A Year in the Life of a Staff Officer and a General

Author: 
Kate Tollenaar and Ian Langford

Many field grade officers will serve as a Staff Officer / Military Assistant during their career within a single service, joint headquarters, or in an interdepartmental position. This article offers our perspective on the working relationship between Staff Officer and General. We hope it will be useful to those who are stepping into these roles in the future.

A Military Assistant (MA) works for a 2-star or 3-star General. A Staff Officer (SO) supports a 1-star General. The collective term is MASO, and the MASO network provides a link within and between headquarters. SOs will manage the office as a staff of one, and most MAs will have an Aide de Camp (ADC) and/or Executive Assistant (EA) in support. MASOs tend not to travel (that is an ADC role) and will manage the office while the General is away. If you do travel, particularly as a SO, you are running a mobile office and are expected to remain reactive as if you were in the usual place of work.

For the Staff Officer/Military Assistant:

The role. In short, you manage the office in a way that enables your boss to make decisions. You coordinate staff effort across the Branch, similar to a Chief of Staff. A Staff Officer’s role is broad and varied – correspondence, preparing presentations and briefs, calendar management, travel bookings, administrative tasks and chasing returns. The ADC and/or EA is invaluable for travel and day-to-day coordination which allows the MA to focus on correspondence, briefs, staff coordination and planning. The Unofficial Staff Guide is a great resource and is worth a read at the start of your year.  

MASO are enablers, and, if you’re doing the job well, often it won’t look like much. Wins are quiet – getting documents cleared the first time, keeping timely correspondence, meeting deadlines for submissions, maintaining calendar deconfliction, finding a free conference room, minimising last-minute calendar changes and taskings, and acquitting travel. It’s about the grind, not the glory, so leave any ego at home and just get the job done. Tasks late in the day, often after 1500h on a Friday, are key moments in a MASOs life. Embrace them.

Plan. You’ll be busy so set yourself up for success and the unexpected – you are effectively ‘on-call’ all the time. Get DREAMS access so you can leave the office earlier and can work at home if needed. As the peaks and lows will be between days, not weeks, look after yourself and build in personal sustainability measures. It’s hard to get PT done during the day so if it’s important to you, break out when your boss is at a long meeting (take the phone). This is something you should gauge with your boss as it will vary based on their expectations.  

If you have a family, plan how you can support day-to-day life and school holidays given the tempo. The world won’t end if you are away from the desk for a few days (this is easy to forget) so plan some leave throughout the year. If you take a week off, engage early to find a suitable replacement within the branch. People are often willing to step in for the opportunity to do something different. You’ll be more relaxed on leave knowing that someone is in the office to keep things moving (though you’ll still check the phone all the time). It’s normal to become fatigued and these small breaks will help you maintain tempo throughout the year.  

Anticipate. Your job is to have your boss at the right place, prepared for meetings, and therefore able to make decisions. They will attend many senior committees where the topics are wide and varied. The committee schedule informs the battle rhythm and staff are constantly producing briefs and talking points. Anticipate what is required and work with your Branch for pre-briefing requirements so that the staff can provide their insights. With the number of concurrent tasks, you can’t give someone too much warning to do this. Short notice tasks always occur and you’ll be managing friction because everyone is busy, so keep Branch Directors and staff onside and you’ll be able to work through challenges together. You work closely with the Branch Directors and often pass messages from the General on their behalf. This may mean that you are put in uncomfortable situations, so consider how you come across and you’ll find the right way to help the staff maintain alignment with the General’s intent. If you can make life easier for the Directors and their staff, it will make your life easier too.

Your boss. Relationships with your boss will develop over time as you build trust. Part of your responsibility is professional judgement and discretion – don’t repeat personal information or comments you may be privy to and practice the ‘need to know’ principle when accessing your boss’ email. Establish a battle rhythm and judge early when your boss should speak with their Directors, when they need space to think and when it is appropriate to open conversation on the many things you need them to sign or make a decision on. Learn your boss’ priorities to help with calendar management and make time each day to briefly talk through the next day’s requirements. You’ll make mistakes – being a MASO means working at a consistently fast pace often with incomplete and changing information – so keep a sense of humour and you’ll enjoy the year more.

