FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Sept. 29, 2022) -- Fair warning: In Fort Drum’s Leader Enhancement and Developmental Education Requirements (LEADER) Program, no one graduates without experiencing some uncomfortable moments.
It might be the anxiety of hosting a garrison awards ceremony or having stage fright while delivering a presentation among peers and senior leaders. Or maybe it’s leaving the comfy confines of the office to learn what other employees are doing on another side of the installation.
Regardless of the challenges – or perhaps because they found ways to overcome them – the participants who are currently enrolled in the two-year leadership development program have all said it has been an empowering, career-enriching experience.
When the LEADER Class VIII assembled in February 2021, Melissa Council had little confidence in her ability to speak in front of a group.
“I’m not someone who likes to be at the center of attention,” Council said. “So having to do briefings, having all eyes on me and people asking me questions – it’s been an uncomfortable ride."
She improved with each presentation and, instead of panicking, Council learned how to speak assertively and with confidence.
“I’m still not a fan of public speaking, but I can handle it much better than I did at the beginning,” she said. “It has been a confidence booster.”
Faith Hopper, a Directorate of Human Resources program support assistant, said that every presentation is recorded so they can review their performance with the LEADER instructors, Kate Reinsburrow and John Kadaraitis.
“My first one was so terrible,” Hopper said. “When I got my critique, I was ready to quit that day. I went and re-did my presentation, which was 100-percent better than my original one. But the feedback pushes you to understand what you missed, what you should be doing, and it helps you prepare for the next one.”
Amanda-Lynn DeCecchis, who works in the Fort Drum Public Works’ Business and Operations Integration Division, said that her first speaking engagement was littered with “um’s” and “uh’s” and then her second time wasn’t any better. DeCecchis was presenting on her job shadow with the Civilian Personnel Advisory Center, when she suddenly found herself lost for words.
“I froze up, and I almost walked off the floor,” DeCecchis said. “I was terrified. But I stood up there and continued the presentation. And I don’t have that struggle anymore. I’m still not 100-percent great, it will take years of practice, but I know having this ability is important.”
Thomas Bauschke, who works in the Fort Drum Network Enterprise Center, rated himself as “awful” after the introductory presentation to the class.
“Like a few other people here, I don’t like talking about myself,” he said. “I have spoken in front of people before, but it’s different here because you have all these people who are evaluating what you are saying. So, all of us grew some thicker skin, and became more relaxed.”
Now he would grade himself a B-plus.
“I still have some bad habits, but I’m more comfortable in front of an audience,” Bauschke said. “I’m less concerned about memorizing a script as opposed to just knowing what you’re talking about. Occasionally I will still look at a slide as a bookmark. But this is definitely a skill I’ve acquired through this program.”
The LEADER program is more than just Public Speaking 101. It also teaches employees team-building, problem-solving, time management and goal-setting techniques, in addition to resume writing and interviewing skills, all within the scope of leadership development.
Jennifer Berry, housing manager with the Fort Drum Housing Division’s Residential Communities Initiative, said that because the program extends the course of two years, they are able to learn, observe and experience many types of leadership styles and how they operate within an Army garrison.
“We all are going to get something different out of the program, because we all have gone into this with different baselines and from different work experiences,” she said. “But as a whole, the program is designed to elevate us all to a level where we all are on the same playing field to prepare for our next leadership position.”
Much of the leadership training derived outside of the classroom, through staff rides and tours, lunch-n-learns and developmental experience opportunities (DEO).
Berry said the lunch-and-learns are designed to introduce the LEADER group to a different agency each session.
“With the lunch-n-learns, you get this one-on-one time where you really get to know who they are and what they do,” she said. “You may not necessarily work with them on a daily basis, but now you have that information in case you ever do. Networking is huge.”
Berry said she found it unique that they could select a job shadowing experience by person or organization.
