Don't Promote Mediocrity

Brigardier Mark Arnold, an Army reservist and CEO of a multinational manufacturing firm, argues for reforms to the military's personnel system in an essay at Armed Forces Journal.  There are some familiar refrains here.

Today’s best junior officers, those with high talent and a strong calling to service, should become the admirals and generals who testify before Congress and serve as Joint Chiefs in 20 years. Retaining them is vital; losing them hurts our long-term ability to creatively transform the military as security challenges change. The U.S. military must replace its industrial-age personnel processes and insular culture with contemporary personnel and talent management systems that reward innovation. ...

 

A short list of overdue changes to the military personnel system includes efforts to:

• Promote top performers only when they are selected for higher responsibilities.

• Eliminate year-group and “time in grade” promotions.

• Find and release the worst performers at all levels.

• Establish a job posting system.

• Give senior leaders responsibility for assessing, hiring and developing talent.

• Allow top talent to choose non-command assignments.

• Establish succession-planning processes.

• Create assignment flexibility between active and reserve components.

• Learn from exit interviews.

Read the rest here.

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Tags : defense reform, disruptive thinkers, innovation, personnel

Comments

I've often heard and/or observed the proverbial successful start-up company or program that needed to move beyond its entrepreneurial leadership and more towards a different kind of leadership. I wonder now if the U.S. has matured to a point in our social history- a truly emergent manifestation- wherein we cannot abide by the same types of leaders who made us successful in the past. The Nathanael Greenes, the U.S. Grants, the Teddy Roosevelts, the Pattons, etc.- those types of leaders helped us get to where we are today, but would not be tolerated by our current environment of the media, politicians, electorate, and upper-level leadership.

I wonder if, because of the evolution of American society, the U.S. is- like the Romans as their empire crumbled- "bereft of their military ethos"- or quickly becoming so...? As our military becomes more of a tool for almost every other thing besides defeat of an enemy force (a vessel for equality, a force to be used for R2P, a nation-building force, a vehicle for gaining political points and concessions, a social change mechanism, etc.), are we losing our military ethos? Is it enough to keep calling ourselves warriors- or is the warrior culture something that just can't be allowed in our current society?

If being a warrior actually means something one can objectively define- and that it takes a certain list of capabilities that normally reside in men who are increasingly looked upon with disdain and outright hostility by a more Progressive culture, will we be able to continually field a force that can dissuade our enemies? Is it possible that our military's culture is headed towards one in which we will simply be unable to persuade any of our enemies that they have more to lose attacking us than they have to gain by not attacking us?

I submit that our technological prowess and lack of a near-peer military competitor has allowed us to get away with leaving the warrior culture/military ethos behind and actively discouraging it. The tie-in to our personnel system is that I submit it is the result of an emergent phenomenon that comes from our current institutional and social cultures. The forces that have led to us adopting this personnel system will naturally resist major change- except for those changes that the Progressive culture demands- that have questionable ties to increased combat capability. When military leaders sound contradictory- it isn't because they are bi-polar or even malicious- it is because they are attempting to SAY what they think made us great in the past- and yet they are forced to ACT in the present in the manner that won't get them fired.

I guess the hope is that our country won't lose our military ethos or hasn't lost it already. Only a near-peer competitor fight will tell IMO. Fighting for one's way of life isn't something the U.S. has had to do in a long time. With cuts in research and development and education, maybe we should be a little more concerned with our combat capability as opposed to all of the other things we spend our time on. If we lose our technological advantage- maybe things will hinge upon how much warrior ethos we have. If that time comes we'll see whether all the talk about being warriors means we really are.

The combat arms side of me cringes at the idea of career Staff officers rising high without successful command time. On the other hand, I've worked in the federal civilian and private sector enough to see (admired, not just incidental) CEO's, SES's, GS-15's, and political appointees with DAS-level influence between the ages of 34 and 38. I have also seen mediocre types who wound up in their positions through sheer career good fortune in those categories. More to the point, there are plenty of folks in those positions between 45 and 60 who are career minded professionals rising slow and steady to greater responsibility, who know the system inside out and can make bureaucratic miracles happen.

