Too little, too late….

During my Unit Command Team Course we had a briefing from the Commander of Canadian Armed Forces Transition Group. It’s an organization that as it’s name would suggest, caters to transitioning members, primarily from the Regular Force. As my course was for Primary Reserve Commanding Officers and Regimental Sergeant Majors, one of our primary concerns was how do we convince transitioning members of the Regular Force to continue to serve on a part time basis. Let’s face it, Regular or Reserve, attrition is our nemesis. But for the Primary Reserve, capturing that former regular soldier or officer who left because the demands of full time service were no longer compatible? That’s gold! That is magic. That is experience that we are hard pressed to match. I can’t recall the exact question that was phrased, but the Commander’s answer was that yes, first and foremost, if they can keep the member serving, that is the ideal. It stuck in my mind and gnawed at me. By the time the member reaches the point they are at the transition unit, any effort to keep them in uniform is probably too little or too late, in my opinion. Humour me….

Today, all transitioning members transition through this organization, however, it was borne primarily out of a purpose to service our ill an injured. It was a place that our ill and injured could go so that they could focus on their rehabilitation to either get healthy and return to the unit, or focus on their next bound into civilian life. From my limited perspective, in it’s infancy the return spring back to the unit was broken and this unit facilitated a transition out of the Canadian Armed Forces. I think that is changing, but that is an aside, and I’ve drifted off topic a little. But by the very name of the unit, perhaps I haven’t. Because by the time someone has arrived at the Transition Group, their mind is made up; they are either leaving by personal choice, or because they are no longer medically fit to serve. The role of the transition group shouldn’t be to change a soldier’s mind. Their job should be to facilitate transition. It got me thinking about my own experience, and that of some of my close friends, and it had me going back and revisiting some of my other articles. Specifically, the article “Career Advice I Wish I Had Got.

Retention is a tough problem to tackle, but it is a very important one. For the purposes of this article, please bear in mind that I am talking about my perception of the challenges with career management of Regular Force officers in particular, and how that relates to retention. My perception may equally apply to non-commissioned members as well, but perhaps not. The above disclaimer is really my way of saying that I’m about to make some broad brush generalizations about things I feel are wrong, and how those things end up hurting the Forces in the long run because it loses talent it can ill afford to lose.

To be perfectly blunt, I think that the CAF takes a view that is myopic, a little too simple or shortsighted, and hasn’t acknowledged the change in demographics. Just a few examples of variations of career advice/management or snippets of conversations that I have experienced or witnessed or given (yes, I’m guilty too) over the years:

  • Nobody joins the Army so they can be a staff officer in some cubicle in Ottawa, right?
  • In the Artillery, the age old debate rages between those who are Instructors in Gunnery (IG), and those that are not, and which path is the “better” one and why. What do you mean you don’t want to do the IG Course? Gasp! Don’t you know it’ll get you 2 extra points on the merit board? You’ll be a better Battery Commander because you will be more technically and tactically competent.
  • You want to go to a Recruiting Center, or a Reserve Unit as their Regular Force cadre? Ohhhh, big intake of breathe, maybe even the disappointed/concerned Dad face “Are you sure? They aren’t seen as A-jobs. You will be a little out of the loop. You’ll have to make sure you make an effort to stay in touch with your old unit.”
  • You want to do Tech Staff? “Okay, that’s not a bad option. It’ll get you the extra points as well, and you’ll get your Masters. But you know you may get pigeon-holed into projects for the rest of your career?”
  • Said with a little bit of anger, disappointment, or with the intent to lay down a healthy dose of guilt, “What do you mean you don’t want to accept job X? If you turn this down you might not ever get the chance again. We’re offering you this because we see potential in you!”

What’s the common thread in all of those above examples? Not a single one of them considers what the member actually wants, or what their career aspirations are, and nor do they make it seem like it is “safe” for the member to express their desires. They are almost all premised on the assumption of career progression aimed to promotion and appointment into command positions. We are often far too presumptuous, to the institution’s detriment.

