Helpful tips for an OSC to work less

Road to Waddi 06 2014 3

Every OSC in Africa could work seven days a week and never get it all done.  Working in Africa with such a small staff highlights your efficiencies or inefficiencies more than any other AOR, solely because you primarily are the single point of contact for that country.  You know this, so you work tirelessly to ensure you fill the bill at the end of the day.  However, after a few months, the long days and weeks turn into months.  Some people give up, and most others just chug through it.  This blog hopefully will give you some helpful tips to cut corners and stop chugging through it!

Visitors: Stop being a tourist office

Just because someone is coming to your country doesn’t mean you have to make all their arrangements: hotels, vehicles, interpreters, airport processor, etc.  The best thing I did when I was an OSC was make a TDY SOP / call out message.  Everyone has to fill out an APACS request, but that system doesn’t cover all the details, and most people fill that out after contacting the OSC first.  The U.S. Embassy eCC system is required in some embassies but not all.  However, that system is set up mainly for non-DoD personnel.  My advice, every time someone tells you they are coming to your country the first reply back to them should include a word document with the following information:

  1. Three hotels approved by the RSO with internet links and numbers – for them to make their reservations
  2. Vehicle rental agencies information – for them to make their reservations
  3. References to the foreign clearance guide – for them to read on their own
  4. Visa requirements – for them to do on their own
  5. Recommended flights in and out – for them to make on their own
  6. US Embassy requirements: badging information – for them to send to the OSC NCOIC for input into the system
  7. Information about getting money and the use of credit cards (or not) in the country. I always told them to bring US dollars and whether or not the hotel would provide exchanges and with the rates.

Bottom line: quit being their tourist agent.  Make them do all the legwork and stop the 100+ emails per visit.  Do this through a simple word document with all the information they may ask. I suggest the following email response:

“Mr/Mrs/Rank Person,

U.S. Embassy XXX looks forward to your visit here from ?? to ?? 20??.  Please see the attached document which provides all the information you need to arrange your trip.  Once you have organized all of your logistical requirements, please send our office a consolidated itinerary of your arrival times, hotel locations, rental car companies, etc. Upon arrival, to your hotel, our office will provide you with an update schedule and contacts for your time in XXX (Country). We look forward to your visit.

OSC Signature”

In the two-years, I was an OSC I never met anyone at the airport unless they outranked me.  I also denied anyone arriving on Friday and tried to avoid Saturdays as well (I was in a Muslim country).  Eventually, after a little time, I quit babysitting people in my country, and I took the weekends off.  You can meet and escort every single person who comes into and out of your country every time, or not.  In some country’s they have visitors once a month, in others it is multiple times a week. Your time is valuable, find the happy medium spot.  Understand who the people coming in are, what their purpose is, and who their reports will go to.

One of the best things I saw while I traveled the continent during my time on a component’s staff was OSC-Ethiopia’s welcome packet.  When I checked into the hotel, the concierge noticed me and handed me a blue folder.  Within that folder was an updated timeline of my week there, some other unclassified notes on what we were doing; a business card from the OSC and an emergency contact list; and lastly a personalized letter from the OSC on his stationary. After receiving that packet, I didn’t need to call or worry about anything…I went and ate dinner knowing that everything was ready for our 0800hrs pick-up the next day.

Senior Leader Engagements

Any Senior Leader Engagement is the most critical event in your office.  Some of your offices will have these every month, others only once or twice a year.  Either way, SLE’s are Superbowls.  The key to reducing the workload of these is to understand the SLE staff’s requirements.  They usually are the same, just tweaked for the differences and rank in the unit leader that is coming.  Below are the key documents to keep updated and ready to send out once you are notified of an upcoming SLE:

  1. Biography of all senior leaders the incoming unit’s leader will meet with.
  2. Talking points – keep generic ones written out and easily updated within a day or two after notification.
  3. Scene setter – keep the most recent high-level scene setter ready, and just adjust it to whoever is coming.
  4. Current cables.
  5. TDY welcome letter (the one previously discussed).

The key here is to feed the beast desk officer upfront.  Overwhelm them with everything they need, which is the same more than likely for every SLE coming to your country.  If you want to be high-speed make a PowerPoint of it, or build a folder called “Desk Officer Stuff” and fill it with everything. Let them read it all, but don’t do their jobs for them – they have plenty of time for things.

