Recently I was in a class and the instructor was talking about the difference between hearing and listening.
Definition of hearing
– the process, function, or power of perceiving sound
Definition of listening
– to hear something with thoughtful attention: give consideration
And this reminded me of a powerful lesson I learned from my command chief not too long ago: be in the moment.
Listen…give consideration. Don’t just hear and nod your head.
CMSgt Melvina Smith and I were out and about visiting one of the units in the wing, as we did at least weekly. The purpose was to spend time with our Airmen, learn more about their lives and the vital work they do. And, importantly, let them know how valued they are to us and the Air Force, and that what they do matters.
Melvina was an amazing people-person. She loved people, appreciated people, and genuinely had a passion for others. Our Airmen loved her. And so did I.
In addition to these out and abouts, we attended all major functions together, as well as numerous business trips. This was important…we were a team. Our success depended on us working together, knowing each other, and carrying the same message whether we were together or apart.
During this visit to the 509 th Logistics Readiness Squadron, we had the opportunity to see our transportation professionals in action. Our mission required a larger vehicle maintenance bay, as the one our Airmen were currently using was built decades ago for a fleet half the size of the one we had today. Money for infrastructure upgrades like this was extremely hard to come by. So, we wanted to thank our Airmen for the work they were doing in spite of this challenge, see the condition and limitations of the facility, and let them know we would continue to fight for these needed upgrades.
As we neared the end of the visit, I asked everyone to gather around so Mel and I could share some final thoughts with those on duty. Then, as the group broke up, a few Airmen stayed behind to chat. I was always eager to answer questions and address concerns with our Airmen, and this was a great opportunity to do so.
“Sir, do you really think we will get a new facility?” I shared that over the last few years money had gotten tighter and tighter, but we were looking for outside the box ideas that might get us over the finish line. We discussed an expansion project, which would offer more desperately- needed space but not address all the challenges associated with the age of the current facility. Bottom line, a great step forward where funding would be much easier to acquire, but not the final solution.
“Sir, what’s your typical day like?” It dawned on me that, much like when I was their age, I had no idea what the wing commander did on a daily basis. So I joked that it involved a lot of meetings and PowerPoint, which drew some laughs. Of course, I wasn’t really joking! I shared some of our regular battle-rhythms, and emphasized that aside from all the responsibilities running the wing and base, the Chief and I spent a good portion of our time advocating for the needs of our Airmen.
Chief Smith jumped in and gave some examples – dorm upgrades; increased morale, welfare and recreation funds; Chapel renovations; Charleys Philly Steaks coming to the food court, which was a huge win we had been negotiating with the Army Air Force Exchange Service for a year (cheers!); increased administrative support to the squadron (more clapping!); Airmen-only events; and more.
“So, Sir, we really need an indoor running track. It gets cold here in the winter!” Boy do I know it. There were no dollars for new gymnasium facilities, so at Whiteman we spent a lot of money on upgrading what we had. Huge improvements, but no indoor track. We discussed more outside the box ideas like a self-contained track inside an enclosed shelter, which we took for action!
Mel and I thanked our Airmen for their time, hard work and dedication to the mission. We were late for our next appointment, but I was ok with that as there was nothing on my schedule more important that day than this visit.
On the way back to the office, she said something to me I will never forget:
“Boss, I love how when you are visiting with our Airmen, you are always present.”
I told her thanks, and we moved on to the next meeting. But later than evening, I thought a little more about what my Chief said to me.
Listening…to give consideration.
Be in the Moment.
Since that time I often reflect on this conversation, and what Chief Melvina Smith taught me that day. I know that as leaders, we are charged with making sure our Airmen know that they matter, and what they do is important. That was our goal the day we visited the 509 th Logistics
Readiness Squadron. But, it is so much more that that. Although words matter, your state of mind when engaged in sharing those words can make all the difference. Are you listening, or just hearing?
Chief, thanks for reminding me the importance of being in the moment and truly listening. You rock!