Sunday, January 9, 2011

Thoughts On "Why Are All Our Best Officers Leaving The MIlitary"


There is an article that was recently published in The Atlantic magazine that is surely stirring up some controversy. The article is bluntly called, "Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving The Military."

I must start with a disclaimer of sorts. I am transitioning out of the military this summer. With my pending transition the title of the article definitely caught my eye, as it surely was designed to do. However, it wasn't because I consider myself the "best." I am a pretty humble guy so by nature it is hard to view myself as one of the best officers. I was more curious than anything else. With that being said, I certainly do not think that ALL of our nation's best officers are leaving the military. I have served with some unbelievably talented officers and leaders that are making the military a career and like any other organization the leaders will be a representation of our nation as a whole with the good, the bad, and the ugly making up our leadership ranks.

With my personal disclaimer out of the way, I must say that I think the article most definitely holds some validity and that many of the problems identified in throughout author's article are real.

Why are so many of the most talented officers now abandoning military life for the private sector? An exclusive survey of West Point graduates shows that it’s not just money. Increasingly, the military is creating a command structure that rewards conformism and ignores merit. As a result, it’s losing its vaunted ability to cultivate entrepreneurs in uniform.


What I really liked about the article is that it wasn't just some naive opinion piece with a catchy title. The writing was backed with real life studies and surveys that have been researched over the years. As I began to read the findings that came from the aforementioned surveys and studies I was amazed at how closely they matched my own reasons for separating. Not only my own reasons but the frustrations I have discussed with my peers over the course of my military career.

A widely circulated 2010 report from the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College said: “Since the late 1980s … prospects for the Officer Corps’ future have been darkened by … plummeting company-grade officer retention rates. Significantly, this leakage includes a large share of high-performing officers.” Similar alarms have been sounded for decades, starting long before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made the exit rate of good officers an acute crisis. When General Peter Schoomaker served as Army chief of staff from 2003 to 2007, he emphasized a “culture of innovation” up and down the ranks to shift the Army away from its Cold War focus on big, conventional battles and toward new threats. In many respects (weapons, tactics, logistics, training), the Army did transform. But the talent crisis persisted for a simple reason: the problem isn’t cultural. The military’s problem is a deeply anti-entrepreneurial personnel structure. From officer evaluations to promotions to job assignments, all branches of the military operate more like a government bureaucracy with a unionized workforce than like a cutting-edge meritocracy.

And that is when it hit me. When I read the final word of the passage. The word 'meritocracy' instantly took me back to something I did while deployed to Iraq. While deployed, at the request of my Commander, I completed a voluntary and informal "exit survey." The survey was created by my Commander, when she learned I was separating from the Air Force, to track trends of departing Company Grade Officers from the Contracting career field. Her genuine desire to address the problems in our military/career field coupled with her care for her people not only made me feel obligated to complete the survey, it made me feel honored to provide brutally honest feedback that may in some small way make the Air Force a bit better for the people behind me.

I opened my 'exit survey' for the first time since submitting it to my Commander in Iraq and I went to one of the first sections. The section asked me to describe my top five reasons for separating. Under reason number four I had listed "Meritocracy." Below is an excerpt of my response:

Meritocracy: I have always been very intrinsically motivated. I enjoy giving my best and do so without many external incentives. However, I have found that working in the government setting can be frustrating at times. I think that being in a career field that is heavily populated with civilians and contractors as well as military has made it even more frustrating. It is hard to work in [the] contracting [career field] and not notice that there are plenty of workers who do in fact very little working. Not only is it frustrating to watch as a fellow teammate but it is typically compounded by the fact that many of these people make more money than me and get more time away from the office than me. Not that money is everything to me. Not even close. I think that as an officer [in the military] the money and benefits are more than sufficient for my lifestyle and I am appreciative of how I have been able to set myself up quite nicely for the future given the paycheck I receive. However, I do have a problem working in an environment where the external incentives seem completely misaligned with the amount of responsibility and contributions to the team. I hate to generalize my civilian counterparts because I have worked with some great ones, but over time I have noticed a trend that many civilians want all the benefits of being in the military without any of the sacrifice that comes with it. I am not na├»ve enough to think that my transition to the corporate world with solve all my frustrations and that everything will be “fair”. However, I am looking for an environment where I can differentiate myself through performance and be compensated both internally and externally based on my merits.

