Small Wars Journal

talent management

Bleeding Talent

Sun, 01/06/2013 - 10:17am

The New York Times reviews Tim Kane's new book Bleeding Talent: How the U.S. Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution. Dr. Kane is a former Air Force officer and now a PhD economist at the Hudson Institute. He argues that the military's all-volunteer force attracts a population more talented than their private sector peers and that the armed forces are a leadership factors, producing a high number of future CEOs, for example. But when it comes to retaining and managing that talent, we have a problem.

According to the review, Kane sees some of the major issues are that talented members have no control over their careers and that the seniority-based up-or-out system is largely talent blind. Kane argues that an internal labor market would help to rationalize the system. That is, if you have to compete for jobs like those in the private sector, the market would do a better job of managing talent than the bureaucracy which, frankly, makes no effort to manage talent.

This is likely to be a frustrating read for almost everyone. If you agree with it, it will frustrate you with the inanity of the system. If you don't, well, you'll still be frustrated. I hope that it sparks some serious soul searching in the Pentagon, though. Well...

Military Culture and its Implication for the Future Force

Mon, 10/08/2012 - 7:54am

For an organization facing a period of significant transition, during a time of continued resource advantage and undefined threat, coming on the heels of the traumatic experiences of two ambiguous-to-unsuccessful wars, adjustments to culture will be critical to the success or failure of any reform efforts. Recent experiences have significantly skewed the organization’s culture, which must be re-grounded in order to move ahead rationally.  You can see my general thoughts on this issue in more detail at “Disruptive Thinkers: Defining the Problem.”

This is a time of significant transformation. 

-We are coming out of two complex and painful wars that have given the force ambiguous and hotly contested signals in the midst of a time of strategic upheaval and uncertainty. 

-There is a lack of consensus about the “lessons” to be learned from these wars and the threats to prepare for in the coming strategic environment.

-There is no clear threat to focus minds, nor are there true constraints on resources.  See Gladwell on innovation and the requirement for threat and constraint at this New Yorker article about Xerox’s PARC lab and Apple.

-Budgetary and political realities will place fiscal constraints on the force, while growing personnel costs will compete for operations, maintenance, and development resources.

-The force must adjust to changing strategic and budgetary environments in a rational manner to be successful, but neither the nature of the budgetary adjustment nor the culture of the force predisposes us to success in these efforts.

There are considerable structural and environmental factors that disadvantage the DoD in seeking rational and positive change.

-The Department of Defense has been “resource advantaged” and relatively unconstrained in the recent past.  This is a common problem plaguing big corporations and it is always difficult to reset and pare back to a competitive core. For example, see “Microsoft’s Lost Decade” and Richard Rumelt’s book “Good Strategy/Bad Strategy.”

-The DoD has a unique set of constraints and restraints that make it even harder to reset and rationalize the organization, including the lack of a payroll, profit statement, or other business metrics; the unique nature of the combat mission; the incentives to and purse-string control by Congress; and the nature of the military hierarchy and conservative culture.  See my article “The Case for Disruption and Dialogue in Defense Reform.”

-Goldwater-Nichols, by separating service and operational chains, has arguably not done as much as many think to reduce parochialism, especially in procurement and other Title 10 functions.  See for example “Real Acquisition Reform” from JFQ and the Beyond Goldwater-Nichols Phase I study by CSIS.

The military has emphasized themes of sacrifice and service so much that it has in some quarters transformed those into a culture of entitlement and superiority that hampers introspection and will cripple attempts to rationally reform the institution.

-We are used to Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) money and justifying far too many things as essential to the war effort or victory and become indignant when we can’t get what we want.  Must read this excellent and cutting parody from the Onion in which Gen Mattis purportedly asserts that we will never win the war in Afghanistan unless CENTCOM gets a pinball machine. Look around your spaces and count the number of plasma screen TVs, for example. Were they bought with OCO funds? Are they displaying a COP? If not, what channel is on? And who is paying for that?

