This Isn’t About Me: A Personnel Story

November 14, 2016

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Recently, I became the uncomfortable subject of numerous online discussions, office chats, and bar conversations. Federal News Radio published two articles by Scott Maucione describing me in favorable terms. Maucione’s first article called me “the perfect example of the Army’s personnel system letting accomplished soldiers with unconventional career paths fall by the wayside.” That description and others in the article represent the journalist’s interpretation, not my own. I never would have deployed such laudable terms to describe myself. I reject the notion I am a poster boy for this problem and Maucione’s grasp of the Army personnel system was, at times, tenuous.

First, the articles aren’t about me. They are about the Army’s personnel system. My interviews were not some manifestation of sour grapes. I was passed over for promotion to major while the Army was paying me and my tuition as a graduate student at Georgetown University. In an ideal world, I could have kept serving in uniform, but the world is rarely ideal and I’m very comfortable with moving on if that is what the Army decides. I will be paid more, have more control of my life, and continue to find ways to serve my country. There are many upsides to this pending decision. I will be ok.

Second, it should be self-evident (but to some, it has not been) that I didn’t write the articles. I am not asking for anyone’s sympathy. I knew the system was broken, was working to fix it, and became one of many examples of its failure. Maucione came to me after hearing about my story. I agreed to the interview in the hope that it might shed some light on a systemic issue that I care about.

The problem is that the Army is actively pushing out many talented soldiers who have a great deal to offer. I care deeply about the effectiveness of this institution. I love the Army. I want to take this opportunity to go beyond the Federal News Radio articles and offer a more scholarly analysis to fill in the missing pieces while also setting the record straight on my own personal experience.

Moving Beyond Anecdotal Evidence

Many discussions of talent management reform share a common trait: They are rooted in anecdote and experience rather than informed, scholarly opinion. In some ways, this is understandable. Stories about people engage our attention more effectively than a cold recitation of facts and statistics. But a strict focus on anecdotes can over-simplify a problem that, at the end of the day, is about the strength of our Army and country rather than my personal career fortunes or those of other individuals. More people need to understand the system and its flaws so that we can start collectively calling for reform for the right reasons.

The Federal News Radio articles cite a total of four officers, but largely focuses on me in an attempt to point out irony. One officer was 1st Lieutenant Joseph Riley, a 2013 ROTC cadet and Rhodes Scholar, who was about to be separated until Gen. Milley, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, intervened. The two men were on a panel at last year’s Reagan National Defense Forum when Riley shared his story. Dave Barno, himself a retired Army general, and Nora Bensahel recounted this event:

[A]fter being commissioned, he had spent two years studying at Oxford instead of holding the standard military jobs expected of junior officers during that period of their careers. The military personnel system saw him as lagging far behind his peers. So even though around 90 percent of his fellow lieutenants would be promoted, Riley was told that he would not be one of them and that he would face a separation board.

Telling his tale on stage with the Army Chief of Staff had a powerful effect. Gen. Milley said, “You’re killing me, Lieutenant.” He went on: “I’ll be your personal assignments officer — I just adopted you,” and ending their exchange with a hearty “Welcome back to the United States infantry, young man!”

Knowing this story, I brought my situation up with Gen. Milley directly in June, but I was not as compelling (or have not seen it bear out yet). In conversations sparked by last week’s Federal News Radio articles, many people shared other stories of high achievers who were seen as poor leaders and separated from the military.

But these anecdotes can only take us so far. Anecdotes are just single data points, and without holistic data we are just talking in circles. It’s easy to understand why many senior leaders are averse to admitting that the same system which promoted them could have flaws. Admitting fissures in the system may suggest that the system is broken. These same people rely on anecdotes. They dismiss arguments that our best and brightest are leaving, but have nothing – no data – of their own to support it. Why? Even Secretary of Defense Ash Carter admits we have no idea who we are losing. This is why one of the pillars of his Force of the Future reform proposal has been data collection on why and how people leave the U.S. military.

