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Leading an OSJA Team

 

 

 
 
   
   
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(Credit: istockphoto.com/kirisa99)

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Ihave had the good fortune and, more importantly, the honor and privilege, to serve in numerous leadership positions during my Army career. I have learned much by watching and studying leaders—both good and bad—“practicing” leadership. These observations have led me to conclude that there is no right or wrong way to lead; everyone is different and must develop their own leadership style. I would suggest that everyone think about leading early and commit to a leadership philosophy, with a willingness to adjust when appropriate. For a leader of any sized organization, I cannot emphasize enough that leading is a privilege, the opportunity is fleeting, and how you execute your responsibility will impact those you lead personally and professionally far beyond your service with them in that organization.

The thoughts below embody an approach to leadership that I have adopted over time. While impossible to adhere 100% to a philosophy each and every day, I make a daily effort to stay true to my approach. I offer these thoughts for your consideration to either adopt in full, in part, or discard.

People and Trust: What Else Do You Need?

It starts and ends with the people you lead, without them you will fail. You cannot thank them enough for what they do each and every day; all that they do, whether routine or extraordinary, contributes to the success of the mission. Great leaders genuinely care about the members of their organization on a personal and professional level. In your own way, you must let them know you care. You should make every effort to engage everyone every day, if only briefly, and let them know you are accessible and able to lend assistance if required. If you have remote teammates, identify ways to engage them on a regular basis. This will require extra effort to keep them connected, but it is a “must do.” If a member of your team encounters a significant life event, do not delegate the task of communication. Instead, personally reach out to them and offer your personal assistance. Most will not seek assistance and attempt to remain self-sufficient, but your communication will often provide the opportunity for them to reach out to you and seek your support. It is the constant connection in all things, good and bad, that inspire them to serve on a team that cares about them personally and professionally.

Trust your people. There is possibly no phrase more empowering than “I trust you, I know you won’t let me down.” You can only do so much and be in so many places; your people are your “agents for good” each and every day. It sounds simple, but concerted effort is required to adhere to the principle of simply trusting your people.

From day one, build and nurture trust by a drawing a generous circle, then continue to rapidly expand it. Adopting this approach comes with some risk and personal discomfort—that is natural and okay. You must remind yourself that although you have the skills and knowledge to do the work you assign your subordinates, you do not have the time. Moreover, by attempting to do everything yourself, you deprive your subordinates of the opportunity to learn and develop. By affording your team the freedom to operate within a circle of trust/risk, you allow them to safely gain skill and knowledge.

To prevent people from becoming lost in that circle you have created, take time to explain your expectations to those you lead—how they should approach all issues, what is important from your perspective and how it should form the foundation for every action. Make especially clear when they should seek further guidance prior to action, as well as any “third rail/danger” issues to avoid. By providing this framework, you create a mutual understanding and the foundations for a professional relationship grounded in trust, flowing both ways, which help empower them into positive action.

Trust is a two-way street and it is not automatically extended just because you are in a leadership position. Trust from those you lead must be earned by you. Once earned, it is not retained without effort. Earning and preserving it will pay enormous dividends not only for you, but for your entire team. Your trust in your people—and theirs in you—lays the groundwork for similar relationships throughout your organization. When you infuse trust into your organization, it will not only flow vertically, but horizontally among all team members. The goal is to have all team members in the organization trusting and mutually supporting one another—this begins with the example you set.

Building trust can be difficult. You must demonstrate to your team that you trust them; show it to them in all your actions and allow them to excel. If they have given their best effort and stumble a bit, your reaction is critical to maintaining and building upon the trusting relationship. Discuss how to improve and, if required, reinforce the expectations that you established in your initial counseling and subsequent interactions and send them back to work.

Lastly, trust depends on your subordinate’s ability to rely on you. Your team must be able to rely on you to act consistently and fairly at each and every turn. One thing that increases reliability is your unchanging application of the leadership philosophy you have shared with your team. Subordinates who know and understand your philosophy understand how it helps steer the organization and empowers them to action.

