A Tale of Two Majors: Talent Management and Army Officer Promotions

January 14, 2016

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Any discussion regarding the Army’s approach to talent management often produces the wailing and gnashing of teeth akin to a Wagnerian opera as a deluge of ideas struggle to find a balance point, crafting a promotion system that retains the best talent while also allowing additional time for those officers who need to grow professionally. In “Can the Military Halt Its Brain Drain?” Lt. Gen. David Barno and Nora Bensahel cite a 2010 Army study that revealed that only 6 percent of surveyed officers believe the Army does a good job of retaining the best leaders. While civilian firms continue to innovate new approaches to talent management, the authors assert that the Army is unable to become a “camouflaged version of Google or Facebook” as long as it sustains an industrial approach to officer promotions that is inadequate for talent management and retention. To be sure, the U.S. Army’s size, its unique requirements, and a host of other factors mean that it cannot adopt Silicon Valley approaches wholesale. But equally, to suggest that its bureaucratic mechanisms can never be reassessed and updated risks not only driving further dissatisfaction within its ranks, but eroding its mission effectiveness, as well.

While Barno and Bensahel’s article stops short of describing a Götterdämmerung-like crisis, their call for reform is warranted when one realizes that the Army promotion system uses time as the single criterion for deciding when to evaluate an officer’s potential to serve at the next level. Because the current system assumes that all officers require the same amount of time to develop professionally, exceptional leaders are forced to travel at the same pace as the rest of the herd. Therefore, I argue that the promotion system should consider officers for advancement to the next rank as soon as they complete the critical assignments, or key development billets, of their current grade — making it easier for the Army to more quickly and efficiently get the most qualified officers into the positions where they are most needed.

A simple change in promotion board timing could go a long way toward retaining the talent the Army needs. Clearly, the Army is unable to offer the same incentives that the private sector uses to prevent top performers from gravitating to a competitor. Stock options and performance bonuses conflict with the Army’s values for a number of practical and ethical reasons. However, the Army is not totally without options for better talent retention. By slightly altering its promotion system to prioritize professional accomplishments rather than solely time in grade, the Army would stand a better chance of advancing — and keeping — its best officers.

Two anecdotes combine to illustrate the comparative benefits of such an approach. Last year, while attending the Command and General Staff Officer Course (CGSOC), I was told that I would arrive at my next duty station and go straight into a key developmental (KD) billet — a required gateway through which an officer must pass in order to be eligible for promotion — as an executive officer in a cavalry squadron. Being a victim of my own hubris and ego, I categorically believed that I was ready to move mountains, part seas, and quickly become the best executive officer in the brigade if not the entire United States Army. After CGSOC, I learned to my dismay that I would have to serve a year on division staff before I became a cavalry squadron executive officer — surely another instance of the Army’s Kafkaesque bureaucratic malfeasance.

Six months into my job in the division future operations (G35) shop, I’m glad my KD assignment was delayed. I was not ready. Though I had never served on a staff, I believed I was ready to lead one by virtue of a sense of confidence gained by planning countless invasions of countries that only exist in CGSOC tactical problems. I admit that I needed time to grow before I was handed the baton. Had I gone straight to a squadron staff, I likely would have failed. And, in the era of drawdowns and reduction boards, I would have paid the price at my next promotion board. This time on staff has taught me the valuable lesson that I am not a unique and beautiful snowflake, as well as making it clear that I still have much to learn. Rather than being a developmental delay, I believe my current billet will make me a far better battalion executive or operations officer.

The story of a very close friend serves as a counterpoint to my experience. My friend was promoted a year early, or “below the zone” in Army parlance, based upon his performance as a captain. Further, he was also selected as one of a handful of individuals to attend the U.S. Naval War College instead of CGSOC. When he subsequently arrived at Fort Riley, his follow-on duty station, his superiors decided that he was ready to go straight to a KD job without having to spend a year “growing” on the division staff, and my friends at Fort Riley tell me that he is excelling as a battalion operations officer. Clearly, this individual has a bright future in the U.S. Army, but the earliest that he will become promotable to lieutenant colonel is 2018. Even if his chain of command believes him ready to serve at the next level, he will have to wait until he meets the Army’s time-in-grade requirements. In my opinion, the Army is going to squander two or three years of his potential while my friend waits for the rest of us to catch up with him.

