What Lieutenants (and Everybody) Should Know About a Sergeant Major’s Role

Thanks to Michael Quinn, Sergeant Major of the Army, for this insightful article. Even though it’s Army-speak, we hope it helps you junior officers understand how Sergeants Major contribute to the mission. This senior rank is very often misunderstood, and deserves significant respect from new Lieutenants.

As a Finalist for the White House Fellows program a couple years ago, I spent two days with 20 influential leaders from the DC area to include judges, journalists, and senior executives of major corporations. I was astounded that only one of these leaders, a Deputy Under Secretary of the Navy, understood the role of a Sergeant Major. Yes, 19 of our most influential leaders in the DC area (which is heavily populated by the military) asked me at different points to explain the role of a Sergeant Major.

My explanation was that a Sergeant Major is equivalent to a Chief Operating Officer of a corporation. As the Battalion Command Sergeant Major of an Intelligence Battalion in Japan, I was the Chief Operating Officer of a company with 264 employees conducting intelligence and security operations across Japan and much of the Pacific region. My role was to provide strategic direction and oversight of operations, talent management, human resources, and training management.

Much like the role of a Chief Operating Officer, it is difficult to come up with a description that fits every Sergeant Major. If you are going to read one article that clearly articulates the value and role of a Chief Operating Officer (or Sergeant Major), read this May 2006 article published in the Harvard Business Review. It clearly articulates the value of a COO to a company and the examples closely align with the role of a Sergeant Major in the Army.

The Army calls the relationship between a CEO and a COO a “Command Team;” with the unit Commander filling the role of CEO and the Sergeant Major serving as the COO. More than anything else, this partnership sets the climate, performance, agility and success of the organization.

To explain their impact on an organization is one thing, but how do we quantify the knowledge, experience, and leadership ability that a Sergeant Major brings to an organization?

The Top 1%

Sergeants Major make up less than 1% of the Army and generally consist of the most experienced leaders in the enlisted corps. There are nine enlisted ranks in the Army and you must be selected over your peers across the entire Army through comprehensive promotion panels to reach this prestigious rank. These panels review the entire career of eligible Soldiers and rank them based on their performance, potential, education, physical fitness, awards, and difficulty of assignments. The actual number of selections are based on projected vacancies, but generally run between 10-15% (approximately 8% were selected for Sergeant Major in 2016). These boards ensure only the best are entrusted with the responsibility of being a Sergeant Major.


Both military and advanced civilian education play a crucial role in determining the success of today’s Sergeant Major. The speed at which information travels and decisions are made requires an adaptive, educated leader; and the education levels of Sergeants Major have reflected that change. I don’t know any Sergeants Major that don’t have a degree or advanced certification of some kind, and that is just counting civilian education.

The military education system is extensive, well-planned, and certified to produce results. In addition to an Associate Degree, Bachelor Degree, and several certifications, I have spent over 38 months attending resident military education courses over a 24 year career.

Diverse Experience

How many leaders in your organization have extensive experience in Leader Development, Talent Management, Training Development, Human Resources, Project Management, and at least one other specialty field (such as military intelligence or supply chain logistics)? The diversity of assignments, education, and leader development processes in the Army require these advanced proficiencies to even be considered for promotion to Sergeant Major.

Chaos can be your asset. Use friction to your advantage.

Leader Development

The Army (and the other military services) is fairly unique in that it must develop all of its military senior leaders from within. It cannot go outside the Army to bring in a General or Sergeant Major; they all start out as Lieutenants or Privates. To be effective, this requires a culture focused on leader development. That is why the Army makes promotion decisions based on potential, and it is also why Sergeants Major must be incredibly proficient in leader development. They are responsible for developing and implementing programs to provide challenging assignments, training, education, experience, and mentorship for the several hundred to several thousand Soldiers in their care. They play an integral part in the promotion process and, as a result, lead an organization’s talent management program.

