Any discussion regarding the Army’s approach to talent management often produces the wailing and gnashing of teeth akin to a Wagnerian opera as a deluge of ideas struggle to find a balance point, crafting a promotion system that retains the best talent while also allowing additional time for those officers who need to grow professionally. In “Can the Military Halt Its Brain Drain?” Lt. Gen. David Barno and Nora Bensahel cite a 2010 Army study that revealed that only 6 percent of surveyed officers believe the Army does a good job of retaining the best leaders. While civilian firms continue to innovate new approaches to talent management, the authors assert that the Army is unable to become a “camouflaged version of Google or Facebook” as long as it sustains an industrial approach to officer promotions that is inadequate for talent management and retention. To be sure, the U.S. Army’s size, its unique requirements, and a host of other factors mean that it cannot adopt Silicon Valley approaches wholesale. But equally, to suggest that its bureaucratic mechanisms can never be reassessed and updated risks not only driving further dissatisfaction within its ranks, but eroding its mission effectiveness, as well.
While Barno and Bensahel’s article stops short of describing a Götterdämmerung-like crisis, their call for reform is warranted when one realizes that the Army promotion system uses time as the single criterion for deciding when to evaluate an officer’s potential to serve at the next level. Because the current system assumes that all officers require the same amount of time to develop professionally, exceptional leaders are forced to travel at the same pace as the rest of the herd. Therefore, I argue that the promotion system should consider officers for advancement to the next rank as soon as they complete the critical assignments, or key development billets, of their current grade — making it easier for the Army to more quickly and efficiently get the most qualified officers into the positions where they are most needed.
A simple change in promotion board timing could go a long way toward retaining the talent the Army needs. Clearly, the Army is unable to offer the same incentives that the private sector uses to prevent top performers from gravitating to a competitor. Stock options and performance bonuses conflict with the Army’s values for a number of practical and ethical reasons. However, the Army is not totally without options for better talent retention. By slightly altering its promotion system to prioritize professional accomplishments rather than solely time in grade, the Army would stand a better chance of advancing — and keeping — its best officers.
Two anecdotes combine to illustrate the comparative benefits of such an approach. Last year, while attending the Command and General Staff Officer Course (CGSOC), I was told that I would arrive at my next duty station and go straight into a key developmental (KD) billet — a required gateway through which an officer must pass in order to be eligible for promotion — as an executive officer in a cavalry squadron. Being a victim of my own hubris and ego, I categorically believed that I was ready to move mountains, part seas, and quickly become the best executive officer in the brigade if not the entire United States Army. After CGSOC, I learned to my dismay that I would have to serve a year on division staff before I became a cavalry squadron executive officer — surely another instance of the Army’s Kafkaesque bureaucratic malfeasance.
Six months into my job in the division future operations (G35) shop, I’m glad my KD assignment was delayed. I was not ready. Though I had never served on a staff, I believed I was ready to lead one by virtue of a sense of confidence gained by planning countless invasions of countries that only exist in CGSOC tactical problems. I admit that I needed time to grow before I was handed the baton. Had I gone straight to a squadron staff, I likely would have failed. And, in the era of drawdowns and reduction boards, I would have paid the price at my next promotion board. This time on staff has taught me the valuable lesson that I am not a unique and beautiful snowflake, as well as making it clear that I still have much to learn. Rather than being a developmental delay, I believe my current billet will make me a far better battalion executive or operations officer.
The story of a very close friend serves as a counterpoint to my experience. My friend was promoted a year early, or “below the zone” in Army parlance, based upon his performance as a captain. Further, he was also selected as one of a handful of individuals to attend the U.S. Naval War College instead of CGSOC. When he subsequently arrived at Fort Riley, his follow-on duty station, his superiors decided that he was ready to go straight to a KD job without having to spend a year “growing” on the division staff, and my friends at Fort Riley tell me that he is excelling as a battalion operations officer. Clearly, this individual has a bright future in the U.S. Army, but the earliest that he will become promotable to lieutenant colonel is 2018. Even if his chain of command believes him ready to serve at the next level, he will have to wait until he meets the Army’s time-in-grade requirements. In my opinion, the Army is going to squander two or three years of his potential while my friend waits for the rest of us to catch up with him.
These two vignettes — and countless others’ similar experience — show how the Army’s current promotion system is not optimized for maximum efficiency when it comes to talent management. The Army should rapidly assess, and where warranted advance, those individuals who demonstrate a uniquely high degree of acumen. Each branch could define the parameters of this new approach by independently determining what it considers a KD billet. Further, this KD-centric approach will empower brigade and battalion commanders to better manage the talent within their own organizations. They will have greater autonomy in deciding which officers are ready to assume critical roles and which officers need additional development, instead of being constrained by a year group-based promotion system.
