Effective Communication: The Ways of the Staff Ninja
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There I was again, standing in the hallway outside his office. The door was closed and a line had formed of Marines trying to follow up on various topics and taskers. The first person had already been waiting 15 minutes.
After another 15 minutes of just standing there, the door was still closed. I weighed my options. I could continue to wait for my turn to see the boss, an indeterminate amount of time, or I could go back to work and find another way to get the information back to the boss.
I couldn’t afford to just waste an hour standing there waiting for a conversation. I stepped out of line, headed back to my office, and typed an email…
“Sir, BLUF [Bottom Line Up Front]: Here’s the info you requested.
Background: you asked about this topic.
Way Ahead: Here’s what I’m going to do next.
If you have any questions or concerns, please advise.
This email was based on something I learned early on in the Marine Corps:
What do I know?
Who needs to know?
Have I told them?
This framework is a good foundation for communication, but it is only a baseline. It works effectively when the direct span of control is squad or platoon size. Everyone in the scope of responsibility is readily available and directly interacts.
As responsibilities increase beyond the platoon level, and as subordinate leaders are trusted to execute commander’s intent in complex operational environments, Marines need more sophisticated tools.
Our highly trained Marines have critical skills and need to be leading Marines, not stacked up in a hallway in a queue to deliver information. Effective communication methods enable efficient flow of critical information through the chain of command to inform and influence key leaders and decision makers.
While Marines learn the Marine Corps Planning Process, much of the science and art of staff communication is learned by trial and error. For those who do not already have a personal approach, these Staff Ninja principles can help analyze and communicate specific categories of information, establish a reference point for communicating with decision makers, and act as a blueprint for delivering effective briefs.
Before getting into the ways of the Staff Ninja, recognize that every command and decision maker is different. If a Commanding Officer (CO), Officer In Charge (OIC), or Reporting Senior (RS) gives specific guidance, by all means, meet the intent.
During initial counseling, Marines should ask the RS about communication preferences. If the RS does not have a baseline or says something like, “Use your best judgement”, then take the ways of the Staff Ninja as a foundation and adjust based on feedback over time.
“One of my predecessors at CENTCOM, General Zinni, had taught me to break information into three categories. The first was housekeeping, which allowed me to be anticipatory--for example, munitions stockage levels and ship location. The second was decision-making, to maintain the rhythm of operations designed to ensure that our OODA loops were functioning at the right speed of relevance. The third were alarms, called “night orders.” These addressed critical events--for instance, a U.S. embassy in distress or a new outbreak of hostilities. “Alarm” information had to be immediately brought to my attention, day or night.”
--Jim Mattis, Call Sign Chaos
Staff members at the Battalion/Squadron or Regimental/Group command level working directly for O5s and O6s (Lieutenant Colonels and Colonels), shape and influence the briefs that inform and influence Generals.
It is imperative that staff officers understand that all information is not created equal; streamlining communication to elevate critical information and reducing time spent on communicating routine information helps prioritize and focus leaders on information related to decision-making and risk.
Staff officers should start with the baseline questions, What do I know? Who needs to know? Have I told them? but should then consider a few deeper questions.
What type of information am I trying to communicate?
FYI, Decision, or Risk.
“For Your Information” (FYI) Is this information FYI and only for the awareness of the decision maker? Was this information specifically requested? Why do I feel that they need to know? How relevant is it to them today?
Decision Do I need a decision in order to move forward? Who needs to make this decision? Is it someone in my command or from a higher level headquarters (HQ)?
Risk In order to move forward, is there a level of risk that exceeds what I can accept at my level? What level can assume that risk? My CO or a higher HQ?
Besides the primary audience, who else needs to be informed?
Before I bring this decision or risk to the leader / decision maker, who else is impacted? Consider subordinates, Staff Non Commissioned Officers (SNCO) advisors, peers, superiors, and key staff members (Executive Officer, Sergeant Major, Operations Officer).
Ensure those personnel are part of the preparatory discussions en route to CO.
Even if it seems like you were directly asked by the CO to report back with updates, there is always an underlying implied task to keep other members of the command deck and staff informed as the information flows.
Now that the category of information has been identified, the categories can be communicated in different ways.
How do I effectively and efficiently communicate critical information?
Confirm that the information is requested, desired, or relevant.
Start with an email, and offer in person or verbal follow up as required.
If you have reasonable justification that the information is not immediately relevant or requested and would simply add to inbox overflow, hold onto it for now and be prepared to transmit the information if/when requested.
Email a read ahead and request an in-person or verbal to discuss the decision.
Respect the process defined by the decision-maker.
Email or call only to schedule the closest available time to meet.
Conduct the heart of the discussion face to face.
Follow up with an email to document and recap what was covered in-person.
Phone calls often save time by having a brief conversation versus a longer explanation over email, and allow for immediate feedback, questions, and clarification. However, there is no written record of a phone call, so follow up with written communication (such as email) when needed.
A written record also allows others who were not part of the direct phone conversation to be made aware.
Text messages are not official communication. Even if you’re communicating with a decision maker via text, follow up with an email.
