Small Wars Journal

We Don't Reward Top Performers - And It's Costing Us

Tue, 02/14/2012 - 10:14pm

Marine officer Aaron MacLean at WaPo bemoans the military's lack of talent management (via @Doctrine_Man).  Many readers may disagree with the below comparison, but I challenge them to compare and contrast the mediocre beneficiaries of the military welfare/jobs program who use the lock-step promotion metric to justify their existence and satiate imaginations of grandeur with truly exceptional performers.  For those crying "experience," I have news for you: top performers with the right assignments can absorb very quickly what most don't learn in 20 years.

Imagine you are the CEO of a major American corporation. One of your executives, who is responsible for operations in, say, Kansas, is a phenom. ... If this wunderkind is so good in Kansas, it stands to reason that he could provide the same profitable results for your shareholders on a larger scale. Based on these considerations, you decide to make him manager of all Midwestern operations.

Now imagine that you are not a CEO, but a senior leader in the United States armed forces. Faced with a comparable situation—instead of a statewide manager, our hotshot is now an infantry company commander achieving remarkable success in Afghanistan—your options are far more limited. In fact, you are prohibited by both policy and regulation from exercising anything near the flexibility available to your private sector counterpart. This is the case despite the fact that your firm’s wages are uncompetitive compared to what top performers could earn elsewhere, and that you demand sacrifices of your leaders and especially of their families far in excess. Most importantly of all, your hands are tied despite the fact your charge is not just to produce the best profit for your shareholders, but to win a war for your country.


I have noticed a great confusion among many officers in the Army today who believe they are technicians rather than leaders. In spite of the bold change in uniform, I believe this line of thought continues to be propagated. I’ve been to many units that have confused the roles of the commissioned and the warrant. Perhaps this is limited to intel and engineer types at the HHC/STB, but commissioned officers (albeit predominately younger) being valued for their expertise rather than their ability to lead, motivate, and think tactically is a dangerous trend. I think this ties into your argument because it seems many officers are not held to equal standards with regard to ability to lead or understand warfare.

Very interesting & important discussion. With the impending cuts to the size of the services, especially the USMC and Army, the issue will be "front and center" for each service's senior leaders. Some sort of downsizing metric will be developed. Perhaps then, the process will be able to identify those who have been hanging around, so to speak, from those who have successfully done the hard jobs consistently well.

Very interesting & important discussion. With the impending cuts to the size of the services, especially the USMC and Army, the issue will be "front and center" for each service's senior leaders. Some sort of downsizing metric will be developed. Perhaps then, the process will be able to identify those who have been hanging around, so to speak, from those who have successfully done the hard jobs consistently well.

Peter J. Munson

Thu, 02/16/2012 - 6:09am

In reply to by SUecker

Because the professional forums get no attention from people with the power to change the talent management paradigms, regulations, and most importantly laws.

Also, forums like the Gazette are an echo chamber where views like this bounce around to head nods and good feelings about healthy debate, but little action.


Wed, 02/15/2012 - 11:40pm

Why is this in a commercial newspaper (The Washington Post) and not a professional forum (Marine Corps Gazette)?


Fri, 02/17/2012 - 4:57pm

In reply to by TJ


Don't disagree, and meant the comment to come across as sarcastic. When I couldn't get rid of dud LTs and E7's, the joke across our BCT was to 'fire them up the chain of command' to Division. While we had a ton of stud staff o's up there, they had a small platoon of morons to deal with, since we couldnt figure out how to actually fire an officer.


Fri, 02/17/2012 - 1:06pm

In reply to by TS

With respect to the "How would we fill Division staff?" quip, we need a better understanding of leadership. I've made that joke often enough, yet the leadership challenge for the staff officer is not trivial. After filling a number of staff positions in three mobilizations as a reservist, and seeing staff officers work hard and support the war effort, the joke is no longer very funny to me. We can keep a cultural preference for combat and the combat leader and value staff roles, too.

To anyone who tried to get what Mr. Gates derisively termed the "Pentagon Establishment" to do something useful for the war effort within their area of responsibility, you know the leadership challenge of the staff officer. Too often the derision of the staff position does not serve us well, and those who go from coveted command to coveted command sometimes do not appreciate this. Some staff officers' contribution to the war effort are comparable to that of the best field commanders.

The Commander makes a "suggestion" to a subordinate when in reality the hammer of the UCMJ always looms. To this individual,I say: try to get an officer of equal rank of another command to change, try to get Higher Headquarters to change course, try to get someone to do something when you have no power over their future. Leading change in an organization in desperate need of change--like the Department of Defense--is not trivial. How many self-described "Commanders" mark time in staff billets and don't make waves so they can get to their next tactical command (where they have greater control over circumstances), instead of risk trying to fix the problems that Mr. Gates and the Press and internal audits and the Battlefield exposed?