Why Does This Matter?

Recruiting is becoming harder. Despite the fact that all services finally met their recruitment goals, it’s not expected to stay that way for long. A declining percentage of the population is even eligible to serve, let alone choosing to do so.

The pool of junior leaders will only get smaller over time, so cutting the wrong people will have strategic consequences. Unlike the civilian labor force, we cannot “outside hire” and there is not even an effective mechanism for people to return to service after leaving. The military must promote from within and we cannot replace lost talent.

Moreover, training people is expensive and time consuming. We can hardly afford to be poor custodians of tax dollars. Why would the Army want zero return on its investment in education?

Lastly, and most importantly, the current system punishes people who deviate from the traditional career path despite the fact that our human capital development strategy has been trying to encourage broad and diverse talents for decades. We know that we want people with diverse experiences, but our promotion system continues to select people who follow the golden path. Outliers aren’t exceptional — they’re defective.

Our Current System

The current system was largely designed by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, an industrialist businessman. McNamara emphasized the efficiency-based management control systems that he developed while leading the Ford Motor Company: all cogs and parts are interchangeable; uniqueness is a defect, not an asset. Some of these methods were codified in 1980 in the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) which created today’s “up-or-out” system while others found homes in DA PAM 600-3 and other service literature.

Our current talent management system is generally “accurate”, but extremely “imprecise.” In statistical terms, this could be represented by a very tall, flat bell curve or other abnormalities. This is largely due to the focus on efficiency and simplicity. Our inflated evaluation system effectively reduces your months of work to one or two coded sentences and a code (ACOM for good, COM for middle or bad). Making things worse, the Army limits ACOM (good) evaluations to 49 percent of a group in an attempt to encourage greater differentiation. The result is greater gaming of the system. (Most notably, this is in the form of “stair-stepping” (COM followed by an ACOM) which meets the quota and limits differentiation.)

The system is designed to push everyone towards generalship with broadening assignments along the way, but the system tends to only reward adherence to a specific path. People in the middle who deviate from the path become unique and that defect is often, but not always, viewed as a flaw. It encourages broadening assignments and later punishes those who take them. In particular, taking time away from your specialty for higher education makes an officer less competitive for promotion at O-4, O-5, and O-6 which is why the percentage of generals with advanced civilian education has plummeted.

In short, the “up-or-out” system means that at certain mandated career points, promotion boards review personnel files (for less than five minutes) and score them in order to determine which officers will be promoted and which will be “passed over.” Officers have three chances for promotion: BZ (early), PZ (normal), or AZ (late). A few minutes is not enough time to conduct a thorough review and is exacerbated by the fact that senior leaders are not human resource experts.

Having non-experts make rapid decisions is a quick route to mistakes. Non-experts are easily subject to biases (preferences for similar careers, gender, race, alma mater, etc.) and are likely to key in on inconsequential information. Experts, by contrast, can quickly see the whole picture and are likely to intuit minor inconsistencies that are often the source of non-expert errors.

The Secretary of Defense, Chief of Staff of the Army, and the Army Chief of Personnel (G-1) all admit that our system is broken and biased. Even if you dismiss the data showing that against all plausible hypotheses lower intellect correlates with faster promotion or countless other problems, you don’t need to look any further than the fact that the G-1 created the Talent Management Task Force to lead reform efforts to know that something is wrong.

How Can the System Work and Yet Also Fail?

It is laughable to suggest that the Army is intentionally or even knowingly firing its top performers. That is not what is happening. What it is doing, however, is not recognizing talent and not working to retain or employ many great people who could help make the Army a more effective warfighting organization. Industrial systems were built for efficiency, not precision, but it’s 2016 and we can do much, much better.

The current system relies heavily on weak proxies in lieu of true measures of talent. Some examples are combat experience and total time overseas; badges and tabs; and coded language on evaluations. Moreover, the current system gives little weight to higher education or the comparative rigor of the program, no 360-assessments, and no cognitive or personality testing.

