Before or After (OSC Chief or Desk Officer): Which one is more important to do first?


This blog will attempt to tackle a humongous amungus debate that is currently in the community right now. The answer to the title’s question from my opinion is: crash and burn or learn and succeed or instead – neither is better; it is about the actual officer. Both of these positions have their positives, negatives, advantages, and disadvantages; however, at the end of the day, neither the OSC Chief nor the combatant command or the component desk officer positions are better than being an OSC first. The individual officer matters more, hands down.

In an attempt to analyze the differences and likenesses of these two positions, I will show that there is a perception that being an AFRICA OSC first, before being a staff member, helps more when being on staff later, or also in one’s career. What these young staff members don’t understand is that being on staff first may make them better AFRICA OSCs later, if they don’t ruin their career and reputation while on staff.

Staff positions are seen as sitting around and waiting, and the AFRICA OSC is seen as someone who is taking action. This is a crucial insight into FAOs that most key leaders miss – we are a branch of action takers, of personnel who want/desire to make a difference, who desire to engage partner nations (with our foreign language capabilities), and when we sit at a desk it is difficult to transfer our desire to take action into some PowerPoint slide. We desire to travel, to connect, to deliver policy actions, and to represent our commands as the point of the spear. When we are at a desk, in a cubicle, and attending a bunch of briefings each day; we lose motivation of why we became an FAO.

OSC or Desk Officer? Most often than not, it is about timing. Assignments are a crazy world which this blog will not attempt, ever, to address. Staff verses AFRICA OSC sometimes is about assignments and other times is about timing. The assignments officers must put an ass to a seat. In that assignment officer’s view, the officer will either succeed or fail. I concur with the assignments officer’s job and placement of our members.

Advantages and Disadvantages

What are the advantages of being on staff first?

Being on a staff first has two significant advantages (this 2 theme will be a re-occurring trend): 1) you will arrive on a country team after staff time and as a more mature officer which means you may receive the more strategic posts, and 2) you should have a broader understanding of where your country sits in the CCMD’s priorities which should allow you to message your actions appropriately.

What are the disadvantages of being on staff first?

Being on staff first has two significant disadvantages: 1) you don’t go through DISCS training, and 2) you don’t get to do the B’s & C’s associated with that training. Most staff members are unaware of the broader military communities until well into their second year on staff if they ever understand it at all.

What are the advantages of being an AFRICA OSC first?

Being an AFRICA OSC first has two significant advantages: 1) You get familiar with talking to and working with senior leaders every day, which then going to a staff next makes it easier to brief and speak to senior ranking military officials, 2) You have a full understanding of most (if not all) security cooperation and assistance programs.

What are the disadvantages of being an AFRICA OSC first?

Being an AFRICA OSC first has two significant disadvantages: 1) You lack the broader strategic focus of the CCMD, which causes you to wear horse blinders as you are racing around the track, 2) the continent can bring out some AFRICA OSC’s unprofessionalism earlier compared to being on a staff first, because of the stress of serving on country team assignments as a new O4 compared to a more mature O4.

What can you learn by being on staff?

Understanding the view of the combatant command and component commanders is something that is only realized once someone observes it daily over several years. On a staff, you should learn a lot about yourself in comparison to your peers, because being on a team is about motivating yourself, and others. How do you lead others in a cubicle environment? First, don’t buy into the water cooler conversations, be a leader, and don’t be afraid to question those who are spreading negative comments. Be extremely wary of the retired military civilians who may have a negative aspect; instead, you should learn to support the command, deal with the changes, and accept those who question your expertise. In the end, never, ever, fall in love with your assigned region/country, country team, or the plan you’ve worked on. Remember it is not about you, and you are not as smart at this level as you might think you are. Don’t fall in love with the plan, and don’t think you know everything, even though you might. It would be best if you thought about how you can influence your senior leaders to accomplish what the country team needs, and what the national strategy is.

What can you learn by being an AFRICA OSC?

Understanding the perspective of the Ambassador and the partner nation is something that is only recognized once someone observes it daily over several years. Understanding the DoS system and their perceptions is key to your future success as an AFRICA OSC. They regularly look to you to recommend solutions to ongoing problems or ways ahead on how to drive the US government’s strategy for your country. On the other hand, when you are on a country team, dealing with the cultural shock of the partner nation, as well as the physical shock to our bodies may teach you more about yourself than you expected. You concentrate on a single country and the interagency strategy towards that one country. Therefore, such a focus and insight broadens your understanding of how the US government executes its policies and strategies across the globe.

Both positions are more alike than you think

What does shut up and row mean?

We arrive on staff and embassy staffs, and sometimes we think that our opinions should matter because we are the trained FAO. Sometimes they do, more often the AFRICA OSC’s opinions matter more than their staff officers; but other times they don’t, especially if we come across too strongly or emotionally on a particular topic. Understanding when and where your opinion matters are important. The key to either position is to learn to remove your emotional responses to the subject at hand. Take the time to think about what the commander or person you are briefing cares about, or their perspective is. Feeding that perspective is vital, and knowing what their viewpoint is also crucial. If you are briefing them on something that you know they don’t care about, well you should have caught that ahead of time and adjusted your briefing accordingly.