It is when you get people to do something when you have no legal authority over their future--that is in some ways a more difficult test of leadership. The Marine Corps holds in high esteem Col John Boyd, a man who spent almost his entire career as a staff officer.


Fri, 02/17/2012 - 5:44am

In reply to by TM


Agree that we are pretty much on the same page. I just struggle with the idea that studs get more choice in thier assignments. Part of me wants to believe that, but I think it is equally a factor of time, and being in the right place. That makes it tough to swallow when looking at cost - benefit.

I dont mean to equate it purely to business, but when you are looking at how to retain talent, the desire to serve aside, there needs to be some type of structure to the process. It just seems thrown together IMHO.

I dont disagree that without the duds, we could have a much more rewarding Army, but not sure that is ever going to change. How would we fill Division staffs? :)

At any rate, I think we have been toying with this concept since I was a 2LT, and I assume we will be for years to come. Would be a game changer if we could unscrew it, but then you would have to truly institute standards and a program that weeded folks out, and stop focusing on the numbers. Quality not quantity. I suppose perhaps we may be approaching a period which offers us that ability, but I am not overly confident it would endure.



Thu, 02/16/2012 - 6:04pm

In reply to by TS

I really don't disagree with much of that.

We both agree that there are too many duds and that they need to go. I don't see much of a problem with the steps that officers must take in their career progression. As for the speed with which they do it, it's worth considering that leaders would likely advance more quickly, and have greater choice in their type of assignments, if there were fewer duds gumming up the works. When you need to run more people through the command queue, more people through the school house, and more people through certain staff jobs, then you inevitably slow down the process.

With regard to why people separate, my peers and I were spoiled by the early years in Iraq, when there was more fighting and far less supervision. We were free to be innovative and take risks, so maybe that is why we were fairly satisfied with the type of work. When we got back near the flagpole, we realized that there were a lot of marginal performers in unnecessary positions who did little more than justify their existence by making our jobs more difficult. It was the bottom feeders who drove us out. It was certainly not the pay that drove us out. Decent pay, plus no living expenses in combat, was pretty sweet. If I had stayed in, I would likely be an O4 by now. To get the same after-tax compensation in the civilian world, I would need to earn $120K. I just checked the pay table and shuddered to see how different my financial situation would be if I had stayed in. Wow. Instead of being 100k in the red, I'd be about 200k-300k in the black.

I think our main disagreement is that I place most emphasis on "why reward the duds?" whereas (my impression is that) you emphasize "why aren't we giving greater rewards to the studs?" I still disagree with evaluating the military as a business model - it is not a business. But, even by that standard, what business, burdened with a bunch of poor performers, would put a higher priority on giving raises to the studs and a lower priority to cutting the dead weight? Both are important, but I think that the latter is more important.

With regard to your civilian career, that is encouraging and I'm happy to hear it. As for the relevance of my degrees, it's a timing issue. I'm a generalist. Right now, the job market wants technicians, engineers, and people with narrow certifications. Leadership experience is not much of a selling point. Interviewers act impressed with my education, thank me for my service, and ask to see the next interviewee.


Thu, 02/16/2012 - 7:03am

In reply to by TM

@ TM

Not sure if you got relevant advanced degrees, but I beg to differ on the finances of the situation, among other aspects. I got out as a frustrated CPT, watching MAJ and LTC keep moving up (in addition to my peers who just kept showing up at the soup kitchen) and I have (especially using the total compensation method the Army sends out) advanced quite rapidly in the private sector (as have my friends who got out at the same time) in terms of salary. Having the degrees is good, but it is the drive, creativity, and work ethic that I have found to be the driving factor in my success. The creativity aspect especially, which was completely ignored by the Army.

All numbers aside, the other aspect is rewarding folks through opportunity. I have turned down job offers with higher salaries due to lack of opportunity or type of work I would be doing. The Army made you wait in line regardless of capability, or, unless you happened to be in the right place at the right time, luck drove your ability to get into exciting positions. Rewarding folks by giving them more responsiblity (both in resources and creative license), you may be able to attract more folks to stay in line.

The way it stood from my foxhole was this: If I wanted to stay in line, know exactly what my next 15-20 years held, get paid as much as some of my peers who repeatedly failed to excel, and work for mildly competant bosses who never, and I mean never, were fired, I should stay in the Army. It is safe, aside from bopping around A-Stan every other year, and it is constant. Very secure profession. If I wanted to grow fast, take risks, lead innovative groups, and branch out and learn about a myriad of professions (in addition to making more (without an advanced degree)), I should get out and see what the world has to offer.

