Congratulations on being selected as an aide-de-camp. This assignment is like no other assignment you have had. You were selected because of the successful career you’ve had thus far, but also for your potential to continue service for years to come. Being an aide is an amazing broadening assignment where you will get a glimpse into senior level military leadership. But it’s also difficult to prepare for.
Before you do anything else, read the Army’s guidance on serving as aide-de-camp: Officer/Enlisted Aide Handbook. Next, I encourage you to consider the following advice.
1. Keep your poker face. If you do not have a poker face, get one quick. You are a wallflower and must maintain a stonewall face, especially in meetings or gatherings. Even-keeled professional is the attitude of a good aide. Stoic composure will also be important during off duty hours and when away from the principal. People will try to work you for information. They’re not malicious, they just want a little insight into what the principal is thinking. How will you respond when someone asks, “How is the boss feeling about x?” or “What do you think the boss wants me to do about x?” or just “How is the boss doing?” You will hear these questions a lot. Be prepared with a canned, nondescript answer and never speak on behalf of the boss.
2. Not all aides are equal. There is a difference between a 1 or 2-star aide and 3 or 4-star aides. The staffs are much smaller for the 1 and 2-star aides, where the aide will do most of the legwork and coordination. Expect to complete many tasks through personal involvement. A 3 or 4-star aide has more depth and a larger footprint to provide support to the principal, including a personnel tech, a secretary, a communications section, a personal security detachment, and perhaps an Enlisted Aide.
A 1 or 2-star aide will most likely have more one-on-one time with the principal. At any level, an aide can expect to spend more time with the principal than they do with their family. As a 3 or 4-star aide, you will delegate more tasks but ultimately you are solely responsible for the principal. The aides for the 3 or 4-star will also end up being the coordinator for subordinate and lateral leaders and support staffs. This can involve fellow general officers, SES executives, foreign government officials, foreign military officers, spouses, and/or family members. Try not to take on too much, but it is important to provide coordination to make operations go smoothly for your boss.
3. Adjust your perspective. As a Major, you may have been responsible for a battalion or 300 or brigade of 4,000. It can be a daunting task and can become overwhelming, especially during a CTC rotation or while deployed. As aide-de-camp, your area of responsibility shrinks to one person. No one else matters. He or she is the sole purpose of your duty. You are there to support the principal in all endeavors. All your focus, energy, time, and resources are there to provide the boss with comfort, a good sounding board, smooth transitions, anticipation of requirements, and to keep him or her out of trouble.
4. Time is not your own. General officers work long hours that are not always in the office. You will arrive in the office about an hour before your boss and leave around an hour after. You will be accessible 24/7, including weekends. Your leash will likely be very short, especially in the beginning when the two of you are getting to know each other. Do everything you can to reduce family friction prior to beginning the aide job. Take some leave, set up auto-pay for bills, invest in your spouse, take care of medical issues, whatever will free your mind for the impending duty. As many aides will tell you, the hardest part will likely be adjusting to the expectations and additional strain on the family that accompanies the assignment.
5. The inner inner circle. As the aide, you are now a privileged member of the principal’s inner circle. This circle only contains a few people. Usually it is the principal, XO, aide, spouse, and a couple of trusted agents to the boss. These people have privileged access to the boss. Acknowledge their status but don’t be intimidated. If a conflict arises, say with errant information or a scheduling mistake, use extreme tact at all times and be respectful. It is not your job to solve issues between the principal and his or her trusted agents, like the spouse.
6. Untold stories. You will never be able to retell the stories your boss will inevitably share. They will be humorous and insightful, but can also be destructive and disparaging if spoken outside of your circle. Communication with your principal is privileged and you must never let it go to your head. Always keep your wits and apply common sense at every opportunity.
7. Become a master traveler. You are the trip planner and executor for all travel. Focus on the transitions throughout the trip (car to airport, meeting to meeting, etc.). Botched transitions become significant emotional events for you. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Send someone ahead on advance, if you can. Use guides to conduct escort and link up operations. Establish comms and check them frequently. Have a pre-established comms card with primary, alternate, contingent, and emergency means for communications amongst your team. Don’t forget to maintain contact with the rear for changes and assistance.
8. DTS – hate it but know it. You are the Defense Travel System (DTS) guru. Learn as much as you can about DTS before day one. Always check “variations authorized” – this can provide flexibility in your orders and cover you against liability if you have to make changes on the road.
9. Call the lawyer. Always get a written legal review from your ethics lawyer prior to travel, engagements, gifts, major events that the boss may or may not be a part of. The ethics lawyer will be one of your close friends. Their responsiveness is paramount and critical for the boss. Provide an explanation if the lawyer says no to any activities, but provide alternate means to achieve the boss’ requirements. Retain a large book that catalogues all travel, gifts, and legal reviews in the event there is an investigation. Most general officers go through several investigations. Having this information catalogued in a detailed, precise, and accurate manner will help keep the boss out of hot water.
10. Keep the boss out of trouble. Perception is everything. Outsiders will make assumptions about what they think they see, even if your team is doing the right thing. The aide is the first line of defense in shaping how people view the boss. It is very important to keep the team’s actions above-board and blatantly in the right.
The aide can also be the eyes and ears for the boss. The boss will focus on whatever topic is at hand, but you can assist by listening to side bar conversations, studying body language, and picking up on non-verbal responses. You can also conduct informal surveys for the boss and provide this feedback later. These atmospherics enhance the boss’ understanding of what occurred.
11. Finances. You will most likely be the bearer of “petty cash.” This is money to take care of the little things the boss pays for, including registration fees, lunch, drinks, over the counter medical items, supplies, etc. Ask your boss or the spouse how they want you to use that money, then maintain a log of all activities. Keep it organized, up to date, and accurate, as if an investigation were happening tomorrow.
Keep in mind, many people will try to pay for the boss, or you, for food or drinks. The best answer is always to pay for it yourself, but to stay above-board, always conduct a legal review to ensure the boss can receive these “gifts.” Even if the legal review comes back in favor, the principal may still want to use personal funds, just to avoid an inappropriate perception.
Again, be sure to download the Officer/Enlisted Aide Handbook and leave a comment below if you want to add your thoughts to this list.
Andy Brokhoff is an Army Signal Officer who served as a 3-star Aide-de-Camp in 2015-2016.