Lost and Found: Junior Leader Counseling in the Army
How many formal counselings have you received during your military career? Can you count them on one hand? Two hands? Did you find any of the counseling sessions productive or were they “check the block” meetings between you and your rater? Are we really “putting people first” if we do not invest our time and energy into their development as professionals and people? Our newly minted FMs and ATPs christen the Army’s people as our most vital asset. As the Army Chief of Staff, General James McConville, states “People are the United States Army’s greatest strength and most important weapon system”. With that in mind, weapons maintenance has never been so important. But instead of CLP and brushes on an M4, leaders need to place genuine, constructive, and routine counseling as a priority in order to properly develop junior leaders.
Counseling is central to the stewardship of the Military Profession, particularly in an organization like the Army, built on adaptation and change. Change in the operating environment, change in technology, change in training techniques, and perhaps most significant, change in personnel. Most billets in the Army are filled for 12-24 months, before the Service Member transitions to a new position. This turnover is necessary if we are to grow our own organization leaders, but it creates numerous gaps in leader development. This is why counseling and stewardship of the profession are so vital in the Army and must be taken seriously by all Army leaders from E-4 to O-10.
In order to truly be a steward of the profession, a leader needs to lead him or herself first. If a leader struggles with or neglects their own personal growth, then developing subordinate leaders will be intensely difficult. This may be one of the primary reasons why we do not see more mentorship and professional counseling throughout our careers. The Army places a significant amount of responsibility and numerous requirements on its leaders. Subsequently, the last thing on their mind is the development of their subordinates. With this inherent stress goes formal counseling and leader development, interactions that our young leaders are literally starving for.
Leader development begins and ends with formal counseling. Literally, it is spelled out in our doctrine: “Counseling is central to leader development”. Our rated period begins and ends with a counseling session, or at least it should. These sessions tend to be a one-way conversation outlining the rater’s expectations and philosophies, or performance and NCOER or OER results. In some instances, raters and senior raters do a much better job sticking to these particular counseling sessions because they require little investment in time and effort. They have a template for the initial counseling, and a hard document – NCOER or OER – for the final counseling. These documents and sessions provide a recorded foundation for evaluation and stewardship, but that is not indicative of the 12 month period between two evaluations. What is typically missing is the feedback between these two counseling sessions. The quarterly counseling for raters and the semiannual counseling for senior raters provide an azimuth check throughout the rated period. It not only allows the junior leader to adjust mid-course to stay on track, but it also permits the senior leader to influence the direction of their organization more often. Without these sessions every three to six months, the junior leader, the senior leader, and most importantly, the Army, suffers the consequences.
Leaders can do three things to improve this process: Invest your time, have the hard conversations, and develop the person, not just the Soldier.
Invest your Time
As a leader, your time is your most precious commodity. You will never have enough and everyone is vying for more. Therefore, a conscious effort must be made to set the time aside to invest in your people. A portion of this time needs to be dedicated to professional development and counseling. The Army will replace your junior leaders with new personnel on a never-ending cycle. The goal is to develop that leader and better your organization while they’re with you, and the only way to accomplish this is to invest a portion of your time. Regular counseling is no less valuable to a young leader than a culminating training exercise, operational experience, or daily physical training. Those charged with rating or senior rating an individual must keep this in mind. You would never consider giving less time to the training or operational events listed above, so why would you not allocate time to counseling at least once per quarter?
When you commit to investing time in your people, you need to stick to it. Often we appoint counseling sessions on the calendar but have a little issue moving them, shortening them, or canceling them altogether. Again, you would rarely see this as an option when it comes to training, battle rhythm meetings, or physical training. That counseling period is “sacred time” and should be respected as such. Each time formal counseling is bumped, shortened, or canceled, it sends a message to the junior leader – he or she is less important than almost everything else you have to do. The Army’s operational environment is unpredictable and constantly changing, so there will be times where counseling sessions need to be shifted around, but it should be kept to a minimum. The senior leader should make an effort to reach out to their junior leader and explain to them why it occurred. It may seem insignificant, but it will go a long way in building trust and mutual respect between senior leaders and junior leaders.
The key is to change the way in which we rank-order the counseling session in our mind. It is no less significant than the majority of our daily tasks. If we truly want to put “people first”, this is a critical step in that direction. So, open your calendar, schedule your formal counseling sessions, put some thought into what you would like to address, and commit to seeing it through. This will provide the foundation for a genuine commitment to counseling and developing your people. As they say, “don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.”
Have the Hard Conversation
At this point, you’ve committed to the counseling session, invested your time in preparing, and are ready to develop your junior leader. Now you need to share how that individual is performing, what he or she is doing well, and what needs to be improved. Your conversation must address the leader’s strengths and weaknesses in relation to their performance. A way to accomplish this, while remaining empathetic, is to bounce back and forth between sustains and improves. This will allow you to address shortcomings while managing his or her attention and attitude. You do not want to create an environment that is not conducive to constructive development. As a leader, you cannot rely solely on the evaluation template and format to drive a genuine counseling session. Our evaluations are not built to provide the growth that is gained through thoughtful feedback.
