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I’ve never been fond of tests. Not to measure how much you “learned” last semester. Certainly not to see how much “potential” you have to succeed. So when other training directors rolled out what they called a “Murder Board,” I was skeptical.
My experience with “murder boards” is exclusive to the military, although I’ve heard of similar concepts in both the private and public sector. Candidates for a new set of responsibilities or job progression receive study material that’s been categorized in some manner. For example, you’re looking to promote one of your storefront associates to assistant manager. To determine which ones are ready to make the leap, you build a slideshow that describes every part of the business (e.g., operations, inventory, finance). You ask them to study it for a week, then prepare to answer questions, one or two from each category, when they come to work next week. You let them know the session is nothing more than a “datapoint,” something to help indicate their proficiency as associates. But in reality, it’s a filtering mechanism. If an associate misses a certain number of questions, you’ll pass him over for someone else. Or if none meet your standard, you may hire from outside the team. You know the standard and the consequences of not meeting it, and keep both to yourself. This was a moment in our evolution as Air Force nuclear missile operators.
I was a new training director excited for a change in scenery, and to apply six months of intense training from the Air Force’s version of Top Gun to help 65 operators sharpen their combat edge. As the senior of four flight commanders or mid-level supervisors, my position straddled multiple roles. I was a lead trainer, technical advisor to senior commanders (upper management), and most importantly, a crewmember and fellow Airman in a squadron of nearly 100. It was a daunting task that I’d asked for. And I was excited for it.
In the unit barely a week, I learned about our “Murder Board” program. Senior deputy commanders — equivalent to the junior pilot on a flight crew — received a bank of questions and access to academic material from their immediate supervisor or flight commander. They’d have a few weeks to study in some cases, but every board included an extemporaneous component where panelists peppered the deputy with questions, then allowed only five minutes preparation time to respond. Officially, these boards were designed to improve a crewmember’s technical knowledge, encourage robust research and study habits, and challenge young officers to communicate effectively under pressure. It sounded good on the surface; all of those qualities contribute to an officer’s success as a leader. But the unwritten rule underlying these boards was the true motivator, and what aggravated most of our Airmen. Deputies who didn’t ‘pass’ might lose an upcoming promotion or assignment, including those for which they’d already been selected. The managers and training directors who had invented the program tried to allay such concerns, reminding everyone there were ”no penalties” for poor performance on a board; they were merely “opportunities to learn” and there was no limit to how many boards a deputy could meet before meeting the “standard.” The problem, among many, was that we never knew what that standard was.
Near the end of my first month, one of my fellow flight commanders invited me to a murder board scheduled for one of the deputies in his 16-person flight. The squadron commander, leader of the 100-person unit, tasked me with shepherding the program but I wasn’t yet convinced of its efficacy after watching only one other. I’d learned in the past (the hard way) that you can’t join a new team and immediately seek to upturn the status quo. Change, even for the better, takes time and requires observation. The appointed day, a Friday, began like most of the others.
My desk placed me within sight of the squadron’s ‘back door’ and direct access to the main parking lot. An hour before the board’s start time, the deputy walked in. “CJ,” as she’ll be known for this article, was in her Air Force blue shirt and slacks, carrying her tie-tab and dress coat on a hanger. I recognized her from a recent review I’d received of every squadron member when I arrived. The other supervisors went through each person using a whiteboard covered in pictures, each one fixed to the board magnetically and resembling the unit’s organizational chart. It was a convenient way to learn names and faces and their administrative relationships. But those same supervisors also provided commentary as they pointed around the board. Their input would be important, knowing everyone better than I could. But I’d also come to find their input was tainted by bias, and in some cases isolated mistakes born not of negligence but genuine confusion or inadequate training. CJ had not been well-reviewed. She’d just been through a whirlwind of interviews, part of an investigation into a critical operational error committed in the previous month. CJ had been through plenty in the last month. This was probably the last thing she needed. I turned to her flight commander’s desk and found it empty. I vaguely remember him walking out–I had no idea where he’d gone. I went back to what I was doing.
Thirty minutes later, I wrapped up my paperwork in-progress to prepare for the board. I went to the restroom, then took a short walk around the squadron’s common area. The murder board should’ve comprised CJ’s flight commander, another flight commander, me, and invited observers. Cloudy guidance, I know. Perhaps that was the point. I was still the only flight commander around. I didn’t yet have access to the entire building, so there were only so many places I could look. This ends up a key moment in my eventual lesson learned. I should have either found someone who could help me find the others, or decided on my own that we should cancel CJ’s board.. I found CJ down the hall and greeted her, “Good morning.” She muttered “‘Morning” back and walked on. I asked after her if she was ready. “Yeah.” Should’ve been another sign.