In 2013, when the promotion rate to the rank of major was at 94 percent (and lieutenant colonel was also high), the error rate was lower. It is very likely that an error prone system will make one or two errors per person, but it’s very unlikely that it will make five or six. If only the bottom 5 percent was passed over, it’s statistically less likely that someone would be overlooked. Just a few years ago, we only had to worry about separating the chaff from the dirt — and mistakes at that point were less consequential.

Worsening the situation, there are only a few levers in military talent management: accessions, retention, up-or-out promotions, and discharges. Without adding a lever, this means that the Army only has limited tools to shape the future talent pool. So, when the Army began to draw down from 540,000 to 450,000, it had to use one of those limited tools and pray that the cuts were precise. The trouble is, they aren’t.

An imprecise system is fine at extremes (95 percent), but horrible closer to the middle. For my year group, the major PZ promotion rate was roughly 67 percent — yes, that’s within .5 standard deviations of the mean. I’d speculate that the difference between an officer who was selected versus passed over are smaller than the margin of error. At a certain point, it becomes a coin toss for officers who should actually be clearly on one side of the cut line or the other. We keep many bad apples and toss out plenty of good ones and accept it as the cost of doing business. Why?

We need both specialized and broadened leaders, but the current system largely only rewards one. The best way to ensure that talent demands are met is through a decentralized market system, not a centralized, one-size-fits-all approach.

A Silver Lining

Just like a car that constantly needs work, upending the existing personnel system and replacing it is costly and also far riskier. The common logic of the frozen middle is this: Although we will never know if a new system works better unless we try — it might also be worse — so let’s just stick with the partially broken one we know. I’m optimistic that these people are well-intentioned, but they ultimately do more harm than good in their efforts to nullify risk and stifle innovation.

The Army has 45 stove-piped personnel systems. Each system was added as a new layer onto the patch-work mess that had been built over decades and incremental change fails. In 2012, the Army piloted “Green Pages” with small cohorts to prototype a future talent management system. The pilot yielded many positive results, but also reinforced the need for total system reform. Consequently, the Army is developing the Integrated Pay and Personnel System – Army (IPPS-A). Sure, it will probably end up being late or over budget, but it will be the first step towards something better.

Moreover, the Defense Innovation Board understands this issue and it will likely be a top priority in their next recommendations. Leaders who serve on it like Eric Schmidt and former Adm. William McRaven – the former commander of Special Operations Command who is now the chancellor of the University of Texas System – are intimately familiar with the war for talent. In October, the board had already proposed solutions for better management of our cyber force, and since four of the eight people who chose to make public comments at their meeting mentioned total force talent management overhaul, I am confident that they got the message.

Much More Is Needed

The “up-or-out” system will always exist so long as we are subject to DOPMA. Until we repeal or amend it, we’re going to continue mismanaging talent. Technology solutions are limited if the regulation does not change.

We can start doing better talent management now. We will need more Adjutant General officers to serve as unit talent managers. This is a critical role and we can and should start filling them now. These roles should be filled by people who understand why talent management is important regardless of their current specialty.

Get IPPS-A online as soon as possible. Crash resources on this project with the help of the DIUx, the Defense Digital Services, and Army Cyber. IPPS-A is intentionally being built in open-source Oracle software, so there’s no reason to delay this. Whatever it costs will be saved by better utilizing talent in the future. It’s not going to be perfect on Day 1, so start iterating now.

We need to make 360-reviews mandatory for key positions and part of future evaluations. They add a valuable perspective to a personnel file and we have withheld them for too long. This delay is perpetuating toxic leadership and creating a cadre of “Yes (wo)men.”

Lastly, we need to learn the right lesson from my experience. There are people in the G-1 and elsewhere who believe that the system works and that the Army should have never allowed me to attend graduate school. This is fundamentally wrong. People are our most precious resource and investing in them is always the right answer.

