60 tips to become a more effective advisor
Advising and mentoring foreign militaries has been carried out by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) as far back as the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force’s occupation of German New Guinea in World War One, through the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, Uganda, Afghanistan, Iraq and including the Defence Cooperation Programs in the Pacific Region.
As an organisation we could be more effective in capturing these advisors’ knowledge and distilling it into an accessible format. Australian doctrine currently contains excerpts from foreign militaries as well as some Australian mentoring pre-deployment guidance, but few sources refer explicitly to the “Australian experience”.
The following tips are based on my experiences working with security forces in the South Pacific, as well as with other nations during exercises in Australia throughout my career. I can’t claim to be a skilled advisor, but I have been privileged to work with many skilled advisors and this article aims to accumulate my observations and lessons, reinforced during a recent two-year posting to the Defence Cooperation Program in Papua New Guinea, in an accessible aide-memoire.
These tips should not be considered a template solution for every situation. They do however contain themes and skill sets which are universal and should be applied when working alongside foreign security forces, both within the region and globally.
Working with your host unit
1. Avoid overselling yourself to your advisees upon marching into a new unit. Allow acceptance to occur naturally otherwise you will risk appearing insincere. Time spent building the foundation of the relationship will result in long term gains.
2. You are transient in the unit; know that the transient nature of your position is a weakness unless you learn what your predecessor has already tried and failed at. Ask what worked and what hasn’t, and don’t be afraid to reach back to your predecessor for advice after you’ve taken over the position.
3. Keep abreast of what is happening in your host unit. Visit commanders and staff officers on a regular basis and follow up on actions.
4. Focus your advisory efforts on the existing host nation structures, culture and methods, not Australian ones. You will never change the host nation force into the ADF, nor should you try to.
5. Do not try to leverage your host unit to achieve an outcome that you deem to be worthwhile; it will damage your rapport and the overall mission in country. Any leverage must be achieved at the highest levels only. If leverage must be used it is a single-shot weapon and it will be at the cost of trust and cooperation.
6. The advisor must learn to see the situation through the host nation’s eyes. What are the social constraints, biases, organisational frictions, aspirations and pressures that influence the way your advisees view the world?
7. We should not, where ever possible, solve problems from start to finish for the host nation. Without their ownership or involvement it is just an ADF project in a different country.
8. Do not let building rapport with your advisees be at the expense of taking a firm stand when required. Recommend the removal of a sub-standard commander, identify and report fraud or corruption, and resolve inefficient practices where you can. The emphasis should be on getting the job done well, not just being liked by your host force.
9. There may be people within your host organisation who may be corrupt and don’t want anybody to look too closely into their activities, where money is spent, or reporting on the issues. Be prepared for this, take note of the issue and the obstructions and report it at a suitable time to someone within the host organisation who can be trusted to do something about it.
10. Accept that once you gift items to the host nation unit they belong to the unit, not the ADF. You can try to hold the unit accountable by doing occasional 10% spot checks on stores and equipment that you’ve procured for them. If stores are broken or missing there is little you can do about it, except to emphasise the importance of equipment accountability and point out the reduction in capability that is caused by equipment going missing. You may find yourself in the disheartening position of having to replace items that you only recently purchased due to mismanagement. Take this as an opportunity to mentor your advisees.
11. Encourage the commander to inspect their troops, facilities and equipment on a regular basis. They may be reluctant to physically inspect, rather preferring to take the word of subordinates on the condition and effectiveness of the unit. Join them on the inspections as it will give you an insight into the state of the unit.
12. Push your unit to raise their standards to yours, and be careful not to lower your standards to those of a new unit you are advising, if they are lower than yours. Conversely if your host unit has higher standards in some areas you should strive to meet them quickly.
13. Watch for signs of fatigue in those you are advising; there is only so-long that they will readily accept and absorb mentoring and advising efforts before their enthusiasm drops.
14. Emphasise the advantages of a cooperative and friendly civil-military relationship. The development of a proper military-civilian relationship is a powerful force multiplier in remote or contested regions.
15. Remember always that you are an advisor and mentor, not a commander. You do not have any command authority over host nation personnel.
Interpersonal relationships and mentoring skills
16. Speak directly with the commander; don’t let their staff filter your message.
17. Learn your advisees’ personalities and backgrounds. All efforts must go towards maintaining positive relationships – once a relationship sours it is difficult to recover. Knowledge of their personal lives, and finding common points between you can go a long way to building rapport.
18. Ask your advisees for advice as the relationship is not only one way.
19. Avoid asking your advisees for SITREPs and updates every time you see them. They may start to avoid conversations with you if every conversation is a report and a search for information.
20. Don’t present too many topics in any one conversation, and don’t prolong a point that isn’t making progress. You may be better off returning to the topic at a later date.
21. Information from your advisees cannot necessarily be taken on face value – they have no obligation to be honest with you; fact check in a diplomatic manner.
