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Interview: Lt Col N. Mackenzie on what it's like to be a commanding officer in the British Army

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Last week I interviewed Lt Col N. Mackenzie, the commanding officer of the British Army training regiment based in Winchester, on what it's like to work for the army.

Photo courtesy of Army Training Regiment Winchester

Lt Col Mackenzie has been in the army for over 20 years, with a wide variety of experiences under his belt. In the last few years, he has earned an outstanding rating for his regiment from Ofsted inspections, setting his regiment apart from the rest. 

We wanted to hear first hand what a career in the army is like, including the many ways a career in the army can start, what opportunities are available and how they are working towards improving diversity. 

Photo courtesy of Army Training Regiment Winchester

1. How did you start your career in the army and what made you choose this as a career? 

When I was at school my father was in the RAF and I always thought I wanted to join the military in some shape or form. Then I went to university in Newcastle and after studying French and German, I realised that I wasn’t that good at French and German in comparison to the people I was studying with. Since my course was quite hands-on, they sort of trained us up to be interpreters or translators.

I knew I wasn’t going to cut it in that world.

So, in my third year, I decided that I’d look at the army again and then started the process of joining, which resulted in me sort of being sponsored by the army in my last year at university - which was quite handy. So I think I was in a fortunate position: by the time I was in my last year at university I was sitting very comfortably, while everyone else was trying to look for jobs and I knew I had one starting that September. So it made my last year a bit more easy to bear.


IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE A LIFELONG CAREER.


 

I sort of bumbled my way into it in a funny kind of way, I suppose. Being from a military background there was always a sense that I was going to go back. And that was it really, but I think, you know, one would always ask why did you join. I think it was partly my background; partly to do with not being able to cut it with my level of competence with my degree.; thirdly there was always the opportunities out there and I think from my experience, I lived in Cyprus and Germany as a youngster, I knew that there was plenty of opportunities to travel, deploy on operations and to do some really good and fun stuff.

2. What are some of the benefits of working in the army?

Well, if I was trying to sell it now, I think the obvious one is job security. It’s a big one. A roof over your head, a regular wage which is always good, and then you get into what the army calls ‘the offer’.

It’s things like a free gym membership, we pay you to stay fit and provide a swimming pool and gym at the camp. There’s free medical care, free dental care and opportunities to travel. There are lots of adventures training and leadership development paths, skiing, climbing, you know that sort of thing. Things which people pay a lot of money for, but that are all part of what the army gives you as an offer. 


I WAS SITTING VERY COMFORTABLY,
WHILE EVERYONE ELSE WAS TRYING TO LOOK FOR JOBS.


3. What has been the greatest learning opportunity you have had so far? 

Crikey, I’ve been in the army for over 20 years! One of the biggest things, which I think is something relevant to what we do here, is when I joined I was obviously a lazy student.

I think over the time of my training, and this is relevant to everyone in the army, you go through character change and transformation. It’s not turning people into robots, but it’s effectively turning them into soldiers. The character change instils the values and standards of the army: courage, discipline, respect for others, selfless commitment and loyalty. They are all really important. Character transformation teaches you a bit of discipline. It teaches you where to get up and how to be reliable and that sort of thing. 

I’ve been fortunate to deploy on operations to Afghanistan. That was very challenging in terms of leadership, motivating people, getting them to go out the camp gates when times were tough. More recently, in my current job as I suppose the sort of head teacher of this training regiment, it’s to get the most out of the instructors and make sure they train our recruits to the best of their abilities. I think there’s not one thing that sort of says to me that was the best thing ever. Professionally there’s been lots of things and I’ve had some great personal challenges as well.

4. What has been the hardest part of the job for you?

I think it’s "change". Particularly the change when you’re about to leave your family and friends for 6 months. You know, 15 years ago I left my family, so my wife, with an 18-month-old and a 6-month-old. That’s always quite hard to leave your family and then you lead this completely separate life for a period of time. Leaving family and friends is always challenging. You have to get on with it of course, but that’s certainly one of the biggest challenges we face, being in the military. 


THERE IS FREE MEDICAL CARE, FREE DENTAL CARE
AND OPPORTUNITIES TO TRAVEL.


5. What advice would you give to those looking to join the army?

I think, first and foremost if you’re thinking of joining, try and understand that the army’s a massive organisation and there are so many different jobs out there. It can cater for a wide variety of people, whatever their background.

It’s a bit of research, you know once you join the army there are so many different specialities which are not known in normal life. There are so many different jobs you can do. Everyone just sees people in uniform and think "ah they're in the army", but they don’t actually know what the army means. So if you’re thinking of joining the army, you should do a bit of research.

People talk about a career for life, well my advice is you come along and you might do it for a few years, you know 2 or 3 years to get yourself onto the job ladder. So, it doesn’t have to be a lifelong career. You sign up as a soldier for 4 years and as an officer for about 3 years or so. It’s a good way in the current climate, where you leave university with a significant amount of debt. Actually, maybe you go straight from school and can use it as sort of an apprenticeship.

Understand that it’s not a career for life, it can be if you want it to be but there are options. Use it as an opportunity to gain some leadership skills, some self-discipline, and then use it to set yourself up for future employment.