How does one’s potential drastically diminish in an instant, just because they dared to say that the career path the institution saw them going on wasn’t the same one that they envisioned, for whatever reason? Who benefits from shaming them over their choices? Who benefits from blindly pushing them on a path they are not fulfilled by? Nobody.

I know it is incredibly difficult to manage the needs to the service with the needs of those that serve, so I do not envy the career managers in the least. They have a challenging job and will be unable to make everyone happy. I also acknowledge that when the time comes and the service does need you to go somewhere that might not have been your first, second, or even third choice, there are times when you really do need to just suck it up and go. What I’m talking about is the climate that surrounds the very topic of career management in general. Breeding loyalty, obedience, service before self all help create a culture where we never really learn a person’s true desire. That creates problems. That is not a relationship built upon trust.

I have had some fantastic support in my career when I had to make tough choices for personal and family reasons, and I am so very grateful for that. But the kind of support I was shown by two different Commanding Officers in keeping me on track to complete the Joint Command and Staff Course at a time and in the manner that most suited my needs, is too rare. I didn’t really have an exit interview when leaving the Regular Force. But funny enough, the Brigade Commander of the Brigade at the Garrison I was on at the time, an officer I had worked for in the past, but no longer worked for and wasn’t artillery, reached out to me when he heard the news and wanted me to come by for a chat. He prefaced it by saying that he wasn’t going to try to change my mind, but that he wanted to know why. He wanted to see what had transpired and where my head space was. That small token of his time, and a realization that he wasn’t going to change my mind, meant the world to me. But imagine the difference it would have made had my own chain of command bothered to listen to me, to really have a conversation about my future six months prior? That it didn’t happen led to my article, “The Truth May hurt, But Lack of Honesty can be More Harmful.” As arrogant as this may sound, the Canadian Armed Forces is lucky they didn’t lose me outright. I opted to stay for part time service, but I could have walked completely. And are they really wanting a person of 23 years experience to walk?

You become an officer because you want to lead, but leadership can exist in many forms. Very quickly however, you are pressured/brainwashed into believing that you should want to command. I was a staff officer in a cubicle in Toronto. It wasn’t necessarily my dream job, or what I specifically was trained to do as an artillery officer, but I had a section of officers and non commissioned members who work for me. They needed some leadership, just as much as anyone else in uniform. Why are we made to feel “less-than” because we are leading in a different environment? I had at one point wanted to be in recruiting, but I was made to feel that that would have been career suicide. Are we really that immature as an institution? My fear, and why I am writing this article, is that I think the answer is yes. I hope that it has changed since I left the Regular Force, but I fear it hasn’t.

Other military forces subscribe to the up or out philosophy, by policy. We do not, and nor should we, in my opinion. But nevertheless, we have a culture that is very closely aligned with it and I think it is to our (the CAF’s) detriment. Waiting until someone is sitting in front of you, telling you they need to release is too late for you to act concerned and ask what it is they really want to do, or why they are not satisfied. It is not the time to start bending over backwards, trying to appease someone and keep them in uniform. That is an afterthought, and nobody wants to be an afterthought. An afterthought is too little, too late. We owe our people more than that. If we value them as we say we do, if we value diversity as we say we do, then we should allow people the safe space to articulate what it is they want from their career without the fear that they are hammering a nail in their career coffin.

Transition is not the time to change a person’s mind. It is a time to wish them well, to set them up for success. Send them to their next destination with the hope that you have prepped them well, and someone else will reap the benefit of your efforts in training this person, and that will reflect positively upon the institution. Sometimes, transition is just because it was never a good fit. Sometimes, it is because of a physical or medical limitation. Sometimes, it is a cultural issue. Whatever the root cause, it should invite the institution to reflect and see where they can change. That I have yet to have been briefed in my 26 years of combined service on the attrition statistics speaks volumes to me. I am not bitter, but I am disappointed. We owe our people more than that. We owe them a safe space to have a conversation about their career aspirations, whatever they may be, without fear of repercussion. They are not an afterthought. Instead of too little, too late, let’s engage early and often with a view of doing a better job of striking the balance between the needs of the service and the needs of the member. I think that is a crucial part of leadership.