This system would not require a fundamental transformation of the Army’s promotion system, nor would it require an exorbitant amount of resources. Instead of promotion boards considering year groups, they would simply consider cohorts of individuals who have passed the mandated career gates. The throughput of KD assignments would remain roughly the same assuming the 18–24-month limit for serving in a KD assignment remains constant, so the number of officers to consider each year should therefore also remain constant. In simple terms, the only alteration to the current system that my suggested approach demands is that Human Resources Command (HRC) compile the candidates’ files for promotion boards when they complete their KD assignments as opposed to reaching a prescribed point on their time-in-service timeline.
As a related aside, broadening assignments offer another method of retaining the best performers and placing them in positions most advantageous to the Army. Regardless of whether we want to admit it or not, most of us have a secret wish list of all the illustrious opportunities that we want to enjoy between our KD assignments. Prioritizing access to these assignments for the most talented leaders could enhance retention. These range from graduate schooling to White House fellowships to foreign attaché positions. The system that I propose would have promotion boards devise an order of merit list (OML) based upon the performance evaluations and other criteria of those officers being reviewed. Broadening assignments would then be picked in order of OML rank, enabling the top talent identified by the board to have access to the most sought-after billets and allowing the Army to reap the benefits of giving them needed experiences while retaining their expertise.
This system pairs well with the new 401k-style retirement system that will soon take effect for all members of the military who joined after January 1, 2006. The saying “I’m just sticking it out until I hit my twenty years,” is muttered so frequently that it has become a pessimistic credo of many a malcontent field grade officer. Commissioned officers tend to understand when their career has reached its maximum trajectory. In the words of one of my former first sergeants, not everyone in this business is going to become the chief of staff of the Army. By considering individuals for promotion immediately after the completion of their KD jobs, the board can provide rapid feedback to individuals who will not be advancing to the next rank. This will allow them to find new careers in the civilian sector much more quickly, rather than waiting for years until the traditional year group promotion boards convene. Faster separation of lower-performing officers will further enhance talent retention by creating more space for the most qualified officers to advance.
A counter-argument to this system is that it would foster a sense of cutthroat competition amongst those waiting in the KD queue. But if the Army trusts its battalion and brigade commanders to lead soldiers in war, there is no reason why it should not also expect them to fairly manage the talent within their formations. No system is perfect and there will always be commanders who reward the wrong kind of behavior, but that does not detract from the advantages of relying upon the chain of command to develop leaders rather than remaining permanently wedded to an inefficient system that fails to put the right officers in the right places.
The current system is not fundamentally broken. And yet neither is it fully optimized to serve the Army’s needs. It promotes good people; however, I submit that it does so much too slowly. In a financially constrained environment, the Army needs to attempt to mirror the lean effectiveness of successful civilian companies, which give their leaders as much authority as they can handle as quickly as possible rather than making them achieve arbitrary chronological milestones. The Army should be no different. Accelerating the development of our best and brightest still allows for guys like me. In fact, a 21st-century talent management system would be better across the board — facilitating efficient separation of low-performing officers, providing incubation time for officers who will benefit most from it, and advancing officers ready to contribute more to the Army. As Euripides said, “The god of war hates those who hesitate.” And in a world that is becoming more unstable with each passing day, the Army cannot wait to place exceptional leaders in critical positions.
Major Cory Wallace is currently serving as an armor officer. He graduated from West Point in 2004 and has earned graduate degrees from both the University of Washington and the University of Kansas.
Blogs, Charlie Mike
FORT KNOX, Kentucky (June 1, 2015) – When the Department of Defense published DA Pam. 600-3 in December 2014, it provided Soldiers of all ranks a new perspective and guiding light for building career paths to leadership in the Army of 2025.
The emphasis for re-shaping the Army in the years ahead will focus on growing agile, flexible and widely experienced leaders at all levels and across all components and ranks, said Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mustion, Commander, U.S. Army Human Resources Command.
“The last 13 years have impacted the Army’s expectations, with a generation of leaders and commanders defined by our wartime missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But we are in a different environment now and need to meet the evolving challenges of a world in constant change,” he said.
DA Pam. 600-3 defines broadening as “a purposeful expansion of a leader’s capabilities and understanding provided through opportunities internal and external to the Army . . . through experiences and education in different organizational cultures and environments.”
