Unfortunately, this worked too well. When an organization collects a group of motivated performers, it has a right to expect each will land on his or her feet and meet the needs of the service. The decades-old policy of on-the-job training was in fact very effective. But, it was also very inefficient.
What other job in the Coast Guard places a group in a demanding role with no indoctrination or advance support? Boarding officers and boarding team members have access to weeklong courses with qualified instructors. If that option does not present itself, then operational units must still educate and process their boarding officers and team members through an extensive PQS (Personal Qualification Standards) regimen which covers all the basics of the job. The same applies to small boat coxswains and surfmen. Prospective commanding officers, executive officers, and operations officers attend mandatory one—or two—week long courses prior to their reporting aboard a new cutter. Clearly, the Coast Guard places great emphasis on preparation; the service does not want its members to fail.
This policy has always been waived with the flag aides, however. These individuals—upwards of 20 officers—play a vital role in the daily professional lives for a majority of the flag officers in the Coast Guard. Despite these weighty responsibilities, every in-coming flag aide was denied the benefit of a short course of "dos, don'ts, and must-haves." Their only recourse was to independently fabricate this training without coordination or support while lacking any standardization.
Concerned about seeing this trend continue, the 2003-2004 cadre of aides proposed the idea of hosting their own conference—at their office's expense—on the campus of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. The intention was to create a standard syllabus of training for every in-coming aide, and to provide him or her mutual access to fundamental policy expertise. With the full support of both the superintendent and the assistant superintendent of the Academy, the incumbent aides created a two-day syllabus to address every detail from dining etiquette and uniform appearance to intergovernmental outreach, use of discretionary funding, and legal restrictions on hosting functions. The conference provided a slate of significant guest speakers including speech writers, protocol experts, current flag quarter's staff, legal officers, flag secretaries, Coast Guard Foundation executives, congressional affairs and intergovernmental affairs liaisons, security experts, former aides, and even a museum curator.
By all accounts, the conference was a great success. Whether or not the conference is repeated, all future aides will benefit from the handbook of basic instruction and guidelines distributed during the May 2004 conference. One of the most prized sections in the handbook was a compilation of advice and lessons learned from Coast Guard flag aides both past and present.
The following is a consolidated list of those lessons. It is the authors' hope that these prove useful to aides in all branches of service.
You and Your Principal
•Remember whom you work for—always. It is your job to serve the flag officer, not the operations officers, the executive officers, etc. Protect the admiral's best interest.
•Remember whose schedule it is—accept changes on the fly—no matter how much sweat you have invested. You must be able to adjust accordingly.
•Always know where the boss is. One of the most difficult tasks for an aide is to prevent your admiral from being outside your field of vision no matter what the time of day or what his/her destination.
•Do not overextend your boss—remember your flag officer is only human, too. Meeting after meeting without time to think or process paperwork will result in an irritable admiral. Make sure "private time" is on the schedule—and that it is not interrupted.
•Never answer for the boss. Speaking for him/her will only get you into enormous amounts of trouble.
•Always be honest and forthright with your boss, even when the truth hurts. Your admiral did not rise to this position by ignoring bad news.
•Do not bother the admiral with a routine or non-urgent problem after 1600. Instead, check with the chief of staff or executive assistant.
•Alert your admiral of important meetings, and provide him/her with necessary read-aheads.
•Keep your principal apprised of opportunities to thank, praise, and recognize others. Everyone loves e-mails and written notes from a flag officer.
• Consider your relationship with the admiral as identical to attorney-client. Others should not hear what you two discuss.
• Seek permission before transmitting. If your principal expresses satisfaction or displeasure with someone, ask directly if he/she wants you to relay that message.
• Invest time in your relationship with your principal. Only time together can build a bond of trust. Insert yourself on his/her calendar once a week. Ask him/her to clarify priorities. Above all else: LISTEN.
• When your principal asks for criticism and advice on his/her speaking style and presentation, give an honest and critical answer. Your principal will be looking to you to make them look good.
• Take notes on your principal's speaking style during speeches and presentations. Debrief with him/her on any bad habits, repetitions, or incorrect format that you were able to identify.