A Lifelong Education

17 years old, signing on the dotted line while wearing a 101 Dalmations watch!

I swore an oath to serve my country 26 years ago today, at the young age of 17. A few days later I crossed the country from one coast to the country to the other to begin my Basic Officer Training. I have such a distinct memory of sitting on the plane listening to music, with my two fellow Newfie recruits, and it was Blue Rodeo’s “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet.” The song is about something entirely different, but that line specifically resonated, and we all looked at each other and chuckled. It was about to hit us, about 24hrs later when we arrived at Canadian Forces Officer Candidate School in Chilliwack, British Columbia.

While it wasn’t a stretch for me to end up in the military, it wasn’t something I had a dream of doing. I knew about the Regular Officer Training Program (ROTP), and the Royal Military College, because my brother had signed up five years ahead of me. But to me, all it really represented was a free education. It was a way to get my degree paid for, with a guaranteed job at the end of it, I would be bilingual, and I would only have a minimum five year commitment upon graduation. There was also an escape clause; up until the first day of classes in your second year, you could opt out and owe nothing. Seemed to me that it was a great way to avoid a massive amount of student debt.

I picked up the application, but never followed through with submission. In fact, I had already accepted my offer from ST FX in Antigonish, Nova Scotia when the recruiter called me to follow up on my application. I had assumed I was too late by then. He told me to bring it with him when I came for an interview. So off I went. I recall the interview ended up being a lengthy discussion on my involvement with sports, and he asked me if I knew where any of the bases were located in Canada. To this day, that job interview is my one and only successful job interview, because when the offer came, the free education trumped the small entrance scholarship I had to St FX. And here we are still, 26 years later, all because I didn’t want to have student loans.

By a free education, I was simply referring to my Bachelor’s degree. That’s all I was really looking to get out of it. I can tell you though, that “free” education felt anything but free during my summer training in Gagetown, New Brunswick. I think on our week long defensive exercise in the summer of 1996 us ROTP Officer Cadets calculated what our salary equated to for an hourly wage, and it was less than $2/hour! When I look back on it now however, that Bachelors degree I was in search of for free was just a small drop in the bucket of lifelong learning that my career afforded me. My work anniversary has given me cause to reflect upon the lifelong education my career has provided.

I may not have a degree in sociology, but I have had 26 years of learning about people – their interactions, how they react when challenged, and conversely how they behave when they have idle time on their hands. I have seen team dynamics in play in a variety of settings – large group, small group, homogeneous, and diverse. I have bore witness to a multitude of different leadership styles, and been challenged by a wide range of followers or subordinates – the overachiever, the self-doubter, the cocky, to just the average soldier who wants to do their job well. I have seen them celebrate successes, and I have seen them grieve in times of loss. I have shared in some of those moments.

I have learned to be flexible and adaptable. While the military has taught me formal planning processes, the expressions “plan early, plan twice,” or “why plan when you can react” are used frequently enough in a somewhat joking manner, but based in reality because the situation often changes. Plans rarely survive contact, meaning all bets are off once you cross the line of departure. If you cannot react to change in the military, you are destined for failure.

Je suis capable de parler dans les deux langues officielles du Canada, not perfectly, but I can get by. Moreso, I have learned about communication in the broader context. I have learned the importance of timely and appropriate feedback on performance, whether it be positive or negative. I have had to deliver tough messages, bad news, and had to have uncomfortable conversations. I have had to rely on written communication to advocate for my soldiers (or myself), or to administer them out of the Canadian Armed Forces when it was necessary.

I have learned about accountability, authority, and responsibility, and how there must be an appropriate correlation between the three to be effective in your position. I have sometimes learned lessons about responsibility the hard way, where it was difficult for my perfectionist self to accept. Things will happen that are beyond your control, or direct influence, but as the leader you are ultimately responsible, and yes, sometimes that sucks.

