While many of us are extremely passionate about being able to bring amazing learning experiences to our audiences, very few of us can say that the work we do can literally make the difference between life and death.
Colonel Andy Saslav has been leading troops in the U.S. Army for more than two decades, and while it’s true that the training he puts people through can indeed literally help save lives, the lessons we can all take away from how training is done in the U.S. Army are seemingly countless.
I’m not suggesting that each of us becomes more drill sergeant-like in our approach (though it’s a fun thought: Hey! You! Get your thoughts down on that flipchart! NOW! I SAID NOW! MOVE IT! MOVE IT!). The nuggets that Colonel Saslav was able to share about the way in which the Army uses reflection, coaching, feedback and critical thinking is something we can all certainly learn from.
Transcript of the Conversation with Colonel Andy Saslav
Brian Washburn: Welcome everyone to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about learning and development in bite sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, Co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning, and I am joined this week by Colonel Andy Salslav of the U.S. Army. He is in command of the Operations Group of the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana. Andy, thank you so much for joining us this week.
Andy Saslav: Brian, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Brian Washburn: Before we get into the questions here, just real quick for everybody who’s listening, so that you know. Andy and I met back in college when we were on the cheerleading team at the George Washington University. Andy was doing, actually, the hard work of lifting and raising the cheerleaders. And I got to do the fun work of being the mascot at GW. So, a little bit of a GW reunion here. I’m excited. Before we get into the questions – because I think it’s going to be a really interesting take this week on, kind of, training when it’s a matter of life and death, literally, being part of the army.
Brian Washburn: But before we get into that, we always like to introduce our guests with a seven-word biography. Usually it’s a six-word, but I’m cheating this week. When I think of this topic, I think back to the old slogan of the Army and “Be All You Can Be”, and so my biography would be, “‘Be All You Can Be’ Inspired Me”. I had an English teacher in high school who would always reiterate those words. You know, whether or not we chose to go into the armed services, we should always be all we can be. How about you? How would you introduce yourself in seven words, Andy?
Andy Saslav: I would say, “History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes”.
Brian Washburn: That is — we could spend all day talking about that one because I think there’s a lot to it. But what I want to do is get into some questions here.
Training and Learning Domains in the U.S. Army
Brian Washburn: We haven’t really had an opportunity to explore the world of learning as it takes place in the armed services. A lot of times, I’m speaking with people just – whether it’s in corporate America, nonprofits, things like that – but when you think of people that need to be really well-trained, I think that the U.S. Armed Services really is at the top of the list. And, so when we think of this, and the image that maybe a lot of people have in their minds is from pop culture, which has introduced us to the rigors of basic training, right? So you have drill instructors yelling at recruits and climbing up ropes, or bullets whizzing over the recruits heads as they crawl on their bellies. But can we start off by just hearing from you, and getting a sense for what you think some of the strategies are that characterize training in the army?
Andy Saslav: So, the army has three domains it trains and educates, and I think we look at them differently. We have the institutional, the operational and the self domains. Now, so institutional, that is our school houses and that runs from basic training- that Hollywood image that you just described – all the way up to the U.S. Army War College, which was a master’s level program in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It focuses on our doctrine, and then it explores other areas. And so, you know, there is writing, there is repetition, there is testing, there is normal educational processes. That’s the institutional domain and that’s where we all start. There’s the operational domain and that is, you know, the operating force. The reality is most people in the army train most of the day. You know, there are people – there are mechanics – who spend the bulk of their time actually doing their job, but most of us train to do our job in the future. And, so that happens in the operational domain and it’s very training, not education focused most of the time. Not always, but most of the time.
Brian Washburn: So it’s almost like the Army is full of professional learners, right?
Andy Saslav: That’s right.
The Army is Full of Professional Learners
Brian Washburn: You’re paid to spend most of your day getting better at what you do.
Andy Saslav: Yeah, that’s right. You know it’s funny we often say the hallmark of the American Army and the envy of the world in the American Army is our non-commissioned officer,or our sergeants. They’re a very professional core of individuals who shape the army. I tell the best non-commissioned officers that, you know, what they often in their minds expect to be called is a warrior or a, you know, a soldier or a war fighter. The best of them are really educators. Because they bring these young civilians and they shape and mentor them. And, you know, we’re all only in this profession for so long and individual jobs for even shorter. You average about two years in the job environment, and so your legacy is the leaders you leave behind. Our non-commissioned officers – they’re really teachers. They coach, teach and mentor people to be better.
Brian Washburn: And I think that that is such an amazing thing. And it’s something that I think the best organizations do is they try to develop that leadership. And sometimes, you know, there’s specific leadership development programs, but a lot of times it’s those relationships that you can build in mentoring and coaching people.
How Are Reflection and Feedback Used in Army Training?
Brian Washburn: Now, some of what I’ve read talks about the role of reflection and feedback in the army as learning tools. I’d love to talk a little bit more about this because there’s a whole concept, in kind of, adult learning and dialogue education called Praxis, which is action with reflection. Sometimes people have a chance to do role plays and we’ll video them so that they can actually watch themselves over again. I’d love to hear from you and, kind of, how the Army uses reflection and feedback. Is it something that is a formal process? Is it something that is informal conversations? Is it a little bit of both?