-The military lives in a world where sacrifice and heroism are at one time both lionized and conferred on everyone, we live in a socialist military system (see this at FP), and yet we believe we are owed things due to our “sacrifice” and “service.”

-Due to lobbying (e.g., MOAA), increased costs of caring for personnel who have been at war for over a decade, and the political popularity of gestures toward the military, the personnel costs of the military are soaring, eating up greater portions of the budget.

-Additionally, the military is increasingly distanced from and disgruntled with the society and civilian government it serves. A sense of elitism is part of the esprit de corps of the military, especially the all-volunteer military, but at some point it goes to far. Consider the WWII military. Did they feel any distance from American society at large?

-Despite claims to the contrary, the military remains a fairly politically skewed population. A 2010 poll found a decreasing association with the Republican Party from 60 to 41 percent, but given that 32 percent were professed independents, there is still an overwhelming preference for the Republican Party or at least conservative values. Anecdotally, many of us who have served since 2000 can likely remember strong admonitions for anyone who criticized Commander in Chief George W. Bush (this tapered off as the Iraq war dragged on), while you would be hard pressed to go a day in unit spaces without hearing open criticism of Commander in Chief Barack Obama. A bias in values is to be expected in the AVF, but overt professional neutrality must be maintained.

-A politicized military distanced from society finds it easier to lay blame for shortcomings elsewhere. There is a degree of cognitive dissonance in these varied threads. For one provocative view of cognitive dissonance, read this blog series in multiple parts at These trends have very negative effects on both civil-military relations and the ability of the military to be introspective and self-critical.

-Consider cultures of victimization. Fault for shortcomings is transferred to others and attempts at self-reform are scuttled from inside as treacherous to the identity and righteousness of the victimized culture. A small population fighting and not winning over a decade of war and returning and resetting in an environment of austerity is certainly prone to a sense of victimization.

-This all plays into a sense of outrage over attempts to cut the military budget. Here, we should look at cuts as an opportunity to reform and rationalize the organization. Have we been good stewards of the national wealth? Are there redundancies, inefficiencies, wasteful practices, etc. that can be weeded out? We should do all we can to maximize our efficiencies.  If we find 5% of efficiencies to match 5% of cuts, nothing is truly lost. This means doing what matters with less, rather than doing more with less.

A sense of entitlement makes it difficult for the institution to police itself at the upper reaches. Any attempt at reform, whether to improve ethical or personal conduct or to heighten combat or budgetary efficiency, must take a hard look at the shortcomings of the upper ranks of the military. It all starts there, from increased efficiency to improved personal and ethical conduct all the way down the chain of command.

-While institutional leaders focus on tightening their standards on ethical and personal conduct of the force, they have failed to truly hold senior officer and enlisted leaders accountable for the shortcomings that trickle down to create significant problems—from ethical lapses to alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, and mental health and suicide epidemics.

-The institution focuses on procedural answers (such as breathalyzers) to problems that require an improved and more personal level of leadership and accountability.

-These procedural answers are driving the military toward an extreme nanny-state culture that transfers responsibility for all things into process and rules rather than the agency of leaders and managers.

-Consider instead the “stop doing approach” which was described by Matthew May in his book “In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing” and summarized in my blog. Researchers have found that by removing rules and restrictions (e.g., traffic rules), people pay more attention to their own actions and are prone to act more responsibly than when the responsibility for their actions is transferred to process and regulation.

-The institution, with few exceptions, only holds senior officers/SNCOs (BN command and above) truly accountable for their actions when it has no choice: black and white situations such as ship grounding, ship casualty/gross aviation mishap, DUI, public infidelity, or some other incident that forces an investigation. The institution cedes decisions on conduct to the black-and-white of regulations rather than judgments of value that would prevent starker failures.

-For “command climate” reliefs, these only come when complaints force an investigation. What is more, we only hear about those that end up in relief. Are we to believe leadership did not know about this toxic leadership beforehand?

-When officers/senior SNCOs are disciplined, the consequences are often far less than a junior would face.  A salient and much cited example is the Army colonel bigamist and fraudster, a convicted felon, who will be allowed to retire, faces no confinement, and drew only a $300,000 fine. This man should no longer wear the rank or uniform and is prejudicial to the good order and discipline of the force as a whole.