22. Always let your advisees take credit for any good ideas, even if you are entirely responsible for it.
23. The host nation personnel may not admit that they don’t understand something, so be cautious about accepting “ack” or “yes” on face value. It may be used to cover a lack of understanding. Some cultures won’t say no at all for fear of offending so consider how you frame a question in order to allow a negative response to be framed as a “yes”.
24. Don’t discuss local politics with your advisees. Listen to their conversations about politics to learn what they think but don’t take sides in their discussions. Remember it is usually a host nation’s forces’ policy to support the government of the day, just as it is ADF policy.
25. Give advice freely in private. Be honest in your assessments of the unit and your advisees’ staff. Give praise in front of others and save criticism for behind closed doors.
26. Encourage unit esprit-de-corps whenever possible; confidence here may help the unit to weather hard times.
27. Display honesty and a high moral standard. Don’t give any reason for people to question your integrity as it will undermine your standing in the community, both in Australia and in your host nation.
28. Keep in good physical condition. When you are travelling away from your home location it can be difficult to eat nutritious food, follow an effective workout routine, and keep yourself free from illness. Seek creative ways to do PT especially when you’re on your own in unsafe places.
29. Practice good food hygiene, although this is not always possible when eating at host nation activities or in local businesses. Keep a close watch on your personal health. Don’t hesitate to contact your medical support to discuss symptoms while you are away from your home location as they will be able to advise you if you should seek further consultation. A small health problem may become a medical emergency if left untreated when you are in an isolated location.
30. Encourage initiative wherever you see it. In a nation with very little resources inventiveness and initiative is an invaluable asset. Exercise your own initiative to mitigate the shortfalls in your own circumstances.
31. Study the history of your host nation before you arrive in-country. Not just the war history and recent political history but also any colonial history and the path to independence. In a country where history is deeply ingrained in everything they do it is important to be knowledgeable. Ask questions about the history and culture of the host nation as there will be many proud nationalists happy to tell you about their country.
32. Don’t ever let the host nation personnel hear you ridicule their country. Many of them speak much better English than they’ll let on and the walls of shared buildings are very thin.
33. Don’t drink to excess with host nation personnel. While some members of your host nation force may drink heavily, some will not drink at all. Heavy drinking will not endear you to the drinking crowd, will alienate you from the teetotallers and compromise your authority, professionalism, reputation, health and personal safety.
34. Have a broad knowledge of other Australian aid programs in the country to be able to speak with authority on the whole-of-government efforts to local nationals.
35. Be able to discuss or explain Australian broader foreign policy. Formulate answers to questions you will inevitably be asked ahead of time. Be up to date on whole-of-government policy in order to not undermine the ADF effort with out of date answers.
36. Be aware of the social standing of women within the host nation society and make a deliberate effort to embody the Australian government’s commitment to gender equality. Your display of gender inclusive attitudes will go a long way to delivering this whole-of-government message.
37. At all times you represent Australia, whether you are on duty or not. Your behaviour is a direct representation of Australia to the people of the host nation. This doesn’t mean you can’t relax in your down time, but be conscious of the impressions you give to the local population.
38. Only correct the most pressing of issues immediately; you may see many things as “wrong” when you first arrive that you’ll want to fix all at once. Try not to give your unit the impression that everything is wrong in your eyes. It might take a long time to fix some problems.
39. Where possible avoid making recommendations that force your unit into a decision. Make suggestions that leave room for the commander to come to the conclusion on their own.
40. Don’t be afraid to give advice against a bad or dangerous decision, but be tactful. Do it the same way you would deliver the advice to an Australian commander, but be aware of differences in safety culture between Australia and your host nation. Don’t belittle their safety efforts; they’re aware of the risks they are taking and what the consequences of failure mean for them better than you do.
41. Be patient; you will not achieve all the changes you hope to make during your tenure in the host nation. Make a list of your ideas and give them to your successor, they may be able to make some of these ideas happen. Remember, you are part of a bigger, long-term mission and relationship between Australia and the host nation.
42. As an advisor you may find yourself feeling that you could do everybody’s job within your host unit to a better standard. This will result in you having lots of ideas and plans to improve the situation. Be careful though; if your intentions are detected it can result in the host unit shying away from you because every conversation will result in criticism.
Operating within a Defence Cooperation Unit
43. Your supervisor may not have the ability to visit you often, or at all. They will be busy with their own tasks and advisees. Provide as much information in your SITREPs as possible, and provide on-occurrence updates for anything that might be of interest or concern. Where possible provide solutions when reporting a problem.
44. Communication between advisors and their supervisors needs to be frequent in order to discuss any issues, resolve problems quickly and identify targets of opportunity. Use email, phone, SMS and the post to keep in touch. It can be easy to become isolated if you aren’t proactive about maintaining contact.