These two vignettes — and countless others’ similar experience — show how the Army’s current promotion system is not optimized for maximum efficiency when it comes to talent management. The Army should rapidly assess, and where warranted advance, those individuals who demonstrate a uniquely high degree of acumen. Each branch could define the parameters of this new approach by independently determining what it considers a KD billet. Further, this KD-centric approach will empower brigade and battalion commanders to better manage the talent within their own organizations. They will have greater autonomy in deciding which officers are ready to assume critical roles and which officers need additional development, instead of being constrained by a year group-based promotion system.

This system would not require a fundamental transformation of the Army’s promotion system, nor would it require an exorbitant amount of resources. Instead of promotion boards considering year groups, they would simply consider cohorts of individuals who have passed the mandated career gates. The throughput of KD assignments would remain roughly the same assuming the 18–24-month limit for serving in a KD assignment remains constant, so the number of officers to consider each year should therefore also remain constant. In simple terms, the only alteration to the current system that my suggested approach demands is that Human Resources Command (HRC) compile the candidates’ files for promotion boards when they complete their KD assignments as opposed to reaching a prescribed point on their time-in-service timeline.

As a related aside, broadening assignments offer another method of retaining the best performers and placing them in positions most advantageous to the Army. Regardless of whether we want to admit it or not, most of us have a secret wish list of all the illustrious opportunities that we want to enjoy between our KD assignments. Prioritizing access to these assignments for the most talented leaders could enhance retention. These range from graduate schooling to White House fellowships to foreign attaché positions. The system that I propose would have promotion boards devise an order of merit list (OML) based upon the performance evaluations and other criteria of those officers being reviewed. Broadening assignments would then be picked in order of OML rank, enabling the top talent identified by the board to have access to the most sought-after billets and allowing the Army to reap the benefits of giving them needed experiences while retaining their expertise.

This system pairs well with the new 401k-style retirement system that will soon take effect for all members of the military who joined after January 1, 2006. The saying “I’m just sticking it out until I hit my twenty years,” is muttered so frequently that it has become a pessimistic credo of many a malcontent field grade officer. Commissioned officers tend to understand when their career has reached its maximum trajectory. In the words of one of my former first sergeants, not everyone in this business is going to become the chief of staff of the Army. By considering individuals for promotion immediately after the completion of their KD jobs, the board can provide rapid feedback to individuals who will not be advancing to the next rank. This will allow them to find new careers in the civilian sector much more quickly, rather than waiting for years until the traditional year group promotion boards convene. Faster separation of lower-performing officers will further enhance talent retention by creating more space for the most qualified officers to advance.

A counter-argument to this system is that it would foster a sense of cutthroat competition amongst those waiting in the KD queue. But if the Army trusts its battalion and brigade commanders to lead soldiers in war, there is no reason why it should not also expect them to fairly manage the talent within their formations. No system is perfect and there will always be commanders who reward the wrong kind of behavior, but that does not detract from the advantages of relying upon the chain of command to develop leaders rather than remaining permanently wedded to an inefficient system that fails to put the right officers in the right places.

The current system is not fundamentally broken. And yet neither is it fully optimized to serve the Army’s needs. It promotes good people; however, I submit that it does so much too slowly. In a financially constrained environment, the Army needs to attempt to mirror the lean effectiveness of successful civilian companies, which give their leaders as much authority as they can handle as quickly as possible rather than making them achieve arbitrary chronological milestones. The Army should be no different. Accelerating the development of our best and brightest still allows for guys like me. In fact, a 21st-century talent management system would be better across the board — facilitating efficient separation of low-performing officers, providing incubation time for officers who will benefit most from it, and advancing officers ready to contribute more to the Army. As Euripides said, “The god of war hates those who hesitate.” And in a world that is becoming more unstable with each passing day, the Army cannot wait to place exceptional leaders in critical positions.


