A mentoring change for the next group of leaders
For many American Legion Auxiliary members at the unit level, it can take about a year serving a chairmanship to truly understand the program, and because of the ALA’s “one and done” administrative year structure, it’s time for the next person to lead.
To help better prepare upcoming leaders for their role in the ALA, one department changed its governing documents to provide mentoring opportunities for its leaders.
At South Dakota’s 2022 department convention, members voted for department program chairs to serve a two-year term with alternating chairs elected each year. Half were elected for one year and half for two years. The reasoning was to give the new chairs a mentor to help serve as a guide during that first year.
A mentor is an experienced and trusted adviser, or an experienced person in a company, college, or school who trains and counsels new employees or students.
From the definition and from practice, mentors really do have an influence on those they help.
“I think for me, if I hadn’t reached out to those who were in leadership positions years ago, I don’t think my year [as president] would have gone as well,” said South Dakota member Mary Jo Stier. “Our previous leaders are huge mentors. That’s a lot of the mentoring is being able to reach out to them. I was very fortunate to have them.”
The idea of implementing a two-year department mentorship program came from Stier. After attending her first ALA Mission Training event and continuing to move up through leadership positions, she questioned why chairmanships are only one year. She thought it would be better to appoint six chairs one year and then six the next year.
“You would always have a chairman to help with the next one,” she said. “You don’t have a clue what you are doing when you first come in and hope you are doing things right. It’s an opportunity to learn from someone the first year.”
South Dakota members voted to try it out, knowing if it didn’t work out, they could go back to the previous system.
“I’ve always said the first year is to learn and the second year is to really work the chairmanship,” said Laura “Susie” Clyde, 2022-2023 national historian and South Dakota member who has held many leadership roles within the department.
Clyde understands the difficulty of sometimes finding enough people and the right people to be chairmen.
Stier said she hopes the chair rotation lasts a few years and the next few presidents and chairs “give it an honest go.”
She added it’s been a lot easier to find six people than 12 for all of the committees South Dakota has. Departments that struggle with getting leadership positions filled might find this concept very beneficial.
The mentoring is designed for the incoming chair to have a go-to person if they have questions. In addition to mentoring, the goal is also to get leaders more involved in district and department convention meetings to understand what is going on in the department and to better prepare for their upcoming role.
“If you don’t understand why things are the way they are, it’s important to feel comfortable asking questions,” Stier said.
She’s even seen mentoring between different programs. Last year, the Americanism chair stepped up and helped the Education chair.
Seeing the new system in place, Clyde said there are definite benefits to the two-year policy.
“I think the members get more out of it,” she said. “I have seen nothing wrong with the two-year program. I wouldn’t have a problem with putting a president in for two years. The first year is learning, and the second year is sharing what you’ve learned.”
In addition to the department two-year terms, South Dakota also changed the program rotation that is traditionally part of the first and second vice positions at the department level. Instead of having Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation and Children & Youth as the roles that lead to first and second vice, it’s now Leadership for first vice and Constitution & Bylaws for second vice.
“We felt that as upcoming leaders, you need to know how to lead, and as an upcoming unit president, you better know the C&B,” Stier said.
The department doesn’t have anything in place yet to provide direct guidance on mentoring, but there’s been discussion about providing training for chairmen during the mid-winter meeting.
“The members are really willing to give it a try,” Stier said. “You get someone like me who wants to think outside the box. I’m all about trying things. If it doesn’t work, you can say you tried it. The members are very, very good to me. They are so willing to do things we haven’t done before.”
Clyde agreed and is happy to say the feedback has been positive.
“I can’t say anything bad about it because I haven’t seen anything bad about it,” she said. “I know when I was president a lifetime ago, I spent two years talking to people about being chairmen when I was president, and still had trouble finding people. Mary Jo made it happen, and I’m so glad she did. I have nothing but praise about it.”
Nearly a year into the mentoring program, Stier offers advice to other departments that may want to try out this new concept.
“Don’t be afraid to think outside the box,” she said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. This was almost a four-year thing. It took me up until being unit president, talking to people, talking to members, and seeing what they think.”
Stier added to not get defeated if it doesn’t work — and to try it again.
Clyde encourages departments to look into making two-year programs out of their chairmanships.
“It just makes things so easy,” she said. “The mentoring comes on its own.”
By Sara Fowler
Primary benefits of an ALA program chair serving longer than a single, one-year term:
- Serving for only one year does not allow adequate time for most department or unit chairs to become familiar with their programs, let alone lead the program.
- Programs are enhanced by motivated members willing to learn and be able to participate and gain experience, which can be better accomplished in a two-year term. Chairs need to be motivated to serve and willing to acquire the knowledge needed to become subject-matter experts of their program.
- Serving just one year, some program chairs can be hesitant to ask questions or voice an opinion about their program. They may feel like they have to do everything status quo since they have only one year to work with.
- With longer terms, chairs will have more time to be mentored by previous chairs and feel empowered to make changes to improve the program and provide continuity during those two years.