• Establish good working relationships with other members of the flag officer's personal staff. Highlight successes and give your flag officer opportunities to compliment them. When appropriate, nominate them for awards.
• Do nothing in a vacuum. Copy the administrative assistants on EVERY calendar or detail-specific e-mail.
• Unify the staff, and make it clear there is a team. Identify all the stakeholders (including the person in-charge of your motor pool) and keep them in the loop.
• Keep the governmental affairs officer (GAO) informed of every expected interaction with local/state/federal government officials. Communicate frequently. He/she plays a critical role in supporting your principal.
• Invigorate your relationship with the ethics officer with frequent communication. He/she is usually treated like a mortician-people see him/her and automatically assume bad news. Any gifts exchanged? Inform the ethics officer. Any politicians coming to visit? Connect the GAO with the ethics officer.
• Keep the chief of staff or executive assistant informed of everything that goes on between you and the admiral. Often, that officer has been in your shoes before and can lend valuable insight.
• Make friends with other aides and make sure they are informed of your principal's visit to their unit.
• Actively support visits from other flags and their aides.
• Never hesitate to seek advice from the staff legal officer.
• Clarify the difference between you carrying an official message from the admiral and you having an unofficial conversation with your own opinions.
• Be sensitive to the fact that many O-6s are aware of your close access to the boss. They will either want to mine you for data or will infer flag intentions from what you say.
• Work closely with the command master chief (CMC) or command enlisted advisor (CEA). Travel together, and ensure he/she has visibility at meetings that fit in the CMC (CEA) portfolio.
• Do not let the small slights and comments offend you. There will be occasions where no matter how professional and accommodating you are; others will not be. Do not take this behavior personally.
• Do not wear the admiral's stars. Remember to stay within your pay grade.
Protocol and Preparedness (Semper Paratus)
• Use checklists. These will minimize those small details that tend to slip through the cracks, thus avoiding the potential for embarrassing the admiral.
• Write It Down! Always have a pen and something to write on. If you rely on memory alone, you might forget it. 3" x 5" cards are compact, convenient, and durable.
• Carry extra writing implements (pens, pencils, etc.) for your principal.
• Always carry two copies of the schedule: one for your principal, one for you. Actually, bring a third copy—someone will always need it most when you don't have it available.
• Carry a miniature "survival kit" for every visit away from the office. A survival kitshould contain: Flag officer's business cards, flag coins, Post-It notes, index note-cards, black pens, superglue, extra copies of the flag officer's biography, extra copies of the flag officer's official portrait (at least one), uniform spare parts, extra shoelaces, extra garrison cover, medal presentation hooks, and a laminated copy of his/her flag (for vehicle windows).
• Ensure your cell phone is always charged. It is the first thing your flag officer will reach for as his/her battery dies in mid-conversation.
• Carry breath mints. You will be doing a great deal of meeting and greeting. Share them with your principal.
• There is no substitute for careful, exhaustive preparation. Your goal should be "no surprises," and though this is not attainable, its pursuit will serve you well.
• No visit is routine.
• Know the government ethics standards cold. It is the mere appearance of impropriety—not necessarily an actual offense—that will get your admiral in trouble.
• Always follow-up on problems.
• Check the admiral's government credit card limit. Use vigilance and foresight to avoid embarrassing situations.
• Ensure you are familiar with the strict rules regarding AFC 30 distribution of flag officer coins.
• Understand technology. Some flags officers are more technically inclined than others. Those who are not will look to the aide to comprehend the finer point of operating PDAs, secure cell phones, laptop computers, etc.
• Be aware of current issues, operations, and "the pulse" (i.e. general attitude) of your service. Your flag officer may look to you for commentary, feedback, and—at times—recommendations.
• Never assume that someone else has taken care of the details and logistics—because they probably have not.
• Do not recreate the wheel unless it is required. Once you get a template for an acceptable item (i.e. change-of-command speech, flag thank-you letter, etc), you can most likely cut and paste for subsequent, similar items.
• Be cool. If things are not going according to plan, calm others down and stay focused on the mission. Flag officers do not get riled up if the order of the official party is imperfect. They DO get riled up when there is no order at all , and no one is making an effort to coordinate.