-If the institution is to crack down on lapses in ethics and conduct, they must focus on improving senior leadership, holding senior leaders accountable for lapses in conduct (including tactics and strategy), and intervening decisively when gray-area issues crop up rather than waiting for DUIs, CONGRINTs, videos, and Abu Ghraibs to force their hand.

-The Marine Corps instituted an ethics standdown meant to reduce the incidence of ethical lapses. The training, for me, drove home the point that seemingly good people will do bad things if placed into situations that blur the black-and-white moral lines society prepares us to respond to.  The presentation included videos documenting the famed Milgram Experiment (where Yale University researchers found that upstanding people could be induced to administer extremely painful or potentially lethal shocks on subjects answering questions incorrectly in the name of “teaching” them) and the Stanford Prison Experiment (in which subjects playing the role of guards heaped abhorrent abuse on students acting as prisoners).  These experiments demonstrated that normal people from good backgrounds could be quickly corrupted and would act outside of accepted ethical bounds if placed in a situation where they were given power over others and left without engaged, ethical leadership, such as was the case at Abu Ghraib. Fostering discussion about ethical conduct is one of the most important ways to inculcate values in an organization, however this alone is not enough, leaders must be at the forefront of driving ethical behavior through active intervention.

-My Lai is an often-cited case study. Instead of focusing on the actions of the lieutenant and NCOs, we should be focusing on the actions of institutional leadership during the incident and in the aftermath. How did the extent of such an atrocity go unexplored and covered-up for over a year? How did the lieutenant colonel task force commander flying overhead in a helicopter not know what was going on? How did leaders allow such a flawed culture to grow in the ranks that people thought that this was a legal operation? While we cannot absolve the individuals of responsibility for their actions in the village that day, the true failure was at the level of the battalion leadership and above.

-James Reason, the creator of the “Swiss cheese model” of mishap/incident prevention, differentiates between person-based and system-based models of error prevention. “The longstanding and widespread tradition of the person approach focuses on the unsafe acts—errors and procedural violations—of people at the sharp end... It views these unsafe acts as arising primarily from aberrant mental processes such as forgetfulness, inattention, poor motivation, carelessness, negligence, and recklessness. Naturally enough, the associated countermeasures are directed mainly at reducing unwanted variability in human behaviour. These methods include poster campaigns that appeal to people's sense of fear, writing another procedure (or adding to existing ones), disciplinary measures, threat of litigation, retraining, naming, blaming, and shaming. Followers of this approach tend to treat errors as moral issues, assuming that bad things happen to bad people—what psychologists have called the just world hypothesis.” In contrast, “The basic premise in the system approach is that humans are fallible and errors are to be expected, even in the best organisations. Errors are seen as consequences rather than causes, having their origins not so much in the perversity of human nature as in ‘upstream’ systemic factors.” Thus, the onus falls on institutional leadership to implement controls and to prevent the “normalization of deviance.” Implicit in this is that mistakes and bad eggs are unavoidable but leadership has a responsibility to create the conditions in which the organization polices itself, maintains a culture open to warning signs, and consistently communicates its values to members.

-In an article entitled “Explaining Enron,” Matthew Seeger and Robert Ulmer describe “communication-based responsibilities for leaders: (a) communicating appropriate values to create a moral climate, (b) maintaining adequate communication to be informed of organizational operations, and (c) maintaining openness to signs of problems.”  They note that at Enron, “with the loss of responsibility came a breakdown in accountability for actions.”  Further, they write, “crisis-prone organizations are those managed by individuals who fail to take responsibility.” Their findings should resonate with military leaders today. “Followers take cues from leaders based on what they communicate and pay attention to, how they respond to crisis, their behavior, how rewards are allocated, and how they hire and fire others.” “In general, however, most organizations find warnings difficult to process and disruptive to established beliefs about risk and threat.”

