by MAJ Clark Backus
The 11th Signal Brigade at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., revamped its brigade officer-mentorship program in July 2001 in an effort to more effectively develop its junior officers. The program directs lieutenants throughout the brigade to select a major outside their chain of command to provide them guidance and counseling. The program is already reaping some valuable rewards for 11th Signal Brigade and the Army.
Much has been written over the past few years about the dissatisfaction of commissioned officers over their interaction with leadership in the Army. Many junior officers report that the senior officers within their chains of command simply don�t spend enough time personally developing them. Chaplain (COL) Gil Pingel, former commandant of the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School, once said, �If the Chaplain Branch is going to perpetuate and do the great things it has done in history, those who are in leadership positions now need to take the time to share those lessons-learned with those who are to follow.�
This is true in any branch, including the Signal Corps. We with crossed flags on our collars must be constantly vigilant, guarding against the tendency to be overly systems-focused at the expense of the needs of our soldiers and junior officers. The 11th Signal Brigade mentorship program does that by facilitating interaction between field-grade officers and lieutenants, and it provides mentoring to those most in need of purpose, direction and motivation.
The 11th Signal Brigade S-1, who is overall manager of the program, introduces the mentorship program to new lieutenants within the first few days of their assignment to the brigade. All lieutenants then meet with the battalion executive officer in the unit to which they are assigned. At this meeting, the XO is responsible for briefing the new officers about the details of the mentorship program. The XO provides the lieutenants with the brigade�s mentorship policy letter and a listing of field-grade officers available for selection as a mentor.
The new lieutenants then have 90 days to prioritize three field-grade officers they would like to have as a mentor. They may not select majors who are assigned to the same unit. This policy encourages lieutenants and majors to get to know and interact with officers throughout the brigade, and it builds esprit de corps among the three battalions and headquarters company at Fort Huachuca.
Based on availability (a major can mentor up to five lieutenants at a time, and the brigade now has a number of majors deployed), lieutenants are assigned a major based on their preferences, and the mentorship relationship begins.
The program is fairly simple and has three basic goals. The first is to improve the leadership skills and decisions of all officers involved, not just those of the lieutenants. Using the Army�s definition of leadership, supplied by Field Manual 22-100, mentors are directed to focus some of their interaction with their lieutenants on the Junior Officer Development Support Form. This is a new form of counseling to the majors of the brigade, since it didn�t exist when they were lieutenants or company commanders. Use of the form can be an interactive learning experience for both the field-grade officer and the lieutenant. Lieutenants who have reviewed the form with their mentors usually discover that the Army has very clearly defined the necessary attributes, skills and actions that constitute good leadership.
The second goal is to increase junior-officer motivation to continue service in the U.S. Army. Clearly this is a priority of every human-resources department in the corporate world, and so should it be with 11th Signal Brigade and the Army. Retaining good leaders requires that those who are most inexperienced in a unit receive enough personal attention from the more experienced leaders. In other words, new lieutenants must be �introduced� or socialized into their new profession and the unit by those who understand how the unit functions.
This process can assist the lieutenants in determining a number of things that help them get adjusted to their surroundings and professional duties. Along with the lieutenant�s assigned chain of command, the mentor can help guide the lieutenant through the first tour of duty in the Army, helping alleviate many of the initial challenges that may stifle the officer�s motivation for continued service.
The third goal is to build esprit de corps within the brigade�s officer corps. Nothing builds morale and esprit de corps in a unit faster than shared experiences. These experiences are more valuable if they focus initially on the technical and tactical aspects of our profession. This is where the field-grade officer�s experience can be invaluable to the program. Through sharing past experiences of difficult and challenging situations, the major is equipped to provide guidance and advice, thereby instilling confidence in the young officer.
For example, one lieutenant was having difficulty getting the platoon sergeant to follow through with basic instructions. After some discussion with the lieutenant, the mentor found that the lieutenant was reluctant to counsel the platoon sergeant in writing and failed to outline the specific actions and behaviors expected from this senior noncommissioned officer. Eventually, the lieutenant counseled the platoon sergeant in writing using specific, performance-oriented language that defined the lieutenant�s expectations of the platoon sergeant. The lieutenant is now in a much better position to evaluate the platoon sergeant�s performance.
Along with the hard lessons-learned the mentors can share with their lieutenants, each mentor also schedules time to meet with the officers in a purely social environment by inviting the lieutenants over to the mentor�s home on planned holidays or by just meeting regularly with the officers at the unit dining facility.
The 86th Signal Battalion, 11th Signal Brigade, has three newly assigned lieutenants acting as company commanders because of the brigade�s support for Operation Enduring Freedom. The positions these young officers are filling are not just to fill the role of a rear-detachment commander while the company commander is deployed. Each of these officers still has the responsibility for unit physical training, property accountability, unit maintenance, legal actions and the entire scope of tasks for which a captain is normally responsible.
In these cases, the role of mentors and the focus of a unit�s officer-professional-development program take on an increasingly important purpose in assisting these officers in their new responsibilities. The lieutenants in 86th Signal Battalion, having been thrust into the role of commanders, are confronted with a significant number of leadership challenges that many of their peers won�t face for another couple of years. The mentors recognize the position their lieutenants are in and provide critical advice and guidance that will help solve some of the leadership challenges the lieutenants are handling.
The mentorship program has enhanced the success of the brigade�s scheduled quarterly team-building events by establishing relationships across the brigade. These relationships enhance our ability to deploy Signal task forces consisting of soldiers from all units within the entire brigade. Our tight network of leaders enhances our ability to install, operate, maintain and protect communications networks such as the current OEF network.
Soldiers from all four of 11th Signal Brigade�s battalions are deployed to support OEF. The average deployed brigade site is made up of soldiers from multiple company and battalion organizations. Many of the Signal site commanders are junior lieutenants who are supporting joint- and coalition-forces headquarters.
Ultimately the health of 11th Signal Brigade�s mentorship program, and the officer corps at large, rests on developing the junior leaders in our units. Our program attempts to strengthen the officer corps by charging many of its field-grade officers with the additional responsibility of sharing their experiences with junior officers across the brigade. In doing so, the Thunderbird Brigade is ensuring its officers are more skilled, committed and motivated for continued service in the U.S. Army. We believe our mentorship program is a contributing factor in our unit�s success in OEF and increased retention rates of our officers.
MAJ Backus is 86th Signal Battalion�s XO. He�s a graduate of the Command and General Staff College and a former armor officer. His previous assignments include tank platoon leader, scout platoon leader, battalion adjutant, battalion logistics officer, commander of C Company, 16th Signal Battalion, and instructor, Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y. Backus earned a bachelor�s degree in finance from Ohio State University and a master�s degree in business administration from Indiana University, majoring in strategic leadership and human-resource management.
XO � executive officer
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