At the same time, whilst you’re young there are so many opportunities to get away and do stuff, to do things you maybe wouldn’t get to do, to challenge yourself. The advice really is to be open-minded. Come in with a bit of a growth mindset and a positive attitude and you might be surprised. Everyone that leaves my organisation, whether it’s because it’s not right for them or because they’re going off when they’re trained, they have all learnt something about themselves. That’s what we try and do.


Photo courtesy of Army Training Regiment Winchester

6. What have been the greatest skills you have gained?

Crikey there’s a lot. If I look back to where I was as a student, I think you certainly learn, and certainly the army’s big on it now, you learn how to lead people. You learn how to manage people. Before that, you need to be able to do some self-reflection and understand where your weaknesses are and where your strengths are. I think that’s really something I’ve picked up on even over the last few years. Understand where your strengths and weaknesses are and try and rectify your weaknesses and focus on your strengths.


YOU'RE IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE WITH 10 OTHER PEOPLE AND SOME FANTASTIC VIEWS. 


7. What was your most exciting experience while working for the army?

Some I probably can’t repeat in an interview. Some of the times I have been deployed away on operation have been exciting but not exciting in the way that you would go on a roller coaster at Alton Towers, it’s a slightly different kind of excitement. 

I’m quite a big skier and I’ve recently come back from an expedition in Norway, where we cross-country skied about 200 kilometres. That was quite challenging in terms of tough, and quite an exhilarating place. You’re in the middle of nowhere with 10 other people and some fantastic views, so that’s quite exciting and exhilarating - but not your theme park roller coaster exciting either.

Photo courtesy of Army Training Regiment Winchester

8. The training regiment in Winchester of which you are in charge was declared ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. What do you think sets your regiment apart and makes it so successful?

There are lots of things. Ofsted, as many people know, comes in and sort of inspects lots of different things. I think the biggest thing that, I wouldn’t say sets us apart, but made sure we got that recommendation is the culture of the place. I suppose from my perspective, I try and instil a culture of learning, being positive and helping people to get through the challenge - because it’s quite a challenge to come through and join the military. The training we deliver is arduous. Therefore the course is, one, designed to be challenging but it is also challenging for the people that are there. We just try and make the experience for those that come here as rewarding as possible. We do that by instilling a positive culture where people can learn and learn from their mistakes because I think that’s really important.


I’M A REAL ADVOCATE OF FEMALES IN THE MILITARY.
I THINK THEY ADD SOME GREAT VALUE.


9. You have had a successful career in the army, and are now the Commanding Officer of the British Army Training Regiment in Winchester. What do you believe were your greatest assets and how did you stand out from the rest of your peers?

I don’t know is the answer to why I got the job. No, I think probably people recognise I’ve got a bit of training background, and then I think maybe the fact that I’m able to, hopefully, get the best out of people, be that the instructors or some of the young recruits. You can be the bloke in charge, and I’m sure you’ve experienced it with head teachers over the years, but do you want to be that grumpy head teacher that no one actually wants to talk to and everyone avoids like the plague? Or do you want to be the person that is a bit more approachable and gets around people and has a smile on your face, which encourages people to open up to you? Maybe that’s what someone saw in me, I don’t know. 

I would say that the other way to ask this question is what do you think your legacy would be? Legacy is quite a strong word, but what I want to leave behind is to be remembered as the bloke that was always quite positive and approachable. A good bloke able to get on with stuff and make things happen.

10. How is your regiment working towards greater inclusion and diversity? What benefits does this have?

We have, in the first instance, an equality and diversity officer. Someone responsible for running the EDI policies, which we’re sort of mandated to do anyway. Then each of my subordinate units, so like your faculty heads, all have a point of contact, so an assistant EDI person. There are lots of pictures around so people can either go and find the lead or the assistant if they feel things are going wrong. Another thing we do, which I started up, is a new initiative started about 12 months ago. We run a ‘regimental inclusion council’. It’s quite loose in its agenda but ultimately its to capture the diverse organisations that work in the establishment. So you’ve got Sikhs, Muslims, females, LGBT... Every few months we meet and discuss the latest issues that may be out there as discussion points. There’s no fixed agenda, it’s held in quite an informal environment. It’s really just to say, what’s the latest chat, what’s the latest subject? 


IT’S NOT TURNING PEOPLE INTO ROBOTS,
BUT IT’S EFFECTIVELY TURNING THEM INTO SOLDIERS.


So last week we talked about mental health and how we could train our people, our inspectors, to be more aware of mental health, certainly with some of the younger recruits that come to us. If you looked at the army only about 7% are female. It’s not sufficient in my eyes, so I’m a real advocate of females in the military. I think they add some great value. Again, I strive to get more female instructors here because it’s really important, we should be trying to encourage that. 

The other thing we’re doing, we’ve just finished a trial, is running inclusive training. For the last few years, the army, when you come into a basic training establishment, you work in single-sex platoons. I’ve now recently just completed a course where we’re having males and females working in the same 'little small departments' together, the same platoons and groups together. That’s what people are used to. In society, 95% of people go to a mixed school and we should be trying to achieve the same thing. It’s equal rights for males and females and people get on with it. There are a few constraints with it but that’s the sort of process, we inculcate a sort of co-ed environment and it works pretty well. We try and do a fair bit, but it’s probably not picked up outside of the camp gates by everyone else. You see a lot of men coming in and out in green kit, but we do take EDI stuff really seriously.

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