In this new monthly column, Defense Daily highlights individuals from across the government, industry and academia whose efforts contribute daily to national defense, from the program managers to the human resource leaders, to the engineers and logistics officers.
Melissa Cohen is the Director of Force Resiliency for the Department of the Navy. In this role she is the principal advisor on issues pertaining to sexual assault, sexual harassment and suicide prevention and response, within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Manpower and Reserve Affairs). Cohen entered the Senior Executive Service in January 2019. Before her current position, Cohen was the Director of the Personnel Studies and Oversight office for the United States Marine Corps, where she served as an advisor to the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, recommending policy changes to enhance efforts to attract, assign and retain talented Marines and civilians.
How did you get involved in the defense industry or community?
Very early on in my professional career I worked in the non-profit sector, providing crisis counseling and supportive services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Specifically, when serving as the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE) Center coordinator in Wake County, North Carolina, I found my passion for leading and ensuring victims of crime received well-coordinated and high-quality care. Many years later, when the Marine Corps was looking for a Program Manager for their Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program, I felt like I had the experience and expertise to make a positive difference. Also, as a military spouse and member of our larger DoD family, I understood how industry best practices could be applied to care for Marines and civilian employees.
What are some challenges you faced working through your career?
Understanding the nuances of Marine Corps and Navy culture has taken time. Having never served in uniform, I cannot easily identify, for example, with the experience of being a recruit at boot camp or serving as a non-commissioned officer or senior enlisted. I have not served in combat nor have I been separated from my family for a deployment overseas. Having said that, I still design and implement programs for Marines and Sailors. It hasn’t always been easy. As a new civilian employee, my learning curve was significant and there were many times that I felt like I did not belong and could not speak the “language” of a service member. As I grew as a leader, I worked hard to understand the Marine Corps and Navy communities and learned how to communicate in a way that reflected my curiosity and interest in creating programs that resonated with service members.
Did you feel like you always had sufficient mentors and leaders to help guide you? Why? Why not?
Yes. I have been incredibly fortunate to have wonderful mentors and leaders to guide me. I recommend reaching out to several professionals (military and civilian) for routine mentoring. I can think of many examples when I was able to receive encouragement during difficult times from one mentor and direct and honest feedback when I needed a different perspective on a tough issue from another. As a very junior civilian employee within the Marine Corps, I remember feeling incredibly motivated by the senior leaders within the Corps who effected large-scale and positive changes. I wanted to emulate their leadership styles.
How do you work to be a mentor yourself to younger counterparts?
I enjoy helping young leaders grow professionally in order to meet the professional milestones they set out for themselves. I feel strongly that leaders must invest in future leaders, as talent management keeps us all ready and capable to meet the evolving needs within the Department of Defense. To that end, mentoring is a great way to share experiences, provide opportunities and to listen to the needs of aspiring professionals. I also believe in encouraging diverse professional opportunities. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to expand my skillset by serving in the Assistant Commandant to the Marine Corps’ staff. That experience was incredibly beneficial as I learned more about the Marine Corps and the larger Department of the Navy, returned to my primary mission refreshed and reinvigorated, and had a new perspective on how to address the prevention of destructive behaviors.
What does it mean to be successful in your career field?
A mentor of mine once told me that becoming a leader was not about being “right” but rather about being able to “influence” people. I believe there is a great deal of truth to that. Success, in this field, is about inspiring teams. Success is all about the investment in people, recognizing that we cannot do this line of work alone and that we are stronger together. Success is also comprised of finding that critical work-life balance. In order to take care of others, we must first take care of ourselves and loved ones. It has taken me many years to recognize that burnout is real and that it is avoidable when healthy boundaries are put into place.
How has culture changed around diversity within your career?
I have been fortunate to see an emphasis placed on hiring a more diverse workforce during my time within the DoD. While I was sometimes the only civilian female at senior leader meetings many years ago, that has changed over-time. One of the highlights of my career was when I played a critical role in the stand-up of the Personnel Studies and Oversight office for the Marine Corps. There I was part of the Talent Management Executive Council, where the tough questions about any existing inequities in our promotion, hiring and retention practices were assessed for. Now serving for the Department of the Navy, I continue to emphasize diversity, equity and inclusion. I see a continued emphasis and importance placed on these issues. No doubt, we still have a long way to go but I know leaders care greatly about this issue.
What is your advice for new entrants to the defense/military community?
My advice for new employees is two-fold. First, employees can benefit from the many professional development opportunities that are available to government personnel, to include formal and informal training courses. Skill-building is a critical component for all professionals and I believe the Department of the Navy and military sector, at large, offer many worthwhile opportunities. If I had to narrow down the skills to sharpen as you progress through your career, I would recommend building communication and leadership skills. People skills are important for today’s leaders and learning how to promote a positive and healthy climate through your communication and leadership style will serve you well.
Secondly, I would look for opportunities to grow within your area of expertise and find opportunities to stretch and diversify your skillset. Being able to think outside the box and offer different perspectives will help you effectively problem-solve. The DoD needs innovative thinking to solve hard problems and the best way to accomplish that professional growth is to get outside of your comfort zone. Look for a detail assignment, apply for jobs outside of your department and/or volunteer for special projects if the opportunities are available.
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