Retaining Talent

Towards a U.S. Army Officer Corps Strategy for Success: Retaining Talent - Colonel Casey Wardynski, Major David S. Lyle, Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) Michael J. Colarusso, U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.

Over the last 3 decades, dramatic labor market changes and well-intentioned but uninformed policies have created significant officer talent flight. Poor retention engenders substantial risk for the Army as it directly affects accessions, development, and employment of talent. The Army cannot make thoughtful policy decisions if its officer talent pipeline continues to leak at current rates. Since the Army cannot insulate itself from labor market forces as it tries to retain talent, the retention component of its officer strategy must rest upon sound market principles. It must be continuously resourced, executed, measured, and adjusted across time and budget cycles. Absent these steps, systemic policy, and decisionmaking failures will continue to confound Army efforts to create a talent-focused officer corps strategy.

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Ken/Rob,

""Out of the commanders I've had, I would argue that the majority of them had the required imagination to see "value" even when it was not packaged as they may have normally expected it. This is generally good as it speaks well to the training, education and experiences that shaped them..."
I agree and have had the same experience but would add that they were then forced to act within the rather rigid constraints of the system with respect to how they applied that value. That in turn too often created some loss of value or misapplication of a value to an inappropriate venue.""

Good comments. As Rob knows I am a Marine officer, but Ken's elaboration on his statement is a great point.

"I agree and have had the same experience but would add that they were then forced to act within the rather rigid constraints of the system with respect to how they applied that value."

In our system essentially there is an expected career path; You have perhaps two tours at a rank, so that is essentially two three year tours at each rank on the average before being looked at for promotion. IF you do a tour in your military specialty at each rank in a MEF then one in the "supporting establishment" (TECOM, base/station..."B" billet) and perform, generally you will be competitive. However if you do something that doesn't "fit" that path then you open yourself up to scrutiny regardless if you performed or not. So even if you volunteer for a program that is deemed important enough to have a selection process and such, when it comes time for promotion, you may not get promoted. Also if your monitor (detailer) doesn't send you back to a MEF unit then you are at risk for scrutiny. I feel like up and out was created during the cold war for a reason, but at this point how many officers have left or were passed over because they didn't "fit" the mold that is most likely an outdated model?

Rob:

Good points all. I particularly agreed with this:

"Out of the commanders I've had, I would argue that the majority of them had the required imagination to see "value" even when it was not packaged as they may have normally expected it. This is generally good as it speaks well to the training, education and experiences that shaped them..."

I agree and have had the same experience but would add that they were then forced to act within the rather rigid constraints of the system with respect to how they applied that value. That in turn too often created some loss of value or misapplication of a value to an inappropriate venue.

I believe that artificial limitation is the real issue addressed by the Article and by MarcT.

Hi Marc,

Your last comment bears some discussion:
"In short, they need to get rid of the up or out and put in merit rewards."

In some ways I think our system may be characterized as a meritocracy, but in others it appears more like a "mediocracy" and a "confortacracy".

I believe (and have so witnessed) it is at its best when it empowers leaders to award performance and potential. I think this is mostly constrained to two levels down. This makes sense if you understand the C2 arrangements most of us have grown up with. In general leaders are rated one level up and senior rated two levels up.

From OPORDs to Quarterly Training Briefs those two levels are usually there. This generally forms a kind of "known quantity cohort" where as individual continue up the rank scale they advance somewhat apace. So when LTC X becomes COL X and is tasked to look for someone, or is looking for someone to be on their team, they may first consider those they know to be of value (Value = X is another matter). This also is often the case as CPT X who becomes MAJ X and is looking for his next assignment following PME considers where their former bosses are - and based on relationships and good or bad experience may seek a position within that organization.

Even in this case however, the question of value is relative to what is either what is generally accepted or demonstrated as being valuable (even if it is unexplained, unique, or possibly counter culture). So in order for something to rewarded, it must be recognizable in some manner (the action or the result).