They are responsible for developing and implementing programs to provide challenging assignments, training, education, experience, and mentorship for the several hundred to several thousand Soldiers in their care. They play an integral part in the promotion process and, as a result, lead an organization’s talent management program.

Talent Management

Since Soldiers enlist on contracts, a positive environment must exist that encourages them to continue serving. This is no small thing when you consider how many Soldiers must deploy overseas and put their life on the line, and talent management plays an incredible role in this.

Simply put, Sergeants Major select, train, mentor and provide direct oversight for the senior leaders responsible for building this positive environment at the directorate level.

(Issue the order. Supervise activities.)
Issue the order. Supervise activities.

They ensure programs are in place to identify top talent, usually through some combination of evaluations, competitions, performance metrics, and Soldier engagement. Once identified, they provide ample opportunities for the top talent to excel while at the same time implementing training programs to develop the rest of their workforce.

Training Development is a core responsibility of a Sergeant Major. Every unit has a mission-essential task list (METL) that articulates exactly what tasks the unit must be proficient in to accomplish their mission. Soldiers are trained and certified to accomplish their basic job functions during Initial Entry Training, but in truth learn how to perform their duties at their organization. The Sergeant Major provides strategic oversight of every aspect of a unit’s training mission, from physical fitness to advanced job-specific skills (this differs by type of unit).

Sergeants Major ensure that training is developed appropriately, reflects current methodology, is conducted professionally, and is in line with the unit’s strategic requirements. The constant training cycle they develop and the management controls Sergeants Major implement ensure all employees meet training requirements while managing risk to both the individual and the unit.

Human Resources

Through their responsibility for talent management, training management, leader development and creating a positive work climate, it should be perfectly clear that Sergeants Major have significant Human Resource (HR) experience. Along with their responsibility to manage evaluations and administrative actions, Sergeants Major are intricately involved in diversity programs, staffing, organizational design, and ensuring all laws or regulations are followed. The average Sergeant Major has upwards of 10 years of experience in these roles for organizations with at least hundreds (if not thousands) of military and civilian employees.

Project Management

The Army knows Project Management as the Military Decision Making Process. Leaders follow this process for every project to plan appropriately and minimize risk, we just call it a different name. A mission is a project, a campaign is a program, and mission analysis is scope development. Since significant planning goes into any training event, mission, or campaign, the typical Sergeant Major has well over 10,000 hours of Project Management experience.

Subject Matter Expert

To reach the rank of Sergeant Major, Soldiers must demonstrate advanced expertise in their assigned field. This advanced expertise and demonstrated leadership potential is what allows a Soldier to progress through all the enlisted ranks. Whether the field is logistics, operations, signals, medical, or military intelligence, a Sergeant Major is a subject matter expert with over 20 years of experience in their discipline.

Even though I have been a Sergeant Major for more than four years, my family still doesn’t quite understand what I do or the role that I play in the success of an organization with over 17,000 people in 45 countries. Unfortunately, this becomes an even greater challenge when we attempt to translate the knowledge, skills and attributes of a Sergeant Major to the business world.

What I can say is this: If you are looking for an adaptive, driven, educated, experienced and tremendously loyal team player, hire a former Sergeant Major. You will be amazed at how this one person can positively impact your entire team.

The original article can be found Here

5 thoughts on “What Lieutenants (and Everybody) Should Know About a Sergeant Major’s Role

  1. SgtMaj Quinn, thank you for a well written insightful article on the role of senior management in the military. More importantly, the skills that we bring to the private sector when we leave active service.
    I retired in 1981, and was able to hit the ground running because of my Marine Corps experience and the many lessons learned throughout my career.
    I feel twice blessed, for the opportunity to learn and grow as a leader, and the honor of serving my country.

    1. Sergeant Major(SGM) is a promoted rank (E-9 pay grade). Command Sergeant Major (CSM) is an appointed position, still E-9 pay grade. ARMY

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