Major Cory Wallace is currently serving as an armor officer. He graduated from West Point in 2004 and has earned graduate degrees from both the University of Washington and the University of Kansas.

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5 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Majors: Talent Management and Army Officer Promotions

  1. Excellent article, but as with almost all “talent management” reform proposals, there is a lack of data and evidence supporting either side. Both the status quo and reform positions have plausible arguments. The current career progression model did not develop in a vacuum and represents an imperfect synthesis of historical experience, protections from the nepotism/favoritism of the earlier systems and the perceived need for all personnel to be replaceable. Any change necessarily results in tradeoffs, but the costs and benefits are rarely examined in sufficient detail. Anecdotes are not enough.

    Perhaps what we need most is experimentation. Select a branch/career field or year-group cohort and apply a different developmental and promotion model. Allow a small number of mid and senior grade lateral entries from business as has been recently proposed. Pick a group of officers to follow a command track, where they spend more time commanding and skip staff assignments commonly perceived as simply “ticket punching.” Study these groups, compare them to traditional pathways and use the results to tune proposals for wider implementation.

    The Navy’s terminated pilot program for warrant officer aviators is a good example of the potential perils and pitfalls of such experiments, but the service is better off knowing the results of trying to change officer management in isolation to larger systems. With better coordination with Congress and some leeway with DOPMA and DOD/Service policies, experimentation would at least offer a pathway to better, evidence based personnel policy tailored to the unique circumstances of the military.

  2. This works great, if the organization is only concerned with the tactical level of the Army. However, the Army (or the other services or even a business) needs to be concerned with the operational and strategic as well, and those skills are only acquired when an officer serves more broadly. While the current system isn’t perfect, there is some benefit to having minimum time in grade requirements (which are well less than the current board schedule).

    Given that the author identifies as broadening assignment some positions that are owned by other career fields, do he mean to discard the dual branch system the Army currently has in place?

  3. In many ways, the concept of less emphasis on time in grade versus ability that the author argues is very valid. Unfortunately, he then argues for an even more “cookie cutter” approach to officer management than might now exist by pushing the very traditional key assignments tracking system.

    The problem with this approach is that it is based on the assumption that there is essentially one track to success. I suppose I’m a bit prickly about this having been a Foreign Area Officer in the era of dual tracking, but similar issues still exist. In my day, I saw some outstanding FAOs who took back to back FAO assignments in critical positions doing some very righteous work who were then passed over because they didn’t have the “right” battalion S-3 or XO assignments (in the interest of full disclosure, I managed to escape this trap, and at least made it to O-5 and my 20 years).

    Equating “critical” job titles with the readiness for promotion would put the Army right back in the 19th Century promotion pattern. There are a lot of very critical positions for officers that do not entail the traditional promotion tracks. Some assignments, in fact, that are not the usual company command/S3/XO/battalion command system may be more valuable to the individual officer’s development for higher level than the usual progressions. I’m not sure exactly how the system can incorporate both sorts of progression and how this can actually be factored in to the promotion system, but a “normal” promotion pattern may not be what is needed to keep the most promising officers.

  4. I agree that the industrial-age HR system is not well suited to the current age. An important question that also needs to be addressed in any reform proposal is how to emphasize selfless service over individual ambitions for advancement. The HR system is a necessary component of an organization as large as the Army. But strategic leaders should cultivate an attitude of professional service taking precedence over self-centric achievement. Key to this discussion is de-coupling the links between years in service, rank, position, and pay as a way to de-emphasize higher rank as the sole metric of a successful career.

  5. Maybe it is the wrong perspective: but, how does it aid the Army to promote officers more quickly? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial for the Army to lower boiler plating for assignments and find other incentives I entice personnel to remain?

    The largest challenge to changing the personnel system is changing the lifecycle management for each branch and HR division. Military personnel are paid well.

    If the lifecycle management inertia can be overcome, innovative units could be designed that would help increase the innovativeness and responsiveness of the military. This decentralization would allow for more broadening and interesting assignments for officers who have completed required tasks. It could also be a great incentive to officers who are motivated and have an entrepreneurial attitude.