Out of the commanders I've had, I would argue that the majority of them had the required imagination to see "value" even when it was not packaged as they may have normally expected it. This is generally good as it speaks well to the training, education and experiences that shaped them. It often seems to be an either or however, the ones that fall into the other category seem to be all the way there - e.g. if it does not look a certain way it is valueless.

There is also the issue of policy constraints (which really limits what can be done above)such as career paths/progression, or promotion practices, etc. I agree with you that this is where the real work must be done, but I'd add that until the military determines what it really wants out of its people, and has reconciled that with its own ability to live with what its asking for I don't think we will get there.

On a related note I'm currently reading Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage". There is something in the way Lewis and Clark are depicted that I personally believe is more akin to what we need then other examples I've seen. Truly remarkable men doing a truly remarkable mission.

Best, Rob

Bruce, you've raised some excellent points that I don't think the Army is really considering - certainly not in these three monographs at any rate.

One of the key drivers of retention, outside of money & benefits, is a sense of meaningful work. You're quite correct that people can be pirated by massive monetary offers, but at least some of the research in the high tech industry also shows they can be pirated by more meaningful work. The ability to provide "meaning" has been a strength of the Army for quite a while, even if the organizational culture seems aimed at producing mediocrity and boredom.

What really bothered me about their conceptual model, which frames this monograph, is that it is solidly rooted in Taylorist principles but using Information Age buzz words. As Rob noted, in relation to talent as an inborn ability:

This does have some implications for personnel policies, but I'm not sure we are really willing to go there except on a very limited basis that largely goes unobserved or at least is difficult to prove. To do otherwise might infer that all are not equal, nor can they be developed to be and as such may not achieve greatness or even be open to the same opportunities as others.

This "implication" - and, BTW, Rob it's not an implication, it's a flat out statement ;-) - is totally antithetical to the entire Taylorist paradigm at an axiomatic level. Then again, manufacturing, retail, high tech, banking and government all went through this shift (at least in Canada) over the past 40 years as have organizations around the world.

A second thing that bothers me about their model is that they are misunderstanding the utility of technology. This *might* be because they have analyzed their target audience and believe that that is the only type of solution that would be accepted, but I'm not so sure about that.

There is an attitude that shows up in many of the officers I deal with which might best be described as "the system is so FUBAR that I have to move outside of it to get what I need". I've seen that attitude before, especially in relation to hirings in the high tech sector. Adding in more paperwork will only increase the inefficiency of the system and the push for people to go outside of it to solve their immediate problems. The danger, to the organization, is that this leads to an increasing divorcement of attachment to it, which has serious implications for both capability and retention.

The Army would be far better off streamlining some of their systems in such a way as to both allow and encourage the types of competencies they want to appear. At the same time, they also need to recognize that some people do have a talent for, say, small unit leadership and the organization must be flexible enough to encourage people with that talent to stay there if they find the Peter Principle operating. After all, having a brilliant platoon or company leader is better than having an average BTN S3. In short, they need to get rid of the up or out and put in merit rewards.

The retention of talent figures high on the list of goals for most organizations, and the Army is no exception. It's well known that if you offer people enough money, they'll switch from the current job to a different one; but keeping them there is another story.

From my own experience, I can tell you that behavior of commanders, as far as retention is concerned, doesn't support that objective. There seems to be a huge disconnect in their thinking between accomplishing the mission and doing what is necessary to hold onto the people that are needed to make it happen.

A case in point: When you utter the oath to obey those over you, you never imagine in your wildest dreams that you'll be required to do so many things that waste time or are just plain stupid. Afterwards, you find out that such things are not open for discussion and any attempts to make them so are considered acts of insubordination. Is this the way to retain talented people? I can't think of any circumstances in which it would be.

The process of retention starts before the first interview and goes on until that person voluntarily leaves the job. It's not a one off to get them in.

One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is how much the policies and procedures on military installations make the people who work there feel like the enemy. The retention of talented people will occur only when the behavior of commanders supports the objectives they say they want. Right now, I see no evidence that that will happen.

