.
# 1 What are the two areas that need the most focus in terms of training?
Especially in a National Guard unit, there never seems to be enough time to complete all the administrative requirements, prepare for the state mission, and fully train on the unit’s Mission-Essential Task List (METL). Different things, including training opportunities and the training guidance put out by your higher commands, will have dictated the unit’s training focus for the past couple of years under the outgoing commander. Ask your First Sergeant where he or she feels the unit is weakest and/or in what areas it could best benefit from training focus.
# 2 If you could change three things about how things are done in the unit, what would they be?
Units are like families—no two run exactly the same. You may have changed jobs in the civilian world and found a completely different environment in your new company than you had in the old one, even if both were in similar lines of business. Army units are the same way. Yes, there are many similarities, but lots of little things will vary from one to another. See what your First Sergeant would like to do differently and see whether you agree, even if you need to withhold judgment until you’ve had some time to observe.
# 3 Who are my problem children?
Most Soldiers with substandard performance can be counseled, trained, and groomed to meet the standards. However, there’s always one or two who pose particular challenges. That doesn’t mean they’re unrecoverable, and it doesn’t mean you should prejudice yourself regarding them from the start. Knowing a little history can be helpful, however. Of the five questions, I think this one is definitely optional. Some commanders will prefer to learn about their people themselves with no preconceived notions, and I respect that. It’s actually what I did as a First Sergeant. But a commander has a lot to occupy his or her time and attention, so in that case I think it makes sense.
# 4 What’s your philosophy on the commander-first sergeant relationship?
This doesn’t have to be a deep and insightful conversation. The point is to find out whether you and your First Sergeant are on basically the same wavelength. If so, that’s great. If not, you’ll have a good idea of what you need to discuss (and how extensively) in your initial counseling when you set your expectations for him or her.
# 5 What was the cause of the single biggest disagreement between you and your former commander?
This is similar to some of those job interview questions people hate, when you’re asked what you liked least about your last boss or something similar. However, an honest answer will reveal a couple of things. One is how substantial a disagreement they ever had, which in itself is educational because serious disagreements between commanders and first sergeants should be rare. Another is some insight into your First Sergeant’s way of thinking—what are his or her pet peeves, how does he or she handle conflict, and so forth.
If you had a good relationship with your Platoon Sergeant when you were a Platoon Leader, you’ve got a good foundation to build on. If you served in an Executive Officer billet, which is likely, you will have already worked with a First Sergeant on the unit maintenance side. However, the Commander-First Sergeant relationship is very different, and gaining some quick insight into how that relationship will work as you take command of a new company will set you up for success from the start.
Daniel Slone is a 16-year infantry veteran and currently the first sergeant of a light reconnaissance unit of the Louisiana Army National Guard. In civilian life he has earned a BA in political science and an MBA and is the controller for a holding company engaged in multiple lines of business.