This edition of The Army Lawyer is devoted to the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps Civilian. There are nearly 1,500 Civilians, attorneys and paraprofessionals, across all components of our Corps. Many JAG Corps Civilians have spent time in uniform, but many have not. I have served in both capacities and experienced the culture from what can sometimes be two very different perspectives. The challenge for all of us, both Soldier and Civilian, is to figure out how to bridge the gap between the two cultures, leverage all that we have in common, and form successful teams ready to meet the future needs of the Army.
There was a time when being a federal civilian employee meant a steady, predictable job for life. The last decade has called this security into question. Being a federal civilian employee during the last decade has meant contending with government shutdowns, furloughs, and downsizing. On top of that, being an Army Civilian employee brings ever-changing supervisors, ever-changing missions and priorities, and a regimented environment.
The Soldiers reading this article may be a bit surprised by the reference to a regimented environment. You may not think much about how the Army workplace differs from others, particularly if you have spent your entire career in uniform. A simple example: in the Army, we prepare memos in accordance with Army Regulation 25-50, and the format is predetermined down to the smallest detail. Outside of the military, with a few exceptions, you can draft a memo in any professional-looking format, and no one cares how many spaces you put before your signature block. There is a culture in the Army that is quite unlike the culture in other workplaces, be it private sector or other federal agencies. Adapting to our culture, especially for those who have not previously served, can present a steep learning curve.
For the Civilians, you need to understand what Soldiers contend with:
- 18 years of war—often bringing multiple deployments and separation from loved ones.
- An extremely competitive promotion process.
- The need to quickly attain leadership positions to achieve promotion.
- An “up or out” promotion system.
- Work may not be limited to the duty day.
The pace has been relentless for many of the Soldiers in your office, and they face intense pressure to succeed, coupled with uncertainty about the future. Many Civilians lament the scarcity of promotion opportunities as a Civilian. The military has a robust promotion system, but Soldiers can lose their career if they fail to progress.
Still, what Soldiers and Civilians have in common is a commitment to service. The vast majority of Soldiers and Civilians choose the Army because of a desire to serve and a commitment to the protection of the United States. There are many other places, many other federal agencies, where they could choose to work. They chose us.
For Soldiers, ask yourself, are you leveraging your Civilians to their full capability? I challenge you to lead your Civilians. Resist the temptation to place them on autopilot. People rise, or fall, to your expectations. If you expect little, you will likely get little. Conversely, if you expect great things from your people, you will get them. Have a vision of what you want your Civilians to be, and communicate your vision. My vision for the Army Civilian is to serve as a mentor. Civilians tend to stay in one job for a long time and are able to develop a depth of expertise in their job. Soldiers tend to rotate through many jobs and develop a breadth of experience. Breadth and depth put together are unstoppable. The connection between the breadth and the depth will not happen on its own. Developing this connection requires persistent, deliberate effort. You must consciously decide each day how you are going to bring together every member of your team.
For military leaders, understand when you take over an office and announce: “Stand by for broad, sweeping changes!” For many Civilians, you may be one of many leaders who have charted a different course. Every office has a culture, and that culture is often set by the Civilians because they are the ones who stay. If the culture is not healthy and productive, then by all means, change it! However, know that many leaders come to their position with a brilliant strategy that fails because it is overcome by the existing culture. The old saying is true: culture eats strategy for breakfast . . . and lunch . . . and dinner. Spend the first thirty days in the office listening, and then revisit your contemplated strategy. Ask yourself if what you thought you needed to accomplish is what your team really needs. Then, assess how you can leverage the existing culture to accomplish the goal, while shifting the culture to your desired end state.
For my fellow Civilians, understand how the phrase “this is the way we have always done things” is often received by your military counterparts. You are part of a dynamic organization that is becoming ever-more dynamic. We are an “Army in Renaissance” right now. As Charles Darwin taught us, creatures that do not adapt to change become extinct. I challenge you to stay open to change and evolution, and to prepare yourself for what the future might require. Along with the continuity you offer, add flexibility, and you will be viewed as truly indispensable.
I sometimes hear Civilians express confusion about why they are being supervised by a Soldier who lacks the same depth of expertise in their practice area. I tell them three things. First, leadership is a completely different skillset from technical expertise. The best technical experts do not always make the best leaders. Second, the Army is designed to grow leaders, and Soldiers are placed in leadership positions to help them develop their leadership skills. Third, true leadership is not about your title or position, it’s about your ability to influence. The lowest-ranking person in an office might be the true leader because they are the one with the greatest ability influence. Seek out training and update your skills. Initiate performance discussions with your supervisors instead of waiting for them to seek you out. Be an active part of the team. Whether you are a long-term Civilian who has “seen it all,” or a new employee from the private sector, you can have significant influence, regardless of your grade or duty position.
As members of the nation’s biggest, oldest, and best law firm, I have no doubt that each and every one of you is up to the challenge. Be Ready! TAL