What do I know? Who needs to know? Have I told them?
What do I know that is worth communicating? Is this information, FYI, decision, or risk?
Who is the information or the process relevant to?
What is the best way to communicate with them?
Decision Makers Enable Effective Communication by Defining and Implementing a Standard Decision-Making Process
I worked in a command where the decision maker (a General Officer) had an established decision-making process distilled down to a single page template. This was tremendously useful because it allowed staff members two and three subordinate levels below to analyze and prepare relevant information that would survive the staffing process. Each layer of staff scrutinized and deliberated the recommendations presented.
The sheet was a simple summary with outlined Courses of Action (COAs) as a list of choices and a place for signature and date. Once a decision was made, it was there in black and white. The staff could see what was decided, who signed the paper, and when. This ensured clarity in documenting and clearly communicating that a decision was made.
Senior leaders, have you established a defined, clear decision making process within your command?
How does your staff or Marines know what that is?
If you don’t have one, consider adopting or developing one, and train your staff.
This step will significantly increase staff efficiency.
When it is identified that a decision or risk must be communicated, how do I effectively convey the importance of what I need and why?
To be effective on a staff, particularly in an environment where multiple Military Operational Specialties (MOSs) are represented, use simple language in a universally understandable way. Ignore the fancy terms you learned in MOS school.
Tie back decisions or risks to objective factors:
people, money, time, and mission.
Anyone, anywhere, any MOS can understand the impact of decisions when related to people, money, and time. Even if the specific resource gap is something else, tie the impact back to the connection of that resource or event to people, costs, and time.
Communicating risk to “mission” can be subjective. Ensure that the applied definition of “mission” in your argument is anchored in what the official Table of Organization and Equipment (TO&E) says in the Total Force Structure Management System (TFSMS.) This is your unit mission as assigned and approved by HQMC and can provide a landmark when different sections or subordinate units have competing priorities.
Blueprint for Delivering Effective Briefs and Presentations
Presentation skills often depend on previous observations of doctrinal instruction or simply repeat methods taught at formal schools.
And what is the quickest way to have your audience completely zone out?
“Today I will be delivering this presentation using the informal lecture method assisted by my class outline and powerpoint slides.”
If you are forced to deliver a specific format, such as for a confirmation brief or because you are a formal instructor being graded on your adherence to the structure, then do as you’re instructed. Most of us have a little more freedom.
If you want your audience to actually internalize and remember your message, here are a few considerations:
In preparation, analyze the audience.
Craft and deliver a relatable story to start with the “WIFM,” (What’s in it for me?)
What is the most relevant information?
What is the most effective or efficient method of communicating that message?
Is there a template I am directed to use?
Do I have the freedom to be creative?
Focus on CONTENT. Let the content drive the format.
Confidence in briefing is a result of practice and experience.
The only way you get better is to build the reps and sets.
The cycle of brief preparation is:
Prepare - Notes, index cards, presentation support such as powerpoint, outline, or white board
Practice, rehearse your presentation and record yourself.
Then listen to it. Your first run through will always be terrible (Yikes!)
Polish and refine based on your self-critique.
Apply the earlier concepts introduced. Do you need to keep others in the chain of command informed of what you are briefing?
Do they have some level of FYI, decision, or risk that impacts what you plan to present or your method of presenting?
Repeat. Run through the cycle as many times as necessary - Prep, rehearse, record, listen, polish, seek feedback, then deliver.
If you have a trusted peer or perhaps a senior leader other than your RS or RO in the audience, ask that individual ahead of time to observe your presentation to offer feedback.
Take the face shots and listen to the recommendations without being defensive.
Be aware that a Marine whose fitrep you write may be hesitant to give you candid feedback, so pick someone who will give you constructive criticism.
After you deliver your presentation. Ask a designated person for an honest assessment and feedback on how you did.
Did you have filler words or an excess of “um” or “uhs”?
What can you improve?
Many Marines lament the fact that they are on a staff and not “leading Marines” in a command billet. By going beyond the foundational questions (what do I know, who needs to know, have I told them), and applying the ways of the Staff Ninja to communicate effectively, staff members will realize their billet affords them a unique opportunity to influence decision-makers in a way that impacts many more Marines beyond a single command.
Applied Staff Ninja principles enable Marines to efficiently analyze and communicate specific categories of information, establish a baseline for communicating with decision makers, and serve as a blueprint for delivering effective presentations.
Check out the Staff Ninja Principles PDF for a downloadable quick-reference guide you can hang in your office that I guarantee will be more memorable than this essay.
Or link here to the file.
Captain Janell G. Hanf is a Marine Corps Logistics Officer who has served as a Cultural Support Team leader, Maintenance Management Officer, S-4, S-4A, Company Commander, and Operations Officer at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Helmand Province, Afghanistan; Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms; and Camp Pendleton, California.
In September 2020, she will transition from 10 years of active duty and continue service in the Reserves.
Janell's goal is to take observations and hard-earned lessons-learned, translate them in a way other leaders can understand and teach, and help leaders be more productive and efficient.