Our current evaluations system is held up by countless unwritten rules. By “unwritten”, I am referring to the absence of particular language required in our evaluations that explain to a promotion board the rated Soldier’s performance and potential. While our manuals may not spell out how to write an NCOER or OER, it is widely known what makes a good or bad evaluation. Unfortunately, a poor evaluation rarely says anything constructive to improve that individual’s performance. It is usually what is left unsaid that says more. This kind, gentle means of evaluation may temporarily spare a junior leader’s ego, but it does not help develop or improve him or her as a leader or as a person. With that said, no one reading this article will be able to change this overnight, and any effort may put your subordinate at risk of retention control. So, how do you handle it?
First, you play by the NCOER and OER rules. You provide them with the verbiage that allows them to grow through experience and failure. “With effective counseling, no evaluation report – positive or negative – should be a surprise”. If you are addressing failures or shortcomings for the first time at the final counseling, you have failed your subordinate. The opportunity to correct course and steer your junior leaders comes throughout the rated period occurring at quarterly and semiannual counseling sessions, at the end of a long day, or when that individual seeks your counsel.
It is important to remember that simply investing your time may not achieve the results you are looking for. You have to be willing to tell your people what they need to hear when they need to hear it. If you are not developing the knowledge and behaviors of your subordinates, then their performance will suffer. If you are not routinely gauging their performance and sharing this with them, again, they will suffer. If your junior leaders suffer from a lack of development and feedback throughout their time under your charge, the Army suffers. You will have subordinates that need your feedback more than others, and identifying that is crucial. In this way, investing your time informs the hard conversations. Understanding those conversations need to occur will better assess that investment. Remember, no one is perfect. Even your rock star junior leaders need to be developed. Leaving them behind because they do not seem to need your guidance will put them at risk down the line.
Develop the Person, Not Just the Soldier
You have efficiently invested your time and prepared for the hard conversation with the right people. Now what?
A Soldier will always be a person, but he or she will not always be a Soldier. Developing the person under the uniform will achieve a number of things that benefit your organization, the Army, and society as well. A person who has a healthy, well-rounded lifestyle will be much more productive. If a leader is happy and productive, so is the organization. If your junior leaders are outstanding Soldiers and leaders, but they have poor work-life balancing skills, neglecting their development as a parent, spouse, brother, and friend, their ceiling for growth is considerably lower than their potential suggests.
Stressing work-life balance is commonplace in Army leadership circles. This concept is intuitively great, and attaining “the balance” is something most people would like to achieve. It is also easier said than done. Your actions speak louder than words; quantity of time does not equal quality of work. If the job is done, go home and encourage your people to do the same. As soon as your junior leaders see you are comfortable leaving work at a reasonable time, they will follow suit and the culture will shift in favor of true work-life balance. This is a significant step in building the complete person and it starts with you setting the standard.
Developing the person behind the rank is possibly one of the more challenging aspects of counseling and leader development. An effective approach is to introduce ideas and concepts that can be applied to circumstances outside of the workplace. You can even draw on situations that occur at work, but apply them to being a parent or a spouse. Attempt to provide your junior leaders with the framework necessary to solve complex problems, rather than handing them the answer. This will improve their analytic and problem-solving skills within the organization, and at home. Understanding this is vital to developing a resilient, well-rounded leader that can perform within the unit, in their household, or anywhere they may find themselves in the future.
“Army leaders must demonstrate certain qualities to be effective counselors. These qualities include respect for subordinates, self-awareness, cultural awareness, empathy, and credibility”. The points shared above will serve as a starting point to becoming an “effective counselor”, addressing respect for subordinates, self-awareness, empathy, and credibility. If the Army is going to put people first, it starts and ends with counseling and leader development. Investing the time required is not always easy for Army leaders, and telling our junior leaders what they need to hear can be even more difficult. Putting these two factors at the forefront of your mind, while understanding that all Soldiers were once civilians and will be civilians again, will help us leaders truly put our people first. Implementing a thoughtful and disciplined counseling program within your organization is the first step to delivering on our word. Counseling is the key to establishing mutual trust and a stronger organization. With efficient and effective counseling from the Army’s leaders, we can continue to grow as an organization and steward the profession into the future.
CPT Everett is currently serving as the Company Commander for C Company, 309th Military Intelligence Battalion, Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, New York, and is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Intelligence Studies.
 U.S. Army. ADP 6-22 Army Leadership.
 McConville, James. “People First: Insights from the Army’s Chief of Staff”. 2020. https://www.army.mil/article/243026/people_first_insights_from_the_armys_chief_of_staff
 U.S. Army. ADP 6-22 Army Leadership. Pg. 6-10.
 U.S. Army. ADP 6-22 Army Leadership. Pg. 6-11.
 U.S. Army. ATP 6-22.1 The Counseling Process. Pg. 2-1.
 Benjamin J. Jimenez. “Creating a More Effective Tool for Army Counseling”. 2021. https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Portals/7/nco-journal/images/2021/June/Counseling/Counseling.pdf