Lastly, I highly suggest you host a dinner at your house, the SDO’s, or the restaurant at the hotel with the SLE.  Remember the elevator speech I spoke about during previous posts. What is the one key thing this SLE can do for you, for your country, and for the SLE coming to your country? Host this dinner the first night the SLE arrives – set the scene for them.  They are a tool in your toolkit, how you use them is the key. Make all the work you did for this event matter for something once that General leaves. About 50% of them don’t. Turn the event from an informative event into an actionable event. Make the event have due outs assigned to each component and J code.

Country Coordination Meetings

What the inputs and outputs of this meeting will solely depend upon who your partner nation is, your plan, and who you invite.  This meeting should be held in the first or second quarter of the year, or it will miss the period to influence the RSWG or STRWG discussions. Not all components will or should attend – your component desk officers should attend based upon what they are doing in your country.  Think outside of the components – give some other agencies a reason to come to your country – DTRA, DIILS, ACSS, etc.  If you manage this meeting well it will save you a lot of excess coordination with the components and your partner nation – time spent planning equates to fewer emails, fewer phone calls, and better events.

Below are few expectations you should have for your desk officers when they come:

1)    They are participants, not observers.  Don’t be afraid to ask them to give their command presentation to your partner nation.  Better, ask them to bring a hand-written letter from the component commander to the host of the CCM, and have them hand it to the senior ranking officer as they begin their presentation. Make them bring something to the show, make them a part of showing what the U.S. has to contribute.  Expect more of your desk officers.

2)    They should bring with them a list of what their component plans to do in your country and also any invites or future dates of exercises that your partner nation can expect to receive in the upcoming year.

3)    They should know whether or not their command will commit to something that may come up at the CCM.

On the other hand, below are a few expectations your desk officers should have of you when they come:

1)    A clear agenda and expected inputs and outputs of the meetings.  They cannot come prepared if you don’t give them the 5W’s.

2)    Time to see areas where future training or proposals may occur.  This is an opportunity to shape things before the RSWG or STRWG, and also a chance to save your time later. A few pictures here and there are of course worth a thousand words.

3)    Strategic / Operational messaging: The KUSLO produced a five-page storyboard for the STRWG that was handed out during their CCM that rippled through the command months afterward. Think about what your products are and how you are strategically messaging them to everyone. It has to be simple to the point and purposeful. Give your desk officer something to take back with them and show around their command.

4)    Write them talking points.  Treat your desk officers like a (light) SLE – don’t assume they know everything.  They may cover down in multiple countries and some are stronger than others.  You should identify their strengths and weaknesses.  These shouldn’t be like those you do for a GO, but simply embassy messaging.

I won’t go into the inputs and outputs of what you should require and expect from your partner nation during this meeting.  That is a longer post.

Once you master all this, eventually you will understand that the best way to message things is to distribute an EXSUM as everyone leaves.  You are a conductor of a symphony, think about how you organize and allow these organizations to play their part in this event.  Five days after the event, follow up with a summary and all the things you distributed.  Products equate to less work later.

Bi-weekly reports

Every two weeks I read 15 OSC Bi-weekly reports that cover my regions.  I’m amazed at the differences amongst them, and how each OSC’s personality comes out in them. I wrote about this previously and continue to highlight it…reporting and communicating with your higher headquarters is the single evaluation point for you as an OSC. It should also be a platform for you to project themes, messages, or updates to make your life easier.  Don’t project themes, messages, or updates that make your life harder.

First of all, the GO’s you are writing to probably aren’t reading the report, or they may.  Is more better, is less better, do I bulletize it?  I’m consistently amazed that an O4 sends a bi-weekly report to an O8, but that report shows how you are the point of the spear.  This is about helpful tips to help you work less…so I won’t go into writing skills of OSCs.  I will say that your report should be important.  I’ve never seen an OSC say “Sir – NSTR in my country.”  I would love it if someone did that because that shows strategic thinking, but I recommend you don’t do that.  OSC’s are supposed to “do things,” and the bi-weekly is about what we are “doing” in that country. I challenge you to do the following things in your reports, which will help us (all) in the end:

1)    Do not bulletize it.  Write it out as a paragraph with complete sentences. Junior officers write and speak in bullets – Majors with masters degrees don’t.

2)    Do not use BLUF, EXSUM, or any other acronyms.  This is not an OPORD.

