After nearly a year on the Joint Staff, I finally feel comfortable in my job. It took longer than I thought. The transition from tactical to strategic is quite the leap. Truth be told, it’s a chasm. The Pentagon can be a daunting place for Army majors. You are the junior officer in every room. Everyone is more experienced and senior to you. However, the experience is a great opportunity, not simply a difficult challenge to overcome. Here are the 12 biggest takeaways from my experience on how military members can thrive in a Pentagon post.
1. The system is slow. Accept it, move on, and find peace.
Everyone complains about how long it takes decisions to be made in the Pentagon. Tough. The sooner you accept things move slow, the sooner you will stop banging your head against the wall. The bottom line: Strategic-level decisions should take time. Accept the bureaucracy and find peace.
2. Civilians are the continuity.
Civilians in the Pentagon are the continuity much like senior noncommissioned officers are at the tactical level. They have been around awhile and seen it all. Green suiters come and go, but the civilians remain. Use them, ask them for advice, and avoid the big mistakes.
3. Learn the vernacular. Fast.
Words matter, words have meaning. A chop and an input are different. We don’t “dig into things” on the Joint Staff, we “pull the string.” Minimize your daily “Hooahs.” The sooner you sound like everyone else, the sooner you get taken seriously.
4. Tactical experience: Nobody cares.
I thought three tours of Iraq (two as a commander) would impress my Joint Staff colleagues. I was wrong. Joint Staff Officers and civilians are not impressed with tactical accomplishments. They care about strategic production. They don’t want Ranger School stories, they want good writing.
5. Learn from the other services.
This may be your only chance to work daily with sailors, Marines and airmen: Take advantage of it. Have lunch with submariners. Ask your cubicle mates about flying F-16s. Learn about the Marine Air-Ground Task Force from actual Marines. Get away from your comfort zone. Even better, learn from your interagency counterparts at the State Department, the National Security Council, and other government agencies.
6. Don’t complain.
Complaining about cubicle life is a trap. Don’t do it. Once you start complaining, you may never stop. Avoid the complainers, and surround yourself with positive people (when you can). The only thing you can truly control is your attitude; keep it positive at all costs.
7. Write better.
How you write defines your performance on the Joint Staff. Don’t use the passive voice. Use concise, sophisticated language. Writing is a part of your craft, practice it daily.
8. Keep your military bearing.
You can’t swing a dead cat in the Pentagon without hitting a colonel. That doesn’t make you peers. You will be surrounded by seniors, interact with them daily — you still are not peers. Say sir or ma’am. Stand up when you talk to a general officer. Better to maintain your bearing now, than to be embarrassed later.
9. Work out before work.
If you don’t exercise before work, you won’t consistently. Your office may allow you to go the gym during the day, but when push comes to shove, things pop up, and you will skip days. Exercising prior to work is the recipe for success.
10. Be ready to brief.
There is no schedule for when a crisis will occur. At any moment, there may be a coup, an Ebola outbreak, or an attack in the area you are responsible for. When it happens, you may have to brief the chairman, and when you do, you will have 30 seconds, so get it right. The 30 seconds is your elevator speech. Practice it, and be ready.
11. Relationships matter.
You hear this one a lot in the Pentagon, how soft power matters. It does. If you are a jerk, your peers will know. If you are good guy, people will know. Choose the latter, because there will be a day you need help, and a gold oak leaf cluster just ain’t enough muscle to survive alone on the Joint Staff.
12. Make your time count.
Use your time on the Joint Staff to become a better Army officer. Learn as much as you can, from as many people as you can, and take what you’ve learned back to the operational Army. The Pentagon, like any other assignment, is ultimately what you make of it. Make it count.