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Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Wand of Common Sense

John is learning that his position here means lots of meetings. Meetings and conference calls and briefings and power point, blah blah blah.

A couple of days ago he was in a meeting and someone brought up mentoring and asked for input on how to improve it. John suggested that you allow your people to make mistakes and encourage them to come to you when they've goofed so that you can develop a solution together and they can, you know, learn from it. Or something along those lines.

The response was blinks and crickets. (Did he really just say that out loud?)

The Air Force does not tolerate mistakes very well. In a service facing chronic shortages of many things, this is almost understandable. In many situations, you don't have the resources to recover from mistakes. But John was talking about giving someone something within their span of control, and from which you could all recover if some foibles occur along the way. He was saying he uses this to test and grow people, and it went over like a pork chop at a CAIR conference.

Its system of EPRs does not allow for an airman to be any less than perfect on paper: on a scale of 1 to 5, if anything other than a 5 is on your EPR it's the equivalent of a career-breaker. So, you have either Jesus working for you, or someone you'd like to show the door. There is no middle ground. With the meaning of these numbers taken away, raters are left with getting creative with the bullets: using just the right verbage; putting exclamation points just so. I shouldn't have to say how much of this "creativity" becomes outright falsehood; it's simply not realistic to think every airman has to be superman. Or wonder woman, for that matter. But having to make them all sound like that on an evaluation can be quite the writing exercise.

When no one is allowed to fail, or to even be mediocre, what motivation is there to excel? And you guessed it -- those young airmen who do want to excel, who are self-motivated and do want to improve their skills and be recognized for their efforts, they're looking around for a reason to do it. And from where they stand they're not seeing it.

Coupled with that is all the airmen the Air Force has steadily been booting out. This knee-jerk reaction they have as a "solution" for budget shortages. Some of these involuntary separations are airmen with over ten years in and working towards retirement: poof, all that time in and now they're starting over. Here's some money - now go figure out what to do with yourself. The promising new, young airmen who are looking around at this, what are they to think? I give my all and dedicate my career to serving my country ... only to get the boot at the halfway mark? No, thanks: I'll take control of my life now, thank you very much. And the ones with options -- the smart ones, the hard workers, the ones with education and wherewithal -- they are going to get out while the getting out is good. And they are getting out. That's all they talk about, when I get out, I can't wait to get out, I am sooo out of here as soon as my time is up.

And John will ask them, "Do you have a plan?" And many of them will blink and guffaw and insist it will all be better, even though they have no clue what it is they are going to do. But some of them do have a plan, and they're the ones the Air Force is going to be sorry they're losing. Especially when they realize about 5 years from now that -- surprise! -- they need a bunch of new people.

John has had many a bad day in his many days in the Air Force. He has even waxed nostalgic about his Army days when, maybe the BS factor was higher, but the backstabbing ratio was lower. But I always say, when anyone asks, that as his wife I am confident that he is a lifer -- unless they kick him out, that is. And you never know, really. Even though John of course is one of the "good" ones, that doesn't seem to matter to the number crunchers. They're just trying to save a buck; never mind they're shooting themselves in the foot in the process.

I often muse on what I would do if I could wave a Wand of Common Sense over the whole thing. If I could change just two things, I know exactly what they would be: I would get rid of the mentality that every airman walks on water come Eval time, and that anything less than a 5 on an EPR was a career killer.

And I would change the way they base next year's budget on what was spent this year. I don't know what the best solution is, but this Use It Or Lose It system they have now is completely asinine at a time when no one has money for what they need. But let's buy another $3,000 plasma TV we have no idea what to do with because if we don't, we won't have that $3,000 next year.

I can't even imagine how many millions or even billions of dollars could be saved if a government entity didn't have to look around at the end of their fiscal year and come up with ways to spend their remaining balance so that their budget wouldn't get axed the next year. Because this is not just an Air Force thing, but government-wide. They can't even carry the balance over into the next year. They have to use it now or not at all, and the presumption is that not spending it now means you won't need it next year, either. Can you imagine how much is wasted? How much frivolous spending that encourages? How much those dollars could be doing to effect change in our economy instead? Or even simply keep them from kicking out airmen that our country needs? (Because the need won't go away just because the airmen do. And what do you think costs more: retaining the airmen you have or training some new ones?)

But rather than rant on and on and making yet another gargantuan post even longer -- oh, wait, too late -- I am curious as to what you would do if you had a Wand of Common Sense of your own? What changes would you make?

** Author's note: I had John fact-check this, and he went ahead and added a little flavor of his own as well. Bet you can't tell where, can you?


Jerilyn said...

This was a great "article" - great writing. It should be published somewhere. I remember way back when I was in 'guvment' work I kept hearing (jokingly of course) "it's good enough for government work". I guess things haven't changed.
The paragraph "When no one is allowed to fail" describes clearly the problem in the schools with No Child Left Behind. Actually, the "mediocrity is good enough" mindset has, unfortunately, permeated our society. It is, for sure, an insult to the intelligent.
And no, I couldn't tell for sure, although I had some guesses, when John edited.

Cherilyn said...

I agree. You should submit this to Newsweek or Time or US News and World Report. But use a pen name so John doesn't become next on the off list!

My wave of common sense would remain a bit more local - if you dirty it, wash it. If you get it out, put it away. I think my wand is broken. It seems as improbable as changing our government.

Anonymous said...

Hmm...I could write a whole post of my own on this one. But basically, my wand would wave over the military in terms of mental health help. I've seen so many of our guys come home with PTSD. The higher-ups say they should tell someone...a chaplain, the VA, their unit's mental health people...and yet the guys won't do it because they know the commanders will find out about it and it will go on their military record and we've all seen what happens when someone has a black mark like that on their record. We put these guys through hell (a war zone) and then won't help them deal with it. It's insane.

Oh, and I would also pay all military people a LOT more money, but that's just a given! lol

Sorry this is way long. Great post.

BD @ said...

I don't think I am qualified to wave this wand over something as large-scale as the military; however, if I could scale it down a few notches to something I do know a little bit about, I would wave the wand and say "chill. If it didn't kill us when we were kids, it probably won't kill our own kids." That goes for lead paint, germs and everything else we simply cut out of our lives the second one person gets hurt or sick because of it. Abracadabra!!

Tam said...

OMG Love this post for so many reasons!

Tam said...

OK I had to come back again here..Army here. O this hits on so many points. Getting OUT and then what, backstabbing and who knows who, budget, O you have covered so much that us wives can only sit and listen too and wish we had a wand to help our husbands and the entire situation!!!! It is so frustrating at times..I know!