“You could really broaden your horizon that way by either focusing on specifically that one person, the way that they lead and the way that they work,” she said, “or you could look at the organization from top to bottom and see how it all comes together cohesively to function as a directorate.”
In her day-to-day job with the Directorate of Public Works’ Carpentry Branch, Lisa Lobdell is skilled in a variety of maintenance, installation and repair tasks. But her LEADER colleagues would attest that the one thing she couldn’t build before attended this class was a PowerPoint presentation.
“I’m out in a van all day, so I don’t even have a computer at my side to do the class requirements,” Lobdell said. “I ended up getting a computer from Workforce Development, and I did eventually get a smart phone. It was totally different for me not having the technical capabilities that a lot of employees have. I was doing a lot of catch-up late at night, so it was definitely a challenge for me.”
In a class that started with 14 participants, Lobdell will be among the eight to graduate in January, and she is the first wage-grade employee to do so.
“At first my supervisor wasn’t sure why this was something I would want to do, but we talked about it,” Lobdell said. “But she was great about it, and she supported me.”
Lobdell served on active duty before transitioning to government employment, and she said she worked her way up from a warehouse driver to a manager position.
“Then when I came to Public Works, I knew I wanted to get back to a leadership position again, but I also knew that I had some areas I needed to work on, different from Army style,” she said.
Danielle Bridge had recently started her position as a management analyst with the Directorate of Resource Management, when her supervisor recommended her for the LEADER program. Bridge said that she was grateful for the support, and encouraged that this experience was being offered to her as a new employee.
“It was a little stressful because I was learning a brand-new job on top of doing all the LEADER requirements,” she said. “But it’s really all about time management.”
During Tier I training, Bridge led a project that examined how to sustain a garrison workforce in flux – concentrating on the turnover rate of employees.
“That was really a defining moment for me,” she said Bridge. “I dove into it because it is one of my passions. But at that point in the class, we still didn’t really know each other, or each other’s expertise in any one area.”
With that, Bridge provided the overall vision, and her classmates followed her lead. They collected data using a survey that they distributed to different directorates on post. Rather than sending out the survey by email or providing a web link, the class opted for a more traditional approach of personally explaining to participants what the survey is about and why it was being conducted.
“We were able to pull together analytics showing turnover rates and other information that we briefed to the deputy to the garrison commander,” Bridge said. “It worked out so well, and everyone did an amazing job.”
The presentation was so well-received that the class was asked to further develop it so that it could briefed again when Brenda Lee McCullough, IMCOM-Readiness director, visited Fort Drum.
“She was very impressed by the presentation,” Kadaraitis said. “But by that time, the class had gotten pretty good at it because first they had to present it to her staff, who also thought it was great.”
“It’s probably one of my greatest professional achievements, in working with this group of people on that presentation,” Bridge said.
Council and Michelle Benson led a group project where they organized and hosted a Civilian of the Quarter Luncheon. Class members went to the Commons a day before the ceremony to set up the ballroom. They rehearsed the sequence of events, first as a class, and then the next day with the command team.
A good test of their teamwork and adaptability occurred hours before the ceremony began, when a senior official asked for a design change on the cover of the program. A new cover was created, with a hundred copies printed and placed on the tables before the guests arrived.
“Everybody worked together to make it successful,” said Benson. “I mean, we were nervous about it, especially with last-second changes, but everything came together perfectly and we all thought it was a success.”
“That might have been a little stressful, but we still had fun doing it,” Council added.
Although not advertised in the LEADER program, class members said that having these shared experiences of overcoming challenges helped develop camaraderie over time, even friendships.
“There’s a lot of different experiences that have happened within this group, and the more we have gotten together for meetings, the more our relationships have built,” Council said. “Learning and exploring together has been a wonderful experience.”
There are four informational sessions scheduled in October for civilian employees to learn more about the LEADER program. Applications for the LEADER Class IX can be submitted between Oct. 10 and Nov. 10. The class will begin in February.
For more information, call (315) 772-5226 or 772-5635.