I have had to undergo formal training throughout my entire career, with my most recent course having just been completed last week, the Unit Command Team Course. While my basic officer training, and my specific occupational training, all served to introduce and teach new skill sets that were necessary for me to do my job, the benefit of some of my other training was not in the new material being taught. In fact, I would be hard pressed to put my finger on new information or skills that either the Army Operations Course, the gateway to promotion to major that all Army captains take, or my Joint Command and Staff Programme, the gateway to Lieutenant-Colonel, taught me. By the time you arrive on those courses, depending on your background, what is being presented isn’t necessarily new or unfamiliar, but the value is in the opportunity to practise and exercise certain things in a learning environment with a cross section of officers from the Army or the Canadian Armed Forces. It is in the informal discussions and debates that arise in the conduct or in the margins of the course. The value is the connections that you make that will carry on throughout your career. From my perspective, the greater value of those courses are in the people with whom you attend and the professional relationships that are borne from it.

A career in the Canadian Armed Forces is a dynamic one that revolves around people. And being around people is always going to teach you something, whether you realize it or not. What I mention above is only a small snippet of the things I have learned in the past 26 years. The free education I signed up for turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving. It has given me a lifelong education.

A lot of thinking, not a lot of writing…

Hi folks, it’s been a really long time. You know how it goes, life gets busy and you lose your muse. That was me, until recently. Between the current events with protests in the USA, #BlackLivesMatter, and reconnecting with my university friends and having some deep discussion about our experiences in the military, I find that I’m looking inward more than I have of late. I need to chew on it, and I need to figure out if I actually have anything new to say, but it has caused me to circle back to an article I wrote in October of 2018, “Why Meritocracy is a False Ideal.” I was prompted to share it after viewing what General Charles Brown of the United States Air Force had to say.

Over the course of the past several weeks, many of my military friends have posted on Facebook a short paragraph about how they don’t see colour, they only see the uniform. I didn’t comment on any of those, but there was something about their particular post that nagged at the back of my mind. Listening to General Brown helped me get a grip on what it was exactly, and it sort of ties back (not entirely) to the what I allude to in my 2018 article that I have just added to this blog. But it’s deeper than that.

When my colleagues and friends were posting about not seeing colour, I do believe that their sentiment was well intended, but …. it somewhat misses the point.

I’m guilty of it myself. When asked about being one of the only or few women, especially in the early days, I often reply by saying that for the most part, folks in the military don’t care as long as you can do you job. There is a great deal of truth in that statement, but the statement in isolation does not give the full picture. It doesn’t acknowledge the pressure, feeling like you are living in two worlds at times. The lived experiences of the minority are very different than the lived experiences of the majority. I think you have to make an effort to see colour in order to begin to understand how deep and pervasive unconscious racism can be, let alone overt racism, especially when it isn’t your lived experience. There isn’t a quick and easy fix to racism or any other issue that is tightly woven into society over the course of history, but I do believe that it has to begin with a willingness to listen, to have tough conversations, to learn and overcome ignorance on the depth of the problem. So take a listen to this General Brown please. You can opt to read my article if you like, but his words are far more impactful, and relevant.

The outrageous-ness of moral outrage…

I had been relatively quiet in the virtual world the last little bit, partly because I was legitimately busy. I had recently been promoted and appointed as the Commanding Officer of 42nd Field Regiment (Lanark & Renfrew Scottish), RCA. But that wasn’t the only reason. There was a much more significant reason, a personal one.

I’m still processing and trying to decide how I feel. As I was working my way through that internal churn, I finally reached a place where I could write. I produced an article titled “Black, White, or Shades of Grey,” but I have been sitting on it for about two weeks. I wasn’t ready to put it out there. And then Don Cherry happened.

I am so tired of moral outrage. I am tired of people not being able to see the spirit of the message. I am tired of hypocrisy. I look at the contrast between the reaction to Don Cherry, his choice of words, and the fallout and out-cry from a nation, to that of what happened on Survivor two weeks ago. Contestant Jack uses the term “durag” when asking contestant Jamal to move a pot of rice. Jamal was offended. But what followed was an example of maturity, grace, and healthy discussion. Can we say the same about Don Cherry’s use of “you people?”