As I continued through the article, I was amazed at the findings from the respondents in the survey and how closely they matched many of my peers sentiments and experiences. Below are some of the results that really stood out to me.

Among active- duty respondents, 82 percent believed that half or more of the best are leaving. Only 30 percent of the full panel agreed that the military personnel system “does a good job promoting the right officers to General,” and a mere 7 percent agreed that it “does a good job retaining the best leaders.”

Is this so terrible? One can argue that every system has flaws and that the military should be judged on its ultimate mission: maintaining national security and winning wars. But that’s exactly the point: 65 percent of the graduates agreed that the exit rate of the best officers leads to a less competent general-officer corps. Seventy-eight percent agreed that it harms national security.

The shame of this loss of talent is that the U.S. military does such a good job attracting and training great leaders. The men and women who volunteer as military officers learn to remain calm and think quickly under intense pressure. They are comfortable making command decisions, working in teams, and motivating people. Such skills translate powerfully to the private sector, particularly business: male military officers are almost three times as likely as other American men to become CEOs, according to a 2006 Korn/Ferry International study.
I too believe that the military does an excellent job attracting and training leaders. In fact one of the sections of my exit survey asked what I thought the Air Force does well. Below is my response:

What do you think the Air Force does exceptionally well?

Developing professional critical thinking leaders: I look back at all the unique challenges, experiences, and educational opportunities I have been given while in the Air Force and I start to think that the Air Force has given me much more than I ever gave in return. Sure the sacrifices are difficult; however I feel that the 9 years I spent in the military lifestyle have set me up for success in any endeavor I choose to pursue.

I think the Air Force has developed a culture, especially amongst its officers, that is founded on professional character based leadership. This is not an easy culture to establish en masse, but the further I go along in my career the more I realize how successful the Air Force has been at providing me a foundation for leadership success.


I think that based on the statistics above, Corporate America is finding value in folks with military leadership experience. The fact that men with military experience are three times as likely to become CEO as compared to their civilian counterparts is a statistic that shows the transitional success is not a mere coincidence. So why does the military have a hard time retaining great leaders when they do such a great job crafting them? That is a question author Tim Kane also sought to answer through his research.
Why is the military so bad at retaining these people? It’s convenient to believe that top officers simply have more- lucrative opportunities in the private sector, and that their departures are inevitable. But the reason overwhelmingly cited by veterans and active-duty officers alike is that the military personnel system—every aspect of it—is nearly blind to merit. Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command. Promotions can be anticipated almost to the day— regardless of an officer’s competence—so that there is essentially no difference in rank among officers the same age, even after 15 years of service. Job assignments are managed by a faceless, centralized bureaucracy that keeps everyone guessing where they might be shipped next.

The Pentagon’s response to such complaints has traditionally been to throw money at the problem, in the form of millions of dollars in talent-blind retention bonuses. More often than not, such bonuses go to any officer in the “critical” career fields of the moment, regardless of performance evaluations. This only ensures that the services retain the most risk-averse, and leads to long-term mediocrity.

When I asked veterans for the reasons they left the military, the top response was “frustration with military bureaucracy”—cited by 82 percent of respondents (with 50 percent agreeing strongly). In contrast, the conventional explanation for talent bleed—the high frequency of deployments—was cited by only 63 percent of respondents, and was the fifth-most-common reason. According to 9 out of 10 respondents, many of the best officers would stay if the military was more of a meritocracy.
Ironically deployments was the fifth reason out of five on my exit questionnaire as well. Although these generalizations are not true for all members of the military I think that there are many that do feel aligned with the concerns cited above. Most of my best friends in the military are competitors. Many spent years competing at the highest levels of sports, academics, etc. and the most frustrating environment you could possibly put them in is one where they feel constrained and held back. I am a firm believer that over time people rise and fall to where they deserve to be based on their merits. However, when driven people are given the choice to enter an environment that more efficiently rewards overachievers and winners inevitably some will make the jump.

Another facet of the current military struggle is differing outlooks on the status quo. For better or for worse many within the younger generations look at the status quo differently than their upper leadership. It is not that the younger leaders of the military do not buy into a culture that promotes integrity, honor, service and excellence, as that is definitely a cultural norm that they believe in. What the youth of the military struggles with is the status quo line of thinking. The youth of our country has been brought up to embrace their differences, to stand out, and to become their own unique person. One has to look no further than the trends of our information age to see the demand for individualization thriving. Anyone can start a blog, a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, a Twitter account, and much more. People are creating their own individual identities and virtual thought profiles online from a very young age. In a sense the new currency is ideas and the marketplace is rewarding people for their ideas. Anyone who has served in the military knows that is not always the case in the military environment. Often the individualized personas and unique beliefs that are embraced in the new world are seen as 'risky' in the military world.