Your network. If you have been fortunate to have done Staff College, you will have a great network which will assist on a daily basis. Make some time to meet the MASOs you don’t know so you have a ‘face to a name’. Be a team player in the MASO network. You’re all in it together. Share good ideas, and don’t wear the boss’ rank or you’ll put people off and it’s hard to regain that ground. Some MASOs work in close proximity which aids in information and task sharing, as well as morale. If you are working as part of a small team and aren’t surrounded by peers, make time to catch up with friends.  

If you’ve just finished Staff College, anticipate skill fade and make time to read and write. This is easier said than done; I only managed to write one piece for a military blog during the year. University study was a bridge too far, but some MASOs managed it. Identify your priorities and be ok with them during this busy year. Overall, stay positive – you are fortunate to have this short opportunity to see how business gets done at the strategic level, and you’ll have much better awareness of the organisation for future postings. 

For the Principal (current and future Director-Generals, Formation Commanders and other senior appointments):

Teaming. Just like the ‘buddy system’ that soldiers use to check on one another, it is certainly the case that ‘teaming’ is a critical component of a successful office. Your MASO is Canberra equivalent of a Protective Security Detachment, responsible for armed protection to senior officers when on operations. Cooperation is key to success.

Some tips:

Start with a one-on-one meeting. At this meeting:

  • Discuss priorities and goals
  • Describe personality traits (although this will become clearer over time)
  • Clarify what is expected in both roles, especially the boundaries of what you’ll allow the MASO to do on your behalf
  • Work out what commitments and resources you’ll need to be successful in your job

This should give you a good base to build from. We all work differently; in other words, we all have our own ‘work style’.

You can learn how your MASO works by monitoring their personality and their specific habits. You should be asking yourself not only whether they’re introverted or extroverted, but also whether they like to get in to work early or stay late.

If you can build a comprehensive picture of their habits and personality, you’ll become proactive in your role. And ultimately, if you’re a proactive DG, you’ll make Army more successful.

Communicate. Articulate the way you like to work and what is important to you, which will become pretty clear after a few weeks in the job. Let your MASO know if you’ve given direction out to your directors that you would like tracked. There are a ‘million and one’ things that go through the office and letting them know your priorities assists both you and them to operate effectively. Tell them your information requirements and out-of-hours contact policy.

Working hours. Be disciplined about how long you stay in the office because your staff will arrive before you and leave after you. If you prefer working late, send the staff home when they are finished. There is a reason why the organisation gives you a new MASO each year. Come December they will be ready for a break, and you will be too. Pace yourself to maintain the ability to make good decisions. Have executive time built into every day and guarded. You’ll easily be consumed in doing the job and will need time to think about the job. You dictate the direction of the branch and need space to consider its future direction and check performance against objectives.

Make time to teach. Share what you know and what you’ve learnt. You have a professional obligation to develop your SO for the next rank and beyond. The MASOs generally hit their learning peak after about three months and they won’t own tangible outcomes. Have a conversation about what they want to achieve during the year so you can bring them into particular meetings. If you have trust and good communication, they are a great sounding board for ideas, and to talk through aspects of branch for resolution or improvements. They will have a new perspective, can see across the branch and are often very aware of the personality dynamics on the floor. They can become an asset and an extra head in the executive brains trust and can add value beyond managing the diary and correspondence.

Mentoring beyond tenure. Your MASO is your responsibility. The MASO ‘did it’ is not a legal defence. Their success is also yours. This extends beyond their tenure. Make the effort to guide, mentor and sponsor their progress beyond your shared tenure. You are seeking to gather the best return on investment for the Army through the development of your MASO which therefore requires you to provide an avenue for advice, encouragement and gentle re-alignment when necessary.

Have fun. If you don’t enjoy yourself you will not be successful. And your MASO will have a terrible year. Like most things in the Army, transformational leadership is key. Think about how you will help Army’s transformation. And let your MASO be part of that.