Reducing an organization to the lowest common denominator due to 'service' is a flawed business model. Hard to retain talent that way. I love the Army, cherish ever second I spent leading men in combat, but it was the most frustrating time of my life. If we don't push the studs up, let them challenge the status quo and innovate, as well as actually get the duds out (not just fill Div staff with them), this will continue IMHO.

Just my morning rant. Happy Thursday to those of you in the Stan ;)

I completely disagree with the claims that we do not adequately reward top performers, that we do not adequately distinguish studs from duds, and further add that the author overlooks the real problem: that we do reward duds. Admittedly, I throw out a lot of anecdotal evidence, but it is more for illustration purposes.

<strong>The problem is not that we do not adequately reward our top performers. We do.</strong>

- They are paid extremely well. Don't think so? Separate and see how much you earn. I obtained 2 advanced degrees after ETS and I'll be overjoyed if I can find a job that pays 75% of what I earned 4 years ago as an Army Officer.

- They are put into positions of either greater responsibility or opportunities for development to prepare them for greater responsibility. Is that slow? Sure. So what? Again, venture out into the civilian world and see how much responsibility you get. I'm currently searching for a job and have zero expectation that the level of responsibility I get in that job will be even remotely comparable to leading an Infantry Company in combat.

- Advancements in the private sector may come sooner, but that is in large part due to businesses being leaner organizations with less of a bench to draw from and less need/ability to maintain a large bench. The military does not have a bottom line and must be prepared to field a large bench of officers. Thus, the military dumps costs into continually developing a large number of leaders, in case we have a war where a bunch of them get whacked and need to be quickly replaced. The effect of that is to have a promotion and career advancement process that seems a bit slow.

<strong>The problem is not that we fail to differentiate between top and bottom performers. We do.</strong>

The author writes:
<blockquote>It would shock our private sector CEO to learn that, as a military leader, the best he could offer his top performer in this situation is a strongly written fitness report, and perhaps a decoration. In the long run this will give the rising star a marginal advantage over his average peer when they are both considered for promotions and increased responsibilities at the exact same time, years in the future. </blockquote>

That's nice. Let the CEO be shocked. What makes a business model an ideal comparison for a military bureaucracy? The military is a service-based institution. If you can only motivate others or be motivated by higher pay or rapid promotion, then you are missing the point. It is SERVICE, not SELF. But, leaving that aside, the author downplays the degree to which top performers are distinguished from bottom performers, and the degree to which those distinguishing marks give one an advantage over the other.

- When my Bn/Bde commanders were concerned about the quality of leaders commanding line units, they put the dud in charge of HHC. Typically HHC was a 2nd command, a reward for good performance. Not in my Bde. Duds were given HHC as a first command so that they wouldn't endanger troops' lives.

- Command tenures were modified prior to OIF I to keep experienced leaders and good leaders in place (stop move). They were modified again in later OIF deployments for similar reasons - to give the duds command as the unit was going home or once it got there. Whose OER looked better? The dud who commanded successfully in garrison? Or the stud who commanded successfully from a remote patrol base? "Met all training requirements at gunnery" doesn't have quite the same ring as "masterfully led his company through a year of counterinsurgency operations in an extremely violent AO."

- Some officers get more coveted positions. All of my Bn and Bde commanders were, at one time, Generals' aides. What a coincidence. Most of them went to SAMS. Prior to that, most were Scout Platoon Leaders or Support Platoon Leaders, and did most of their staff time in operations. On paper, those positions can be filled by duds of equal rank. But they usually get filled by the studs. Opportunities like serving in the Ranger Regiment also distinguish top performers, if your timeline matches up. And, on that note, woe is the Infantry Officer without a Ranger tab. It does not go on your OER, but those guys get different treatment.

<strong>The real problem: we reward our duds.</strong>
The author fails to address this. The problem is not inadequately rewarding studs. The problem is rewarding duds.

As noted above, timelines can be adjusted to accommodate the duds getting their turn. Any command is a reward. The least desirable staff jobs can be filled with duds. Any staff position is a reward (even though it doesn't seem that way). If you are permitted to continue serving, that is a privilege. If you did not earn it, then it is an undeserved reward.

Duds cannot simply be let go without cause. There needs to be a leader who tries to develop the dud, rather than pass him along. There needs to be a leader who counsels and accurately evaluates the dud, rather than give him an OER full of faint praise. We are awful at that. That is one reason why we tinkered with center mass and above center mass, senior rater profiles, and similar gimmicks.

Commanders don't like to tell poor performers, "You're a dud. Sorry. Maybe you should find a different career." That is the problem. An unwillingness to promote MAJ Takeaschmidt directly to Brigadier General is not the problem. An unwillingness to jettison CPT Cluster is the problem.

We do reward bottom performers. And that is what costs us.