By Jon Micheal Connor
ASC Public Affairs
ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Illinois – The yearlong Journey to Leadership Program Tier II class 2019/2020 graduated in a four-hour ceremony July 16 in a non-traditional way: It was held in a variety of locations simultaneously – at home and at work.
That’s because the coronavirus pandemic forced course officials to shut down the normally led in-person course and instead teach the last portion of it in the virtual world. While it wasn’t the preferred method, it was the only way to continue allowing 25 participants to graduate from JTL.
“This is our final week of class and our first time going virtual,” said Lisa Schuldt, program manager of the U.S. Army Sustainment Command’s Journey to Leadership courses, G3 Training Division.
“Prior to this class, the students met in person four times throughout their program year. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this final class was pushed to the right twice. It was originally scheduled for the last week of April, then moved to mid-June, and finally rescheduled to this week (July 13 - 17),” she explained.
The ceremony included four team project presentations and a class project presentation of a bone marrow drive, which was the first time an entire class in JTL shared a project, Schuldt said.
JTL is a leadership program offering three tiers of instruction based on ranges in rank. It was developed by ASC originally for its personnel. The program has since expanded and is now open to tenant organizations at RIA and will soon be offered to personnel at the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, headquartered at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, Schuldt said.
The intent of this program is to train future leaders in a broad range of leadership competencies, utilize and administer various leadership tools and techniques, and to enhance teaming and interpersonal skills. It is a development program that includes participation in command-endorsed team projects with a variety of training and educational experiences.
Priority Executive Development LLC, based in Bettendorf, Iowa, is the current contract facilitator for JTL Tier II. It is experienced in creating and delivering customized leadership development programs. The training facilitators were Catherine Schade and Irene Loftus.
Like so many in the federal workforce, switching from the normal office workplace to the virtual world presented unknown challenges for both the instructors and the students.
“Personally not being familiar with the different platforms available for online learning, I had to research what would be the best platform to use. There was a lot of testing out the software to ensure it would meet our needs and ultimately decided to go with MS Teams,” Schuldt said.
Microsoft Teams is a unified communication and collaboration platform that combines workplace chat, video meetings, file storage, and application integration. While there are other software programs available, the U.S. Army is adopting this as its method to conduct business in the telework environment.
“Virtual training for me is a constant learning adventure. The more myself and the facilitators played with the product, the more we were able to work out the kinks and felt comfortable with giving it a try,” Schuldt said. “This current week of training was basically the pilot for us going virtual. Thankfully, I think it went very well.”
Schuldt said she believes that while virtual instruction was not designed for this course, the students did not lose out in knowledge gained.
“I was a bit apprehensive of how some of our experiential learning activities would go, but I think the facilitators did a great job with making the exercises valuable,” she said. “Of course in-person contact is most ideal, however, I believe that the education the students received virtually was pretty comparable to what they would've gotten in the classroom setting.”
Asked about the advantages/disadvantages of instructing virtually, Schuldt offered this:
“I would say the biggest advantage of virtual training is learning how to communicate and navigate in a digital world. The students, facilitators and I all had to quickly become savvy on MS Teams to get through this week. I'm by far not an expert on the software, but through trial and error can now troubleshoot some technical difficulties.
“The main disadvantage to virtual training is losing that dynamic of personal connection. Luckily the current class had met in person four times previously so they were very comfortable with each other and had already established those connections. Going forward with the new classes, I hope through some of our exercises that we'll be able bridge that gap.”
Schuldt also said that lessons learned that will be applied to future classes.
“Definitely setting rules of engagement -- i.e., how to ask questions, establishing accountability, etc. -- up front worked very well and alleviated some of the facilitators and students concerns,” she said.
For now, the upcoming Tier I class will be offered virtually for all of its three sessions this year. After completion, the course will be assessed on whether to keep it virtual or return to traditional classroom training, Schuldt said.
As for Tiers II and Tier III, Schuldt said ASC is hoping to get back to in-person classroom training as soon as it's safe in coordination with the recommendations of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the ASC command surgeon's office.
Matt Sannito, deputy to the commander, ASC, provided comments after each group presentation and closing remarks.
The JTL program is “about the people and about you, and ensuring that we are providing and investing in you to ensure you are successful in your endeavors in your career,” Sannito said.
He said that people need challenges in the workplace and they should tackle challenges head-on to achieve an end result.
“Remember, being uncomfortable is good. I’m a big believer of that. If you’re not challenging yourself and it’s not feeling a little uncomfortable, if you’re not feeling those butterflies in your stomach, then it’s probably not the right thing you need to be doing,” he said.
“We have to put ourselves in challenging and uncomfortable situations because that helps us force ourselves to learn,” he added.
Sannito also shared the three “C’s” of leadership: Be confident, have commitment and character.
In having confidence, Sannito said a leader knows one’s craft horizontally and vertically; in commitment, he said have passion in what you do; and regarding character, he said be the example you want people to hold you to and emulate.
He concluded that graduates have reached a time in their journey that “I expect many of you will continue as you focus on you continued growth and the profession you execute in our U.S. Army.”
The ceremony also involved student testimonies. One student, Kyle Gripp, chief, Continuous Process Improvement Office, Rock Island Arsenal - Joint Munitions and Technology Center, said the main benefits of the course were the networking of people available to him and the monthly counseling sessions.
“I interacted with generals, colonels, SES’s, civilians, military contractors, new employees and experienced employees,” Gripp said. “I now have contacts across the island and across the world that I can call on as resources.
“Overall, the Journey to Leadership program was a positive experience. I’m a better leader, I’m a better federal employee and I came out of the program with 30 friends and resources.”
Additionally, Col. Kevin Polosky, deputy chief of staff for G3 (Operations), provided opening remarks and gave a personal story about one’s presence and developing one’s leadership role and taking a “seat at the table" in meetings that one may feel uncomfortable in.
“The JTL II Class of 2020 was like no other previous JTL class that we've conducted,” Schuldt said. “They overcame numerous obstacles -- an addition of a second project to be worked by the entire class, a pandemic, pushing back the final class date twice, etc. – and they still succeeded in completing all of their requirements and providing worthwhile projects to senior leadership. I'm very proud of what all they were able to overcome this year.”