Your First Week as a New Lieutenant
Aside from maintaining my article on personal development, I have shared little about this profession of arms. As I close in on my promotion to captain, though, mentorship has become an increasingly important part of my job. After several similar conversations with new officers, I decided to answer a common question here: “What do I do as a new lieutenant?” While the answer to that question will change from branch to branch and from unit to unit, I decided to write about some advice that should generalize well. If you follow this advice during your first week, you will put yourself in a good spot at the beginning of your assignment and set you up for success in the long run.
Many lieutenants have expressed anxiety about not knowing what to do during their first weeks in their first unit. Do not just wait for someone to tell you what to do. The learned helplessness of your ROTC, OCS, or West Point time, and subsequent time in TRADOC, will not cut it anymore. Your company commander or the outgoing lieutenant should give you some guidance on day one, and if they do, great — but if neither does (and even if they do) I recommend focusing on property and counselings during your first week. You cannot ignore these tasks, and you will never be wrong to focus on them while figuring everything else out.
You should be forced to (and if not, you must demand to) inventory all of your platoon’s equipment before signing for anything. It will take a lot of work, it might require some late nights, and no one will want to do this — but you have to see every single piece of equipment you will sign for before signing for it. It does not matter if the outgoing lieutenant or the platoon sergeant did a complete inventory yesterday. It does not matter if the company commander did an entire inventory last week. No one can force you to sign for equipment you have not seen, and anyone that says they can is lying. You have to see every single piece of equipment you will sign for before signing for it.
Your company commander should give you a deadline for this. For example, the outgoing lieutenant signs out on the 15th, so you must finish the inventory before then. Back-plan with your platoon sergeant to hit that date, but expect to finish this within your first week or two.
The counseling portion of your first week should involve two activities: counseling your soldiers and receiving counselings from your rater and senior rater. Most primary military education (PME) — ROTC, OCS, West Point, BOLC, etc — does a poor job of teaching new soldiers how to counsel well, how to receive counselings, and the roles of the counseled soldier, the rater, and the senior rater. Army Human Resources Command (HRC) has published some helpful documents addressing this, such as the forty-three slide Military Evaluation (OER & NCOER) Rater and Senior Rater Profile Management deck that clearly outlines roles and responsibilities. Also check out the brief ATP 6-22.1, The Counseling Process. Pages four and five of DA Form 67-10-1A, Officer Evaluation Report Support Form and DA Form 2166-9-1A, NCO Evaluation Report Support Form, also provide helpful guidance for evaluations; by highlighting the attributes and competencies by which soldiers ought to be measured, you may better understand the stated and (often) unstated expectations of you as a new officer, and develop appropriate expectations for your soldiers, too.
Counseling Your Soldiers #
By regulation, you must counsel the soldiers you rate and senior rate at least once per quarter. Some prefer formal one-on-one sit-downs, others prefer a much less formal conversation. Whatever form these sessions take, they will not count unless you have a signed and dated counseling form for every one of them. Some units will not count the counseling unless the counseled soldier signs their support form on that date in the Army’s Electronic Evaluation System (EES), regardless of whether you have a physical signed and dated counseling form. Make sure you have a physical copy and instruct the counseled soldier to update their support form in EES the same day. Trust that they will, but then verify that they have.
Most new lieutenants, as platoon leaders, will rate an E6 platoon sergeant and senior rate several E5 squad leaders. Others may find themselves in different situations. For example, as a new Cyberspace Operations Officer, I rated three staff sergeants and senior rated five sergeants. Schedule initial counselings with all the soldiers you rate and senior rate during your first week in the unit.
When you schedule your initial counseling with these soldiers, ask them to bring their soldier record brief (SRB) and a five year plan. Give them the option to bring one or more previous evaluations, but do not require it: soldiers looking to move past a bad experience with a previous rater will not appreciate starting off on a bad foot with their new boss. At a minimum, the five year plan should include the following information:
- Personal goals over the next 5 years.
- Professional goals over the next 5 years.
- Family goals over the next 5 years.
- Financial goals over the next 5 years.
- Top 3 next assignments.
- 3 possible career timelines for the next 5 years (i.e., currently platoon sergeant, SLC next year, instructor at SLC, platoon sergeant again). This will also tell you when they expect to change jobs or PCS.
The SRB and five year plan will help you understand what your soldiers have already achieved and what they want to achieve in the near future so that you can help them do it. Few soldiers think ahead at all, much less plan years down the road. Help them take an active role in their future. They can either bring these documents to the initial counseling and you can review them there, or ask them to email them to you the day before. I prefer the latter because it gives me time to consider a plan of action beforehand.
