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Quality Feedback is essential to leadership

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Chris Barnard
  • 90th Medical Group superintendent
Don't underestimate the power of providing good, quality feedback to our Airmen. I believe the feedback process is often taken for granted by many of us, and is one of our most undervalued tools that we carry in our leadership toolboxes. Don't get me wrong, there are supervisors in our Air Force who are doing outstanding jobs in providing quality, career-shaping feedback to their Airmen; however, there are many who could increase their leadership effectiveness by focusing on this important developmental aspect. In talking to Airmen across our wing, the pulse I get, as a supervisor, is we could be doing better.

I remember back when formal feedback became mandatory in the Air Force and, I must admit, I was a little skeptical about being mandated to use it, and even doubted the real need for the Air Force to officially mandate its use to us. What supervisor isn't telling his or her Airmen how they are performing and what they can do in order to perform at an even higher level? Well, evidently, a lot of us weren't doing it. After all, if we were, the Air Force wouldn't have had to come out and formalize the process and track its completion.

The Airmen who don't receive quality feedback don't really know what they're missing out on. As a young Airman, I never really thought about it too much either. I was one of those guys who believed as long as my boss wasn't telling me I was doing something wrong, I must be doing everything right and expected a firewall rating. What I didn't know was the Air Force Instruction governing performance reports clearly states that a supervisor's failure to provide feedback doesn't negate their ability to mark you down on your performance report.

Fortunately for me it worked out in the majority of my situations, but I did have a few eye-opening markdowns on performance reports that left me stunned and confused because, needless to say, my supervisor never indicated that I needed to focus my efforts in any particular area of my development. You have to remember too that back in the day, it wasn't until you went over to the consolidated base personnel office, now known as the military personnel flight, and asked for a copy of your performance report, that you got the first glimpse of the ratings you received.

Even with this formalized process put in place, we still have supervisors today who are not providing their Airmen the feedback they need and deserve. It's not for the mere fact that the Air Force is tracking it that makes it important; it's important because when compared to Airmen with supervisors who created an atmosphere of open, honest communication between themselves and their Airmen, the Airmen not receiving feedback fall behind as they're left on their own to figure it all out. Taking time and making the effort to set our Airmen up for a successful, contributing, and rewarding career in the Air Force takes time, experience, and a deliberate effort. It's at the core of being a supervisor and important enough that the Air Force limits the role of supervisor to senior airmen and above who have completed Airman Leadership School.

The important impact this seemingly simple leadership tool can have on our Airmen is tremendous. I've seen Airmen on the verge of getting out of the Air Force do a complete turnaround once they were linked up with supervisors who truly hit the mark in mastering the feedback process and unlocking the potential.

Sure, there are those sharp, hard-charging Airmen who are wonderful and fairly easy to supervise and lead. I'm sure we've all experienced them; they're the ones who seem to be on autopilot, knowing what needs to be done and going out and getting it done. They're cranking out their professional military education, getting their educational degrees, and jumping at every leadership opportunity that comes their way. These are the Airmen supervisors are heard referring to as "good" Airmen.

I've supervised many Airmen over the years and it's great to have "good" Airmen to supervise, but I've found that it's those "diamond-in-the-rough" Airmen, sometimes even referred to as the "bad" Airmen, who are the most rewarding to help reach the next level. These are Airmen where the "good" lies just under the surface and takes quite a bit of leadership and mentoring to bring it to the surface. Trust me when I say there's nothing like the sense of pride you get when you've uncovered their potential, and through your efforts with focused feedback, mentoring and deliberate leadership have helped them to realize it.

Leadership to me is about giving back; giving back for all the life lessons I've learned coming up in this Air Force. It's about making it easier for my Airmen than it was for me so they won't have to make the same mistakes or bad decisions I've made. It's about developing my Airmen to be better leaders, supervisors, and most importantly, better all-around Airmen then I was at their rank. It's about sharing mistakes and successes, opening eyes to possibilities, goals, and embracing our individual differences which make us all unique and effective leaders.

All this can be accomplished through the open, honest and deliberate feedback which happens day in and day out at the supervisor and subordinate level. At the heart of developing our Airmen sits those feedback sessions. It's not good enough for a supervisor to do a feedback that only states things like "keep up the good work," "no problems noted," and "get some education." Supervisors need to provide feedback that is consistent, constructive, and critical to their Airman's development; it's essential. We talk about how noncommissioned officers are the backbone of the Air Force; well the backbone is developed in early Airman grades. Think about that during your next feedback session, because tomorrow's strong NCOs need your feedback today.

As times and missions change, we must prepare our future leaders with the tools necessary to meet new challenges. When I started my career it was with a typewriter, no e-mail and no cell phone. The feedback that made me successful and raised me to the next level back then is a bit different than the feedback I give my Airmen today.

"Lead, follow, or get the heck out of the way!" We've all heard this saying before and it's never been truer, as today's Air Force can't afford to have someone sitting in a supervisory position, being referred to as a leader, yet isn't leading our Airmen in a forward direction. If you want to be a better, more effective leader and take your Airmen to the next level, yet haven't embraced the feedback process, put feedback at the heart of your Airman's development plan. You'll be amazed at the progress you'll see.

To all of our great supervisors out there who are using feedback effectively in leading our Airman to their full potential: rock on! You're ensuring the quality of tomorrows leaders!