Service and Serendipity – Ten Reflections Prior to Sub Unit Command

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I was recently selected for a sub-unit command appointment and as with all significant milestones, this selection made me pause and look at where I’ve come from. In particular, I have reflected on a paper that my dad wrote as a Navy career advisor on junior officer career paths, titled Touched by the Fairies. My story of service can be best summarised in one word, serendipitous. What follows are ten reflections of when the fairies have influenced my professional trajectory, which I hope may also come in handy for other junior officers as they progress through the first parts of their careers.

As a 19-year-old who’d just started a Physio degree – having 18 months earlier shifted targets from becoming a professional ballet dancer – I never would have imagined that by 2021 I’d be a Company Commander in the Australian Army. To be honest I didn’t even know what this was.

But I saw an ad on a bus on my way to class, with a long haired yahoo’s face – that looked surprisingly like my own – pasted onto an Army uniform with the word ‘Physiotherapist’ printed alongside and that afternoon I put in my application through Defence Force Recruiting.

Reflection 1 – Always look forward and take the first step.

Fast forward to late 2010 and having completed my degree, I marched into my first unit ready to change the world… and found a world that seemed, to be honest, a little behind the times. So, I proceeded to make a bunch of mistakes, not because the intent behind my ideas or actions were wrong, but because I hadn’t taken the time nor had the experience to understand the organisation I was now a leader within. I was quite frankly, a pest. Thankfully, however, one of the more senior officers saw something in me, pulled me under his wing, and showed me the ropes of how I could take my enthusiasm and communicate it for affect.

Reflection 2 – Communication is contextual, to advise you need to understand your audience and your organisation.

We move to late 2012, and I get a phone call from a desk officer within a strategic HQ asking if I’d be interested in deploying early the following year. I am a bit taken aback, I had no idea how this bloke knew who I was, but I figured if they need a physio, it might as well be me, so I said yes. The following year I spend five and a half months working with an amazing group of people, in a far off land and really start to understand the value of small team health effects in austere environments.

Reflection 3 – Have a bias for saying yes.

I returned to Australia and on promotion to Captain, ended up as the sole physio in my geographically isolated sub-unit. This posed a challenge, as through a regional level agreement a physio was required full time to augment the local health centre, meaning as a capability of one this was me. This experience made me feel isolated from my unit as I paraded at another location and worked under a command arrangement to the health centre manager.

Rather than moping though, I asked my boss how I could value add to the Company despite my requirement to be absent full time. She suggested that I could perform the role of LO to the health centre, and I didn’t look back. This experience meant that I gained a deep exposure to two key elements of the ADF’s health system, all while being able to consolidate my clinical skills after a frenetic first 3 years in Army.

Reflection 4 – Look for opportunity in weird places.

In 2016, I posted back to the Army’s deployable field hospital and on the first major shakeout of the year was standing in the hospital regaining my bearings when the RSM walked up beside me. The CO had been set a challenge of simulating a capability well in excess of what we could actually generate during the major exercise window that year. I took this requirement and developed a rapid prototype using Excel and YouTube. Fast forward 12 months and I had presented at two conferences and acted as project manager for an industry partnership which built a prototype (HealthAIDE) that took the hospital’s knowledge management processes from whiteboards, paper and runners, to a fully digitised solution.

Reflection 5 – Don’t limit yourself to what is comfortable, take risks.

At about the same time HeathAIDE was taking off, I was introduced to the Australian PME network. Having seen the benefit in personal growth from putting my thoughts to paper and opening them up for open critique, I carried on writing on things I was passionate about, but also ideas that were not totally formed. In this way I have been exposed to such a broad network of practice and been able to refine my thinking on the profession, I’m disappointed that I didn’t start writing sooner.

Reflection 6 – Write, and publish, so you can be part of the discourse and gain a broad understanding of the profession.

As a mid-level Captain I started to really get an itch that I might want to do something different. I was hugely passionate about the delivery of health effect to the Australian Defence Force, but not quite so sure that this was through clinical services as a physio. So I tentatively walked into my career interview in 2017 with some ‘safe’ options to try what would normally be considered Generalist roles for my next posting.

My career advisor ripped the Band-Aid off my cautiousness and suggested instead a far more exciting and challenging path. Again, initially I felt unsure. Did I have the chops to succeed? The following two years were some of the best so far in my career and were certainly pivotal in setting the foundation of success for me moving forward.

Reflection 7 – Trust that others have the best intentions and push you because they see in you things you may not see in yourself.

In 2018 I walked into a role as a Company Operations Officer in a very high tempo sub-unit, and had the pleasure of leading a brilliant team. Early on, I realised that between us we had all the skills required to achieve the balance across the required functions and so went about setting up the team to play to their strengths. In doing this, it gave me the space to then start innovating and also focus on the development of the team. It was a hugely rewarding year.

Reflection 8 – Find the strengths in your team and leverage them for best effect, whilst working with them to improve your and their weaknesses.

Last year I had my first opportunity to work above the sub-unit level, as the Adjutant in a Battalion HQ. While I had been proactive prior to last year in growing a network of formal and informal mentors, being the most junior member of the Battalion executive team really emphasised how important this is to personal and professional growth. But also how important it is to continue to cultivate the relationships with those that have offered their time and expertise in growing you.

Reflection 9 – Be proactive in seeking out both formal and informal mentorship from those that have come before you.

Last year I also dealt with disappointment. I was unsuccessful in being selected for sub-unit command for this year. These moments of disappointment are bound to come through anyone’s career, and for me it shook my confidence. I had taken a risk to progress down a path, and I was concerned I may have made a mistake. These concerns were unfounded. Again, as per reflection 7, I had to trust that others understood better than me what was required. My posting this year has seen me spend time in a strategic HQ and the lessons I’ve learnt have given me knowledge and experience that will undoubtedly assist me in command.

Reflection 10 – Everything happens for a reason.

At the time that each of the above events occurred I couldn’t see the importance they held for me, but I have no doubt we all have similar moments in time that have shaped us. I feel prepared for the next phase of my career and the challenges ahead because of these moments. So next time the fairies come to visit you, be open and reflect; how are they shaping you for the next challenge?

About the Author: Nick Alexander is a current serving Combat Health Officer, Communications Director of Grounded Curiosity and member of the Military Writers Guild. You can follow him on Twitter @Nick_Alexander4.