Supervising Airmen

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Raymond Pelletier
  • 22nd Operations Support Squadron superintendent
"It doesn't take an incredible supervisor to make a strong Airman successful, it does however take an incredible supervisor to mentor and develop an average Airman to become strong," Master Sgt. Bruce Cuppy, my NCOIC shared those words with me in 1992 before assigning my first Airman to supervise, and these are the words I pass on to NCOs when giving them the same responsibility for the first time.

Being a supervisor in today's Air Force is far tougher than when I first became a supervisor, but the thought process I apply to being a good supervisor remains the same regardless of the year.

I've always started with the general premise that every Airman wants to do a good job and deserves my absolute best effort to provide an environment where they succeed.

I look at everyone that I supervise as a possible chief master sergeant in Airman's clothing.

I take it as my responsibility to put every Airman as best I can on the right path. What course their journey takes is a result of the effort and desire that Airman provides toward making their own career successful.

The problem most of our young supervisors face is getting their subordinates on that right path while they are still trying to read the many road signs themselves. For that, I offer the following simple advice, get to know the folks you supervise, challenge and lead them by your actions, provide them honest and straight forward feedback and then be sure to reward them accordingly.

When I talk about getting to know the people you supervise, I am not merely talking about knowing their names, where they are from, or even their marital status. While those tidbits are important, I am referring to no-kidding getting to know them.

Find out where your folks eat, sleep, play, relax and what they do when they are not at work. Not to be intrusive or make them feel you are always watching or judging, but to learn what their interests and goals are. Then look at how you can show a genuine concern for who they are and what they hope to become.

Once you have gotten to know your people, try to match up what you know about them as best you can with tasks that challenge their abilities and help them realize their potential. Provide clear direction whenever and wherever needed, then get out of their way and let them learn from the experience of their efforts. Additionally, when the mission allows, do not be afraid to let them fail. I have learned far more from all of the mistakes I have made in my 23-year career than I ever will by my successes.

If the moment calls for it, step in and get your hands dirty. People are far more motivated to complete a less than desirable task when someone leads. Sound leadership cannot simply rely on words alone.

When you feel the time comes to provide feedback, do it as close to the event as you can and be as specific about your expectations. So many times I see young supervisors mark their calendars for when the AFI says they should provide feedback and then they copy down and save every little detail until that date arrives.

By the time they sit down with the Airman they supervise, the recollection of an event is often foggy for both the supervisor and subordinate. In order to correct something out of order, or enforce a positive performance, the feedback has to be timely and relevant.

The last piece of advice, never miss an opportunity to reward your folks. Whether it is a simple "thank you" and a pat on the back in front of their peers or a formal submission for an award, everyone wants to know that people appreciate what they do.

Make sure there is substance to the praise and that you are not simply offering praise for praise sake. Supervisors need to remember the design of our awards programs is to pick our absolute best performers.

Unfortunately, there are many quality Airmen who do not quite make the cut. They will likely earn their next promotion along with the award winners, yet we often miss opportunities to groom and mentor them by overlooking them for recognition events.

Events like having lunch with a commander, selecting them as spotlight performer or allowing them to escort the next distinguished visitor office visit. We absolutely should show off our best and brightest, but we also have an obligation to make sure we develop every member of the team.

The ultimate goal of a supervisor is to help every Airman achieve a level of performance that exceeds their initial capability. It may be a tougher challenge today than when I started supervising over 16 years ago but, it can be done if you get to know the folks you supervise, challenge and lead them by your actions, provide them honest and straight forward feedback and then reward them accordingly.