From Technical Expert to Successful Leader

Technical Expert - The Avalon Institute

This is a story about the transition from Technical Expert to Successful Leader.  Following a one-year tour in Afghanistan, I was reassigned to an Air Traffic Control (ATC) radar facility.  Not just any ATC facility, but one of the larger and busier ones—the 2nd busiest joint-use airfield in the Air Force.

The 15-position facility is manned by two 40-person teams, responsible for the safe and expeditious movement of 180,000 annual aircraft operations across 4,600 square miles and six airports.  Additionally these teams provide ATC support to the world-class European North Atlantic Treaty Organization Joint-Jet Pilot Training Program, which produces aviators for the NATO Alliance.

Being a 40-person team lead for this ATC mission is no small feat.  Team leads oversee the complex ATC operation, manage an 18-month upgrade training program, and are responsible for the development, performance evaluation, recognition and overall well-being of their team members.

Team lead positions are normally filled by Senior Noncommissioned Officers (managers & leaders).  However, over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of observing first-hand, a junior Noncommissioned Officer excel in this role and make what can be a difficult transition from technical expert to successful leader.  He not only led his team well but also inspired and motivated them to excellence.  This impressive young leader is Technical Sergeant Prentice Sanders.

Sergeant Sanders is a motivated Airman who exudes positivity.  Air Force Core Values: Integrity, Service and Excellence are exhibited throughout his team.  The team’s morale is extremely high and it is clear, his team members thrive under his leadership.

Sergeant Sanders’ team performed phenomenally in 2014.   Their exceptional ATC service contributed to the on-time graduation of 187 pilots for NATO.  Additionally, they expertly guided 154 aircraft experiencing in-flight emergencies to safety, all without one ATC-related hazardous air traffic incident, near mid-air collision or aircraft mishap.

Sergeant Sanders energized his team to produce a 138% annual increase in simulation training hours, resulting in the qualification of 23 new air traffic controllers, 98% higher than the previous year.  And through a community service challenge, his team dedicated 366 volunteer hours over a four month period, giving back to those in the local community.

In recognition of their significant contributions, Sergeant Sanders’ team earned considerable accolades.  For example, during the Air Force’s first-ever Unit Effectiveness Inspection by Headquarters Air Education and Training Command, his team received no “write-ups”, earned a “Highly Effective” rating and he was singled out by an inspector as “impressive.”

Sergeant Sanders’ subordinates won 13 individual squadron and wing-level awards, and 2 Below-the-Zone promotions.  He personally garnered 3 individual awards and was recently named the squadron’s Noncommissioned Officer of the Year!

As you can see, impressive!  Leadership and results like these don’t just happen.  So I sat down with Sergeant Sanders, to hear directly from him, what has made him so successful in the transition from technical expert to successful leader.  Here’s the interview:

Transitioning from a technical to leadership role can be one of the most difficult transitions one makes.  What best prepared you and what was the key to your successful transition?

Sergeant Sanders:  My father taught me respect.  It’s something you earn from others; not something you’re given because of a position. One way I earn the respect of my team is by caring for them: knowing their families, their interests, their strengths and their weaknesses. Subordinates won’t respect you until they know you care about them.  Treat them like family and they will exceed your expectations.

The occupation of air traffic control comes with its own stress.  How do you manage that along with the stress associated with leading 40 personnel?

Sergeant Sanders:  Three ways.  First, is through faith in God and prayer.  I know He won’t give me anything he won’t help me through.  Second, by smiling.  There is always a reason to smile and it has a positive effect on others. And the third way is going to the gym.  This is the biggest release of stress for me.

Live simply, love generously, care deeply, speak kindly, leave the rest to God!
Ronald Reagan

Some of the members on your team are much older than you with many more years of ATC experience.  What has been the key to effectively leading them?

Sergeant Sanders:  Showing them respect for their experience and military service.  One of the first things I did after assuming my position was to meet with them and let them know I value them, their experiences and inputs.  Their advice has helped me grow as a leader.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in leading your team and how did you overcome it?

Sergeant Sanders:  The biggest challenge was walking into an unhealthy culture where the team’s morale was extremely low.  There was an individualistic atmosphere.  Team members only performed to minimum expectations and didn’t seem to care about the mission.  I overcame this by first showing them I cared for them.  Second, I refocused them on the importance of their contribution to the mission, and noted that it couldn’t be accomplished without them.

What motivates you every day?

Sergeant Sanders:  My family.  Being a good father to my children and knowing my wife is always by my side through good and bad.  My team, my extended family, also motivates me.  The exceptional way they perform every day, and knowing they care for me gives me motivation.  Another thing that motivates me is something one of my subordinates once said to me: “I want to be like you.”

Your team has an excellent safety record in providing air traffic control service, and has received numerous accolades for their performance.  What have you done to keep them grounded?

Sergeant Sanders:  One, keep them focused on the mission–why we do what we do.  Two, remind them that bad air traffic situations can happen to even the best air traffic controllers and that teamwork is the key to success.  Three, give praise where it’s due.  And four, through community service.  Besides the benefit gained in helping those less fortunate, observing the living conditions and environment of underprivileged reminds you to be thankful for what you have.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Mahatma Gandhi

And finally, your success as a leader is impressive.  What advice would you give other leaders striving for the same?

Sergeant Sanders:  Know your people.  You must know them well if you intend to lead them well! Show subordinates you care for them.  Be a good follower.  Demonstrating good followership gives subordinates an example to emulate.

It’s a privilege to be able to share with you Technical Sergeant Prentice Sanders and provide a glimpse of the impressive leadership I saw first-hand.  Our Air Force is stronger because of his service and leadership, and I’m honored to serve with him.  And by the way, if you’re ever flying through the North Texas area, you will be receiving the first-class ATC service his team provides.

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