• Be patient and supportive of project officers and points-of- contact. Help them look good.
• If more than one project officer or point-of-contact makes the same mistake repeatedly, there is most likely a systemic problem. Identify it—and help adjust expectations. Written guidance to each new project officer never hurts.
• Fix very few things yourself. There must be accountability, and there must be a systematic approach to running daily operations. Refer problems directly to the process owner, project officer, etc.
• Plastic shower caps from hotels make great combination cover protectors.
• When in doubt, check the uniform regulations. You will wear all uniforms at least once on this job. If not you, then your principal will.
• Conduct a final patrol of all locations. Be the last person out of the hotel room; be the last person to inspect the vehicle before it departs from your admiral. Always look for misplaced papers, personal items, etc.
• Avoid driver-overload. If the boss starts giving directions in the vehicle, just listen. The last thing the driver needs is simultaneous (and conflicting) orders from a flag officer and junior officer.
• Have the driver conduct dry runs. Mapquest is a great tool, but is always complemented best with a full-color atlas ($4.95 at most retail stores) and local advice/insights.
• Shipboard arrivals: The admiral arrives while being piped aboard. After the pipe, the aide follows.
• Shipboard departures: The aide crosses the brow, and then waits at the foot (saluting). The admiral ultimately departs while being piped ashore.
• Plane and boat arrivals/departures: The admiral is the last one onboard, and the first one ashore. Expose them to danger and inconvenience for the least amount of time.
• Ensure the driver remains at the airport until your official party is airborne. Aircraft have a tendency to break on the tarmac. Do not be left stranded.
• When flying with two planes, always ensure the luggage is on your plane.
• Ensure official military aircraft have completed airspace/foreign clearances. These will be separate from flag officer foreign clearances.
• Before visiting new units, districts, areas, fleets, etc., insist on updated statistics (i.e. lives saved, drugs interdicted, hours of icebreaking, etc).
• Leave enough time on the itinerary to accomplish all objectives.
• Make sure the itinerary reflects what your principal wants to accomplish.
• Always establish a point-of-contact for each trip, and communicate clear expectations with him/her.
• Transportation: always have a contingency plan. Do not allow outside pressures, such as late arrival or non-arrival for a scheduled event, to force you to sacrifice safety.
• When dependent on another unit for ground transportation, ensure you have the name and cell phone number of the duty driver meeting you. Agree upon a specific place to meet.
• Assume nothing. Double-check everything. Ask very specific questions—but be polite.
• Set aside one hour a day to workout. Overweight or "pudgy" aides are not allowed. Keep your workout time sacred. If you do not, no one else will.
• Everyone will recognize you by your aiguillette. Start greeting/waving to everyone. Learn names as best you can. Shake hands often. No one cares if you are having a bad day—so, always smile.
• Double-check your appearance and the overall quality of your uniforms. Pay attention to the waistband and hems on your trousers. Buy a new belt buckle. Purchase ultra-thin ribbons. Use shirt stays. Have a stand-by uniform (always)—including a fully rigged second windbreaker.
• Set aside 30 minutes a day to iron your uniform and polish your shoes. You are allowed to wear the same shirt/trousers for more than one day. You are NOT allowed to have yesterday's wrinkles on today's uniform.
• It is handy to have your own business cards with contact information; other commands will appreciate the quick exchange.
• Let the boss know what your career goals are, and how he/she can help you achieve them. This type of exchange is appropriate after you have established a solid, trusting relationship with your principal.
• Remember, you are the highest compliment your flag officer can send to a visiting, senior-ranked officer. Any visiting dignitary who outranks your principal merits your presence to greet, escort, transport, etc.
Lieutenant Commander Carroll is an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. He served as aide to the Superintendent from 2003-2004. His previous operational tours included USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB-11), USS O'Brien (DD-975), and USCGC Kalmai Bay (WTGB-101). Lieutenant (JG) Kico is the current aide to the Superintendent, and the Assistant Planning Officer at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Her previous assignment was USCGC Juniper (WLB-201). She is a 2002 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.