FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. (Army News Service, July 14, 2014) – The Army wants to put the right people in the right jobs at the right time — especially with shrinking budgets and manpower and an uncertain global security environment — but does it do that very well?
Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Ray Odierno asked a group of captains how they think those talent-management efforts are working and what improvements, if any, are needed.
Better interaction between the Soldier and his or her branch manager is necessary and the process needs more transparency, said Capt. Paul Lushenko, noting this has been a perennial and festering problem.
He added that the Army would, of course, need to balance the aptitude and interests of the officer against operational requirements. Commanders would also need to play a role in the decision-making process.
Odierno cautioned that although it’s important that commanders play a part in talent decisions and scouting, given a choice, they would choose the best 10 captains to be in their command.
That wouldn’t be fair to the captains, who would be competing against their peers for promotions and other opportunities and it wouldn’t be fair to other units where they might be drawn from.
“Certain units have a history of drawing good officers,” Odierno said, adding that “as chief, I want to spread talent across the Army.”
The topic of talent management was one of several discussed at the Army’s second solarium. The first was convened by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1953, across the defense establishment to formulate Cold War strategy.
Solarium 2014 dealt with pressing issues with which the Army is grappling. One hundred five captains from across the Army met here July 9-11, to wrestle with problems and brainstorm ideas and solutions, after interacting with their teams for a month online. The event culminated in each team presenting its findings to the chief.
Seven teams, each with about 15 members, were divided into two teams focusing on talent management, and one team each for vision and branding, culture, mission command, education and training. This is the first of several articles that will cover the topics discussed.
Odierno said he values inputs from junior officers, many of whom will still be around when the Army of 2025 matures. He used the Socratic method of discussion, which encouraged the captains to contradict his own views and argue their own points in a back-and-forth discussion.
“My biggest fear in life is [is that] no one’s telling me what’s going on, so I focus on understanding how other people are seeing things and getting their perspectives,” Odierno said, acknowledging that duties and responsibilities in his role as chief often isolate and prevent him from having candid conversations with Soldiers in the field.
Lushenko continued to explain his team’s thoughts on talent management, using captains as examples, offering that the approaches discussed could also apply to other Army ranks.
At what point in an officer’s career should talent-management evaluations or re-evaluations take place, he asked: at accessions, after five years, 10, all of the above?
At some point in his career, an infantry officer might realize he’d be better suited at cyber or intelligence, Lushenko said, and there’s also the possibility he may not even realize that latent talent.
Odierno remarked that Soldiers’ talents might evolve at some point in their careers after basic, as they acquire skills, knowledge and experience. That could point to the need for assessment gates at various points.
“People do change, by the way, and you may not realize the talents you have until you get out there,” he said.
The first seven years are formative, with officers developing their “officership and branch fundamentals,” he continued. After that, officers and enlisted often seek growth outside their specialties. Fostering and cultivating that growth is a retention issue as well, since specialty burnout could occur without it.
A problem that’s solvable, Odierno said, is designing the most accurate test that measures abilities, skills and interests with a correspondingly high degree of predictive validity. Those types of tests may already be out there and could be tailored for the Army.
Talent transition is a weighty decision for the Soldier and the Army, Lushenko said. Soldiers pondering this move should have an experienced mentor who can assess and advise. Perhaps the protégé could choose his or her mentor.
Yes, senior leaders reaching out to junior leaders in a mutually agreed-upon way seems to be the right path, Odierno responded.
Besides having mentors, there would need to be facilitators or talent managers within organizations to manage this relationship, Lushenko said. Perhaps senior-officer branch representatives at the unit or installation level or division engineers or staff officers in the G-2 and G-4, he suggested.
Their roles would be facilitating the dialogue between Soldiers, mentors and commanders and they could also champion successful outcomes to representatives at Human Resources Command, Lushenko continued. This process should be standardized and talent managers would take this on as a formal responsibility.
This type of system was in place prior to 2005 when the Army became brigade-centric, Odierno replied. “We lost this when we assigned people to brigades and left it up to the brigades to handle. There are only so many positions in each brigade” for talent to migrate to “so this is a big problem.”
The Army began efforts to correct this gap in talent management last year, he said. “I directed that the senior mission commander is the one responsible for managing captains, majors, lieutenant colonels, so in a sense we’re going back to the future. We just have to formalize it. We have to correct this. We can do this.”
Talent management team members then discussed talent identification tools that could make the process more effective.
The business social networking site LinkedIn was mentioned frequently as a useful tool that allows users to share profiles and skills with each other and with talent scouts and employers.
If such a system were implemented by Human Resources Command, it could match positions with talents and would allow Soldiers to get in the loop as well. Jobs and opportunities would become visible as well.
This type of fluid and dynamic interaction would require buy-in from leaders and managers and a culture shift, the captains said. They suggested that the Army isn’t capable of building such a system and partnering with industry would be needed.
As it stands, iPERMS, Army Career Tracker System and the Officer Evaluation Reporting System are cumbersome, not interconnected and can be unfriendly to the user at times. There needs to be a centralized, one-stop shop to visit, they said.
