Small Wars Journal

An Assignment in the Pentagon: Success Not Guaranteed

Fri, 07/22/2016 - 1:50am

An Assignment in the Pentagon: Success Not Guaranteed

Matt Yiengst

There is a reason to stay away from a Pentagon assignment – you may fail.  The measure of success for a Pentagon assignment is not the same as a “muddy boots” assignment.  Military officers on a Pentagon staff often find themselves in a position where they have few or no subordinates to task and are responsible solely for the actions of themselves.  The result of these conditions is that success or failure is a direct reflection upon the individual officer.

While there are difference between a Pentagon assignment and a “muddy boots” assignment, there are similarities between the two as well.  Specifically, there are three individual characteristics and three abilities that, while applied differently, lend themselves to a successful military assignment in or out of the Pentagon.  First, successful military officers are knowledgeable, credible, and consider the impacts of their action upon the Soldiers in the field.  Second, successful military officers have the ability to prioritize issues and actions; prepare for the unexpected; and coordinate requirements across numerous organizations.  By applying these six variables in a slightly different manner than in the field, a military officer can have a successful assignment in the Pentagon.

Successful officers in the Pentagon tend to do three things well.  First, they know the facts.  Senior officials tend to seek out subject matter experts regardless of rank.  So, put aside your personal level of interest – or lack thereof – in a topic, become the subject matter expert and provide your boss with the best analysis you can.  In addition to being knowledgeable, successful officers follow through with their commitments.  Credibility is the foundation of successful for not only Army leaders in the Pentagon, but also for Commanders stationed and deployed worldwide.  The mundane actions of answering emails, returning phone calls, and a simple thank you serve as an informal currency in the Pentagon.  Conversely, officers relying wholly on their rank to complete a task in the Pentagon tend to fall short of success.  Finally, successful officers in the Pentagon consider the troops in the field.  Staffs in the Pentagon exist to support the manning, training, and equipping of forces to meet the combatant commands’ current and future operational requirements.  As such, civilian and military leaders in the Pentagon value credible subject matter experts that remain connected to hundreds of thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines stationed and deployed worldwide.

While having the right personal attributes is a start, a successful military officer in the Pentagon must know how to apply them.  Knowing how to prioritize issues and taking action is the first step.  Officers in the Pentagon should know the priorities of their senior leaders.  As penned in the 39th Chief of Staff of the Army’s Initial Message to the Army, the Army’s number one priority is readiness.  The challenge is prioritizing several competing issues that support senior leader objectives.  This challenge stems from competing priorities below the Service Secretaries and Chiefs.  For example, personnel officers chose manning solutions, operations officers tend to seek training solutions, while logisticians often support equipping solutions.  Determining the priorities and making a recommendation does not require creating new processes, as there are fully developed processes throughout the Services such as the Army Force Management Model.   However, success does require holistic solutions through the identification of tasks that consider input from the interagency; Office of the Secretary of Defense; Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; and across the Service staffs.  Finally, without action, nothing happens – and sometimes no action is okay.  Take time to think through your options and review your plan with a trusted agent.  When ready to present a plan to your supervisor, avoid becoming emotionally attached.  Supervisors change plans to match their understanding of the environment, ensure buy-in from their senior official, and gain the support of other organizations.

Even the best plan cannot prepare for every contingency.  Therefore, successful military officers prepare for the unexpected.  Current events often dictate action in the Pentagon.  Responding to a congressional inquiry on the topic de jure, implementing emerging policy, and providing support to the Airmen deployed to conduct combat operations all require action by staff officers in the Pentagon.  Moreover, the 2016 Presidential election presents the military with a known change that has an unknown outcome. In January 2017, the United States will have a new President.  As a result, the new President will nominate Service Secretaries and other Principal Officials that require Senate confirmation.   To prepare for the unknown timeline associated with the confirmation process, the Services have identified civilian leaders pro tempore to make many of the decisions in the event of a vacancy.  In short, leaders in the Pentagon prepare for the unexpected, mindful that their planned response will be on the global stage.  Therefore, successful officers understand that preparing now for the unexpected provides options for decision makers in the event of crisis.

As planning transforms into action, successful military officers must coordinate requirements with numerous organizations.  Commanders know that they can only task a unit that falls under their control.  Therefore, commanders and their staffs understand that to obtain mission success, they must coordinate with their adjacent units on the battlefield.  The same principle holds true in the Pentagon.  However, determining and coordinating requirements in the Pentagon is a little different.  It requires military officers to understand the nuances associated with a problem by soliciting the assistance of others, rather than reverting to tactical solutions and applying them to the current situation like an inadequate template.  Upon completion of an assignment at the Pentagon, successful military officers understand how to obtain the willful support from civilians and military leaders from outside of their chain-of-command to support Soldiers.

Leaders in the Pentagon prepare for the unexpected, mindful that their planned response will be on the global stage.

Successful military officers bring their experiences from the field and couple them with an understanding of how the Pentagon runs to advance issues that oftentimes have a lasting effect on the military.  Serving on a Pentagon staff provides military professionals with insights into how the military apportions the $580 Billion Department of Defense budget, manages policy change, and allocates resources to the Combatant Commanders.  Successful military officers understand how the military works at the highest level, coordinates resources across formations, prioritizes issues, determines when to take action and when not to take action, and prepares for the unexpected.  A leader that masters these skills in the Pentagon can better prioritize resources and set organizational priorities that prepare Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines for their current and future fight.  In short, the Pentagon is a different environment than any other military assignment.  The result is that some officers will attempt to stay away from a Pentagon assignment, perhaps for fear of the unknown, perhaps for fear of failure.  So, get over your fears and take the shot, success not guaranteed.



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Well-written, informative article.

I'll add my few cents starting with that "few or no subordinates" part - it makes the level of effort even more significant. While the range of individual officer experiences is visibly wide, it is possible for a new AO to come to the Pentagon and quickly be assigned the workload of one LTC, one MAJ, one CPT, one 1LT, and one 2LT, simultaneously. And that's all before getting to the point where you search for other areas of greater responsibility, in an effort to show you're ready for the next rank. Also, while traditional reporting chains have 2 (R/SR), it is very possible to find yourself responsive to 6+ bosses (2 traditional, the other 4+ with heavy rating input) -- again, individual experiences ranging widely.

Like many things we do, it is one thing to read excellent articles like yours in preparation for an assignment, and yet another to actually experience it. Prior to my first Pentagon assignment I had been in the Building for meetings just as much as the next guy and thought I knew the deal - Nope. Also, I'd spent plenty of time coordinating from a distance and felt qualified to complain about "those guys in the Pentagon" - wrong again.

As you've stated, it is a chance to bring field experience to the HQs and potentially make a difference. In simple terms, the HQs needs guys with recent experience in:

- These things were provided to us in the field that we needed.

- These things were provided to us in the field that we did not need.

- These things were not provided to us and were needed (specifics, not just "needed more funding").

The only thing I'd suggest to add to your article would be a quick, specific plug re: the PPBE process, or whatever it's being called now. Pentagon assignment provides best opportunities to work in and get good at that process - knowledge of the bureaucratic gates and timelines as well as learning the right people to work with will go a long way to getting what's needed for the field.

The "relying on rank" part. Yes, it is possible for one at the CPT/MAJ level to be more valuable than another at the LTC/COL level. However, that would require extreme work, ability, and knowledge of all the stuff you wrote about.

Your article brought back many memories; I'm surprised more folks haven't logged in to comment.

ARSTAF - 4 years, 2 months, 11 days
Army Secretariat - 3 years, 5 months