The Developmental Opportunities Inherent in Becoming an OCT
Gary M. Klein
Writing and advice in the military often focus on key developmental positions – even though we spend most of our time on staff or broadening assignments. A recent exception to this was CPT Andrew McCoy’s advice for staff officers titled “Six Characteristics of the Highlight Effective Staff Officer.”[i] Unfortunately, advice such as this is scarce. Public reflection regarding broadening assignments is even more scarce, a fact that hinders our ability to appreciate their unique developmental opportunities. Broadening assignments widen a leader’s aperture in regards to the Army, allow him to contribute to the institutional force, and – as we will expand upon here – they provide an opportunity to develop personal leadership skills.
One of the less sought-after broadening assignments available to officers and NCOs is to become an observer coach-trainer (OCT) at one of the Army’s three combat training centers (CTCs). Becoming an OCT is a great opportunity to give back and share your experience with other leaders, but it is rewarding for the OCT as well. Most OCTs will readily admit that they learn just as much from rotational training units (RTUs) as the RTU learns from them. Being an OCT provides the opportunity to observe and learn the art and science of applied doctrine, to recognize the power of reflection in guiding others and steering organizations, and finally, to learn to coach others.
Each RTU displays distinct strengths and weaknesses as it applies doctrine and implements tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). For example, a scout platoon OCT will observe units screen using a number of different TTPs. How many Soldiers do they have in each observation post (OP)? How do they disperse OPs across their screen line, and do they achieve depth? A headquarters company OCT will observe dozens of main command posts (CP) and combat trains command posts, most setup in their own unique ways by using their available resources. How does their layout affect their ability to conduct current operations and planning? How does it affect their ability to communicate internally as a staff, and externally with subordinate units, adjacent units, and their higher headquarters? How each unit chooses to accomplish the aforementioned tasks inevitably results in its own strengths and weaknesses, and OCTs have the opportunity to learn from this through second-hand experience. Over the duration of their assignment, OCTs learn to recognize causal effects while capturing a variety of TTPs that can be applied when they return to the operational force.
Even when the RTU struggles, OCTs continue to learn, albeit through different developmental opportunities. OCTs develop a strong doctrinal foundation to help an RTU overcome its challenges and increase their performance. A frequent challenge that cavalry squadrons face during offensive operations is the ability to initiate reconnaissance early enough to answer the brigade’s priority intelligence requirements. Many squadrons struggle to accomplish this because they have not executed this brigade-level collective task prior to arriving at the CTC and/or they have not studied the doctrine sufficiently. Doctrine encourages the cavalry squadron to conduct parallel planning with its higher headquarters to assist in developing reconnaissance and security plans, but squadrons often struggle with this.[ii] Parallel planning is beneficial for both the squadron and the brigade combat team (BCT) for a couple reasons. Working together, the two staffs’ collective brainpower is stronger than either one individually and its collaborative product will contain adequate guidance and information to enable the squadron’s timely reconnaissance.[iii] So how does the squadron facilitate this with brigade? Does the squadron have a liaison officer embedded in the brigade main CP to assist with reconnaissance and security planning?[iv] Do the BCT and squadron operations and plans staff have a working relationship with one other? In the short-term, an OCT’s doctrinal knowledge and previously observed TTPs help overcome many of these challenges, but in the long-term this prolonged exposure creates a solid foundation for future tactical decision making.
An OCT’s immersion in tactics is greatly enabled by the time they have available for reflection. While most RTU leaders are fully occupied by the demands of current operations, OCTs have the advantage of being separated from the execution itself. OCTs are able to observe a unit’s actions, reflect upon the larger situation, and diagnose why an event happened the way it did. OCTs often share these observations, ask leading questions, and facilitate discussions or after action reviews to help the RTU gain self-awareness and increase performance. Reflective activities are powerful learning techniques and we must make time to do it more often, but unfortunately, leaders are often overwhelmed by the high demands on their time.[v] Becoming an OCT helps leaders recognize the value of routine, deliberate reflection, which enables individual and collective learning and adaptability.