Mustion said there are various factors operating in development of each individual Soldier that will determine their specific broadening assignments. With the guidance and support of evolving leadership, Soldiers need to balance and blend their needs for career satisfaction, personal preferences, family dynamics and their personal relationships with their leaders to hit on the right path to his or her goals.
“It’s a process of self-selection determined or defined by matters of performance and the potential for leadership each Soldier displays,” Mustion said. “The way for every officer, warrant or enlisted Soldier is different. There is no model path or program that fits all.”
Broadening opportunities may vary in scope, responsibility and developmental outcomes, and typically fall into one of four major categories: functional, academic, joint and interagency.
Functional or institutional assignments provide developmental experiences usually not directly related to a Soldier’s branch or functional area, fostering a deeper understanding of how the Army operates.
Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joel Smith, Command Chief Warrant Officer with U.S. Army Human Resources Command, cited an aviation warrant officer being assigned as an Observer-Controller to one of the Army’s National Training Centers as an example.
NTC prepares Soldiers deployments and complex operations within a simulated wartime environment. Aviation officers acting as OCs learn a great deal about how orders and missions take place on the battlefield. This constitutes a broadening experience for them as they conduct overfly missions and monitor control and command of the battle between airframes, said Smith.
“Although they are in their specific MOS, they are looking and assisting a unit to get better at completing their task. They get an idea of what the unit is up against so they can provide expert knowledge to assist them,” he said.
A wide range of academic and civilian enterprise opportunities provide Soldiers broadening assignments with civilian industry or in an institution of higher learning. The goal is to stimulate the Soldier’s growth via new perspectives, and by acquiring skills and abilities not traditionally associated with organic Army experiences, training and education.
One such option is a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Service Chiefs Internship Program. Two officers are selected quarterly for the assignment, said Joel Strout, program manager, HRC’s Advanced Education Programs Branch.
“They get the insight of what DARPA is doing, all the latest technological developments. For example, it is a temporary duty and return program for majors (promotable) and lieutenant colonels. It is 90 days and return to their unit,” Strout said.
Joint or multinational broadening assignments provide Soldiers an opportunity to deepen their understanding of the Army from the perspective of partner nation military organizations at the operational and strategic level. One such assignment would be with NATO.
“Overall, within NATO, there are around 1,000 to 1,100 positions; 750 of them would be international type, U.S. Army billets, which would be considered the broadening assignments,” said Michelle Cox, plans officer with HRC G3 and previously a NATO liaison officer within HRC.
Assignments vary in length, though most are 36-month, accompanied tours, though there are exceptions. For instance, an assignment to Turkey is presently a 12-month, dependent-restricted tour, “though for most positons, they are trying to get that changed so the officers and NCOs can take their families,” she said.
“Most of the officer positions are major, lieutenant colonel, some captains, some 06s,” but the majority are for O4s and 05s, she said. There is no language requirement for selection, since English is the official language of NATO.
“They request officers with combat experience, so they come with something to give. It is not necessarily anything in their record, though there could be something to an assignment manager to indicate if an officer would be a good candidate. But the indicators for me as a liaison, and for the brigade commander as a support position, is someone who wants to be there, someone who wants the challenge, is hungry for the challenge,” she said.
Interagency and intergovernmental assignments provide similar opportunities for professional growth while serving with government agencies outside the Department of Defense, or with governmental agencies of partner nations. Opportunities for warrant officers vary, said Smith, pointing to one senior warrant with an AG background who is about to begin an assignment with the Office of the Chief of Legislative Liaison.
“I think this is an opportunity to broaden an officer who has been doing great things in that community,” said Smith. “Mentorship has absolutely everything to do with your MOS, but it also has something to do with professionalism.”
The diversity of broadening opportunities available across all ranks reflects the importance these assignments will play in shaping the Army of the future, Smith said.
“Broadening has now become a major focus. Whereas it was centrally focused on the officers before, it is now the full gambit: officer, warrant officer, NCO, civilian, and that is the Chief of Staff of the Army’s guidance. Everybody is diligently working at broadening and trying to define it for their cohorts,” he said.
Whichever category they select, Soldiers in all three components will prosper and advance by developing their own career maps and pathways to reach their goals. That navigation will include taking advantage of the most rewarding developmental experiences at each juncture of a career.
“Broadening is an approach to talent management geared toward delivering a generation of Army leadership at all levels capable of leading Army, Joint, interagency and multinational enterprises to victory in complex and constantly evolving security environments,” said Mustion.
Photo Credit: (U.S. Army photo)
Tags: Building individual career paths to leadership in Army 2025, NCO, Soldier leadership through broadening assignments