I don’t even want to join the debate on it. I have seen several posts or articles whereby people comment from a very neutral position, and I appreciate those very much. An opinion piece by Jessica Swietoniowski, “A response to Don Cherry’s firing from a daughter of immigrants” on The Post Millennial caught my eye, or one sentence in particular resonated with me, “Political correctness and cancel culture have taken leaps forward while moving us, a free society, backwards.” 

Suffice to say, it was time to share my article. My personal debate or turmoil over not taking a hard stance on things where others have has ended, especially after this past week. I’m a good person. I try to see the good in people, to see the message intended vice focus on the specific words, even though words do matter immensely. I used to use words and turns of phrases that I now know are inappropriate. But I did so ignorantly and innocently. In a world of glass houses we as a society seem to be pretty quick to pick up a stone and launch it. I think I’d rather hang out in the grey, and keep trying to muddle my way through common understanding.

Privilege of Command

On September 7th I was given a great privilege. I took command of 42nd Field Regiment, Lanark and Renfrew Scottish (RCA). It represented a significant milestone for me. When I enrolled in the military just over 25 years ago, the highest rank I could envision was that of Lieutenant-Colonel, or a Commanding Officer. That represented the pinnacle of one’s career. It was the goal I set out to achieve.

Within the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), there is an expression that command is command, meaning that all types of command at the various levels are created equal. It briefs well, but in terms of the impact to your career progression, it is false. The CAF still places primacy on “line” command, or operational command if you will. Command of an infantry rifle company is reserved for those whom we want to command the battalion. Command of the support companies are for those that are on a different path. Support company commanders may go on to command at the unit level, but it may be a training facility or a garrison, and not an infantry battalion or battle group. There is always an odd exception who manages to cross off the path they have originally been set upon, but it is rare. Given that we are raised in a culture of believing in the supremacy of operations, and that most of us joined the military as an officer so that we could lead troops in our chosen occupation, the philosophy of command is command, and that all commands are created equal is not always easy to accept at face value.

I commanded a Headquarters and Services Battery, combat service support folks – supply, transport, communications, maintenance and clerical support. If anyone would have dared to suggest that they were any less of a soldier, or any less critical to operations because they were a support trade vice an operator, the mama bear would have come out in me something fierce. To not subscribe to the philosophy of command is command would be a slap in the face to those soldiers and officers under my command. They deserved the very best leadership, as much as anyone else, and why should I suddenly doubt that I was less capable of giving that, just because I wasn’t selected for something different? It took a bit of introspection to realize this of course, because it is hard to ignore the culture that you have grown up in, but I am extremely thankful that I had that opportunity. I worked with a diverse group who all knew their jobs better than me. I translated artillery needs to them as best I could, and they made magic happen. I trusted them, and they rewarded me by exceeding my expectations.

Ultimately, I believe that command is command, regardless of the fact that the CAF does not necessarily reflect that in their succession planning processes. Anytime that you are entrusted with the care and leadership of soldiers, it is a privilege. It should not be taken for granted, and the responsibility is worthy of your best effort. I’m not going to lie. It was disappointing for me to not be selected for command of a field battery as a Major when I knew that it translated to the chain of command not believing I had the potential to command a field regiment. That was a tough pill to swallow. But that personal disappointment is not mutually exclusive of the pride that comes with the honour of being trusted to command.

I have once again been entrusted with command. I have been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and appointed as a Commanding Officer. I am very proud of that. I am invigorated by the challenge, and motivated to make some small impact that may not reverberate anywhere beyond our own unit lines. I can only hope that I can lead our unit appropriately, give the members what they require and deserve. I hope that I can provide the guidance and mentorship required to make a difference for the men and women who have opted to serve in a part time manner as part of our fine unit. A reserve unit is a different beast. It isn’t a lesser unit because of it’s size or part-time nature, it simply has an altogether different set of challenges than a field regiment of the regular force. I have had many kind words and congratulatory words offered. A few have said that 42nd is lucky to have me. I appreciate sincerely the sentiment behind those words, but ultimately I believe the opposite is true. They, the unit, are not lucky to have me, I am lucky to have them. I am fortunate to have this opportunity.

