By Rich Lamance, Air Force News Service / Published August 22, 2014
A panel of eight former chief master sergeants of the Air Force addresses an audience during the 2014 Air Force Sergeants Association Professional Airmen's conference Aug. 20, 2014, in Jacksonville, Fla. With more than 250 years of combined Air Force experience, the veteran enlisted leaders answered questions facing Airmen today.(Courtesy photo)
With more than 250 years of combined Air Force experience, eight former chief master sergeants of the Air Force answered questions facing Airmen today during the 2014 Air Force Sergeants Association Professional Airmen’s conference here Aug. 20.
Topics ranged from the new enlisted performance report system to recovering from mistakes made along the way, getting back to basics and advice to Airman leadership school graduates.
Former Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force Bob Gaylor, James McCoy, Sam Parish, Jim Binnicker, David Campanale, Eric Benken, Jim Finch and James Roy addressed an audience of current, former and retired Airmen.
When discussing the new EPR system, Benken explained just how far the Air Force has come during the past 50 years in evaluating its Airmen.
“In the mid ‘60s we had a good-old-boy system where stripes were given out by the wing commander and they promoted whoever they wanted to,” Benken said. “There was an imbalance where a lot of line people would get promoted and a lot of the staff were left out. The Air Force was much larger back then but today it is a lot smaller.”
Parish talked about the transition of the system over the years and gave his perspective on why we needed change. “When I first came in we didn’t even have an APR. Then we went to the 9s, then we went to the 5s, and now we’re eliminating numbers.
“The thing that drove this is something we really haven’t attacked. It’s a thing called integrity," Parish continued. "We ask people to perform and do their own evaluation. Who is stupid enough to bring to their supervisor a 3 evaluation?”
Parish said he feels that if we do it right and stay with it, we will promote the right people.
Binnicker put things in perspective for today’s Airmen when he said, “It was about identifying true outstanding performers. But everyone was getting the same ticket. We’re so good (as an Air Force) that you could throw a hundred people up in the air and promote the first ten to hit the ground. The problem is we’re promoting the wrong people first. I’m excited that there are no numbers on it. Now you can’t equate, ‘I’m a 5, or I’m a 4 or I’m a 3.‘”
One question from the audience addressed the belief that this is a “one mistake Air Force,” with very little tolerance for error. Roy was quick to point out, that’s not the case. “There is a big difference between a one mistake Air Force and a one crime Air Force. If it’s a crime then punishment endures. I would say all of us have made mistakes and have come back from them. They’ve made us stronger.”
Binnicker believes allowing mistakes is not so much about the Airmen involved, as it is about the culture of their leaders.
“I was visiting a base a couple of years ago, and as they are prone to do they wanted to take us on a tour, and introduce us to people. In this case I kept seeing crayons tacked to the wall. Every cubicle had a crayon box on the wall. When I asked an Airman ‘What’s up with the crayons?’ He said this is a ‘Shut up and color Air Force.’ Now it’s not a ‘Shut up and color’ Air Force and that was a leadership problem at that base and squadron. So we have to guard against that.”
Gaylor told the audience that when making mistakes, it’s all about the why.
“I was a cop for most of my career and one of the words often used was motive. What was the reason, why was the mistake made?" he said. "Sometimes it was underhanded, dishonest. Sometimes it was with great motive and honesty with the idea of succeeding. Another word used was mitigation. Sometimes mitigation eases the offense that was committed. I’ve made mistakes but the intent was to do right and the mitigation was honorable. We had a supervisor who recognized that and it became a training process. If we’re a one mistake Air Force we’ll be down to a few people in a very short time.”
An audience question about getting back to basics brought responses ranging from a one word solution to something as simple as a little blue book.
Parish believes it starts with taking care of your Airmen. “It’s all about taking care of people and not worrying about what ‘I’m going to be doing next year or the year after.’ That’s what getting back to the basics is all about. It’s about integrity, it's about service, it’s about excellence.”
For Benken and Roy, it’s all about that 17-year old book that still has value today.
“The best example of getting back to basics I’ve heard is back in January of 1997 when all of you were issued the little blue book,” Benken said. “Every military organization has a soul and they have a sixth sense about their soul and they know when the heart and soul of their Air Force is getting off track.”
Roy said he believes, “You are the best Air Force in the world -- period. You’re the best educated, the best trained, the best led Air Force in the world. But along with that, comes the belief that you live by a certain set of values. I remember when the little blue book came out. I was at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. It’s about how you fit into that. To me coming back to basics means focusing on those core values we think so highly of.”