This perspective leads me to think of our military officer promotion system is a bit of an anachronism in the federal government. I tend to agree with BG Arnold's views, especially those on promotion through billeting to greater responsibility.

This article is also in a long line of critques of DOD's institutional status quo. Although BG Arnold's view strikes me as one of the best thought through critiques I am most eager to see the proposals on how to achieve these tectonic changes. Considering that those of us in uniform are by design nearly powerless to do anything about something as big as personnel mgmt without having the right GO/FO's be best chums with the right A/S or U/S and then have enough political capital between them to move OSD and the Hill. Alternatively, which O-6 to O-10 has enough of a martyt complex to stake his career on pushing it through by will alone to see how far he gets.

"on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II he had never held an active command and was far from being considered as a potential commander of major operations."

--Wikipedia entry on Gen Eisenhower

We saw more flexibility in promotions during WWII in the Army. Perhaps that's a model that can guide us away from lock-step, time-based promotions.

Whom then should we promote?

1. The individual self-promoter? I beat out the competition of a, b, and c. I did x, y, and z (Ivy League, Ranger School, PhD, etc...).

or

2. The team builder? I created this team of people who learned x, accomplished y, and went on to influence z.

or

3. A combination of both?

I guess that my bigger question is what is leadership? Is it what you do or what you influence others to do?

Wonderful article, but I did not see a pernicious influence addressed: permanent civilians in GS-13, GS-14, GS-15 positions in organizations like MCCDC and TRADOC, and the Pentagon proper. These are often double-dipping retired Desert Storm officers who proved when the chips were down that they care more about programmatic exigencies than changing their priorities to support the warfighter. Their hubris knows few limits. They are selected for compliance with organizational "norms" that they themselves incestuously set, not for proven capacity to innovate.

Like the author, I've worked in both civilian business and AD worlds. I've done consulting for organizations like GE Quality Group and other similar organizations, and I've worked closely with their military counterparts, the SAW/SAMS Planners during several mobilizations.

Active duty officers: you are in the driver's seat. Paul Yingling does not think you have the moral courage to reform yourselves. But he was correct in that your current path with regard to these issues is insufficient.

It was unwise to ignore reformers in the 1980s, and it is unwise to do so today. I'm not talking about Mr. Rumsfeld's reforms-without-an-intellectual-foundation; we need real reform of the type the author advocates.

We need to drastically reduce permanent GS civilians, and their role needs to be powerless--advisory in nature. An active duty officer should never have their FITREP signed by a retired Field Grade GS employees. Finally, we should stop hiring so many retired officers, and get people specifically trained in innovation. Many of these permanent positions should have a broader experience set than "Former infantry" or "Former Artillery" or "Former Aviator". They all have pretty resumes, but the quality of what they are selling is lacking.

Gian comments along with the article are spot on. In general I found in my thirty plus years in the Army that there were three categories of officers:
a. Those who you knew were destine for leadership and possibly stars.
b. Those who could be counted on to always give 100% and do their best.
c. Those who were Oxygen thieves.
Our current system is failing the Army. The promotion system we have today would not promote a Marshall to CSA because he lacked command time at all levels; and there are no Jim Gavins a 37 year old BG and Division Commander. My guess is there some out there.
Just an Old F&^&&^ Opinion (JOFO).

This is an excellent, extremely well argued article that seems to me to make infinite sense.

I would only say that when i was promoted to major in the mid 90s the promotion rate for my year group was 68%. So there was a weeding out of sorts with that low promotion rate. Problem though as it relates to BG Arnold's argument is that even though we weeded out back then it was still tied to the older industrial age system based on year groups. I knew very well back then that at least a portion of that 32% that didnt make the cut were actually quite good officers yet we had a promotion system that could not figure such things out.

gian