OCTs greatly benefit from reflection and observing the art and science of applied doctrine, but the third skill an OCT learns – and arguably the most valuable skill – is to coach others. The Army frequently talks about counseling and mentoring, but coaching rarely gets the same consideration, even though this ability greatly enhances a leader’s ability to counsel and mentor.[vi] Furthermore, coaching should be a routine part of a leader’s supervisory role and a leader should coach his subordinates, small teams, and his unit on an almost daily basis. The importance of coaching becomes obvious when you look to sports as an analogy.
Undoubtedly, the most successful sports teams are those with the best coaches. Sports teams have a head coach, coordinators, positional coaches, skills coaches, etc. These coaches develop individual players, groups of players, and ultimately the entire team. Much like a sports team, the Army is made up a series of teams – from buddy teams, to fire teams, squads, platoons, companies, etc. – all the way up to large institutions. All of these respective “teams” have a number of formal and informal leaders, but how well do you think we prepare these leaders to become coaches? What courses, classes, or assignments best prepare our junior leaders to perform this role? Even if we did provide an increased emphasis on coaching in courses and/or classes, these efforts would likely fall short because of the limited time and resources available to provide realistic, hands-on coaching experiences. Classes might provide an introduction to good coaching TTPs or common pitfalls, but the best way to learn this skill is to practice it. An assignment as an OCT is one of the best opportunities a leader has to develop coaching skills in the Army.
The next time you talk to branch about your next assignment, do not discount the opportunity to become an observer coach-trainer at one of the Army’s combat training centers. OCTs have the opportunity to become tactical experts by observing and learning the art and science of applied doctrine. They develop the habit of reflection by seeking to understand the cause and effect behind observations. Finally, they cultivate their coaching skills by assisting their RTU counterpart(s) to improve their collective performance. The leadership skills you develop as an observer coach-trainer are immensely valuable for any leader.
[i] Andrew McCoy, “Six Characteristics of the Highly Effective Staff Officer,” Medium: Beyond the Objective, https://medium.com/the-smoking-gun/six-characteristics-of-the-highly-effective-staff-officer-ef57e0cd8b10, (May 4, 2015) retrieved July 5, 2015.
[ii] Department of the Army, FM 3-20.96, Reconnaissance and Cavalry Squadron, (Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, March 2012), p.1-2. This page includes a list specifying parallel planning as one of the capabilities expected of the squadron. This idea has been expanded upon slightly in FM 3-98.
[iii] Department of the Army, FM 3-98, Reconnaissance and Security Operations, (Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, July 2015). Appendix A of this manual provides some guidelines to assist the BCT in developing Annex L (Information Collection) of its operations order. Annex L typically serves as the Cavalry Squadron’s OPORD, enabling it to initiate its reconnaissance or security operations.
[iv] Department of the Army, FM 6-0, Commander and Staff Organization and Operations, (Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, May 2014), Chapter 13. This chapter discusses responsibilities and TTPs for liaison officers and teams.
[v] Department of the Army, FM 6-22, Leader Development, (Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, June 2015). This FM repeatedly references reflection as a key enabler of collective- and self-development.
[vi] Department of the Army, ADRP 6-22, Army Leadership, (Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, August 2012). Reference ADRP 6-22 and FM 6-22 for more information on counseling, coaching, and mentoring.
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Great article. I would add AC/RC to this. Serving as an OC/T in an AC/RC unit also allows one to develop & refine their doctrinal knowledge as well as see how RC units, with their unique challenges, apply their knowledge, modify doctrinal lessons to better fit their personnel skills, and absorb the lessons learned from their limited training opportunities.
Having survived 41 BCT NTC rotations as one of the few civilian OCTs from 2006 to 2010--with an in the field portion of three weeks out of four---this is one of the toughest and most underappreciated positions in the Army.
If someone loves the work of a mentor, and wants to stay on top of his profession--this is the way forward.
Believe me working with BCTs who believe they already know everything is not easy.
When the assignment is completed and you move on you are literally at the top of your game--the problem is the Army itself never did recognize this with follow on assignments building on that gained experience.
Not for everyone as the family takes a hit during the constant three week rotations.