In a 2007 essay in the Armed Forces Journal, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling offered a compelling explanation for this risk-averse tendency. A veteran of three tours in Iraq, Yingling articulated a common frustration among the troops: that a failure of generalship was losing the war. His critique focused not on failures of strategy but on the failures of the general-officer corps making the strategy, and of the anti-entrepreneurial career ladder that produced them: “It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.”

In America today, capitalism is entrepreneurial: our economy is defined by individuals failing or succeeding on the strength of their ideas. Crucially, the military has not recognized this shift. And the Army, in particular, has not changed from its “inefficient industrial era practices,” as a report by the Strategic Studies Institute put it last year. It still treats each employee as an interchangeable commodity rather than as a unique individual with skills that can be optimized.


That last line really hits it on the head for me. How can the military take the unique individuals that serve as the core of its make up and skillfully utilize those assets to make the organization better than it was? That is the ultimate goal. Of course it is easier said than done in one of the largest organizations in the world but the journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.

I love the military and what it stands for. Any organization that is consistently recognized as one of America's most trusted institutions while simultaneously navigating some of the most critical and challenging missions on the planet is doing a lot of things right. I decided to write this post because I believe in our military and I want it to continue to be the world's best for my friends that stay in, for my country, and for the next generation. I truly believe that by consistently striving to improve and by continually addressing the evolving challenges like the ones outlined in this article, our nation's fighting force will continue its tradition of success long after I am gone.

3 comments:

James said...

Some short sighted people leave because of the "money", but I always tell them there will be plenty of time to make money.

The only reason why I'm staying in is because I got accepted into NPS. If it weren't for grad school, I'd be outski in less than two years. This article pins it on the head, mediocracy. Although, I believe the Army fights with it a little bit more than the Air Force does (my case in point).

I apologize for my english, I picked up a 6 pack in anticipation for the assumed snow day.

Cameron Schaefer said...

In my mind it comes down to security vs. freedom. Normally a rise in one comes at the expense of the other and the military is a prime example. The thing they (military) promise to those who choose a career is security. You can do an incredibly mediocre job day in and day out and still be guaranteed a paycheck, benefits and retirement. However, in exchange for security you give up freedom. Freedom to choose your job, where you work, whom you work for, schedule, etc.

While there are certainly exceptions I find that many who stay in at the 10-yr point (talking pilots here) do so not because they're thrilled about the prospect of another 10 yrs in the military, but simply because they've grown used to the constant paycheck and are unsure about what they would do in the civilian world. Lack of direction/ambition seems to be a prime driver for why many stay in at the 10-yr point...like I said though, many exceptions.

Additionally, the 10-yr point is also when many have a family started, mortgage payments, college savings, etc. People who are not confident in their abilities to succeed in a meritocracy find the safe, quiet military pastures fine for grazing.

The military's organizational structure and promotion system is archaic...Napoleon would feel much at home, any young entrepreneur not so much. As much as I love the author's free-market promotion idea I don't ever see it happening in the U.S. military...the amount of risk for individual decisions gets ratcheted up way too much.

If a commander is responsible for hires all of the sudden he can be held accountable for his decisions. In the current system a commander can mostly get by using vague language, approvals/top-cover from above and double-speak to ensure sufficient coverage of his posterior. Few make any actual decisions these days unless higher command is notified and briefed. It is much like the old Soviet political structure...so to go to free-markets would cause heads to explode.

One step I do see as something that could 1) be implemented today and 2) have a positive impact is 360-degree reviews. Rather than relying strictly on the opinions of superiors who rarely witness your day-to-day actions, a much more complete and accurate picture could be painted incorporating the evaluations of both peers and subordinates.

Brian T. Reese said...

Great article, Badski. You bring up some great examples as well. I think one of the first things that could help this is to institute below-the-zone promotions to all ranks. BTZ to 1Lt, Capt, Maj, etc... BTZ should not start at the 15-18 year mark.

If this kind of structure were implemented, it would be very possible to see a 30-35 year old General Officer.

If you look across the business world, many of the top execs are 27-35 years old. Why can't the military do the same thing?