3)    One Ambassador once said she didn’t read anything past the tenth sentence. Nine sentences and two paragraphs or better yet – the 54-word rule.  Talk to your ECON or POL officer and learn how they write cables.  Their summaries are excellent for senior leaders. Words matter.

4)    Self-Awareness: You are one of 53 reports they may read.  What is it you want them to know? They don’t care if you are busy or your vehicle doesn’t work.  They care if there is going to be a coup d’état or that the CHoD said something.  Show them progress.

5)    What are the tactical results of your actions that are resulting in strategic results for the Combatant Command?

6) Never highlight an issue without providing a solution or naming the person working on it at the CCMD.  Doing this shows you are #1 not a complainer, #2 thinking through the problem, and lastly #3 puts the issue on the CCMD representative that is evidently not getting things done.  Be cautious of calling people out negatively, instead say “So and so is working on a solution to blah blah blah.”

7) Don’t copy and paste your entire report onto the email.  As soon as I see this I just delete the entire email.

8) Don’t send them out before 0800 and past 1700 your time.  I recently saw a report emailed at 2232hrs their time.  If you are sending reports out that late you are: #1 overworked, #2 on TDY working late, #3 worried about getting the report out on the right date, #4 a bad time manager, #5 etc.  Save me from my blackberry flashing red at that time of night – you are already late, why highlight it even more.  Send it out first thing on the next day. Your GO probably has the same thoughts.

Email management

We spend an incredible amount of time on email every day.  Think of ways to spend less time on email and more time writing reports or assessments; thinking about the next day’s meetings and preparing your responses in French; researching and writing proposals; etc.  Focus less on email and more on the Seven Functions of being an OSC.

There are many ways to do this, however, email management is as much about your personality as it is about your job. You approach to email is in many ways the same way as you approach your life.  That is why email is one of the best ways to analyze someone’s personality.  People type how they think.

One week as an OSC I received over 1000 emails…I was off in the “bush” and hadn’t checked it for five days, because even my cell phone didn’t work where I was going!  I remember being mentally overwhelmed by the sheer number I saw in my inbox when I returned.  I didn’t know where to start and felt as though I had failed in doing something.  A couple of ways to not be overwhelmed by 1000+ emails is:

  1. Immediately respond after you read the email, or flag it for later follow up if you are not the main person the email is referencing.
  2. Don’t reread an email more than twice and not respond. Think about why you are doing this.
  3. A phone call could save 10 emails.
  4. Use these suggestions in the Harvard Business Review:
  5. Use these suggestions from this post:
  6. When you are gone and come back to my 1000 emails situation – sort by subject! The twenty responses will turn into the top email on the subject line.  You can do this or call your main players and spend some time catching up with them.
  7. Sort by to: or cc:. Answer the people who have sent you an email in the to: section, and set aside a time at the end of the day for the email from people who have cc’d you.
  8. Use your bi-weekly report better. Are there emails you are sending out that are duplicative of this report? Maybe just include an update on the report?
  9. Be aware of the one ball juggler.
  10. Embassy or unit notifications: set up email rules to put these emails automatically into a folder. Make sure your NCO is on all these distribution lists and have them compile these into their report during your weekly OSC meeting. After the meeting go back and peruse through the titles to see what your NCO missed or not.

Some types of email people

The tricky email person.  One OSC I knew would respond to emails but save them as drafts then hit send at 1700 as she walked out for the day.  The logic was to let the multiple responses happen (from the NCR) while they were asleep.  This approach has some logic to it but can prolong the conversation, which is what every email is: a conversation.

The cc every one person.  Think about who you to: and who you cc:.  Do these people really need to be in this email or are you just informing everyone? Think through what you are trying to say, who you are trying to inform, and what decision you need.

The immediate reply person.  This one gets old as well….bling, bla bling, bla bling, etc.  They hit reply after a single thought, then reply again and again and again after each thought afterwards. Take some time to let others reply before you jump in to add your opinion.

The reply all person.  Learn when to use this option and when not to.  If the email is an email being used to distribute information to a group, don’t distribute your information to everyone!

The one ball juggler person.  There are people who are not overly tasked with their jobs.  Eventually you will know who these people are and learn to add them to the cc line when only absolutely needed.

The lack of self-awareness person.  This is the same person as all those mentioned above. It may also be you.

The most amazing tool for reducing your time on email sits right on your desk – the telephone!  Use it more.

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