Best Career Lesson for Army Officers

The best career advice I’ve ever heard was to “stay at the bottom as long as you can and then go straight to the top.”

I learned that lesson from one of my former Company Commanders who is about to become a Brigadier General.

To put this in context, my old Captain thought that officers should spend as much time as possible in platoons, companies and battalions, before serving in staff positions.

Simply put, they should serve in leadership positions in “combat units” with the troops.

When possible, they should avoid staff positions early in their career and instead focus on developing their leadership skills by gaining valuable “troop time” while serving as Platoon Leaders, Company XOs and Company Commanders.

Although I didn’t totally understand the value of his advice at the time, I do now.

I’ve been fortunate to hold a variety of jobs: Platoon Leader, Battalion S4, Company XO, Company Commander, Fuels Officer, Plans Officer, Brigade S4 and Brigade S3.

Even though I learned new skills in each job, I can truly say that my troop time was the most beneficial experience of all these jobs.

As a small unit leader, I learned leadership, tactics, time management, discipline, decision making, and many other leadership lessons that still guide me today.

The experience I gained in those positions is invaluable.

I say this because many of my peers never even got the chance to serve as Platoon Leader, Company XO or Company Commander.

Instead, they jumped around on different staff positions and never got the chance to lead troops.

As a result, they never got the chance to really develop or hone their leadership skills.

Although they are PowerPoint Rangers, they have very little leadership experience, and this limits them with their career advancement opportunities.

Even if they are selected for a senior leadership position, I’d bet that they won’t be very effective.

What do you think?

My advice to you is “don’t let this happen to you.”

Know what jobs you need (Platoon Leader, Company XO, and Company Command) in your company-grade years, and make sure that you get those jobs.

Don’t be in a rush to move from job-to-job either.

If you get the chance to spend two years as a Platoon Leader, do it.

The same thing applies to Company XO and Company Commander.

Even if it means you get promoted a little bit slower than your peers, you will reap the awards later in your career and eventually surpass your peers.

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In case you don’t already know this, no Division or Corps has ever won a war.

Instead, it’s the squads, platoons and small units that execute their orders that wins or loses a war.

Don’t ever forget that.

Although we need effective leadership at the Division and Corps level, the small unit leaders have the most important job in the Army.

It’s the small units that do the fighting in combat.

Their proficiency dictates the outcome of the war, not the staff officer formulating the plan at the Corps level.

Does that make sense?

If the Corps level staff officer has never served in a small unit, they might not realize the second and third order effects of their orders.

They might not understand the capabilities, constraints and limitations of the combat units.

And that spells a recipe for disaster.

army officer guide caseHere’s the bottom line.

Your company level years will either make or break you.

The time you spend leading platoons and companies will ultimately shape your leadership style, develop your tactical proficiency, and prepare you for more challenging jobs later on in your military career.

If you don’t get these experiences, YOU WON’T BE PREPARED FOR SUCCESS.

Although “staff time” rounds out your experience, nothing is more beneficial than leading Soldiers.

Therefore, get as much troop time as you can.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the most successful Army officers build their leadership foundation by serving as Platoon Leaders, Company Executive Officers and Company Commanders.

The time they spend on staff AFTER these experiences round out their experience and make them competent, confident officers capable of assuming leadership positions such as Battalion, Brigade and Division Command.

So, don’t be in a rush to jump from job-to-job.

In your early years, try to avoid staff positions like the plague.

Instead, stay in the small unit leadership positions and learn how to be an effective leader.

Follow the advice of my old commander and “stay at the bottom as long as you can and then go straight to the top.”

What do you think about this advice?

Leave a comment and let us know.

I look forward to hearing from you.

4 thoughts on “Best Career Lesson for Army Officers”

  1. Don't out kick your coverage. If you are too busy angling for promotion and not concerning yourself with actually learning your craft you will find yourself in charge of more and more people with no idea how to lead them. It's far more important you know your craft than worry about advancement.

  2. The more time you can stay at the “bottom” the more chance you have to learn about the ins and outs of the jobs that people have that you are ultimately going to lead. Any job, even if it is a lower one, is a great way to grow your leadership skills in a lower-stakes arena. Once again, solid advice about how to manage a career in the military.

    1. I’ve always found that getting promoted too quickly can really hurt you in the long haul. There is a happy balance. Nothing is more important than developing your leadership skills and getting real world experience.

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