Back at my desk with five minutes remaining, I found one of our crew supervisors on the couch reading a technical manual. He asked where everyone was.
“I don’t know, but we have a murder board in five minutes.”
“Oh CJ’s. I hope it happens this time.”
“I think this is her third try.”
The puzzle was falling into place. Today wasn’t CJ’s third try after two “failures.” It was her third try after being twice stood up. Her board was rescheduled because board members couldn’t make it. Once because the squadron commander had a conflict, the other went unexplained. Our leadership culture at the time did not prioritize transparency; if anything, it prized information and access as units of currency. Senior managers retained the right to be late, cancel, and change operating standards with little notice and no justification. I’m the last to cast stones in this regard; I’ve been late for meetings with my Airmen and unit training events before, I’ve kept students waiting and have neglected my obligation to notify them in advance. I’ve never been perfect at keeping my schedule, and so have done everything I can to maintain a certain grounding for everyone around me. I’ve never been late to a mission brief, never launched weapons late in training or testing, and never compromised my integrity during evaluations. Some things are more important than others. Nevertheless, none of that excuses CJ’s Sisyphean battle with the other supervisors to get this board over and done with. It was time.
I left the office and stepped around the corner into our conference room. CJ waited at the foot of a long table, staring back at three empty chairs on the opposite end.
“Just us?” I asked.
“Yeah, looks like this isn’t going to happen today.”
I was speechless. I asked her to wait a few minutes while I tried again to retrieve at least her supervisor. With the two of us, we could get this thing going and move CJ forward. I roamed the halls asking other officers and passers-by. No one had seen any of our flight commanders. I didn’t know what they drove, hadn’t seen our commander all morning, and no one else on our support staff knew where they could be. I turned the last cornerback to the conference room as CJ came through the door toward me.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t find Captain ——— or ———-. If you want, you and I could sit down and go through it?”
I thought my offer generous, if that’s the right word. I felt I had enough knowledge to work on the technical material with her, ask a couple of questions, then maybe call the murder board complete without much fuss. She turned her head slightly, if only to acknowledge me begrudgingly.
“Your opinion doesn’t matter.”
I stopped and turned around to watch CJ walk away.
I appreciate that you’ve made it this far. I hope this story provides the context important to understand where CJ was coming from by the time she delivered her last remark. As my younger self, I might have chased her and scolded her disrespect. I might have felt offended or taken it personally. Thankfully, I’d learned a lot since my first year as a leader and none of these responses came to mind. But I was struck by her transparency in a world where we were encouraged to demonstrate anything but.
Related: How to Receive Constructive Feedback Effectively
Whether you can empathize with CJ’s position, her response was feedback. It wasn’t constructive in the moment, but was absolutely necessary in the long-term. CJ and I have since talked (and laughed) about that moment, where her message was simple: You’re new, you wouldn’t understand, and there’s nothing you can do to help me. And she was right. Mostly. I was new and didn’t have the whole story, on her or anyone else. But her remark brought to my mind a whole new set of questions. About the culture I’d walked into and how many others were suffering under supervisors focused on the wrong priorities.
Related: 6 Tips for Hearing Tough Feedback
I never shared the episode with the other supervisors. I asked them later that day why they failed to reschedule, or at least let someone in the office know they were stuck elsewhere. Turns out, both were at a “morale event.” A party, held ahead of the town’s annual fair and rodeo. Our Airmen were co-opted every year to volunteer to work at the fair, both to show solidarity with the town and raise money for the base’s various programs and booster clubs. The flight commanders, pulled to the event by our commander, forgot the board was happening. Neither pushed back on our boss’ expectations nor thought it necessary to adjust his approach so we could complete the board on schedule. Their answers didn’t matter so much. The lessons are valuable, but not relevant to CJ. We let her down through poor judgment and a failure to set priorities in line with our values. What did matter was how far we’d fallen as leaders in CJ’s eyes that she felt comfortable telling me off in an open hallway. We had a lot of work to do as leaders and would have been tempted to dismiss CJ’s comment as snide and unworthy of attention. But her comment meant more than any operator’s answer to a direct question. It was a moment that would help define how we welcomed new operators to our squadron and trained them to be the best on the base.
Turning away from feedback is to turn away from critical opportunities to innovate and improve your team, no matter where you are. Never turn your back on what your teammates say and how they feel. To do so is not only to alienate others as a leader but to guarantee your team’s path to stagnation.
Related: How to Give Employee Feedback Effectively (and Why It Matters)