What is also important is writing a recommendation paper without grammatical errors and typos; and with a strategic insight that our commanders need. (Note: any grammatical mistakes in this post I hope you highlight!). Your eight hours each day or 40 hours every week thinking through a decision is essential, but you should also understand that your commander, or rater / senior rater, may not accept your recommendations after those 40 hours. That is ok. Don’t take it personally, instead accept it and then think how can you best receive this decision and support it; or accept it and move on. It is essential as a staff officer to understand this and learned how to influence your higher commanders with the information and knowledge you have. It is also important to know when a particular task may have come from another staff section as a requirement, but in the end, it won’t move any rocks.

Rowing: why is that statement important? Being on staff (the embassy is also a staff) is about contributing to the daily grind. Row, Row, Row that is the daily grind. Every day you wake up, go to work, and contribute. A rower can’t see where they are going in a ship, they listen to commands from the Commander of the Ship, they push, pull, produce, etc. This type of production is difficult for some FAOs as the daily grind becomes a grind. If you fight it, you will become the Angry Staff Officer, which you should not become.

Who is the Angry Staff Officer?

This is an element where an AFRICA OSC and a staff officer can be seen as the same. An AFRICA OSC has more autonomy than a staff officer, but both are staff officers. Who is the Angry Staff Officer/the Angry AFRICA OSC? Well, have you ever sent a shitty email? Have you ever complained that someone in the command didn’t listen to you (because you as a Major have all the answers)? Have you ever been frustrated with your rater (who sits in the cubical behind you) because they don’t agree with you? Well if you have, you are human, because being on staff will cause all of these. If you think you are right from your foxhole, you need to take a knee and reflect on the other person’s perspectives – or review the battle plan. The Angry Staff Officer is so smart and so knowledgeable that everyone else in the entire military does not know what they know! This officer has a negative attitude, and cannot overcome some of the inefficiencies we experience on large staffs. Sometimes you have to accept the system and accept that there will be inefficiencies, just don’t become one of those inefficiencies.

Who is the Effective Staff Officer?

The capable staff officer walks up and down the hill and meets all the other staff officers in the command, and works the programs and concerns of their countries. This staff officer spends some extra time researching the different security cooperation and assistance programs to understand what applies to their countries. Hopefully, they share it with their AFRICA OSC they are supporting, because the AFRICA OSC may also be struggling with understanding things as well. This staff officer spell checks all products, to include emails, and also rehearses all briefs before giving them. This staff officer does not allow themselves to be caught up in the water cooler talk that is too often detrimental to the command. This staff officer keeps themselves in accordance with all of their services requirements (physical fitness, uniforms, annual training, etc.). As a Major this staff officer manages themselves, understands the perspective of all the commands on their countries (which are different), and every day contributes to their command. They have a positive attitude and can accept the negative aspects of what we do in Africa. This applies as well across the board to the AFRICA OSCs.

I don’t buy into the specific position/country helps you BS either. I believe in the individual, no matter where they are, they prove themselves or not. The cases of self-immolation on the continent and within each staff are extensive. If you think someone has an advantage over you, then just as if we were at war, why would you not seek out a way to learn and master that advantage he or she has/had over you?

How can you and your AFRICA OSC be battle buddies? One Team – One Fight

Staff Officer: So your OSC just asked you a question about a program or an RFI? How do you link yourself to the staff to answer this? Well, start with getting out of your seat and do some “leadership by walking around” concept. Remove your butt from your seat and email and go and make some connections and relationships in the command. Start with the 2,3,4,5,6 etc. As a staff officer and a desk officer do some analysis on your countries and understand what J/G/N/A codes within your command matters to your countries. Then go out and meet, talk with, and work along those J/G/N/A desk officers that are also working in your countries. Find the answer, inform them, make sure your branch chief sees how you’ve helped them, and then follow on with them and your AFRICA OSC. Next visit your AFRICA OSC – this is seen as hard to do, but is only as hard as you make it – rip off the I have to be present in my cubicle mentality and go travel. Take a week and shadow your AFRICA OSC. Bring them bacon, cheese, or whatever liquid they can’t get shipped in.

AFRICA OSC: So your desk officer just asked you a question about your country? How do you provide them that information quickly, because it will always be a quick demand, and how do you do so with little effort on your part? Well start with feeding the beast of the command ahead of time – send them your reports, cc them on more emails than you think, send them the regular cables that come out, etc. Push information up, which will equate to fewer information requirements coming down. Don’t worry about analyzing it, forward it and let them read it. Now and then do some fundamental analysis on how this will affect the command and send them a bone (per email or phone) and give them some information that only they will know. You are extremely focused on one country; they might have four or five. Ultimately, help them help you.

Conclusion: to be or not to be that is the question.

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