NEWS | Oct. 13, 2021

Army Reserve’s top enlisted Soldier challenges leaders to think ‘upstream’

By Staff Sgt. Shawn Morris 99th Readiness Division

The command sergeant major of the U.S. Army Reserve hosted a breakout session Oct. 11 to discuss recruiting and retention during the Association of the United States Army 2021 Annual Meeting & Exposition at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center here.

Command Sgt. Maj. Andrew Lombardo discussed the challenges of maintaining an all-volunteer force of Citizen-Soldiers with his fellow senior-enlisted leaders from units throughout the Army Reserve.

“Today’s Army Reserve senior-enlisted breakout session is about people and culture change, to get after readiness and the future of the Army Reserve,” explained Lombardo, who has served as the 14th command sergeant major of the Army Reserve since June 2020. “The Army Reserve leadership cannot do this alone – we’re going to do this as a team. I need your help in embracing culture change.”

“It really is about changing culture, and that’s one of those things we are trying very, very hard to do,” added Lt. Gen. Jody Daniels, Chief of Army Reserve and commanding general of U.S. Army Reserve Command, who attended Lombardo’s session. “We have to change the conversation; we have to change the culture.”

According to Lombardo, that change must come with a paradigm shift in how Army Reserve leaders approach problem-solving.

“This breakout session is titled, ‘Getting Upstream of Recruiting and Retention,’ which is informed by the book ‘Upstream’ by Dan Heath. The book describes the quest to solve problems before they happen,” Lombardo explained, noting that the book is required reading for brigade-level command sergeants major who are attending the Nominative Leader Course at the Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.

Lombardo citied the following excerpt from “Upstream” to illustrate the change in thinking the United States Army Reserve needs:

“You and a friend are having a picnic by the side of a river. Suddenly, you hear a shout from the direction of the water – a child is drowning. Without thinking, you both dive in, grab the child and swim to shore. Before you can recover, you hear another child cry for help. You and your friend jump back in the river to help her as well. Then another child drifts into sight, and another, and another. The two of you can barely keep up. Suddenly, you see your friend wading out of the water seeming to leave you alone. ‘Where are you going?’ you demand. Your friend answers, ‘I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who keeps on throwing these children into the water!” read Lombardo’s executive NCO, Sgt. 1st Class Luke Klein, to the audience.

“So often in life, we get stuck in a cycle of response, especially the enlisted force – we put out fires, we deal with emergencies, we stay downstream handling one problem after another, but we never make our way upstream to fix the problems,” Lombardo said. “We need to move from downstream thinking to upstream thinking to acquire and retain the talent we need in order to build the future Army Reserve.”

Lombardo spoke about three key barriers to solving problems identified in Heath’s book:

“Problem Blindness, which can leave leaders oblivious to serious problems in their midst; Lack of Ownership, when leaders say, ‘It’s not my job, not my problem;’ and Tunneling, where leaders get so used to rescuing children from the water that they stay too busy to tackle the one throwing them in,” he said.

Lombardo discussed possible courses of action for “upstream leaders” to address shortages in their ranks, to include becoming more involved with local recruiters and retention personnel, inviting potential recruits to witness Army Reserve training, and participating in recruiting events at high schools and colleges.

“Upstream leaders do not ask the question, “Is someone able to fix this problem?” Lombardo said. “Instead, they ask the question, ‘Am I able to fix this problem?’ They choose to take ownership of the situation, and they address the dynamics specific to their organization to identify what they need to do to create a climate where Soldiers want to stay or join.”

Lombardo stressed that the Army Reserve is transforming culture by investing in its people through transformational leadership that is focused on initiatives that generate high-performing teams at the squad level, while also maintaining readiness and the ability to provide essential support to the Total Force.

“My initiatives focus on leveraging the squad leader to generate cohesive teams that are well-trained, disciplined, physically fit and ‘Soldiers for Life’ in order to create an organization that people want to be a part of,” Lombardo explained. “Leaders at every level must take ownership of their Soldiers’ sponsorship, mentorship and career coaching to create a team so unbreakable and cohesive they would never consider leaving the Army Reserve family behind.”

To achieve this goal, Lombardo outlined several efforts Army Reserve leadership is spearheading, to include better marketing of the career benefits available to Army Reserve Soldiers, telling the Army Reserve story on social-media platforms, and a 2023 rebranding designed to create a new identity for the Army Reserve.

“An upstream leader must ask himself or herself, ‘How will I change the system to solve the problem?’” Lombardo said. “Find an upstream solution to why your Soldiers are not re-enlisting, and fix the problem at the source, not one at a time.”