Think back to when you started out. If you’re military, think back to when you reported to your first unit. If you’re a civilian professional, then it’s showing up for your first day as a full-time employee. Doesn’t matter how big the organization was, doesn’t matter what your prior experience was. Now how would you have felt if the trainer or manager charged with your onboarding led off with one or two of these motivating statements:

You guys have it so easy now …

You have no idea how hard we had it before …

Six shifts a month is nothing, team members are so soft now …

The way we’re doing it now won’t work, we should go back to the old way …

Our team members are getting dumber.

In early 2016, while assigned to an ICBM squadron as an instructor team lead, the commander asked me to take over the unit’s onboarding program. It was up to my section of five and me to ensure new arrivals received sponsors who could help locate housing, support family transition needs, and guide the uninitiated through different personnel processes on the base. Sponsors made sure new folks found their way to the squadron successfully. Once my training team received them, we brought them in for an hour-long classroom session. Repeated about every six weeks, the sessions addressed training and performance expectations, shift scheduling, how team assignments are built, and most importantly–our mission and vision as a unit and the type of culture we were building. Of all these elements, vision and culture were the foremost priority. Our commander was clear that the squadron was a family, a group of men and women dedicated to each other beyond the length of a shift, all striving to make each other better and focused on caring for each other’s families as well as their own.

We’d heard snippets of what our new team members were hearing at formal training–a 100-day program designed to impart technical skills and in each team member ahead of their assignment to an operational unit. Several of the instructors at the formal training unit were my age and so remember, as do I, the worst of the ICBM community’s old culture. By 2016 we were more than a year into a cosmic cultural overhaul–a first in about four decades–that rippled throughout the community and larger Air Force. Many of my peers emerged embittered from the many changes; they’d survived a toxic leadership environment and ‘succeeded’ in spite of it. Now their successors would ‘grow up’ not knowing such pain and suffering. Despite reports that many of our new Airmen were excited to join the community, those same Airmen showed up at our squadron troubled by what they were told in training–that the community had devolved, that we were bad at our jobs, coddled and wholly incapable compared to the previous generation. My instructors and I learned quickly that our first task wasn’t to ‘train’ these new Airmen, or even to try and contradict what they’d been told. Our task was to ‘teach’ these still impressionable men and women … to teach them what kind of unit we were, what type of community they were joining, and what our values were. And we realized none of that was going to happen in that one-hour classroom session.

In my last post, I talked about high investment-low return–you have to put way more in than you expect from your students and new team members. It’s up to you to provide the foundation, the starting point, and to enable them to learn about the organization and its leadership. Before they learn about their role. Before there’s pressure to perform. The other reality about the ‘teach’ phase I learned through onboarding, though, was that it never stops. Our new team members left the one-hour session and started qualification training to prepare them to perform the mission on a daily basis. But even as they trained they were watching us. The older unit members, the team leads and operations officers and the commander, we all were teaching whether we understood it or not. In order for the vision and culture lessons to ‘stick’, we had to be ready and willing to teach them every minute of the day. Because our Airmen were watching, learning, to see who we were and what kind of leaders we were. To see how we dealt with problems and interacted with the squadron. To see if we put our money where our mouths were, if all the talk about family and high standards and having fun was just that … talk. Or if it was something more, a real driving force that kept the organization driving forward with confidence. It was high investment-low return to another dimension, incumbent upon us designated as “leadership” to pour our heart and soul into what the unit should be about, expecting nothing in return. But hoping. Simply hoping that we could maintain the example we wanted to set, and that the example we set would be an example worth following.

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