-Leaders should pay heed to growing discontent in their ranks with the conduct and standards of the leadership. As LtGen Neller wrote, leaders must pay attention to the criticisms of the “young turks.” “We would do well to heed and reflect on their ‘canary in the mineshaft’ thoughts, engage them head on in frank and candid discussion, look for ways to remediate those concerns that are legitimate, and explain our logic for those with which we don’t concur.”

-Seeger and Ulmer came to a similar conclusion about whistle-blowers both individually and in the aggregate. “Whistle-blowers… are often seen as disruptive to the status quo and a threat to the organization’s reputation. In many cases however, whistle-blowers are merely working to call attention to and rectify serious, crisis-inducing deficiencies. More generalized organizational dissent may also include warnings.”

-Neller also warned that if the “young turks’” concerns are not addressed, they may vote with their feet, a sentiment discussed in a series of “Dear Boss” letters throughout the years. This leaves more of the entitled underperformers around to populate the upper ranks.

Organizational culture is critical in providing moral and ethical guidance to members as noted above. It is also a critical element in determining how the organization interacts with its environment. Success in a changing environment requires an adaptive organizational culture. Attempts to change the organization’s culture must be deliberate and integrated. Organizational leaders follow counterproductive methods to attempt to force change.

-From NDU’s online resource “Strategic Leadership and Decision-Making” Part IV, Chapter 16: “Edgar Schein, an MIT Professor of Management and author of Organizational Culture and Leadership: A Dynamic View, suggests that an organization's culture develops to help it cope with its environment.” I would argue that corollaries to this assertion would be that organizations facing environmental change must change their organizational culture to cope with the new realities and that organizations with a strong status quo cultural bias will not do well in adapting to change.

-The summary continues, “Schein contends that many of the problems confronting leaders can be traced to their inability to analyze and evaluate organizational cultures. Many leaders, when trying to implement new strategies or a strategic plan leading to a new vision, will discover that their strategies will fail if they are inconsistent with the organization's culture. … Difficulties with organizational transformations arise from failures to analyze an organization's existing culture.”

-In a Forbes article on changing organizational culture, Steve Denning wrote, “Frequent mistakes in trying to change culture include: Overuse of the power tools of coercion and underuse of leadership tools.” In other words, people used coercion, fiat, and punishment instead of leading change. Instead, he argues that “the most fruitful success strategy is to begin with leadership tools, including a vision or story of the future, cement the change in place with management tools, such as role definitions, measurement and control systems, and use the pure power tools of coercion and punishments as a last resort, when all else fails.”  It is important to note that hiring, firing, and promotions can be used as management tools or power tools (depending on how they are used).

Our promotion, retention, and retirement system provides incentives for people to stay around, not to truly perform. Nor do these systems provide leaders an adaptable and responsive management tool to use for changing or maintaining a positive organizational culture. The system disadvantages bold leadership and fails to reward true talent. It also creates a culture in which promotion and the incremental increases in retirement pay it creates are seen as an entitlement rather than a privilege. Wholesale reform of the promotion system is not immediately forthcoming, but we can affect our cultural perception of it and how we use the tools we have. We must demand far more of our senior leaders, promote fewer, and be less forgiving of those who choose to accept increased rank and responsibility and fail to live up to stringent expectations. By affecting this, we will affect many of the problems laid out above.

-Our promotion system has colored our perception of the worth of experience and talent. The rigid lock-step promotion process is justified by a cultural belief that promotions are earned based on “experience.” This fails to acknowledge that what some people grasp in X years, others will grasp in X plus Y years, and still others will never understand.

-An example of this can be seen in an article in the Oct 2012 Marine Corps Gazette entitled "The Above-Zone Fallacy," in which Maj Bunting argues that once-passed officers are often better and more mature than the in-zone population due to one more year of experience and “maturity.” Following his logic, students who complete 12th grade twice should be in high demand by Ivy League academic recruiters because they have more experience than their peers who took only one try to graduate. 

