Deliberate Professional Development key to supervising successful Airmen

LAUGHLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- I recently had the opportunity to participate in the selection of the 19th Air Force Outstanding Airmen of the Year. Nominations came from across 19th AF and each Airman was clearly worthy of their nomination. The board spent many hours individually evaluating each nomination and then came together to discuss our findings. Eventually we arrived at a consensus and selected winners for each category. Once the selections were made, discussions shifted to the incredible things our Airmen are doing everyday.

As I traveled back home to Laughlin, I couldn't help reviewing and replaying the entire evaluation and selection process. I knew we had incredible Airmen, but wow! Talk about sharp! But then it occurred to me, we have lots of sharp Airmen out there doing their best everyday, yet we're able to narrow the field down to select a few Airmen as the best of the best.

Is it as simple as what a friend told me? He says, "cream always rises to the top." So we should be able to identify traits common to each winner...tenacity, hard work, leadership? Of course, those are all there, but it's no accident these Airmen were nominated for these prestigious awards. I've come to believe there's another element almost always present in our most successful Airmen: Deliberate Professional Development.

Simply put, this means doing everything we can as supervisors to help our Airmen become their best. With DPD, the supervisor and subordinate work together to build a plan focused on developing the subordinate's skills and abilities, both on and off duty, over the long term. It combines formal and informal training and classes, technical proficiency and leadership as well as participation and leadership in professional organizations and our communities. The key is both understanding what's expected, why, how they'll achieve it, how they know they're succeeding and how to stay on course. It's not a one-time, self-sustaining effort; it's ongoing, requiring constant evaluation, feedback and sometimes adjustment. Easy right? No, it's hard work, and things don't always go as planned.

Earlier in my career, a supervisor was constantly on me about taking the next step in an area he felt I needed to work on: my Community College of the Air Force Degree. I had finished all the requirements some time earlier, except, yep, Algebra. For years I avoided it, but my supervisor, understanding it was a key step in my development, insisted, rather forcefully, that I finish my degree. Fed up, I let him know I didn't need his help and my career was going just fine. Instead of getting angry and giving up on me, he pressed harder and eventually, I got so fed up I said, "FINE, I'll take the class."

I come from a proud, hard-working blue-collar family, but a degree was not something any of my brothers and sisters had achieved. I can't accurately explain what it felt like the day I walked across the stage and received my associates degree, and with the continued support of supervisors and family, in spite of deployments, operations tempo etc., I've continued my education. But getting the degrees is not the story; the ongoing deliberate professional development is. I've had supervisors who understood this and kept me focused on what was important: doing and achieving your best.

Recently a leader shared his frustration that his Airmen had not garnered the recognition he believed they deserved. Many of us, at some point, have likely felt the same. Some would like to change the criteria, or categories or eligibility or something. Others however re-evaluate the deliberate professional development plan they devised for their Airmen to see if they're on course. This re-evaluation however is not to win more awards. It's to determine if the supervisor and subordinate are still focused on developing the subordinate's skills and abilities, both on and off duty, over the long term. I know though, it's easy not always easy to do DPD. We all have a lot to focus on.

We're assigned to units with very different missions, work loads and duty hours, and while each presents their own challenges, each provides unique benefits and opportunities as well. My point is that no unit or Air Force Specialty Code has the market cornered on hard work or long hours. With DPD however, we're able to establish a plan that takes those things into account and leads our Airmen along a deliberate path towards their best.

Yes, it is true, cream does rise to the top, but it's the deliberate part of professional development that often makes the difference. Excellence is rarely achieved or sustained by accident. Now could be your time to re-evaluate, or for some, establish deliberate professional development plans.