Leadership Philosophy

Through personal experience, professional development, and self-study, everyone—to include your most junior Soldier—has informally developed a leadership philosophy. Throughout your career, you will move between positions that do not require you to be the “formal” leader by position. Before assuming a formal leadership position, you should reflect on your leadership philosophy and take the time to commit it to writing. It does not have to be lengthy or memorialized in a formal document—although that may be helpful—but it needs to reflect your thoughts on those things that are most important to you and how you want those in your organization to support those tenets of your philosophy. You then must provide this philosophy to everyone in your organization in order to create a shared understanding.

You should encourage your subordinates to adopt a similar approach to leadership and discuss with them the importance of developing their own leadership philosophy early in their career. As most have experienced, the Army will plunge you into a leadership opportunity before you think that you are completely ready. When afforded that opportunity, the common reaction will to be to forgo the opportunity to reflect on how you want to lead and instead set about to accomplish the numerous tasks before you. When given this opportunity, only a select few take time to really reflect on our own leadership philosophy and how it can be used to empower the organization prior to embarking on our new assignment.

Your leadership philosophy is and should be ever evolving. To advance yours, examine the leadership practices of the best leaders both inside and out of the Army. Ask your mentors to jot down their leadership philosophies for you to contemplate. Read biographies to discern the leadership philosophies of inspirational leaders you admire. However you formulate your own initial philosophy, ensure you do not just do it once. Reassess and modify it several times, at various points in your career, so as to incorporate valuable experience and difficult lessons learned. Because all leaders are constantly learning and adapting, your philosophy should remain consistent at its core, but should allow for your own growth as a leader.

Leading, Generally

If leading were easy, anyone would be assigned to do it. You have been placed in a leadership position to solve problems. Rarely is there a quick fix or school-approved solution to the myriad of complex problems you’ll encounter during your leadership tour. Leading requires an application of equal amounts of knowledge, judgment, and common sense. Although it is tempting to seek the perfect solution each and every time, it almost never exists, and that endless pursuit of perfection may consume an enormous amount of time and resources. “Good enough” for routine matters will almost always carry the day and allow you to move on to the next challenge.

As the leader, you must serve as the both the lighting rod and shield for subordinates. Trust your team to be able to “hold their own” and provide the unpopular legal advice in difficult situations, but understand when you need to insert yourself in the equation in order to provide supervisory “cover.” Although the advice may be the same, sometimes our clients need to hear it from a more senior member of the firm. When this happens, it should not be disruptive—to your relationship with the subordinate or to the subordinate’s relationship with the client. When subordinates are aware of your willingness to serve as lightning rod and shield in difficult situations, they are more likely to seek your help when such situations arise. United, you and your subordinates will be able to provide responsive advice to the client, which will, in turn, empower your subordinates for future action.

Our teams are exceedingly talented. They can accomplish almost any task assigned and will be sought after for assistance by numerous entities within your Command. You, however, must defend their time in order for them to accomplish their never ending legal missions. As their leader, you can and must professionally push back on those tasks that are clearly outside the legal lane, and although an important Army mission, ultimately detrimental to the legal mission. It can be difficult to discern which tasks, although outside the legal lane and detrimental to the mission, might be tasks that would broaden your subordinate. A leader must be able to weigh those factors, recalling that just because your team can work a number of actions does not mean that they should; you must find the balance between being a team player, assisting in accomplishing the “Army mission,” and preserving your team to perform its legal mission.

Providing professional space and a reasonable amount of time under the circumstances for your subordinates to complete a task prevents micro-managing and increases trust. The more predictability you can provide within your leadership realm, the more efficient your team will become. Professionals plan and complete their work either through guidance issued by their supervisors or by establishing internal suspenses based on the work they know they must accomplish. Frequent and unexpected changes to your teammates’ external or internal suspenses has a direct, adverse impact on productivity. The adverse impact is often two-fold: (1) constantly reacting to every changing suspense prevents one from working effectively to accomplish assigned tasks in an organized manner, and (2) it will impact personal obligations and commitments outside of the office. Neither scenario is good. Over time, it will be an increasing source of frustration and will impact the morale of the organization. Further, constant switching creates a climate of confusion, with subordinates completely unable to discern what is critical, important, necessary, or just routine.

