NORDP 2023 Keynote: Mentors-of-the-Moment with Dr. Brad Johnson

NORDP 2023 Keynote Speaker, Dr. Brad Johnson

For Dr. Brad Johnson, it was a crucial conversation with a valued mentor early in his career that offered him the affirmation that he needed to pursue his professional goals. Johnson, at the time, was a brand new clinical psychologist serving as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps. And despite the extensive training he had undertaken to become a practicing clinical psychologist, he was having some misgivings about his chosen profession. Johnson remembers working up the courage to share his thoughts with the senior psychologist who was serving as his supervisor and telling her, “You know, my happiest moment in the week is when a client cancels an appointment and I actually have time to do some writing. I love working on research articles and I love teaching, and I’m kind of thinking I don’t want to be a clinical psychologist in the traditional sense. I’d love to teach and be an academician.” His mentor’s response? As Johnson recalls, “She just looked at me and said, ‘Of course.’ like she’d known that all the time.” That pivotal conversation was a lightbulb moment for Johnson about the power of mentorship.

Dr. Johnson, now a Professor of Psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law at the United States Naval Academy and a Faculty Associate in the Graduate School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, will be delivering the closing keynote at the 2023 NORDP conference. His address, entitled  Mentors-of-the-Moment: Creating Mentoring-Rich Organizational Cultures, will focus on how to leverage developmental relationships and existing mentoring infrastructure to create cultures of mentoring within organizations.

When he began teaching and supervising students  in a clinical psychology doctoral program, Johnson’s initial research focused on the treatment of depression. But that started to shift when one of the doctoral students he was supervising became interested in researching mentoring. “He came to me and he said, ‘You know, I found this article on mentoring in graduate training, and I find it really interesting and I think I might want to do this for my dissertation.’” His decision to join his mentee in pursuing this new line of research was another pivotal moment for Johnson. “It absolutely shaped the whole arc of my career, focusing a bit less on clinical treatment and a lot more on developmental relationships.”

Johnson’s next career move brought him to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he has been a faculty member ever since. As far as his research was concerned, this move was, in Johnson’s view, “such a natural, seamless transition because mentoring is so important in the military.” One of Johnson’s initial projects at the Naval Academy was a large study focused on retired Navy Admirals and their experience with mentoring in the fleet. One of the most powerful findings from the study, in his view, concerned the longevity of these mentoring relationships. “One of the things we asked was, ‘Why did the relationship end?’ and by far the most common response was that the mentor had died. It turns out that these relationships were lifelong. And they continued, even up to the point where the mentor was no longer living.” This finding was reminiscent of Johnson’s own relationship with his mentor from his days in graduate school. “We don’t see each other as often, but if I ever have a major career decision to make, I always reach out to him, even now. The effect of really great mentoring often lingers, and in the best case, these relationships become lifelong friendships.”

Johnson is particularly excited to speak to NORDP conference attendees about actionable strategies for moving beyond mentoring programs to creating cultures of mentoring, both within NORDP itself and within attendees’ organizations. “We know that a lot of talented junior folks fall through the cracks because they don’t think it’s for them or that they’re entitled to mentoring. And senior people feel like mentoring programs can be a burden and don’t engage.” For Johnson, building a mentoring culture means becoming a mentor-of-the-moment, someone who shows interest in junior colleagues in the day-to-day interactions we have at work. “Being a mentor-of-the-moment might mean being the kind of person who will initiate a conversation with a colleague about something you admired about their work, offering affirmation, or just saying, ‘Hey, if you ever want to drop by and just chat about where you’d like to go in the organization, I’ve got an open door,” he says. “If you have that kind of culture, we find that retention goes way up, satisfaction and belonging go way up. And I think we need to spend a lot more time thinking about our culture, not just our formalized programs.” 

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