Promotion / Competition Boards in the Army

In order to earn promotions to certain ranks, we had to face a promotion board, which was basically a structured, paneled interview with senior enlisted leaders of the organization (the Command Sergeant Major and the First Sergeants). There would be five of them on one side of the table, and me (or whoever was competing), facing them.

In a civilian setting, think of the CEO and all the VPs all interviewing 10 candidates for two open manager positions, something kinda like that. We’d get tested on stuff like general military knowledge, of course, but really, it was a test of our overall ability to prepare and present ourselves in a professional manner, and they were competitive.

Speaking of competition, the Army also has these same board type of proceedings for competitions, like Soldier of the Month and NCO of the Month (NCO: Noncommissioned Officer; the squad leaders), and I won a decent amount of those competition boards.

I also trained quite a few of my soldiers to win and get promoted, which, I’ll say it: individually, it’s nice to win – but there was always something very special about teaching others who were able to compete and win.

So, something I learned early on in my career, way before I thought of any of this marketing or sales stuff was: When it comes time to compete, what’s the difference?

Like, what really sets the winners apart, and why were some soldiers selected for promotions while some were passed over?

Whenever I competed for anything, there were other top-performing soldiers who were also selected to compete, and on the surface, we were all pretty much the same. Like, we were all experts at our particular jobs, experts with weapons, physical fitness and basic soldiering skills, so really, what was the difference? We’d all go through the same process, too, so it wasn’t like the circumstances were different based on who was competing or anything.

In fact, here’s a quick run-down:

  • Knock on the door
  • President of the board issues the command to enter
  • I’d enter and march up to the table, front and center, and report: “Sergeant Hurley reports to the President of the Board!” while saluting
  • Command Sergeant Major salutes back, then issues commands to move me in front of each of the First Sergeants so they could inspect and scrutinize every detail of my uniform (while doing this, they normally wouldn’t say anything; they’d just take notes)
  • After being marched in front of each of them, if I passed the uniform inspection and showed that I was capable of following the President of the Board’s commands (which I always did), he would then direct me to take a seat
  • Some soldiers would get dismissed without ever making it to “hot-seat” for stuff like misplacement of certain things on their uniforms, ribbons, badges, ranks, etc., or for executing a left-face when the Command Sergeant Major issued the command of: “Right, Face!”
  • Once in the seat, the President of the Board would typically say something like, “Alright, Sergeant Hurley, now that you’ve made it to the hot-seat, why don’t you take a minute and introduce yourself to the members of the board, starting with when you … graduated high school.”

And seriously? This is where a soldier would win or lose. Or at least that’s what my thoughts were based on my rather extensive experience.

When preparing for this moment, I would script out what I was going to say and I would practice it over and over again. I would rewrite it, record it, listen to the playback, and just really dial it in until I could speak about it with confidence and certainty.

You see, when the President of the Board says: “Take a minute and introduce yourself,” that is NOT the time to try to come up with something intelligent to say.

And the board proceedings were standardized, too, so when preparing, a soldier would know what to expect, especially after going through a few of them. And realistically, these were high-pressure, intense proceedings that were designed to test our ability to present ourselves and keep calm under pressure, so when given the opportunity to speak, you could really set yourself apart from the pack by being about to speak well.

This was the only part of the board proceedings where a soldier could be proactive. What I mean by that, is that from there, for the rest of the proceeding, it was question and answer time.

So from there, the members of the board would take turns asking me questions and of course I’d tell them the answers, but that opening piece, the “Tell us a little something about yourself” piece, was the only part where a soldier was given the freedom to really say whatever he wanted.

I found that if I were able to calmly yet enthusiastically clearly articulate whatever I said to them, that the rest of the board proceeding seemed to just go very smooth. But, if a soldier were to wing it and sound nervous and stumble over whatever he was trying to say, the board members would zero in on that and mess with him to get him to stumble even more.

Was it mean? Maybe.

But again, this is a test to pick out who’s going to win and who’s going to be promoted, and the Army doesn’t need leaders who buckle under pressure. If someone caved under the pressure in a boardroom, how would he do when facing real pressure out on the battlefield, when he’s responsible for leading soldiers and keeping them alive, right?

So I found out, very early on in my adult life, that a big difference between those who won, and those who lost, really could come down to the way that we spoke about things, the way we communicated. I learned that there were just certain ways of wording things that sounded better, and certain ways of speaking, and carrying myself, that just, made them take me seriously.

And I’m not talking about yelling or anything like that, either like what you might think of when you think about the Army (we’ve all seen the movies, and no, it’s not just a bunch of people running around yelling at each other).

I’m talking about speaking with a certain spark of enthusiasm and speaking like an influencer and really:  speaking FEARLESSLY, and that’s something that I KNOW FOR A FACT is a competitive advantage.

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