Soldiers also need report cards to see where they are at a glance so they’re not surprised by results of promotion or assignment selection boards, they said. The report cards would be accessible at any time and would include professional development scores as well as other data that are fed into the decision matrix used by board members.
Such a system would allow officers to extrapolate their strengths and weaknesses and would encourage self-improvement.
Although the Officer Evaluation Reports, known as OERs, have recently been modified to better reflect an officer’s standing and potential, “commanders are not making the tough calls” when they fill them out, Odierno said, meaning the marks and remarks are inflated. “OERs look too much alike” and that makes the board selection process very difficult.
So more work needs to be done in the area of performance reviews and evaluations, Odierno acknowledged.
Recent changes to the OER have been a marked improvement, however, the captains said. Human Resources Command’s Voluntary Transfer Incentive Program is also effective and is another step in the right direction.
Some of the captains said it is not uncommon in the private sector to see young chief executive officers running large companies. Throughout American military history, young officers have often risen quickly through the ranks to command large formations during wartime. Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer is an example.
They wondered if a 28-year-old officer might have the talents and inclination to command a brigade, side-stepping or bypassing the current system year-group and time-in-service requirements in favor of a merit system. Perhaps a commander could take a prudent risk in selecting such a person for command.
Odierno waxed hot and cold on this idea. “I like your argument, but there are some impediments,” he cautioned.
A brigade commander needs to have a certain level and types of experience, he said, including “tactical and technical leadership capabilities that allow you to operate across the broad spectrum of problems.”
Broad spectrum, he said, could be anything from understanding how recruiting works and having experience as an instructor at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, to getting a master’s degree in international relations with experience at the joint level or with a coalition partner. Command at the company and battalion levels would be desired as well.
“You’re entrusting the lives of America’s sons and daughters” to the commander, so taking a risk like that would be too big a gamble, he said.
“We’re not a company like Apple or CISCO that’s about profits and margins,” he said. “Ours is a complex system of life-and-death responsibilities where learning mistakes could cost the lives of hundreds of people. We can’t walk away from the responsibility of command.”
Besides that, there are statutory requirements that prohibit favoritism in deep selecting, he added.
But the idea of elevating talent quickly is, nevertheless, worthy of consideration in other ways, he said.
Could a cyber expert or financial wizard be quickly elevated to colonel? “I’d be comfortable with that,” he said, meaning developing a fast track for technical specialties where the likelihood of command in battle is near nil.
“We’ve got to figure out how to do that with the authorities we now have and determine what new authorities we need, realizing the process could take five to 10 years,” he said.
Besides fast-tracking talent, the captains suggested that slow-tracking might also be a good option, citing the so-called Peter Principle.
In 1969, Laurence J. Peter authored a book by that title, which proposed that many people rise in rank or position to their highest level of incompetence.
His book cited instances of ineptitude and the damage that ensued, not only to others, but to the individuals themselves. He used case studies to show that ulcers and more serious medical conditions resulted from the stress of being unable to cope with tasks and responsibilities many were ill-equipped to handle.
Talent-management team members offered that there are likely some officers that would make ideal brigade commanders, but lousy division or corps commanders. Likewise, there are specialists who do a great job and love their work, but would make inept sergeants.
The captains suggested there should be a track for them as well, as the current system is limited to up or out.
If the Army has 10 slots for brigade commanders and 50 officers competing for those slots, would the Army want to bank on someone who is ranked eight, but has little potential or desire for service beyond the brigade level? Odierno asked. If the Soldier ranked eleventh has potential for growth beyond the brigade and his record is nearly as good as eight’s, wouldn’t it be wise to pick 11?
In any case, the Army would hate to lose a Soldier who is performing a valuable service at the level he or she is at, but who doesn’t desire or merit a promotion. It’s a “conundrum” with no easy solutions, but is worthy of further discussion, he said.
CARROTS FOR PERFORMERS
There was unanimity among the captains and the chief that more incentives are needed for the Army’s top performers.
Incentives could include choice of assignment and educational opportunities.
A paid sabbatical to finish graduate school was one idea. The Army recently initiated the Career Intermission Pilot Program that does just that, but Soldiers do not receive their full pay and allowances.
Odierno said the Army is looking at offering top performers a master’s degree opportunity outside of the traditional graduate degrees received at service schools. Selectees could major in such areas as international relations, business administration, finance or public management with two follow-on payback assignments.
So someone majoring in international studies could have a follow-on assignment at the J-3 or J-5 with a follow-on at the State Department, he said.
One captain said that the Army Medical Command already has this program in place and that he himself is enrolled in it, studying for a doctorate degree.
“It’s a great motivator, but getting in is highly competitive,” he said.
Odierno promised the captains that their ideas would be given serious consideration and that he would explore their feasibility and provide follow-ups on actions taken.
The Army’s got talent, he concluded, and with junior officers like these leading the service in the coming decades, the Army will be in good hands.
Army leaders said it is likely there will be future solariums, perhaps with non-commissioned officers, warrant officers or those of other ranks.