45. Sharing of ideas between advisors by lateral communication enhances the capabilities of everyone. Periodic opportunities to meet in person should be sought to discuss lessons learned, whether this be the whole organisation or small groups. Swap ideas with colleagues and peers who have been advising in other countries; many lessons are universal. Write up any good ideas you have; there are few opportunities to present ideas so the written form will often be the best way you can present your ideas.
46. Blind-optimism about the mission can result in an unwillingness to change policies and practices that are not succeeding, whether they be related to the host nation force or ADF administration in-country. Try to be as objective about the mission as you can be. Be aware that you are part of a much bigger mission which is nested into the whole-of-government effort; be sanguine about this.
47. Review the effectiveness of your lines of effort, and if required reduce or cease efforts in areas where the host nation no longer needs the assistance. There is no need to pursue a line of effort when the energy could be better expended on a new project.
48. As an advisor you shouldn’t expect that you will be fully briefed on all your duties, the host nation’s plan, mentoring skills or Australian international policy. It is up to your own professionalism and initiative to read, investigate, learn and enhance your knowledge of the tasks.
49. Seek every opportunity to socialise with your fellow ADF advisors. The opportunities may be rare and it’s important that you maintain close relationships with your colleagues. They will be your greatest resource in country.
50. There can be misconceptions between what an advisor thinks they should be doing, what they are able to do, what the host unit wants you to do and what the Australian government wants you to do. Clear guidance is required to clarify this, if not the host nation may attempt to shape the advisor’s efforts to their own requirements, or the advisor may go down rabbit-holes of effort that do not enhance the ADF mission. If in doubt seek clarification before starting a new project or line of effort.
Living in the host-country
51. If people want to talk to you in the street take the time to have a brief chat with them, explain what you’re doing in the host country, where you’re from and ask them about their lives, they’ll be happy to tell you.
52. Get used to local food; you will gain respect if you share meals with your advisees. Eating the local snack by the side of a jungle track with a group of host nation soldiers will endear you to them more than many other actions. Shop for food in the local markets wearing uniform; the locals will be happy to see an ADF member buying and eating local fruit and vegetables. Don’t be afraid to ask what something is, how to cook it and how to eat it – then buy it even if you don’t intend to eat.
53. Don’t take host nation driving habits back to Australia; your driver’s licence won’t survive contact with Australian traffic laws for long.
54. Take the opportunity to visit other parts of the host nation. If your work only takes you to one place how can you hope to understand the motivations and beliefs of a whole country? Travel will expand your understanding of the people and culture which will, in turn, enhance your capability as an advisor.
Language skills and communicating
55. Language competence enhances interaction and understanding beyond anything else. There is little excuse to not arrive in-country already linguistically capable. In the absence of a policy to train all ADF personnel in the primary language of a host nation, it is on the member’s own professionalism to seek opportunities to attend Defence Force School of Languages courses before posting. If this isn’t possible you should complete your own self-paced training, or at a minimum seek out language training once you arrive in-country.
56. Don’t speak in slang or too rapidly. But don’t speak too slowly or you will risk insulting the intelligence of your host nation forces. If you can speak the local language use it whenever you can within the limits of your ability.
57. If you are talking through an interpreter speak in short, simple sentences. Leave suitable gaps for the interpreter to do their work. Avoid colloquialisms or analogy as it doesn’t translate well. Have the host nation listener repeat back key points through the interpreter if you are unsure the message has been understood.
58. Don’t refuse any invitation to a military event unless absolutely necessary. If you can’t attend try to have someone else attend on your behalf. The presence of a foreign military member enhances the perceived prestige of an event. Shake hands with everyone you are introduced to, and say goodbye when leaving.
59. Whenever possible go to church parades (even if it’s not your denomination or you’re not religious). Play sport with your advisees and attend informal military gatherings. It will endear you to them in a setting that makes you equal with them. It will help remove the stigma associated with being a foreign advisor.
60. Shake hands with every host nation force member you meet. Make the effort to shake the hands of business owners, police officers, and important members of villages or people in positions of respect when you meet them.
Advising is a difficult business; every advisor is placed in a position of trying to influence people they have no authority over, perhaps to do things that may not be in their nature, all whilst trying to implement Australian policy and answer for Australian government decisions over which they have no control. This is all conducted in a culturally diverse, developing and potentially troubled nation. If you can adopt the skills of rapport development, build your cultural confidence and competence, communicate clearly and understand your part in the big-picture you will find success as an advisor. Embrace the opportunity that an advisor posting or deployment presents; it will be one of the most challenging, interesting, memorable and enriching missions you will complete.
About the author
Captain Nicholas Wilson is an Australian Infantry Officer posted as a liaison officer in Papua New Guinea with the Defence Cooperation Program. His interests are international relations, war history and contemporary conflict studies. He has a Bachelor of Government and Public Management from Flinders University and is studying a Graduate Certificate of International Security by distance through Harvard University.