Leaders are entrusted with a great deal of information, some requiring immediate action, some action at a later time, and often no action will ever be required. Within an organization at any given time, there are actions and information that only a small number of members actually need to know about. Everyone does not need to know what you know at all times; thus, the timing of sharing information with your teammates is important. Notification earlier than necessary can lead to distraction both professionally and personally. By the same token, if the information—although negative or distracting—might lead to improvement—self or situational—then a leader must know how to share it in addition to when. Making this call of how and when often dictates the usefulness of the information to members of your team.

(Credit: istockphoto.com/kirisa99)

Crisis Response

First, most crises are not actually crises; they just appear to be to those closest to the problem. If a crisis is brought to you, you must serve as the calming influence. Adding further stress to the situation does nothing to solve the problem. Reflect on how you receive bad news and then develop your own technique as to how you will respond and start solving the problem with your team. A great technique I have learned and employed over the years is to repeat back the problem presented to you. This ensures that you have a thorough understanding of the problem and builds in a reflection period for yourself prior to responding. When contemplating how you would like to respond to a crisis, deliberately think about experiences you have observed of poor leadership under stressful situations and vow not to repeat them. You must redouble your efforts to avoid repeating those practices as you interface with members of your team in developing the best course of action to solve the crisis at hand. Your team will turn to you when they perceive crisis—it is up to you keep everyone’s emotions in check and chart a course towards resolution.

Communication

Always make time to talk to everyone in the office; if there is something urgent that prevents an immediate conversation, reengage after the event has passed. Where communication takes place can also be pivotal. Consider the best location to communicate based on the topic of discussion. If it is informational, their office is ideal. If it is related to counseling/performance/discipline, your office is best. As you seek to open lines of communication, try to engage everyone, even if only to exchange daily greetings at events like physical training sessions, office functions, or other section gatherings.

Employ a varied approach to communicating, as everyone is different and there are countless ways to communicate with your team. Evaluate whether group settings, face-to-face, personal/hand-written notes, or group memorandums/letters are the best way to tell your team what you need them to know.

In terms of communication frequency, although obvious, more is better. Adopting an annual communication strategy is a non-starter. Always have an initial meeting with new members of your team and encourage your subordinate leaders to do the same. Based on the size of the group and your supervisory role, consider more frequent meetings with no structured agenda: simply ask how things are, what resources they require, and what organizational improvements should be made. Communication early and often with everyone makes future mandatory discussions easier for everyone. Your interactions should not be limited to those with challenges, but should include those who are excelling. Everyone appreciates acknowledgment of the work they do on a daily basis.

In addition to daily personal engagement, there is immense value in personal correspondence. Make it a practice to draft and deliver one handwritten note per week to someone in your organization. It may be for a special project or accomplishment; or it may be just because of a solid performance each and every day. This type of informal recognition communicates your appreciation for their efforts.

Formal recognition, on the other hand, communicates not only your appreciation, but also that of the organization. Because humility is the unstated Army Value possessed by almost all who choose a path of public service, if asked, most will say they do not desire formal recognition. Remember that the formal recognition is not just for the individual, but also for everyone else in the organization to understand what efforts you value and want to reward. It is an important Army tradition, so you must think about and deliberately seek recognition opportunities for your team members—taking into account the entire team. It is always good to remember that civilian teammates do not routinely reach the PCS window that generates an award discussion. Seeking opportunities to routinely recognize them for their contributions is a worthwhile endeavor.