One Last Anecdote

This Sisyphean undertaking would not be complete without one more try. I never claimed to be a great officer. I am, however, a good example of how the system fails. I offer this part of my story not to complain, but in the hopes that it can help Army leaders figure out whether and how they need to improve the system.

The Good: I graduated from West Point in 2006 with a double major in economics and foreign languages (French and Russian, both of which I speak fluently). I’m an engineer officer and deployed to Iraq for 14 months from 2008 to 2009. I’ve completed Sapper Leader Course, Ranger School, and Special Forces Assessment and Selection (select). I scored a 760 on the GMAT (99th percentile). The Army just sent me to Georgetown University full-time to get an MBA during which time I was elected as the president of Georgetown’s Student Veterans Association. I am the executive director of the Defense Entrepreneur’s Forum (DEF) and the co-founder of Military Mentors. I have written for War on the Rocks, Small Wars Journal, Army Press, and elsewhere.

The Bad: I was dropped from the Special Forces Qualification Course during the Small Unit Tactics phase. I did not have a good relationship with my brigade commander while I was a company commander. I only commanded for 14 months. My file for the promotion board only had 1 one ACOM (good) out of 4 four evaluations.

Why Did I Get Passed Over? I Have a Weak File.

Less Command Time Than My Peers. The combination of my initial assignment in Germany (which requires 3 years overseas) and my time in the Special Forces Qualification Course (12 months) meant I got into command late compared to my peers. Usually timing doesn’t matter, but sometimes it does. Remember how the Army only has a few levers for talent management? From 2006-2009, the Army had to get bigger to fight two wars, but all of those extra officers were now creating a backlog and new policies limited command time to 15 months maximum.

Why was there a backlog? Since evaluations are inflated and indistinguishable, command time is a proxy used in promotion boards. Better officers are expected to command longer, and since (almost) every captain gets a turn, you have to give more time to good leaders. Instead of 18 to 24 months like many of my peers, I left at 14 months to go to graduate school. Had I stayed for the extra month, I would have simply sat in a non-career-enhancing position for 11 months since top MBA programs start in August.

Fewer Good Evaluations Than My Peers. Again, due to time in Special Forces training, I only had four evaluations compared to my peers who usually had six. Can you guess why rural areas have the highest and lowest incidents of rare illnesses? Yes, small sample sizes can be dramatically swayed by small changes. It’s a well-documented statistical problem and is one of our personnel weaknesses.

One of my COM evaluations covered the period immediately after departing SF training. It covered a period when I was in the brigade operations (S3) shop and also covered the two months that I spent in Ranger School (I completed in 61 days). I have no idea why this was a COM evaluation, but the verbiage in it is strongly positive. Another COM evaluation was for four months when I got to write a 75-page property loss investigation. I was specifically chosen because I’d previously been a battalion logistics officer and the investigation was a mess. However, it wasn’t my assigned position and only four months, so it’s understandable that my boss didn’t expend a high rating on me and ruin his forced distribution.

Whether you agree with those examples or not, here is a better one that should bother you. Another officer who was passed over PZ had commanded for two years during the period of no box checks (ACOM vs COM). The officer then attended the O-3 level education and then went to graduate school. The officer should have been competitive for early promotion. Instead, the board saw a file with no ACOMs, 4 years of unrated time, a top-tier master’s degree, and assignment at West Point. The file should have raised a red flag, but it didn’t. Why? Over-reliance on weak proxies and an imprecise system.

Ironic Punchline

The most poignant part of this story was only a small detail at the end of the second Federal News Radio article.

Someone wise recently told me that “When you decide to reform something, you do it because you love it, not because you hate it.” I care deeply about the Army and I know that talent management is critically important to our future force. I am the executive director of a thriving organization that worked directly with the former Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to write a 70-page recommendation for personnel reform that became part of the Force of the Future thanks to great senior leader champions like Brad Carson and Morgan Plummer. I am also the co-founder of a social network that was created to improve professional development across all of the services. For the last 6 months, my co-founder and I have been guest lecturers at Army Special Operations Command’s Young Lions program. I can humbly, yet confidently, say that I would be an asset to anyone looking to reshape personnel policy or leader development.

