Advice on the road ahead for new chief master sergeants

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Stefan Blazier, Air University Command Chief

Wingmen!  First off, congratulations! I’m sure you’ve come to realize that this is a BIG deal. A decade ago, my name came out on a promotion list for the final time as a chief master sergeant. There have been so many lessons that senior enlisted leaders, teammates, and commanders have passed on that have highlighted what serving in this distinctive role is all about. Knowledge and wisdom are so much more powerful when shared. Therefore, it’s my duty to pass on what they instilled in me. I hope these nuggets of advice impact and add value to your own leadership journey in the same way.

Get ready for the adventure. I have heard many people say making “Chief” is like starting over in the Air Force. While it’s not necessarily true, you will begin to notice things are different—whom you engage with, the size of the issues you work on, and the vast scope of your responsibilities. The most important thing to realize is you do not have to change who you are. In reality, you’ve been promoted because of it. Our Air Force selected you based on your character and proven ability, so do not doubt yourself for a second. Trust me, it does not help. Chiefs can move mountains; you should be extremely excited for the opportunities you will have to fight for goodness and defeat all that stands against it. That’s what the test will demand and what our people need most. Lean in and enjoy the ride!

Strive to maintain a harmony in life.  You will need to be even more aware of managing your energy, commitments, and priorities. If you look at time spent with loved ones as a math equation, you will be disappointed. That is why having quality time is so essential. Be truly present in these moments and make the most of them. Many Chief jobs do not allow for predictable balance, but establishing set routines and “red lines” for family and self are a must to maintain your well-being and drive for the long run. If you do not have them already, build in something to look forward to together. Take advantage of flexibility when and where you can to connect (surprise lunches, etc.). Also, find ways to include your family in what you do and what it means – the more experiences they see, know and share, the better they will feel about their sacrifice while serving together. Maintain an open dialogue of expectations between home and work (to include social activities, urgent situations, etc.) so those who are most important to you stay with you every step of the way.

Make sure you understand what the 1% represents.  I imagine many times in the coming weeks you will hear people say that it represents you, that YOU are the best of the best, the 1%. There’s no doubt you are an exceptional leader and you’ve been responsible for huge successes on the mission; it’s why you’re reading this right now. But do not misunderstand the 1% simply represents the seat you occupy. Your job now is to care for the 99% who take on other roles and responsibilities across our many diverse missions. It is less about you being at the top of a pyramid and much more about you accepting the responsibility to keep everyone connected, inspired, and supported so WE can action things as a whole. Do not believe the hype that you suddenly became smarter, better looking, and more fun to be around. When you receive flattery, be thankful for it, but know that it sometimes could lead you into trouble if you let pride or privilege guide you. To help, stay grounded and never forget where you came from. Be a better human being than an Airman, and a better Airman than a Chief. After all, we’ll all be pushing a shopping cart around the commissary one day. Do it right, and those you worked with will want to come up and say “hello.”

Value the institution over tribes.  As a Chief, you now represent the entire Air Force enterprise and every Airman who fuels it … you symbolize the brand. Your position on the team has changed, your perspective of it will as well. From this vantage point, you will see how many different career fields have individual subcultures, practices, and values. Many times, these differences can work against each other and cause damage to the larger body in the process. This is where Chiefs speak truth to power and help others to recognize there are larger things at stake than what they may see. To help, constantly seek to understand strategic priorities and operational objectives, and expand your awareness of what is going on around you. You can’t get caught up playing politics or games. Never make exceptions when it comes to doing what is right. Not what is right for you or just your specialty, but what is right for the institution—our service and our nation. When all those things are in alignment and barriers stand in the way, be hell-bent on seeing them through and overcoming them. Future generations will thank you for it.

Welcome to the Air Force’s biggest fishbowl.  People will look to you for words of wisdom, and even more so, they will observe how you conduct yourself. Use that to your advantage and understand it is one of the most powerful weapons within your new arsenal. Additionally, you are more powerful than an Air Force Instruction for guidance. The words of a Chief must be accurate, up-to-date, and applicable. People will make major choices off five-minute conversations with you in a hallway (work, family, future, etc.). Maintain your expertise and avoid answering questions based on assumptions. Leverage the immense access you now have to connect with other experts; it is tremendously powerful. If you lose credibility with your people, that “E-9” moniker will be applied quickly. Furthermore, make sure you are all in on anything that is expected of other Airmen. Senior noncommissioned officers are expected to not only meet standards but exemplify them in all we do. Ultimately, as a Chief, you are the one leading that formation by example and must be mindful to always speak with integrity, genuine care, and be accountable so it echoes through the ranks.