Train Your Team

The leadership task of developing, training, and motivating is less daunting if you fall in on a high performing team. Reality, however, is that an overwhelming majority of us will be assigned to an organization that has a certain number of leadership challenges. You must learn how to coach the team that has been given to you. Notwithstanding illegal, immoral, or unethical behavior, all play a critical role and have the ability to provide significant contributions; your job is to identify areas for growth and maximize the existing talents of everyone on your team.

Further, your goal must be to make everyone better, understanding that all improve at a different pace. If you inherit an underachieving team, your first task is to get everyone into the boat and paddling in the same direction. It may seem simple enough, but the amount of time and effort required to accomplish this simple feat will be enormous. Accomplish this by establishing reasonable expectations for improvement and motivate everyone to achieve a higher level of performance, but acknowledge up front that you cannot do this alone: train your junior leaders on this approach. While they cannot make everyone an all-star overnight, they can assist those on their smaller teams within your organization to make improvements. In cyclical fashion, they will in turn create more improved teammates for subsequent leaders, perhaps even sowing the seeds of tremendous leaders in their young subordinates. It is every leader’s responsibility to incrementally improve the quality of their teammates not only for their team, but for the team that will be assembled after the leader’s departure. Beginning and ending your leadership efforts with your people in mind leads to a relationship of trust between subordinate and superior.

One of a leader’s most important tasks is training the next generation of leaders. This undertaking requires a multi-faceted approach and constant attention. Afford your subordinates opportunities to lead; build confidence by assigning them the most challenging tasks; allow them to wrestle to find the answer; have them be your representative to present proposed solutions to the most senior leaders in the organization; encourage them to observe and capture great leadership practices from others and figure out how they can adapt them to their own personality; talk to them about the complexity and challenges in leadership; share with them challenges you have encountered and possible solutions to those challenges; and describe your failures along with your successes.

Approach to the Role of Counselor

The importance of in-person counsel to our clients cannot be overstated. You must instill this value in our next generation of legal professionals. Electronic communication has improved the speed in which we can provide advice; however, if it is the only form employed when we fulfill our role and obligations as counselor, we are at grave risk of doing a disservice to our clients. The advice we provide often has a direct and life-long impact on Soldiers and their Families; thus, we owe it to Soldiers and the Army to provide our advice in a forum that provides for discussion and a complete understanding of all the issues surrounding a case.

Electronic or written communication places limits on the ability to ensure a complete understanding. As an example, a client usually seeks legal counsel because of a less than desirable life situation. Although they seek legal counsel, the client has already developed an idea of what a desirable outcome to the situation would be. The question is usually whether the outcome the client desires is legally supportable. As a legal counselor, you can craft a very comprehensive electronic response; however, if a client thinks that they have found the resolution they are seeking in the first paragraph, they may fail to read the response in its entirety, and then act upon a fraction of your intended advice. This may result in the client returning to you at a later date in a more difficult place. You must emphasize and explain the importance of in-person counsel in a digital age. This will make your team better legal professionals and, in turn, their clients will benefit.

Performance Expectations

Everyone giving 110% every day is admirable, but, in my opinion, not realistic—with one exception discussed later in this paragraph. I encourage all in my organization to strive toward a 95% tempo rate each and every day. This does not mean that the work produced is not a “gold” or “professional” standard. The quality of the work should never be diminished; it is only the rate at which it will be produced that is modified. There will be frequent opportunities for teammates to increase the tempo and produce at close to the 100% level. In order to increase tempo, there has to be physical space to accomplish this request. If everyone is already at 100% there is no ability to “surge.” Demanding a 100% tempo rate every day will increase the probability of mental or physical fatigue that will adversely impact the mission. A tempo rate that permits “minor diversions” from the work at hand improves overall morale and promotes the rapid transition to a sense of urgency and a willingness to contribute to mission accomplishment when the situation dictates. Expect everyone to swim hard, but ensure all know that no one goes under and the team always stands ready to assist. The only exception to the 95% tempo rate is during the hours of physical training: the opportunity to conduct daily physical activity is a gift that helps maintain overall physical and mental health, which in turn allows for increased productivity. This gift should not be taken for granted and, if afforded the opportunity, one should devote 100% effort to derive the maximum benefit during the hours set aside for physical fitness.