- The most recent USMC LtCol board selected over 70% of in-zone majors.  This means that passed majors were deemed by the board to be in the bottom 30% of their peer group.  How does one year of experience elevate someone from being in the bottom third of his or her peer group to being worthy of a rank of significant importance and responsibility?  Admittedly, some officers are passed over due to special circumstances or were very close to the cut-off line and another year does make the difference.  But this is a small population—less than 3% in the last board—as one might imagine. 

- Instead of imagining that experience equals capability (some people will do something their entire life and never "get it") and arguing for more above zone promotions, we should be looking at how we can weed out another few percentage points of weak officers by bringing up the best and brightest of the below zone population.  There were no below zone selectees in the USMC last year.  Are we really to believe that the top handful of majors in the below zone are not better than the last few majors of the in-zone population?  If we are truly a type-A culture of excellence, we need to look at promotion of the most highly qualified individuals as a benefit to the service, not an entitlement to the individual.

 -We must come to view promotions and rank (and thereby the differential in retired pay and benefits) as the privileges they are for superior performance and significantly heightened responsibility and accountability, not the entitlements they have come to be seen as. We have to clean up our senior ranks. Additionally, we have to see accepting greater rank as an open commitment to higher standards of conduct and scrutiny and an acceptance of harsher consequences for failure.

-Senior leadership must acculturate their people to be far more discerning in judging talent, especially at the O-4 to O-5 cut. Some of this can only happen with a reform to the fitness reporting systems. In this, we must divorce ourselves from the notion that passed-over majors “deserve another chance” and that there is an unstated entitlement for an officer to retire as a lieutenant colonel, which leads reporting seniors to go to considerable lengths (top tier write-ups and wasting key billets on below average officers) to assist once-passed majors in getting promoted on the second look.

-Another fallacy perpetuated by our promotion system is that you have to be X rank to be taken seriously in a given billet. This again incentivizes rank and longevity over talent and competence. In the joint world, there is an additional incentive to each service to promote and source more senior officers for inter-service competition for resources. Instead, we should be making far fewer O-5s and above, reserving those for true performers and leaders. Others should remain the O-4 action officers that they are. If the Marine Corps promotes 70% of majors to lieutenant colonel, at least 2/7ths of that population were below average majors who now become LtCol action officers with very little propensity for action.

-There are a host of ways to improve the quality of leadership at the O-5 and O-6 ranks. One of these is to promote far fewer, making the O-4/O-5 transition the key one in the military. I would divide the population into 3: promote true talent to lieutenant colonel and consistently place in key billets of leadership, retain average staff officers as majors who keep their date of rank for seniority purposes and serve as key action officers, revert below average majors to the most junior date of rank (i.e., they become worker bees with no leadership responsibility) and board to determine separation or retention based on needs of the service. If we cannot make such determinations at 15 or so years of service, we are deluding ourselves. This delusion goes back to the entitlement versus privilege paradigms of promotion.

-For identified leaders, focus on more education on management, organizational culture, and organizational/change leadership. Many of our senior leaders do not know how to manage stasis or lead change (and have never been taught this) and would do well to take a lesson from the wide business literature on these topics.

-Those who bristle at the idea that the military could learn anything from the business world and throw out references to business failures and inferiority to the military are an embodiment of the superiority complexes described above. There are good and bad business cases to learn from, just as we learn from military successes and failures. For example, I used the lessons of Enron above to show how to avoid similar failings. Furthermore, while we cannot lean 6 sigma combat redundancies, etc, we can certainly be judicious and intelligent in our application of business practices and organizational management and leadership lessons to specific military contexts.  The misapplication of business lessons does not impugn business scholarship, it impugns the leaders and managers who have been allowed to rise to positions without an appropriate understanding of business literature and its relationship to their particular field.

In conclusion, I’ll restate my opening: For an organization facing a period of significant transition, during a time of continued resource advantage and undefined threat, coming on the heels of the traumatic experiences of two ambiguous-to-unsuccessful wars, adjustments to culture will be critical to the success or failure of any reform efforts. Recent experiences have significantly skewed the organization’s culture, which must be re-grounded in order to move ahead rationally.

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.