I can still remember how excited I was to make E-7 and become a platoon sergeant. (Well, I had already been doing the job for a bit before I got the promotion, but that’s not exactly rare.) I’d like to think I did a decent job; I know my guys were sad to see me go when I left to take a first sergeant billet—at least that’s what they said. So with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, here are some tips for those about to start rendering the salute when the First Sergeant orders “Platoon Sergeants, take charge of your platoons.”
# 1 Learn to Let Go a Little
I know; it’s hard. As an E-6, I was a Bradley Fighting Vehicle Commander, a Mech Platoon Section Leader, and for plenty of missions in Iraq in 2005, a Patrol Leader. A Squad Leader in a light infantry unit is the one who drives the action—in combat operations the Squad Leaders work for the Platoon Leader, executing his OPORD. Now it’s time to step back, let your E-5s and E-6s run their teams and squads, and do a lot of observing. Take note of the areas in which your NCOs need guidance and offer advice and instruction as necessary. But watch and listen more than you talk. Let your subordinate leaders learn their jobs and do their jobs.
# 2 Learn to Love Logistics
It used to be that preparing for a training exercise or mission meant committing the OPORD to heart, burning the map and overlay into your brain, and inspecting your squad to ensure your Team Leaders have them ready. Suddenly that turns into drawing equipment and signing hand receipts, then turning around and issuing most of that equipment down to your NCOs. You’ve also got to forecast your platoon’s needs, coordinate with supply, and make sure you didn’t forget anything. When I was an enlisted Soldier, I never really knew why the NCOs got up earlier than we did. I learned.
# 3 Delegate, Delegate, Delegate
Sure, as a Squad Leader you delegate to your two Team Leaders. But dealing with eight Soldiers is very different from dealing with 35. You absolutely must delegate effectively if you’re going to succeed—you’ll be too busy with your other responsibilities to deal with everything. Set clear expectations up front about who handles what in your platoon to reduce the amount of time you spend giving direction.
# 4 Meet the New Lieutenant
Get ready for one of the odder relationships in the Army. This brand-spanking-new young officer is in charge of “your” platoon. He or she also has less than a tenth of the experience you do in most cases. You’ve got a responsibility to develop your lieutenant and guide him or her as necessary. You’ve also got to make sure his or her authority as Platoon Leader is unquestioned. Done right, the result is mutual respect, a well-trained and smoothly-running platoon, and a lieutenant who departs for the next assignment with solid experience under his or her belt.
# 5 Teach your NCOs the Hard Stuff
In my experience, junior NCOs tend to have the most trouble with counseling and award recommendations. I think that blank sheet of paper and the requirement to fill it with words is a bit intimidating and takes people back to high school English. Work with your subordinate leaders in these areas. Give them examples to work from and guide them through the first few. The Soldiers in their care deserve it.
# 6 Set the Standard
Sure, you’ve been an example to Soldiers since you pinned on that first set of rockers. That hasn’t changed. But the higher you go, the more scrutinized your actions, words, appearance, and bearing will be. When you’re out in front of that platoon, three dozen Soldiers have nothing better to do than stare at you. Always remember that.
# 7 Watch the First Sergeant
I imagine one day you’d like that extra rocker and the diamond. The time to start learning that job is now. Watch what your First Sergeant does day-to-day and how he or she handles matters. (Remember that much command team business will take place out of your sight, however.) You can ask questions, too—most First Sergeants don’t bite. Listen to Soldiers and see how the First Sergeant’s actions are perceived. And once you’re the senior Platoon Sergeant, opportunities will come to be the acting First Sergeant now and then. Learn from those, too.
Every new assignment is a learning experience. When you can, always benefit from the knowledge of those who’ve gone before. Hopefully, these tips will smooth the path for new Platoon Sergeants just a bit.
I hope these tips help you. If you have any added tips or questions, just ask below.
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.