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Army company leader workload is unsustainable. Here are some ways to fix it

A vice-like time crush of demands on Army company leaders is putting their family lives, careers and unit readiness in jeopardy.

Army company leaders clock in an average 12.5-hour workday, more than all but 4 percent of U.S. workers, according to a recently released RAND Corporation study, “Reducing the Time Burdens of Army Company Leaders.”

And less than one-third of that time is spent directly focused on their unit training or readiness, according to the report.

“There are so many different things that you have to track and do. You are constantly playing whack-a-mole. If you are good on something then you are jacked-up on something else,” one commander told interviewers. “The people that pay the tax on this is the junior enlisted, they just have to eat it.”

For the purposes of the report, the company leader position included company commanders, company executive officers and company first sergeants.

Here’s how company leaders reported spending their average 12.5 hour workday:

  • 18 percent, equipment maintenance and accountability
  • 15 percent, tracking readiness
  • 13 percent, AR 600-20 Army command policy
  • 13 percent, higher command meetings
  • 13 percent, unit-specific training
  • 10 percent, higher command taskings
  • 8 percent, AR 350-1 mandatory Army-wide training
  • 5 percent, installation support
  • 3 percent, self development

This is far from the first time that the company leader position has been seen as one that carries a high burden of tasks and duties. As early as the 1990s another report called the position the most demanding in the Army.

A 2002 Army War College study found that the days required to complete all mandatory directives, “literally exceeds the number of training days available to company commanders. Company commanders somehow have to fit 297 days of mandatory requirements into 256 available training days.”

Last year, then-Army Secretary Mark Esper published five memos that eliminated 14 mandatory training requirements, such as media awareness training, transgender training and human relations training.

That might have helped, but it didn’t solve the problem.

Researchers conducted interviews with 1.5 hour interviews and one hour follow-up phone interviews with 77 company leaders at three locations: Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and Fort Hood, Texas.

That sample included 33 company commanders, 20 executive officers and 24 first sergeants.

An overwhelming complaint was the lack of prioritization from higher command. Everything was a priority so nothing was a priority. Which left it to the lower level commanders to react rather than plan for events.

That meant a lot of time management strategies, but not all of them positive.

The good tactics were to prioritize and delegate. But while 90 percent of respondents saw delegation as valuable, only about half felt able to appropriately delegate tasks to trusted subordinates.

Most of the time, company leaders simply did the work, regardless of the time drain, misrepresented or lied about what had been done.

Authors described accounts in which company leaders falsified information, such as reporting an activity is completed when it wasn’t or distorting what happened by shortening or oversimplifying an activity.

“Lie constantly,” “You make the bubbles green,” “You want numbers, I can give you numbers,” were some of the responses describing dealing with certain tasks.

And that was in conflict with what many felt they should do — push back on superiors who may be making unnecessary or unreasonable demands.

“Of all the time-management techniques ever developed, I’ve found that the most effective is the frequent use of the word no,” one respondent said.

Burdens listed by company leaders:

  • Overtaking by higher echelons
  • Competing taskings from multiple higher echelons
  • Lack of senior leadership’s understanding of time requirements
  • Hyperfocus on details rather than substance
  • Lack of resources at the company level
  • Lack of skills/experience at the company level
  • Lack of personnel at the company level
  • Lack of commitment to reducing the time burden
  • Unwillingness to accept prudent risk
  • Reluctance by company commanders to report honestly

Some have seen technology as a way to reduce the load. But the available tech is limited and outdated, many respondents said.

As one platoon sergeant told researchers, “I have 90 people and only three computers.”

And some reported that tech exacerbates their problems.

“When you are getting phone calls every time you try to go to a family event, that’s mostly the problem. You’re never left alone. I get more emails at 8 pm about the duty tomorrow. Why the hell are you bothering me at home at 2200 at night? . . . My phone has rung 17 times since we’ve been in this discussion!”

And tech advances can become a distractor to the mission, others said.

“When the Army went to PowerPoints, it was a great tool in the beginning. But now it’s about making the slides look pretty so it doesn’t distract the senior person in the room. PowerPoint has taken away from being an officer. You take more time in making slides look pretty than the actual plan,” one respondent reported.

“…and sometimes you get feedback about the font rather than that mission is going to fail because you don’t have ammo. Yes, that is a great range, but you don’t have ammo. PowerPoint distracts. It’s all about PowerPoint.”

Interviewees told researchers that if their average daily workload could be decreased to even 10.5 hours each day, or a 53-hour work week, that would be a great improvement. That would still put company leaders working more than all but 13 percent of Americans, according to American time Use Survey data.

Higher-echelon Army solutions most frequently proposed by soldiers:

  • Create/restructure jobs: make structural changes such as developing specialized positions or allowing for flextime and career stability
  • Reduce requirements: decrease the number of requirements, taskings and other requests levied on the company
  • Improve training: enhance the quality of training across the Army
  • Increase assets: dedicate more money and manpower to companies
  • Enhance technology: implement technical systems with better user interfaces, outputs and Army-wide compatibility
  • Provide autonomy: empower company leaders, support their authority, and trust them to do their jobs
  • Accelerate removal: accelerate the time it takes for noncontributing soldiers to be removed from an active unit and/or the military
  • Follow schedules: enforce predetermined agendas, timetables and so on
  • Outsource: contract civilians; leverage their specialized expertise and/or other available resources.
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