Encourage honesty in your soldiers’ five year plans. If your rater asks for this type of document from you, they will expect to see certain career milestones on it: company XO as a first lieutenant, company commander as a captain, etc. Pressure from above often distorts these plans as soldiers tell their raters what they think they want to hear. This then reduces the value of the career advice those plans elicit. Stress the importance of honesty to your soldiers: this is about helping them achieve their goals, not the goals they think you want them to have. If they need help defining goals, or as a way to evaluate the goals they already have, I like the Army’s old S.M.A.R.T. system: goals should be specific, measurable, action-oriented (defined in terms of what the soldier will do to achieve them), realistic, and time-based.
When it comes time to conduct the initial counseling, open by introducing yourself: who you are, where you came from, which school you went to, what you studied, and your commissioning source. You could also talk about something notable you did before going to the unit. No one cares that you were cadet battalion commander, but if you went to airborne school or had an interesting experience traveling to another country, talk about that. Open with information about yourself, then ask the soldier to introduce themselves with similar information. This exchange is critical to establishing the working relationship necessary for a successful year. I also like to ask about the personal and professional interests. What do they enjoy doing in their spare time, and what do they like about the job? “What inspires you?” almost always gets an interesting answer.
After the introductions, lay out some general expectations. I include the following in all my initial counselings:
- Live the Army Values, both on- and off-duty.
- Maintain accountability of the soldiers always. We do not need to micromanage them, but we must ensure they are at the right place at the right time.
- You are the soldiers‘ first stop for their problems, but I expect you to keep me in the loop. I trust you to act in the soldiers’ best interests, but let me help you help them. As an officer, there are things I can do that no one else can; let me do them.
- Counsel the soldiers. Create and maintain a physical binder of all counselings starting today, and provide those binders to me by the end of the week. I expect to see good counselings for every soldier at least quarterly. Initiate a new support form for this rating period by the end of the day and ensure that you record this counseling.
- Use your time well. I will do my best to keep you engaged during duty hours, but I expect you to use your downtime well. When unoccupied, search for ways to improve the organization, your team, and yourself. I believe in enabling disciplined initiative, but in order for that to succeed, you must have the discipline to take the initiative. When in doubt, ask for help: it is my duty to see to your continued personal, professional, and military development, or to find others who can.1
- Mentor up and down the chain of command. Rank and seniority do not have to determine your value in this organization. I value good ideas no matter who they come from.
- Provide sound counseling and advice to all echelons in accordance with Army doctrine, industry best practices, and your good judgment.
- Stay current on all mandatory training, MEDPROs screenings, and any other, similar tasks.
- Maintain a good work-life balance. I expect you to be at PT from 0600 to 0700 when mandated by the company, work from 0900 to 1600, and outside those hours only when the mission demands it. I have no “soft” or unspoken expectation that you stay at work without purpose and just to be there. I encourage you to spend time with family, friends, and pursue your own interests as much as possible. I will do my best to protect that time for you.
- Arrive early, always. You do not have to show up at 0845 every morning, but you will not walk in at 0901.
- Maintain technical and tactical proficiency. As a 17-series soldier, this branch expects you to be a technical expert; as a soldier, the Army expects you to be tactically proficient. Balance those two.
My counseling forms also contain job-specific guidance, but that will come in time and with experience. Even now, though, I maintain those general expectations.
During the initial counseling, I also ask for feedback on the unit and the soldiers:
- What’s bad about the unit that I can help fix?
- What’s good about the unit that should stay the same?
- Tell me about any outstanding soldier issues (pay, health, SHARP, etc). This is a huge deal for me, so I take extra time to emphasize this. I continue to encounter soldiers who suffer undue hardship because no one bothered to advocate on their behalf. This is especially common among junior soldiers, officer and enlisted alike, because they do not know enough to correct those who take advantage of their inexperience. I have witnessed this at finance and housing offices, where clerks outright lied to junior soldiers who did not know enough to recognize their duplicity; I have witnessed this at medical offices, where junior soldiers were not taken seriously. This behavior is despicable and I will not stand for it. To my earlier point about the things I can do as an officer that no one else can, one of those things is hold heinous abuses of meager authority accountable, or go to a commander who will. If I even think a soldier might have gotten the runaround, I make a point of investigating it myself.
- Do you foresee any major problems that I should prepare for?
Do not forget to go over their five year plan at some point during the counseling. If they did not have one, help them create one. Emphasize that this will help you understand what your soldier has already achieved and what they want to achieve in the near future so that you can help them do it.
Again, counsel both the soldiers you rate and senior rate. At about an hour apiece, plan to finish all these counselings in a day.
You may also consider counseling every soldier in your formation. Even with a full platoon-size element, this should take less than two weeks. This lets everyone hear expectations straight from you, and gives you a chance to meet everyone early. It also gives everyone an opportunity to give you direct feedback on the unit and to highlight any outstanding issues that the NCOs might not bring up. Since you do not rate or senior rate any of these soldiers, you do not have to make this a regular occurrence; one initial and one close-out counseling will suffice. Although unconventional, I prefer to do this whenever possible.
