war on the rocks

The Ultimate 360-degree Evaluation

May 7, 2014

In the past decade, much has been made about the retention of quality military personnel.  In 2011, Tim Kane penned “Why Our Best Officers are Leaving” in The Atlantic, which served as a wakeup call for the military in the midst of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His study, which documented the challenges faced by the Army in retaining its company command-level leaders, set off a firestorm of debate.  His recommendations were even more controversial, but to many they resonated.

The “people question” remains relevant as our nation struggles with defining a dynamic 21st century security environment.  Rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific, engaging non-state actors, and meeting unpredictable regional challenges will not be possible without the right type of people to execute the missions set forth by policymakers.  Boots on the ground and sailors manning forward stationed ships still matter, as they are the true face of strategic frameworks.

This is the context our military services face in a fiscal environment that demands hard choices.  While it applies to all the services, we are seeing the people problem up close and personal in the Navy.  Many of our peers wonder whether our best officers and enlisted personnel are leaving for the civilian world, and what the long-term implications of such a flight might be.

This concept was recently explored in “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon”, a paper released in March that garnered a widespread audience within the U.S. Navy. Key to the argument is that the exodus of quality manpower is cyclical, and predictable, based on knowable factors.  However, as a service we tend to respond belatedly because we rely so heavily on post-facto metrics to tell us that people are leaving in increasing numbers – and we now appear to be on the precipice of a new downturn in retention.  Compounding the problem is that the armed forces, unlike our civilian counterparts, cannot directly hire into positions of leadership – we must develop our talent from within.

Among the four Department of Defense services, the Navy is unique in that it faces no significant pressure to dramatically cut its force structure.  The Air Force is looking to cut 25,000 personnel in the next few years.  By 2015, Army will be reduced from 520,000 to 490,000 active personnel.  The Marine Corps will fall to 174,000 from their current end strength of 195,000.  The Navy, by contrast, will likely remain at or near its current active duty force level of 323,600.

However, raw force structure numbers only tell part of the story.  The missing element is the quality of personnel each service is retaining. Ask most flag officers, and they will tell you that each and every service has met its recruitment and retention goals for years on end.  While this is largely true, what they fail to disclose is whether these numbers reflect the retention of transformative leaders that will be required for the dynamic nature of 21st century national security challenges.

The qualitative nature of retention within any military organization is subjective, and discussions related to it are emotionally charged.  Claims that talent is departing leave those who remain in active service insulted.  Those who leave, especially those with stellar performance reviews, scoff at those who claim that we are retaining the right quality of people.  We need to remove the emotion from this highly charged conversation, and we need a way to really understand what is happening.

Without formal data, the best we can do is to infer trends by examining military selection boards.  The following example is specific to the Navy, but all military organizations have similar processes to select their future leaders.

In the U.S. Navy, there are usually two major boards for upwardly mobile junior and mid-level officers: the department head screen board, and the commanding officer screen board.  Both are used to select the next generation of Navy leadership.  Department head screen boards are focused on senior Navy Lieutenants and junior Lieutenant Commanders (at about 8-10 years of service).  Commanding Officer screen boards are for Commanders (about 14-15 years of service) competing for command of a ship, squadron, submarine, or shore based facility.

Implicit in these screen boards is their competitive nature, meaning that not everyone who is up for that particular board will be selected.  This also ensures that performance matters, which provides an incentive for those hoping to compete for these milestones to do well.

Recent trends within naval aviation are telling, and exemplify this concern surrounding falling retention rates.  For years, naval aviators about to have their department head screen board could either choose to compete for a department head slot in an upwardly mobile, deployable squadron, or choose not to compete for this mid-level leadership role.  In the latter case, the officer could still stay in the Navy, but would likely have to transfer to a non-flying billet in communities like Intelligence or Engineering Duty Officer.

Having the option to choose one path or the other indicates a healthy force.  There are enough people willing to face competition and fill the required roles in front-line Navy squadrons.  Those who choose something else are usually passionate about a different community within the service, so everybody wins.   Passionate people positively impact organizations wherever they are, which makes retaining them in uniform all the more important.  In essence, this leads to better outcomes at both the individual and organizational level.

However, this year is different. If a naval officer wants to stay in the Navy, and he or she is an eligible aviator, then they must compete in the department head screen board regardless of intentions.  Another important element to understand is that this screen process happens when most aviators hit their minimum service requirement – namely, they have just completed the initial obligation incurred by being an aviator.  This means that while they must go before the selection board, they still have a choice – they can leave active duty.  And many seem poised to do so.

This concern isn’t limited to naval aviation.  If, as predicted in “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon”, an increased flight of mid-level military officers across many U.S. Navy communities is true, the downstream effects of a retention crisis can have long-term consequences.  Take the department head example:  If there is not a competitive screen process, where a percentage of candidates is culled because they don’t measure up to their peers, then career timing trumps merit and everybody becomes a leader by default.  In that cadre, you will have exceptional leaders mixed with bad leaders who were only selected because of manning shortages.

Leadership matters, and junior personnel exposed to bad leaders are more likely to choose to leave, thus exacerbating the retention crisis.  In short, it is critical to have a pool of people to choose from in order to select those who will inspire future generations.  If you don’t have enough people to create a competitive pool, leadership stagnation could be a consequence.

This is the case in any organization, civilian or military.  Even if you have the right number of people filling leadership roles, the quality of those remaining leaders will directly impact whether a subordinate will want to remain with the organization.

Recent exoduses in the naval aviation and Navy SEAL communities indicates that the retention challenge has already started, with at least two aviation communities unable to meet the required numbers of officers needed to fill department head jobs.  But why are they leaving? To address these questions and give a new perspective on the retention landscape, a self-assembled group of Navy service members, of their own volition and in their own personal capacity, have created an unofficial, Navy-wide survey to find out.  The Navy survey recently went live and will be available for the next month. Though focused on the naval service, the concept of a grassroots, crowdsourced survey is replicable across any Department of Defense entity.

The popular response to “Keep A Weather Eye on the Horizon” makes it clear that these issues are on the minds of U.S. Navy sailors – and on the minds of those across the military.  We want to understand what keeps service members in uniform … and what is driving them out.  An independent survey allows us to better understand their perceptions about uniformed service in a constructive, comprehensive way, and making the results available to senior leaders will provide a new and previously untapped source of information to aid their decision-making.

We truly believe that our military’s most important asset is its people.  The unpredictable nature of 21st century national security challenges require that our forward operators – those manning the watch on ships and on the ground overseas – be the best they can be.  We need to know what motivates them, what our military can do to improve their experience, and how to retain them for when their skills are most demanded.  We understand this survey is but one small step, yet we hope it informs a way forward so that our foremost warfighters remain in uniform.

 

Guy Snodgrass and Ben Kohlmann are United States Navy officers.  The opinions and views expressed are those of the authors alone. They do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency.

 

Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery