Retired Sgt. Major of the Army Kenneth Preston

Retired Sgt. Major of the Army Kenneth Preston offers leadership advice to post Soldiers during an NCO Professional Development session at Wood Theater, March 20.

Noncommissioned officers from organizations across Fort Belvoir participated in a discussion of leadership and career growth during a professional development session with retired Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston, hosted by Army Cyber Command, March 20.

Preston talked with the group about how NCOs grow and develop themselves and their subordinates as effective leaders in an Army with a high operational tempo spread across multiple battlefields and missions.

At the height of its strength about a decade ago, an average of about 220,000 Soldiers were deployed or forward stationed in 80 countries, he explained. But today’s significantly smaller Army averages 170,000-180,000 Soldiers deployed or forward stationed or deployed in 140 countries.

Standards matter

Looking at the Army’s missions today and in the years ahead, Preston said, you’ll find a lot of small teams led by sergeants and staff sergeants who have five or six missions going on at once, and they are empowered to enforce standards. As the Army builds doctrine for multi-domain operations and mission command and looks at how commanders command forces that are fragmented across a battlefield, it becomes critical to build those sergeants and staff sergeants by sticking

to fundamentals such as mentoring by more senior NCOs, formal Army schooling, operational and developmental assignments, and self-education.

He described a three-step process for growing sergeants in the Army: establishing standards that meet the needs of their organizations and missions; putting sergeants in charge and providing that empowerment to execute and enforce standards; and ensuring that more senior NCOs hold sergeants accountable when the Soldiers in their charge aren’t meeting standards.

That last step is probably most important, Preston said, because the way standards are established and enforced has an effect on discipline, and can have dire consequences.

“I saw this a long time ago in my career. (Other than in combat), in every instance where a Soldier is seriously injured or killed; where a piece of equipment is severely damaged or made ‘not usable’; it really comes back to somebody failed to enforce a standard,” he said.  He cited a case at Fort Hood several years ago when a Soldier was injured during a live-fire exercise because his unit did not enforce the Standard Operating Procedures they had established during rehearsals to control elements of the unit during the live training.

In addition, he said, when leaders don’t comply with standards themselves, they undermine their sergeants’ ability to enforce standards and make corrections, and ultimately those sergeants may stop following procedures and standards as well.

Education and communication

Preston talked about the value of education in NCO development. He said formal Army schoolhouse training is important, but only accounts for about 10-15 percent of an NCO’s learning. Much is learned by self-development and self-study -- what Soldiers teach themselves to improve their minds and learn new ideas. But he stressed that the largest and most vital percentage of their education comes from operational learning -- what they do every day on the job.

“We have lots of opportunities. Within our operational assignments, we learn every day. You go from unit to unit to unit, and even within those units, the assignments that you get -- those are learning opportunities -- and you continue to learn and grow each day,” he added.

“Hands down, there is nothing more valuable, there is no substitute, for experience.”

At some point an NCO may also be offered an opportunity for a broadening assignment, such as serving as a drill sergeant or recruiter. Those assignments are like going to school, Preston said, and also help build expertise in critical skills such as attention to detail and communication.

“Communication is the most valuable skill you can have as a leader,” he said. “Communicate, communicate, communicate.”

Preston challenged the assembled NCOs to use their experience and skills to be teachers for their Soldiers, and to “own the edge.”

“When the Army promotes someone they expect them to learn all about their organizations, become experts and make changes,” he said.

“It’s about taking that piece of the Army you’re responsible for and making it better.”

Preston served from 2004 to 2011 as the 13th Sergeant Major of the Army, and now serves as Vice President for NCO and Soldier Programs at the Association of the U.S. Army.