Receiving Your Counselings #
Also schedule your initial counselings during your first week in the unit. For most lieutenants, this means a rater counseling with the company commander and a senior rater counseling with the battalion commander. Most battalion commanders have precious little free time, so do not expect the senior rater counseling anytime soon.
If you have not yet sent a letter of introduction to both commanders, do it now. Many consider this something soldiers used to do — but that no one does anymore. They are wrong. My wife and I have sent letters of introduction to several units and commanders remark on them every single time. Set yourself apart from your peers with a professional letter of introduction. The Center for Junior Officers has a good article on letters of introduction, and it even includes templates.
During your initial counseling with your rater, make sure you ask for their OER support form and the OER support form for your senior rater. These forms lay out their goals for the rating period. As a lieutenant, you should then fill out your own support form with similar goals. Nest your goals within theirs to show that you are all working toward the same objectives. You can also add your own personal goals and goals for your team as well, but most should nest with your rater’s and senior rater’s.
During your initial counselings, your rater and senior rater will likely just want to know some basic things about you. If they ask for questions, I like to get input on these topics:
- No-fail tasks. What are the things that I cannot mess up? You will likely have many responsibilities, but only a few tasks that cannot fail.
- Expectations. Aside from the typical “do what is legal, ethical, and moral” speech, what do they want to see me accomplish? If my rater or senior rater wants me to achieve specific objectives, I need to know about them as soon as possible.
- Recommendations for professional and military development. Some jobs require specialize knowledge, and some people prefer work to be done in specific ways. If there are guidelines, books, or even classes that will help me do this job better, I want to know.
As a new lieutenant, you should also ask for mentorship. Most initial entry training, from ROTC, OCS, and West Point to BOLC, focuses less on training and more on assessing students. Rather than teaching you to run a field training exercise, for example, you were likely told to run a field training exercise and then graded on your performance. Did anyone ever tell you, “I see what you’re doing but this is actually the right way to do this.”? “This is how you write an NCOER.” “This is how you run an inventory.” “This is how you do a FLIPL.” Probably not. Far too much military expertise is shunted off to “on the job” training when it is firmly in the purview of those training institutions to teach. You have done, and will continue to do, what you thought was right with little guidance from above — but you don’t have all the answers, and mentorship is important, especially for a new lieutenant. Ask for it.
Property management and counselings are two of the most difficult tasks to get right and some of the most damning when you get them wrong. If you follow this advice during your first week, though, you will put yourself in a good spot at the beginning of your assignment and set you up for success in the long run. By the time you get through this, you should have a much better idea of what to do during week two.
For more advice, check out the Center for Junior Officers (CJO). This is a severely underused resource with a phenomenal amount of helpful information. Need to run a range? CJO has an article and a checklist for you. Need help counseling your soldiers? CJO has an article on that. Not sure how to write a letter of introduction? Check out CJO’s article on letters of introduction — it even includes templates. CJO is one of the best resources a company-grade officer can have. If you show up and get thrown into a tough situation on day one, CJO can be a lifesaver. Subscribe to the mailing list to stay up to date on all the great new content CJO puts out. Army Writer has a lot of helpful examples and useful guidance as well, on everything from NCOER bullets to the proper wear of ribbons on a dress uniform
I also recommend digging into doctrine as much as possible. The Army Publishing Directorate hosts manuals for almost every process, task, or situation a soldier will encounter in the military. It continues to astound me when soldiers ask basic questions about military terms and graphics or use the wrong letterhead in a memo. The Army has invested an incredible amount of resources into recording and disseminating a wealth of information to the force. Use the resources the Army has given you. Come to me for guidance, but do your homework first. As a new lieutenant, your first days and weeks will have a tremendous impact on the unit’s impression of your competence. Do well and you will set a positive tone for the entire year; do poorly and all future mistakes will just look like more evidence of your incompetence. Do not squander this opportunity with dumb questions and basic mistakes.
Finally, I cannot recommend The Jocko Podcast enough. I consider this podcast the preeminent resource for leadership and military development. If you do just one thing to continue your development as an officer and as a warfighter, make it listening to this podcast. From the personal experiences Jocko and his guests share based on their time in the military to the exhaustive literary and historical reviews they conduct, this is one of the best resources I have ever come across. Do not wait for professional and military development to happen to you; take an active role in it. Whether or not you do, and how you go about it, may play an important role in the perception of your potential as an officer and a leader. I link to CJO, The Jocko Podcast, and many other resources in my article Personal Development; if you want even more, go there.
↩ On the topic of professional education, make sure your soldiers know about programs like Tuition Assistance), Credentialing Assistance, and the college credit they receive for military training (available via Joint Services Transcript).