I was notified of my PZ board results in November 2015. At the same time, I was already speaking directly with the colonels on the G-1’s Talent Management Task Force so that I could become a part of the solution. I already knew that the system was broken (and wanted to fix it), but until I received the board results I didn’t realize how severe the problem was. So, when Maj. Gen. Shoffner, the Deputy G-1 and chair of the task force, told me at the conference in October that he had a job for me, it was bitterly ironic when I replied: “I tried to get it, sir. Seriously. Twice.”

 

Jim Perkins is the executive director of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum and an active duty Army officer. He holds an M.B.A. from Georgetown University and a B.S. from the United States Military Academy. He is the founder of MilitaryMentors.org and an active member of the Military Writers Guild. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife and son. He tweets at @jim_perkins1. The views expressed here are the authors own and do not represent the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Ken Scar

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6 thoughts on “This Isn’t About Me: A Personnel Story

  1. Does any branch of the service truly have a functioning evaluation system? I served for 21 yrs as an enlisted member in the USAF. When I became an NCO and began to write evaluations the guidance often given to me was, “Listen just give him/her a handful of 5s and one or two 4s to even it out and move on. You don’t want to try and screw up their chanced for promotion do you?” I always found that to be asinine since many of them were not qualified to lead a conga line let alone other airman. You had to get creative in the bullet statements to show your ‘true’ feelings about the individual (and hope your supervisor didn’t have a very good grasp on the English language).
    As I continued through my career I began to equate the process to an AKC dog show. Yes I had a ‘Breed Standard’ to measure the Airman by but it was subject to my interpretation. Yes I gave everybody ribbons but in the end I picked the ‘dog’ I liked best when I racked & stacked my Airman. There were many times my supervisor did not particularly care for this dog and my reports/standing reflected that.
    I retired in 2004 and the evaluation system is still one of things that look back on as the worst part of my career. I always felt it spent too much time worrying about how many hours I spent at a local soup kitchen and not enough on how well I accomplished the mission of the unit I was assigned to. In the 1700s and 1800s Victorian Army it was all about patronage for promotions. It still is but I guess it isn’t so blatant these days.

  2. This was a desperately-needed article. I feel it should be grouped along with LTG (R.) Barno’s and Dr. Bensahel’s articles on Army and Defense reform.

    That said, I would like to see an assessment of the enlisted (specifically, noncommissioned officer) progression system. “Up or out” similarly attrites the NCO corps of skilled and talented personnel through an outdated system that does not value higher education or job specialty skills.

    1. Sir,
      During the last few years of my time in the USAF they toyed with the idea of requiring the Senior NCO Corps to have advanced degrees. I’m not sure they ever followed through with it. It would have aided me greatly as I had my Masters degree by the time I retired when many of my peers did not even have their 2 yr degree. In my opinion too many of the SNCOs were emulating their Senior Officers and you could almost equate this article to the SNCOs.

  3. Excellent article. Thank you.

    Army needs a better outlier management system. I would not criticize McNamara. He deserves praise for his great work.

    What if only the outliers are channelled to another longer assessment? Since outliers are few, more time can be allocated to them. It will not disrupt the system either.

    1. “I would not criticize McNamara. He deserves praise for his great work.”

      Agreed. McNamara, for all his faults, was working with a military which was between two to three times today’s size, drawn from an eligible pool at entry which was 60% of todays. The quality bell curve he helped design and was later codified in DOPMA worked well for that large a force structure.

      It doesn’t work as well as the quality of the officer corps (and enlistment is general) become more competitive at entry.

      While Jim brings up some salient points, there will still be the requirement for some type of written evaluation of performance. I unfortunately, don’t think that some of the issues which plagued him (short evaluation periods with TDY/unrated time) will change under any evaluation system. Likewise, not having a decent relationship with your boss is a recipe for things not turning out well in any job.