JANUARY 24, 2020 – A small cohort of mid-career commissioned officers pondered ways to negotiate the Station 8 obstacle at Alex Field Leader Reaction Course on Fort Knox, Kentucky, Jan. 23 with only a ladder, a pipe and some rope.
Called “Out Like Flint,” the timed obstacle proved too daunting for them, who quickly discussed what they could have done differently before moving on to the next obstacle.
Among them, Lt. Col. Tara Kaiser, a J5 strategic planner with Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, said the new five-day Battalion Commander Assessment Program event is both fast-moving and challenging.
“It’s been a good experience thus far,” said Kaiser. “It’s an honor and a privilege to be here with a bunch of intrinsically motivated professionals.”
Kaiser is one of just over 760 lieutenant colonels and senior majors descending on Fort Knox from Jan. 15 through Feb. 9, looking to compete for one of the roughly 450 battalion command slots available in the U.S. Army.
A proof-of-concept pilot program, conducted at Fort Benning, Georgia, in June and July of 2019, revealed a discrepancy in how battalion commanders are being chosen, according to U.S. Army Talent Management Task Force Director Maj. Gen. JP McGee.
“What we found through that is that we came up with very different decisions about who we would have put in command, and not, as we brought in the totality of the information,” said McGee. “At the core of what we’re trying to do with BCAP … is to take in other relevant information about candidates for battalion command to make the best informed decision as an Army about who to put in that position.”
Holding a battalion command position is a key stepping stone toward reaching the general officer ranks and senior leaders of tomorrow, according to Lt. Col. Cayton Johnson, deputy chief of staff of BCAP.
“There are a very large number of our Army senior leaders that come out of this pool of battalion command,” said Johnson. “We’re really looking at that gateway of an outsized impact both up and down the chain.”
During a media roundtable Jan. 23, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said he believes the battalion command position to be critical to future Army successes.
“To me, battalion commanders are arguably the most consequential leaders in the Army because they train, they develop our young Soldiers, [noncommissioned officers] and officers, and they have more impact on their decisions to keep serving than, I would argue, any leader,” said McConville. “Our battalion commanders are our future strategic leaders.”
As a result, he commissioned the U.S. Army Talent Management Task Force to develop a fair, equitable program that would provide an additional layer of testing for those looking to hold the battalion commander position.
“It’s really about transformational change,” said McConville. “It is how we’re going to select battalion commanders in the future. I think we have a good process, but what we want is the absolute best.”
Under the current selection process, the brunt of the decision for who will be selected for battalion command and what order they will be selected rests on an officer’s promotion packet, which contains a records brief and various evaluations, to include formal officer evaluation reports that are generated by the officer’s boss and their boss.
Those packets are evaluated en masse at a centralized board.
“What we’ve come to find out is these centralized boards have to review every officer that’s competing and every file that’s in it. They might have to review a couple thousand files,” said Johnson. “In that process, they’re limited on the amount of time that they can dig in and look at a file.”
“If you are crushed for time and you’re looking at thousands of files, you really focus in on some of those key things that are going to distinguish one officer from another.”
McConville said the selection process was lacking in a thorough analysis of an officer’s knowledge, skills and behaviors that can convert to successful leadership.
“As I looked at the personnel management system, I found we’re spending more time on selecting privates for the Ranger battalions than we were spending on our battalion commanders,” said McConville.
The program is designed to fill in those information gaps through a rigorous process. As a result, it will also be factored in adjusting the order of merit list for a battalion command slot.
The program’s tasks that are weighed include assessments made by a team of 35 operational psychologists based on clear, delineated criteria. The criteria includes peer and subordinate assessments from a candidate’s previous five years, cognitive and non-cognitive assessments, written communication skills, an on-site height-and-weight check as well as an Army physical fitness test, and a blind panel interview near the end.
“The panel only considers information about the performance of the candidates during their assessments here, and their peer and subordinate feedback,” said Johnson.
McConville said the choice to conduct BCAP at Fort Knox was a natural one because of its turn-key ready facilities, centralized location and officer-focused training sites already a part of the post. Fort Knox is home to Cadet Summer Training, the Army’s single-largest training event in the nation with more than 10,000 cadets receiving the foundational building blocks to become commissioned officers.
Major Gen. John Evans Jr., commanding general of U.S. Army Cadet Command and Fort Knox, said there was a also a ready pool of talented trainers and assessors to fill in personnel gaps and assist in running ranges. Fort Knox is also home to U.S. Army Human Resources Command, which has information technology tools being utilized for the panels.
“I come from a Special Operations background so I’m very comfortable with what we’re doing with this assessment process,” said Evans. “What we’re finding is, a lot of the Army has never been assessed, through no fault of their own – we just don’t do this normally. It’s a very new process for a lot of officers.
“Because of that, the Talent Management Task Force and General McGee’s team have focused diligently on making sure there is a very level playing field, that everything is standardized, and that it can withstand scrutiny from all aspects to make sure we can say it’s been fair and consistent.”
The heart of all these battalion command selection changes lies with developing future strategic leaders that are equipped for an ever-changing battlefield, according to McConville.
“It’s about people first,” said McConville. “People first is a philosophy. [Army] Secretary [Ryan] McCarthy and I believe that if we get the right people in the right job at the right time, everything else follows.”
McConville said they are taking into account adjustments needed in future assessments to ensure continued success.
“We are a learning organization,” McConville said, “and we’re going to continue to improve the process, just like any new system that we develop.”
Story by Eric Pilgrim