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What to do with a setback

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Kathryn Shaw
  • 375th Aerospace Medicine Squadron commander

It was a dreary day five years ago when I received a phone call at home from my squadron commander informing me that my name was not on the selection list for promotion to lieutenant colonel. 

Since this was my “In Promotion Zone” board, the significance of not being selected cannot be understated.  As with the vast majority of officers, the IPZ promotion board is normally the “one” chance to make it. 

I distinctly remember thinking, “I’ve poured blood, sweat and tears into this career for 15 years and this is what I get?”  After digging into the reasons for not being promoted, I found that it had come down to how my Promotion Recommendation Form, or PRF, was written. This is arguably the most important document in an officer’s promotion folder.

What I thought was a well-researched and written PRF was apparently deemed awful in the eyes of the 18 selection board reviewers at that time.  I immediately began work on a new version and thankfully I had the support of my entire chain of command leadership who also mobilized around me to competitively position me for a rare promotion recommendation that directly led to my selection on the next board. 

I know there may be others who may be dealing with a professional or personal challenge, so here are some things I learned as I journeyed through this process.

Don’t let it define you.  You are more than a program or promotion you didn’t get.  It is critical during challenging times to center yourself in the things you know to be true:  your faith, your worth, your strengths, and your social support network.  What you will find is that you’re not the only one, and many others have gone through something similar. In fact, it may not be a setback at all—it could be a catapult to something better.

Ignore those who may judge you.  They haven’t been where you’ve been, and their opinions hide things they don’t want others to see about their own challenges.  It’s easy to have an opinion, but it’s more honorable to lift others up. 

Take the long view.  Whatever happened – it is NOT the end of the world. It may feel that way in the moment, but it is a sign post pointing you to growth, endurance, and maybe even a different path toward where you are meant to be in life.  What we do in service to our nation is vitally important, but it is only for a short time whether three years or 23 or more.  At some point, there will be a new path to take. 

Don’t throw in the towel.  Fight the voice in your head saying to give up or forget it.  Had I thrown in the towel, I wouldn’t have gone on to be selected for the Wing Inspector General position, or become the Chief of the Air Force Blood Program and to be hired into two consecutive squadron command tours—all things I would have missed out on had I given up five years year ago.

Help others. There is always something to learn, and the only fallacy is in pointing the finger at everyone else and walking away in pride thinking you’re right and everyone else is wrong. Take what you’ve learned and use it to guide, develop and mentor others whether in Air Force or out.

Since my experience with that promotion board, I now work with my officers for a month in one-on-one meetings where I try to help them develop and revise their own PRFs.  This is to ensure the right amount of time is dedicated, while also teaching them how the process works as well as how to take care of their people in the future.

As we encounter future challenges and struggles, hopefully these reminders will help us grow, and most importantly, use what we learn to help others.