Dr Bruce Hoag, CPsychol
Work Psychologist
http://www.p-advantage.com

Hi Marc,

Agreed. I'm hearing the word talent used increasingly, but I am unsure exactly what is meant when it is used. It sounds allot like the 1964 explanation by Justice Potter trying to describe hard core porn e.g.- "I know it when I see it".

Probably all kinds of talent out there, but how much of it is relevant to what an Army requires? What is it that we want our talent to do & is that part of talent management or talent development? Do we manage our talent in order to further develop it or to create new talents?

Well taken is your point about competencies vs. talent. Talent implies that there is some innate or natural capability to do a specific thing. Talent development then implies I think a furtherance of an innate capability whereas talent management implies thoughtful application of a talent to an end.

If someone is identified as a natural, indicating a raw talent it usually means that with some further development or encouragement they can attain a level of performance in that field that someone else may never attain even when great opportunities are provided to improve. He/she is a natural born ...... would infer that they do not have to work as hard at as other to achieve a standard or to excel.

This does have some implications for personnel policies, but I'm not sure we are really willing to go there except on a very limited basis that largely goes unobserved or at least is difficult to prove. To do otherwise might infer that all are not equal, nor can they be developed to be and as such may not achieve greatness or even be open to the same opportunities as others. What was that football movie? Rudy?

Best, Rob

At first glance, I thought it was fairly good. then I started to notice a pattern of using platitudes and generalizations rather than any solid data, so I went back and read their two previous monographs in the area. After reading them, I have to say that I am unimpressed with their conceptual framework.

For one thing, they appear to be quite ignorant of the work done on competencies in Canada, both in the military and one the civilian side. In fact, their definition of "talent" is actually the definition of "competency" used in most of the current Canadian work.

We define talent as the intersection of three dimensions--skills, knowledge, and behaviors--that create an optimal level of individual performance, provided the individual is employed within their talent set.

Source: TALENT: IMPLICATIONS FOR A U.S. ARMY OFFICER CORPS STRATEGY, page 5

This completely misses the point of the quote that they start that section with from Plato, which is that talent is biologically rooted.

Where some of their analysis of problems is well founded, many of their proposed solutions are not. For example, their call for an enterprise talent management system has a certain face validity, but it fails for two reasons.

First, they are not able to actually operationalize what "talents" (actually competencies), they are looking for. Their implicit solution to this problem is to record everything in a giant database which will encourage a free talent market inside the Army. It sounds lovely in the ideal but every time it has been tried in a large organization in private industry or government it has failed, usually after costing millions of dollars. This failure often led, at least in the high tech industry, to a circumventing of almost all hiring "standards" since the "standard" produced sub-standard choices.

The second major flaw with this "solution" lies in the assumption that by creating a talent management system (Golden BB anyone?), that system will be able to meet the real needs of both the generating force and the operating force. Since they cannot even define the "talents" that will be useful, this will mean that the data points for each officer will have to be updated every time they add a new field in to meet emerging needs. While this is technically possible via some system such as HR-XML, it will require a massive amount of man hours on the part of every office to update their files. If their argument that one of the main reasons why junior officers leave is because they are not given challenging tasks is correct, and I think that is certainly omne factor in it, then let's just see what happens when all junior officers are required to do another hour a week in additional paperwork.

On the whole, I find that the theoretical model on which they base this document to be sadly lacking and way out of date. Given their constant references to the Industrial Age and the Information Age, I have to wonder why they chose to use an Industrial Age theoretical model when Information Age models are available? I find it especially bothersome given the emphasis that TRADOC is now putting on Leader Development to see such an out of date model being used.

Excellent study. The consequences of less talent available in the future and the Army's "mandatory maximum" selection for promotion to MAJ and LTC (with ever increasing early looks to promote the numbers required by DOPMA) do not bode well for the future force. In the 21st Century, a Hollow Army may be bereft of talent rather than personnel.