Lessons From a Dutchman

Overlooking Oberammergau, Germany.

I had the good fortune of attending a course at the NATO School Oberammergau this past May. A week long course, with an extra day for personal time in Munich, had a profound and lasting impact on me. I’ve always believed that the people we meet in our lives can always teach us something. I think my cheesy way of phrasing it when I was spitballing ideas for my blog title and purpose was, “The path of life is paved with people who will teach us along the way, provided we care enough to listen.” Through observing and interacting with other students of different nationality, both on the course and socially in the evening, I walked away with a different perspective, a renewed outlook. I came away with a willingness to allow myself the time to look inwards, and the courage to force myself to make changes.

There were several people that I meet that impacted me in some small measure, but for the purposes of this article, I have to single out a particular Dutchman. We were not on the same course, but met at the Meet & Greet on the Monday. He is what I like to call a people magnet. He draws people to him. His demeanour is inviting. He is funny and confident, engaging. I too can sometimes be a bit of a people magnet, in the right setting. But our polarity must have been correct that evening, because I was drawn into his circle rather than be repelled, and we hit it off. The group of us shared stories, we laughed, carried on, and bonded in a way that military folks will understand.

At some point in the evening, we decided to become Facebook friends. In perusing each other’s profiles, I remarked how the Dutch always seem to look so good, that they take pride in their appearance. Yes, I was stereotyping, but my limited exposure had showed me that they were not likely to be out at a Walmart in pajamas in the middle of the day. He agreed. He asked why we wouldn’t want to look good? Why wouldn’t you take pride in your appearance? If you look good, you feel good. He said he likes to look good for his wife, and she likes to look good for him. Not a word of this came across in a superficial, material, or chauvinistic way. He was really seeming to state it as fact. This aspect didn’t seem to be limited to the Dutch. It was something I had noticed from the Nordic nations as well. They all seemed genuinely happy and more importantly, they had an air of good health about them. Maybe there was something to their philosophy.

The next night was intended to be a quiet night. We had a fantastic course supper, and I shut down relatively early to head home with three others. Two had already veered off for their accommodations, and the one remaining wanted to stop for a last drink, in a platonic manner… just to be clear. I really didn’t want to, but this fellow seemed determined. Not wanting to be rude I acquiesced. I regretted it shortly after we were seated and having the drink. I often say I could talk to the side of the wall if it would listen, but having a conversation with this fellow was painful, especially without the rest of the group present. It was awkward. I all but chugged my really good German beer, and headed home.

The following evening I was lamenting the awkwardness of the drink the night before, and muttering about how I wished I could have gotten home that half an hour earlier and at least had a good night’s rest. My Dutch friend pointed out that us Canadians are just too nice. If I didn’t want to stop for that drink in the first place, I should have just said that. Intuitively, I know he is right, but yet I still cave. I often find myself being more concerned about other people’s feelings ahead of my own. Truth be told, it is probably more about me feeling bad for hurting someone else’s feelings; I’d rather avoid feeling bad and just have the damn drink. But for whatever reason, I’ll call it the Germany effect, with a dash of Dutchman delivery, I found myself agreeing with him. He was right. I had nobody to blame but myself because if I had wanted to go straight home, I should have just said that, and went straight home. Why have I somehow been incapable of seeing things so simply until then?

Through the course of the week, these little interactions seemed to be having an impact on me. The course itself was opening my mind to a new way of looking at things, something I was not expecting. The Friday evening I decided to make my way into town to say farewell to my new friends, the Dutchman and his classmates. Listening to them, hearing about how they live, what they spend their time doing, where their priorities are, it was as if I had donned a new pair of glasses and was seeing things in an entirely different light suddenly. I soaked it up. 

I headed to Munich in the morning, determined to make the most out of a solo day in a foreign country. I walked over 20km around the city, absolutely captivated by it. People make time to simply be in the moment. They seem to be more connected or intimate with whomever they are sharing their time. The vibe is laid back. They are present, happy, healthy, grounded. It didn’t feel frenzied. I vowed to make a change upon return home. 