Andy Saslav: Yeah. So, you know, I would say that’s one of the other things that really separates the American Army around the world and that is our – what we call – “after action review”. There’s a manual on it. It’s detailed and there is informal feedback, you know, a lot of times we call those ” greenbook AARs” – I’m just gonna sit down with my book and I took some notes and we’re going to talk about it.
And then there’s very formal processes. And it’s all designed about driving reflection, right? So, as a leader of an AAR, I don’t want to do the talking. I want to draw out from you where our strengths were and where our weaknesses were. And, you know, the organization that I run – the Operations Group – that’s really the centerpiece, right? So, at JRTC, we create a simulated, combat environment and it’s through, you know, live opposing force, simulation and constructive computers. But the hallmark of it is not the simulated environment. The hallmark of it is we take pauses throughout those 14 days where we reflect and we draw out from the leaders of that unit – where do you want to improve? What do you want to sustain?
And, it’s that AAR ability that really makes the Army strong, and it starts at the wellness level, right? You go out and you do physical training every morning – you should AAR that, right? What did we do well and what do we need to improve to move forward? And I think that’s a strength in the army. It’s hard, right? It’s hard being critical of yourself, but I tell leaders all the time, if you find an organization without weaknesses, you’ve found a really flawed organization.
Brian Washburn: Yeah. Are people trained on how to do the AAR, so that you’re doing it consistently? So that you’re doing it right?
Implementing Formal Feedback Processes During Army Training
Andy Saslav: Yeah. So, I think we’ve gotten better at that since I’ve been in the Army. For a long time, the Army was “see and do”, right? So, I’ve done it for a lot of years, I’ve seen it, and now I’m clearly able to do it. We’ve started teaching a lot more, right? So, we’ve started training, you know, marksmanship instructor courses – and AARs is the same thing. So, our institutional army spends time teaching how to do AARs, and then that’s something you’ll do. As a brigade commander in the army, I would go out and I would observe training. But a lot of the training I observed, I wasn’t really watching the training, I was watching the leader running the training to help them and mentor them on how to run training.
Brian Washburn: At the end of the day, what’s the benefit of needing to reflect?
The Benefits of Reflection
Andy Saslav: So I think, if you go to, you know, Kotter’s Change Model, right? I think it’s buy-in, right?
Brian Washburn: Mhm, yup.
Andy Saslav: If I can shape the conversation so that you pick out of it where you need to improve and what you need to sustain, then you’re bought in. You understand it. And so, I think that the greatest part of it is buy-in. And then, you know, the other advantage is, when we have to do our job for real, we can’t have mistakes because that costs people their lives.
Brian Washburn: Sure.
Andy Saslav: You want to have those mistakes in training, and that’s important. It’s important to let leaders try. It’s important to let leaders fail. The AAR is the way that you turn that failure into success, right? So, you know in 1941, the Army did the Louisiana Maneuvers and it was the first time we took a mechanized army to the field to see how it would fight. General Marshall, who ran it, he had to testify before Congress afterwards, and he was questioned on all the failures that were reported. And he said, “By God,” – you know, I’m paraphrasing but – he said, “By God, Senator, I want them to fail in Louisiana, because if we fail Louisiana, we won’t fail in Europe”.
Brian Washburn: Sure. You can fix it, right? You figure out the better way to do it. Absolutely. And, that is such a– because I’ve worked with clients who are like, “oh, we don’t want to make this too hard because we don’t want people to fail” or, you know, ” we don’t want people to fail during the training” and the thing about it is, this is the time to fail. Because if we make it too easy now, and it’s not realistic enough, what’s going to happen when they get into the real world?
Realistic Simulations as Learning Tools
Brian Washburn: Now you mentioned simulations, and you know, in the world of corporate training, we might call those role-plays or other things like that. And people oftentimes roll their eyes, they groan, they’re like, “Ah, I don’t want to do a role-play”. Now, what is it that the army does with simulations that makes those meaningful or real, or just a good learning tool, to prepare people for what they’re going to encounter in the real world?
Andy Saslav: So, you know, we have a saying in the army – “tough, realistic training”. And, the purpose of the realism is twofold. The first is, we’re trying to shape the event so that it reflects something you will experience in combat, so that when you see it in combat, it’s not the first time you’ve encountered that problem. You can reach back and you can say, “Oh, I’ve seen this, and I know how to fix this problem, it’s not unknown to me”. The other is for that buy-in, right? If it’s hokey, if it’s not realistic then — you know, the bulk of the army is 18 to 22 year old kids, and so you have to convince them that the scenario is real. And that builds buy-in, and it makes them want to fight, to really try, so it’s really important. I think it’s easier in the army because the bulk of what we do is simulation. And it goes from, you know– I mean, we have computer simulations that are okay, we have some that are really, really good, but almost everything we do is role-play in a wide scenario. We spend a lot of money trying to make that realistic. And, you remember laser tag from when we were kids?