From your initial counseling, impress upon members of your team that they are professionals, and as professionals, you expect them to perform as such. Do not watch their clock, but expect that they are available during the “duty day,” which can be an extended day based on position and type of assignment. Expect them to know and work to complete their requirements for the day, week, and month without constant reminders of deadlines. Based on life events, or with the approval of their immediate supervisor, subordinates should be free to manage their own schedules.

Balance in All That We Do

Sometimes referred to as work/life balance, I just refer to it as personal balance. Without it, we all will eventually fall. Balance requires work and constant reassessment to maintain. Fence off time to think about your performance in this essential task and rebalance yourself as required. Make those who work for you think about it and watch them to ensure they put it into practice. Challenge them to watch out for their peers; they are in the best position to detect personal or professional challenges that might impact their peers’ balance. When you or a member of your team detect a problem, do something about it. That is engaged leadership.

Further, you must make balance a priority and lead by example within your organization. The mission comes first, but seldom is there a situation when the mission will fail by employing a balanced approach. This balanced approach ensures everyone remains healthy—both physically and mentally—and performs at the optimal level. In order to maintain balance, you must sincerely support your team’s participation in life events. When conducting initial counseling, tell your subordinates that, short of a national emergency, you plan on attending your life events and you expect that they will do the same. Tell them that they are professionals and you expect that they will accomplish all missions assigned. But also, as professionals, they have the flexibility to adjust their schedules in order to accomplish the mission as well as participate in their life events. Following that conversation, you must attend your own life events to reinforce that you are not merely saying it, but that you mean it.

Quality Staff Work: It Does Not Just Occur Naturally

Legal professionals should strive to be the best staff officers of any organization, and the principles of quality of staff work need to be taught. Staff work is difficult. Although there are many aspects to good staff work, it is important to remember the following: the best staff work is work that is done early for your client, shaped from the outset, and meets the client’s intent in compliance with all applicable guidance; understanding the client’s intent/concern/question is paramount; if you don’t understand ask early—it will save unnecessary time and effort; and know the suspense, anticipate difficulties meeting it, and ask for an extension early, if required.

Initially, the foundation of becoming a contributing staff member is built upon the relationships you have with fellow staff members. To foster good relationships, you must be responsive, even to preliminary assessments or inquiries. Ensure that you understand the issue prior to beginning work; if you don’t understand, ask. Failure to seek clarification wastes time and energy. When researching and developing a solution you may discover an issue not initially presented; seek clarification. Although not originally articulated by the client, this may be the central issue that needs to be resolved. Leverage the talents of your internal and external team. Seek assistance, direction, or advice from others; this is no substitute for doing your own work, but being inclusive rather than exclusive provides important perspectives as you frame an issue.

At the end of the day, it is all about providing the very best product to the client. Those new to the staffing process (especially at lower levels of command) often erroneously approach it as a competition, either within the commander’s staff or legal staff at subordinate or senior units. We work to produce the “gold standard” legal product grounded on solid research, communication, and coordination. Think especially about the reach or impact of any opinion you provide. For those issues extending beyond the command, coordinate your response with your legal counterparts. You may ultimately reach differing conclusions, but it will afford them an advance opportunity to consider the issue. No one likes surprises, so this type of coordination within your functional area (legal) is pivotal to maintain those legal relationships.

As you finalize your work, you might reach a conclusion that may not be either popular or the desired result. In those cases, it is important to remember that it is often not the opinion that your clients will remember, but rather the manner in which you deliver it. In much the same way that you should not email bad news that you could instead deliver in person, you should deliver an unpopular legal opinion in person as well. Make it a point to get out from behind the desk and explain the rationale for the opinion. Your client may not like the opinion, but they will respect you for your genuine concern about the issue. This will go a long way to preserving and building relationships for future staff actions.

