Keep doors of opportunity open

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Sam Chesnut
  • 384th Air Refueling Squadron commander
Throughout my career, I've known several individuals who knew from day one what they wanted and where they wanted their Air Force careers to take them. They knew the milestones they would measure and how fast they wanted to achieve them. They knew at which ranks they wanted to retire and which assignments they should pursue in order to make those ranks. In summation, these Airmen knew what they wanted, planned ahead and went after it.

I was not one of them. I didn't know exactly what I wanted.

Instead, I lived by the "open door theory," which is: Avoid closing doors of opportunity until you're sure you don't need them. Keep them open as long as you can because you never know when you may want to walk through one of them. I'm proof that goals and targets can and do change, sometimes pretty quickly.

Seven years ago, I didn't think I wanted to be a commander. But here I am, and part of it is because I chose to further my education and professional military education. Part of it is because I worked hard wherever I was, and part of it is because I had supervisors looking out for me. I would not be here today had I not opened doors when I did.

Choosing to get a degree, or to study for a test or to volunteer for community service is something we each must decide to do or not do. Each of these can be an opportunity to advance yourself, improve your image and better your record. Each of these is an open door. Choosing not to do these things closes doors to you and can keep you from being considered for a valuable position in your unit; keep you from being pushed for that in-residence PME slot; and ultimately, can keep you from getting promoted.

I know a lot of Airmen who procrastinated when it came to opening doors of opportunity. They are now working like mad to get things done by the time it matters. It's painful; I know. I did it that way too. The longer we're in the Air Force, the more responsibility we assume, the bigger the tasks and the more important the outcomes. It makes sense, doesn't it? We spend our early years learning and then transition to teaching and leading roles.

I tell folks, get it done now because you will only get busier and have more responsibility.

Airmen get married, have kids, take classes and PME courses, and are active in off-base organizations, in addition to the ongoing deployments and normal duties they all perform. It gets to be a lot to handle at the same time. Things you do early on in your career may not necessarily open doors right then, but they may provide the keys to open doors later on. Take it step-by-step, but start now.

So, here's where I say; learn from my mistake. Don't procrastinate any more. Next week, talk with your supervisors, and plan out what the next three to 10 years should look like. Find out what is important for your career and plan out how you should proceed. Understand where you should look for your next job, both on base and at your next duty assignment. Know what it will take to make that happen.

Looking ahead is the hardest part. How do you really look past your current assignment to one five years away? Start with your next milestone, a promotion, for example. Know when that should happen and plan backward, ending up with start dates for the things you know you have to accomplish to reach your goals. Sometimes, you may have to begin and finish one thing before you're allowed to start the important one. You might already be behind. The key is recognizing it.

Supervisors, take some time and help your folks learn what is important. Understand your own timelines, and help your Airmen manage theirs. Use your career as an example, and pass on your own mistakes or pitfalls you've discovered along the way. Be involved. Talk with your peers, find out what they've experienced and how they've handled it.

If the Airmen you need answers from are deployed and e-mails just won't cut it. Go find somebody else to ask. Take the initiative to open doors now. Do what it takes to keep them open until your career lets you walk through them.