I followed up my Munich trip with a message to my Dutch friend. I actually thanked him for unwittingly having been my therapist for the week. And he came back with another gem for me: If you talk, you are only saying things you already know. If you listen, you learn new things. That is why we have two ears and one mouth. The irony that I hadn’t heard that expression before was not lost on me. 

The Germany effect, with a dash of Dutchman, has me listening. Listening to others, and taking the time to listen to my inner self a little more. I’m also happy to report that I’ve been making some small progress on the changes I vowed – getting up earlier to start the day with walking the dog and a healthy breakfast, procrastinating less, prioritizing and being okay saying no to things. Small steps, easy changes, but one has to start somewhere.

Career Advice I Wish I Had Got

Since leaving the Regular Force I now breathe a little easier in the fall when the succession boards are occurring, and again in the spring when posting messages are cut. The angst and stress that are brought on by the two is something I do not miss, not in the least.

What carrot will be dangled? Where are they looking to send me? Where do I want to go? How can I tap dance or stick handle things to make the two align? Can I still progress while balancing my family needs? Will the boss understand my decisions or professional aims? It’s not an easy cycle to live through. Going back to the Royal Military College last fall reminded me of that, and prompted this article as a result. I hope you enjoy.

Feelings are deceptive assholes…

I wrote an article awhile ago for my alma mater’s newletter, e-Veritas. It was something that was stewing in my mind for a long time. I don’t know how many times I sat in mental health briefings in the military getting more and more pissed off by the minute with the language that was being used that was giving feelings far too much credence.

I’ve attached that article below, “Stigma and Stereotypes: Perception does not always equal reality.” This was my first attempt to articulate why I felt that way. Since then, I’ve read Mark Manson’s books, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, and Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope. For the record, he, and I’m sure a bunch of other smart people, explain this concept way better than me, about how feelings drive what we do, and sometimes not for the better. I encourage you to read his books, but likewise, I hope you’ll take a peek at my article!

Odd Ducks, Sesame Street Game & Fitting In

In my previous article, “Organizational Culture, Leadership, and the Power of Being Yourself,” I talk a little bit about fitting in, and having the confidence to be yourself. I put particular emphasis on the fact that I wanted what any other junior officer wanted: to be good at my job and earn the respect of my troops, my superiors, and my peers. I think that fitting in, and being acknowledged as competent, is a common sentiment felt by the majority of the workforce and it is indeed the exception that has no qualms about being the odd duck. But what does it mean when to fit in? What makes someone the odd duck? Or what about the one who is one of those things that is not like the other? Crazy though it may seem, I don’t ever want to be the odd duck, but I’m okay being one of those things that is not like the other.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an odd duck hater. There should be room for them in an organization as well. In fact, odd ducks increase the likeliness of thinking outside the box, they diversify an organization. Odd ducks get that description for reasons related to their behaviour. It isn’t a physical characteristic, they just march to a different beat. 

One of these things is not like the other is all about the physical appearances. It harkens back to the Sesame Street classic that was all about picking out the one thing that was a little bit different because of size, shape, colour, etc. It is tangible.

I was one of those things in my career. I was the girl. The female. The chick. The one that wasn’t a dude. I couldn’t do much to change that, so I had no choice but to accept it. But it was not always that straight forward and simple. It still isn’t. A conversation I had Friday night has me circling back to this topic again.

I meet a rock star from our small military world this past Friday, one I had heard plenty about, but our paths surprisingly had never crossed. Yes, she is also one of those things that is not like the other. But more importantly, she’s the triple threat in the world of combat engineers: airborne, combat diver, and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) qualified. She is combat tested and proven. A leader. A role model. For anyone, of any gender. We hit it off, and got to talking about our experiences and backgrounds. The thing I have noticed that her, two of my close female infantry friends, and I have in common is that we all hail from small east coast towns/villages whereby gender was irrelevant. Nobody told us we couldn’t do things that the boys could. Instead, we were expected to do things that the boys did – carry in the wood, help with the lobster traps, bailing hay, etc. Maybe that’s just a coincidence, but I suspect it had a large part to do with our successes in a male dominated environment.