Mentoring, Career Advice, and Other Stuff

Senior leaders must play a critical role in the mentoring process. In that role, you must make it one of your many priorities. If asked, junior members should not respond that their primary—or only—source of career advice is from their peers. You should extend the invitation to discuss career questions/concerns at any time and then make yourself available when asked. You must discuss career progression during initial in-briefs, periodic counselings, and OER counselings. Also, during one of these counselings, you must discuss the JAG Corps’ career model pertaining to that particular officer. It is important that all within the Corps understand their career model and the assignment process. You should emphasize that job and assignment diversity and building expertise serves multiple purposes. For captains, developing as a diverse judge advocate prepares one for success at the next higher rank. It also provides the JAG Corps flexibility to assign those captains to any future position with confidence in a successful tour. Moreover, a diverse assignment pattern allows those captains to make an informed decision as to whether the JAG Corps is the career organization for them. The JAG Corps as a career is not for everyone; you must be able to assist your subordinates in making that critical assessment, and, if necessary, inform certain subordinates that you do not think the Army is a good fit for them.

You should similarly discuss the responsibilities of a professional officer with each young judge advocate: updating DA photos with each PCS, periodically reviewing ORBs to ensure the information is current; etc. You should discuss with them that the Army is small and the JAG Corps is smaller. Their reputation among subordinates, peers, and supervisors matters, and matters even more as one moves forward in their career when peer groups become smaller. Discuss the fact that “nobody likes a jerk.” Whether working with teammates or clients, your ability to “work and play well with others” has a direct impact on overall effectiveness. You must emphasize that the Army is a values-based organization and there are standards that apply 24/7, 365. It is always good to remind them that adult decisions have adult consequences. Along those lines of advice, encourage them to enjoy life outside of the Army duty day—responsibly.

Personnel Actions: Evaluations, Awards, Profiles, Leave, and Transition

Personnel actions are one of the most important responsibilities for a leader. Short of a true emergency, there is no reason for a late personnel action (evaluation or an award). In almost every case, you have at least 364 days of preparation time. You can’t start too early: draft and redraft; have the appropriate person/s review your draft to ensure intended, and prevent unintended, messages. Ninety days in advance is a proper planning figure; outstanding accomplishments can always be added.

As a rater or senior rater, review, plan, and track the execution of your profile from the first day you assume responsibility of evaluating personnel. You should forecast your profile using a two-year window as your planning assumption. Where possible, create flexibility in your profile for unexpected evaluations. Keep a running Order of Merit List to assist with management of your profile. Profile limitations impact box checks—if one of your people will be affected by that, explain the problem to the rated officer during counseling.

Leave is a critical component of balance. Take your leave and encourage subordinates to do the same. Make it a topic of discussion with those you rate/supervise early in the fiscal year. Everyone should have an annual leave plan to avoid forfeiting “use or lose” leave time. There are very few circumstances that warrant denying leave, even with multiple people on leave during the same time. Proper planning should permit effective management and accomplishment of required work in their absence. In the same vein, permit maximum flexibility for PCS leave and passes. Unless deploying, give Soldiers sufficient time to PCS (incoming and departing), to include all associated tasks. Transition overlap is critical in combat, but otherwise, it is helpful, not necessary. Ensure you and your subordinates prepare successors for success with useful transition products, like continuity books, forecasts of requirements for the successor’s first thirty days, and a prescheduled itinerary of required activities to ensure a smooth entry into the unit.

The foregoing thoughts just begin to touch on the myriad of complex issues a leader faces on a daily basis. There is no single correct approach and the best leaders do not get it exactly right every time. I would just ask you to embrace your leadership opportunity. You have been entrusted to lead one of the Army’s great legal teams. Remember, at the end of the day, leadership begins and ends with your people. No matter the situation—and whether or not great leadership comes naturally to you—if you care about your people, care about doing your best by them, and care about the organization in which you serve, then you have positioned yourself and your team for success in accomplishing any legal mission. TAL

 


COL Martin currently serves as the Chief of Professional Responsibility at the Office of The Judge Advocate General.