Mentorship Grows Ambassadors for Life
On 1 July 2020, The Judge Advocate General (TJAG) directed the Leadership Center, housed within the Legal Center at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School (TJAGLCS), to organize an operational planning team (OPT) to assess institutional mentorship across the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps. The authors formed the OPT. As mid-career judge advocates, we easily remember the junior captain days—the questions we sought answers to but did not know who to ask, and then the relief we experienced upon receiving good advice from trusted leaders. Now, we have begun to gain experience as mentors—which comes with its own host of questions, stumbles, and successes. These facts, along with our diverse backgrounds and experiences, informed our participation in the OPT.
First, the OPT observed the current state of mentorship and mentorship training by conducting institutional research and gleaning lessons from anecdotal feedback from members’ experiences around the Corps. Then, the OPT proposed a desired end state to capture the connections many visualized. Finally, the OPT developed a path to reach the end state by seeking to obviate the identified barriers to those connections. The OPT used deliberate analysis, thoughtful listening, and outside-the-box thinking to develop options for JAG Corps senior leaders to consider. While the manifestation of any institutionally-resourced mentorship program may ultimately take many forms, the OPT’s most meaningful discovery was the value of mentorship generally and the importance of prioritizing it as an organization. Mentorship is a key component of elevating JAG Corps members’ professional experiences and deepening their commitment to the dual profession of arms and law.
The Current State of Mentorship in the JAG Corps
Like many organizations, mentorship in the JAG Corps has been historically ad hoc and organic, without formalized structure facilitating connection of mentors and mentees. This informal approach certainly works for some. Those who are naturally prone to proactively initiate a mentoring relationship with a senior or junior person may be unimpeded by a lack of structure. Those who are surrounded by colleagues who look and act like them and share similar backgrounds, interests, or experiences may find it easy to connect without much additional effort. Some, however, may not be comfortable initiating a conversation with someone senior to them, asking more of that person’s time and energy to develop the junior member. Others may rarely see people like them in the office or on the physical training field. This may be because the junior member is the only female or racial minority member of the office, or it may be because the junior member is interested in a niche legal specialty not practiced by anyone in that immediate office or on the installation. Without equal access to good-match mentors, these JAG Corps members—compared to their easier-to-match colleagues—may experience greater isolation, less integration into the JAG Corps family, a less developed institutional and professional knowledge of the JAG Corps, and a lower degree of commitment to continuing their JAG Corps career. If ad hoc and informal mentorship still leaves some valued members with limited or no access to the meaningful connections and guidance they deserve, then more structured options may be worth exploring.
The Future of JAG Corps Mentorship
When all members have access to good-match mentors, their overall experience and impression of the JAG Corps and the Army will prosper. Later, when members choose to leave the force—after four or twenty years—they will be ambassadors for life, in part due to the mentoring relationships the JAG Corps prioritized and facilitated. A more formal mentorship program with supportive infrastructure, resourcing, and training could better facilitate creating and fostering mentoring relationships for all JAG Corps members.
While institutionally-resourced mentorship in the JAG Corps remains nascent, TJAGLCS has implemented initial steps. The Leadership Center re-designed the Officer Basic Course’s (OBC) Professional Development Program (PDP) to focus on counseling, coaching, and mentorship, and increased the number of touchpoints students have with their PDP seminar leaders, typically majors from school faculty. In addition, the Leadership Center expanded the Graduate Course’s (GC) Leadership Development Program (LDP) to include instruction on mentorship and its importance to the Corps. The Leadership Center also included discussions about counseling, coaching, and mentorship during short courses.
The Leadership Center’s most visible initiative is the “crossover” between the OBC and the GC. Officer Basic Course PDP seminar groups are matched with GC LDP seminar groups for meet-ups and exercises among the seminar members. Officer Basic Course students benefit from greater access to members of the Corps who are senior to them with whom they may “click” and form an ongoing mentoring relationship. For many GC students, the crossover may be the first opportunity to connect with and mentor junior judge advocates. Graduate Course students discuss their crossover experiences in their LDP seminar group discussions, which are typically led by lieutenant colonels from TJAGLCS staff and faulty. These open discussions about the ups and downs of mentoring help to shape and refine GC students’ leadership skills before they venture back out into the field. Conducting this program in TJAGLCS and as part of the assigned curriculum provides the Leadership Center and JAG Corps leaders with ready insight into how receptive JAG Corps members are to the concept, how the execution unfolds, and whether the program may require tweaking in the future.
Further into the future, institutional development of formal mentorship programming could include a digital platform to flatten communications across the Corps, a greater number of affinity groups for like-minded JAG Corps members, or events and activities to make introductions and deepen existing professional relationships. If and until any additional formal programs stand up, it is essential for JAG Corps leaders to emphasize mentorship as an important engagement tool. If only the senior-most JAG Corps leaders believe in, participate in, and enforce the value of mentorship, while leaders in the field focus on the urgent at the expense of the important, then lasting, meaningful mentoring relationships will not only fail—they will never begin. Success depends on each leader in the field appreciating the necessity and importance of mentoring to the Corps and devoting the time and attention to facilitate connections.
The JAG Corps is a small world. By emphasizing mentorship on a persistent basis, and acting with intention to seek and find good-match mentors for all members of our Corps, leaders can make the JAG Corps even smaller, bringing members ever closer into the fold. Leaders must become conscious of the disparate availability of good-match mentors. Through grassroots and more intentional mentorship at Offices of the Staff Judge Advocate, programs like the crossover at TJAGLCS, and even platforms like digital media and formal events, the JAG Corps can link like-minded people who otherwise may never have met. Equal access to potential mentors and mentees who share interests and experiences will contribute to JAG Corps members enjoying a positive, informed, and connected professional experience. When members do eventually leave the force, the positive mentoring experiences they appreciated throughout their military service will influence these ambassadors for life to serve as mentors to the next generation of JAG Corps leaders and those considering joining this fulfilling career. TAL