In a lot of ways, we “fit in” right from the start in the military. From a behaviour standpoint, we were not odd ducks. From a physical appearance side of the house however, we were one of those things that was not like the other. Each of our abilities to embrace that was probably a little different. In Friday evening’s discussion we got to talking about how we dressed (or didn’t dress) to downplay our femininity. I remembered my first few months in the regiment. It was nerve racking to get dressed if it called for civilian attire. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. As I mentioned in my article I referenced, following the conversation I had with my TSM whereby he gave me my confidence back, I stopped caring. I came fully to the realization that I am a woman, and I was done with trying to downplay that fact. I still was very cognizant that I had to be dressed professionally, in a manner that reflected my position as an officer, but if someone happened to notice I was a woman, or checked out my ass in my jeans, that was a reflection on them, not on me. It need not have any bearing on my ability to do my job. I came to that realization early on in my career. Others do not. Some never do. Some have doubts along the way. I did.

In Afghanistan, when I learned that on the camp I was being referred to as catwoman in the gym because I was wearing all black, lycra pants and a fitted dri-fit shirt, I was mortified. I stopped wearing that to the gym…for a stint. Slowly, once again, I came to the “fuck it” moment. Fuck them. This is more comfortable and easier to wear, and I don’t give a shit if they get their jollies off of ogling me looking sweaty and gross, red in the face, trying to keep myself in shape. I actually think it bothered my crew more than me in the end. It was like they were talking about their sister or something.

The “fuck it” moment can be a magical moment. It equates to a level of self-confidence that is empowering. You take positive control over yourself, your reactions to others, and their perception of you. It is remarkably freeing.

So if I can come to that “fuck it” conclusion so easily over physical appearance, and am okay with being one of those things that is not like the other, what’s my hang up about being an odd duck? Well, my physical appearance is just that. I can’t really change it in the grand scheme of things. But if I’m an odd duck, that speaks to the core of who I am. It is my personal culture so to speak – the vibe I give off, maybe it’s my values? It is something inherent in who I am as a person that is different enough from the rest that it warrants the moniker odd duck.

Behaviour, unlike physical appearance, is far more malleable. Consequently, the pressure to change would be greater. I would not want to fundamentally alter who I am to fit into a work place culture, and I think it would be exhausting to always feel a little bit different than everyone else. I would rather find myself a work place culture I’m more in step with. But that’s just me. I don’t have the level of self-actualization required to pull off odd duck status. To those that do, I tip my hat to you, because we do need you.

I stand by what I put in that article:

There needs to be congruence or harmony between the individual and the organizational culture. If they are at odds, there will be dissatisfaction with one of three likely outcomes:

  • the employee leaves;
  • the employee stays but is unhappy and the dissatisfaction permeates through other facets of life, not just work; or
  • depending on the organization and the individual’s status within it, they can exercise leadership and gradually shift the culture over time.

Every organization has a culture, some more pronounced and rigid than others, but there is room for everyone within that culture. Be yourself. While great leaders will always find a way to adapt to the environment or situation, this does not mean they alter who they are fundamentally. We need leaders who have the strength and courage to remain true to themselves. Through being yourself, and promoting that message to your subordinates, we contribute to healthy workplace culture that is capable of growing and is supported by a more diverse foundation.

Easy words to say perhaps, when you’re not an odd duck.

Do traits really need to be labeled as masculine or feminine???

This may just be a personal pet peeve of mine. Maybe I am the only one whose blood pressure starts to go up when I hear people categorizing traits into the category of masculine or feminine, but I just can’t help it. It drives me bonkers. I find it to be a useless and unnecessary exercise. It’s for that reason when I stumbled across a particular article, it struck a nerve, and it drove me to the keyboard. It was an angry rant kind of article that came out of it for me. Check it out if you like, “I Dislike Labels…Strongly.”