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Communication, Listening Keys to Facilitating Change

Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. -- Suggested pull quote: "I tried to communicate frequently and in person. I tried to respond quickly to sensitive issues and topics. And...I listened! I listened to hear, not to answer. I listened to understand, not to judge."

As I look around Little Rock Air Force Base, and the entire Air Force for that matter, I am astonished by the pace and level of change. Our Armed Forces face fiscal austerity many of us have never experienced. That austerity is driving mandatory adjustments. At Little Rock alone, there are operational squadrons transitioning primary weapons systems. The C-130H formal training unit is transitioning the flying portion of its mission to the 189th Airlift Wing, Arkansas Air National Guard. The 22nd Air Force, Detachment 1 is transitioning from a training mission to a combat-coded mission. There are students actively engaged in training, but their follow-on assignments have been canceled or are unknown. In other cases, follow-on bases have changed after families have settled down creating additional stress and anxiety on our Airmen. There are flight engineers and navigators (as well as other specialists) being displaced by technological advancements as the C-130J replaces the C-130H fleet across the base and across the Air Force. These are just a few examples of the near term challenges we are facing. The picture gets even more complicated when we throw budgetary and financial concerns in the mix!

We don't need a "Rocket Scientist" to tell us leadership is essential when our organizations are faced with the challenges mentioned above. Countless books and articles have been published on the topic of leading organizations through change and crisis. Every Airman at Little Rock has grappled with and has been affected by change, and every Airman has a role to play as a change agent as we forge ahead in the face of uncertainty. People naturally ask and think "What about me?" when faced with the types of challenges our Air Force currently faces. Beyond doubt, managing and leading through change can be a daunting task.

Each time I entered command or a formal leadership position I faced a myriad of issues. One of my greatest challenges came with squadron command. I had no idea what to expect and no idea how to manage or provide meaningful leadership in the face of such drastic change. The unit was not performing at its best; there were multiple ongoing disciplinary issues, morale was low, people were uneasy as the J-model transition lurked on the horizon, and basic discipline was beginning to atrophy. As exciting as being in charge was, that excitement was overshadowed by a healthy amount of fear and anxiety. As I entered this rapidly changing and uncertain environment, I used the following nuggets of wisdom to calm the waters.

I read plenty of books and articles telling me that being a strong change catalyst was critical to being an effective mentor and leader. My first challenge was to move through my personal emotions so I could effectively assist and lead others. My next goal was to focus on communication. I tried to communicate frequently and in person. I tried to respond quickly to sensitive issues and topics. And...I listened! I listened to hear, not to answer. I listened to understand, not to judge. During any type of organizational change, most people will react emotionally, not logically. So if we are communicating to others based on emotion, we may be sending messages that may not be conducive to moving forward. In my specific circumstances, I focused my communications with superiors, peers and subordinates on understanding the reasons, results and ramifications of the change.

I quickly figured out people wanted to know that I cared personally, long before they cared what I knew intellectually. As such, I was careful to hear the concerns of others without feeding into sentiment behind it. In times of change, we hear many things. Some information will be true, some will be assumptions, some will be misunderstandings and some will be pure fiction. I found that focusing on what was being said and understanding the feelings behind the words helped me acknowledge the concerns of others without contributing to any true or false impressions. I also tried to help others gain new insights by asking, and encouraging others to ask questions. All of my management classes taught me change is definitely a process and that times of change were not the times to be silent. There were times I asked or answered the same questions over and over. As leaders, we are here to support and help guide people and organizations through acclimation.

Finally, I challenged myself and others to embrace the opportunity. Change and uncertainty are always scary because of the "unknowns". I encourage every Airman to explore and find a level of comfort in the grand scheme of things. Look for opportunities created by change. Take the time to learn your strengths, seize opportunities and look for new and better ways to capitalize on the changes presented by the current challenges. These changes may open doors or create opportunities for you which you never knew existed!
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