The all-mighty Chief network.  Similar to the first sergeant network, the Chief network is arguably one of the strongest networks on base. While you may hear “a Chief is a Chief is a Chief,” we must be able to balance the roles we fill at various command levels (on base or in your organizational structure) to work together and move the mission forward toward a commander’s intent. As you begin to feel more comfortable with your new peer group, do not hesitate to call upon any of the Chiefs to discuss something. Especially to address divides that can develop between functional and command channels. When we do, that is when real action and progress happens. A command chief, career field manager, major command functional manager or first sergeant, or a group or squadron senior enlisted leader are all roles Chiefs assume as we continue to represent command priorities and shape, guide, and mentor OUR Air Force. This does not negate the need to properly up channel discussions or conversations. However, it does provide you with a few more contacts (in your virtual Rolodex) to reach out to and make progress a reality.

You haven't “made it.” You are about to run a new race.  We've all seen some people who treat making Chief as a finish line. Do not be one of them. That road doesn't end well for the person or the Airmen who look to them. This is a whole new test, and it is one you must approach with a new outlook. This is now about the marathon, the infinite game, and upholding the strength of the “long blue line” to connect those who came before and will come after you. Life will be busy, and although you will feel like you are constantly being pulled in multiple directions, make sure you take time to listen to any Airman that comes to you for help. The thing they are asking you about or for, may seem insignificant in many ways, but to that Airman, you are making the indelible impression of a “Chief.” So, make it count and run every lap of the race knowing others are still counting on you to do it well.

Continue to be inspired by others’ success.  The problems you now face are larger and more complex, which means the satisfaction of “quick wins” will not be as frequent as before. Your focus is now on the long game and ensuring your organization is moving in the best direction possible for many years to come and not just week-by-week. This means everything should not solely rest on your shoulders. More importantly, the vision must be transferred to other leaders to carry the torch after you. Stay present in the moment and continue to seize opportunities to make that possible as you teach, coach, and mentor your teams to win ... for the long haul.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable.  Although you are not expected to change simply because you are a Chief, you will have to consider minor adjustments for what is asked of you. If you were not vocal before, you may need to find ways to break out of your shell. If you are the life of the party, check to make sure you make it a point to listen first and avoid walking around “Chiefing” others too much (yeah, it’s a thing and not a good one). No matter your tactic, you must be engaging and inspiring, and keep in mind that you will set the tone for the organization at any level you operate. If you come into work in a sour mood, expect your people to be grumpy as well. Conversely, if you come in excited, amped, and ready to see what the day has in store, that, too, will resonate with your teams. Making Chief is not going to make you the most charismatic individual, nor will it convert you into an extrovert. However, you may need to step outside your comfort zone in order to ensure your teams stay motivated and feel heard. Because the truth is, it's your responsibility to flex your style and approach to what the team needs versus expecting the team to flex to you.

What is now vs. what is next.  After the celebrations, the ceremonies, and the many messages rolling in telling you congrats, you will quickly start to wonder, “What is next?” What will be my first job as a Chief? Will I have to do a permanent-change-of-station? While these are all natural thoughts, do not be consumed by them. They will start to distract you from the task at hand. It is one thing to seize and explore opportunities and a whole other thing to avoid embracing where you are asked to serve. Have conversations with your group Chiefs and command Chief early on if you need advice on navigating the Air Force Chiefs’ Group (central body for Chief assignment management at the Pentagon). The point is every single job will need 100% of your attention and should be treated like it is your dream gig. Our Airmen are watching, and they deserve the best version of us, no matter where that may be.

Your LEGACY … what you leave to those who will follow.  Some people will say you are now simply a “people person” and if you take care of them, everything else takes care of itself. This can be easily misunderstood, particularly when compared to mission objectives. The equation is not about people versus mission, but your ability to synergize the two. This means deliberately aligning activities, resources, and choices to the priorities of the team. Be involved and shape the major functions, projects, and goals of the organization so the big rocks get accomplished and lasting positive change is made. Also, seek to constantly be a connector and a communicator. Be inclusive by actively sharing the unit’s vision, key decisions, and the thoughts behind tough calls. It will break down walls, open pathways, and provide transparency, which fosters trust in your people. Do these things well and the team under your care becomes stronger and more ready to execute the mission over time. It's why we are all here, what we are charged to do, and it's what your legacy will be all about. Lead 'em well, Chief!