Brian Washburn: Sure, yeah.
Andy Saslav: It has multi-integrated laser engagement system or MILES. It’s not great, but it allows me to shoot a weapon and tag you with that laser, and so it adds realism and helps the learning. That’s what it facilitates.
Brian Washburn: Yep. So that all makes sense. Now, you talked about the institutional, you talked about the operational. I want to get into self a little bit.
Personal Advancement in the Army
Brian Washburn: We talked about reflection a little bit but, you know, the army has a very regimented and predictable course of advancement. Officers begin at the rank of Lieutenant, they work their way up to the next rank. But even though it’s predictable, it gets harder and harder like any job to reach a new level because there’s fewer and fewer positions available. You’re one of the only people I know that has had the same job since college, right? Or at least worked for the same organization since college, and you’ve risen to the rank of Colonel. What’s been your own personal development plan? How have you prepared yourself to climb each rank and be ready for the next level when the opportunity has arisen?
Andy Saslav: You know, I think this is what the Army is designed to do, it’s designed to prepare us. It does it much better with the officer Corps or NCO Corps. It’s development structure is not as refined. It’s getting a lot better, certainly in the 24 years I’ve been in the Army. But I think the first thing is to know you’re never really going to be prepared for the next job. This command is the sixth time I’ve commanded in the Army, and the night before I took command of every one of those organizations, I was scared to death that I was unprepared. But the Army has prepared you and it’s– you know, you got to seek out the jobs that you don’t want. The two jobs I’ve had in the army that I absolutely tried to get out of, I think developed me the most.
Brian Washburn: Mhm.
Andy Saslav: And then you have to be a sponge, and you have to know that as long as you’ve been doing this and as experienced as you are, you have more to learn. And so you can be really, really confident – confidence that borders on cockiness – but you still have to be willing to learn. And, that’s what prepares you for that next role – because you’re surrounded by amazing leaders, above and below you, who help you.
Brian Washburn: I think that there’s so much to dig into here. I wish we had more time.
Get to Know Colonel Andy Saslav
Brian Washburn: I just have a few last questions here, as part of a speed round, just to get a few last thoughts and let people know you a little bit more. So my first speed round question is: what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Andy Saslav: So I was trying out for an organization, I was being asked a question, and they basically painted a scenario where a standard thing we do was done different. And they said, how would you respond to those sergeants? And I said, “Well, I’d pull him over, I’d show him the right way to do it, right? I’d show them the way the book says”. The Sergeant Major who asked me the question said, “Sir, maybe the first thing you want to do is ask them why they did it differently”. And that’s where it dawned on me that, you know, the hardest thing about leadership is, you have leaders under you and those leaders have ideas. They might not be yours, but they still work and you have to be open to them.
Brian Washburn: Yeah, absolutely, and you go back to buy-in, right?
Andy Saslav: That’s right.
Brian Washburn: Yeah, absolutely. So what’s been the most influential thing you’ve ever read?
Andy Saslav: Ha! You know, I stared at this question a really, really long time because I don’t know if I could answer, ever. Here’s what I’ll tell you, is where the Army is today, and what we’re going through today, as we transition back to great power competition and what we think we need to do, right? As a nation, we’re always wrong at predicting future conflict, but we try. And so I think– John Eisenhower wrote a book called Yanks and it talks about America’s entrance into the first world war. The British and the French really, really tried to show us the way they wanted us to do it. At the end of the day, all organizations have a DNA. And you have to change with the times, but you can’t change that DNA and you have to know who you are. And the American Army as in the Newburgh Warfare Army. It’s been since the success of Princeton and Trenton, and it is today. In those early days in Western France, we learned that and we started to succeed in that war when we remembered who we are. So I think right now it’d be Yanks by John Eisenhower.
Brian Washburn: I love that answer. And, the final thing that I’m going to ask you here is what’s your favorite thing about being in a position – both with your rank and just your experience, 24 years in the army – what’s your favorite thing about being in a position to teach someone how to do their job better?
Andy Saslav: You know, my favorite thing about doing this is that I get to teach. I get to develop, right? I get to let leaders fail. I tell people all the time that, you know, we all think Edison invented the light bulb. He didn’t. He just found a long lasting filament. He tried like a thousand things before he found the one that lasted. So, if you want to succeed, you have to try. If you try, you’re gonna fail. Leaders have to be okay with that.
Brian Washburn: Yeah, it takes courage.
Andy Saslav: The more rank I get, the more I can let leaders fail, and then I can help them see how to succeed from that failure. And that’s what I love about what I do.
Brian Washburn: Well, Andy, thank you so much for joining us. This has been super fascinating. I’d love to dig into some of these things again, at some point, but I know that you have other things to do to keep us all safe. Colonel Andy Saslav of the U.S. Army, thank you for joining us. And thank you everyone else for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen, which can be found on Spotify and Apple, iHeart Radio, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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