Army Talent Management Reform: The Culture Problem


In what appears to be an amazing alignment of the stars, nearly every key piece required for Army talent management reform seems to be falling neatly into place. For starters, in the most recent National Defense Authorization Act, Congress gave the service secretaries maneuver room with a series of options intended to “modernize the 38-year-old officer personnel system.” Reinforcing fires came from the Department of Defense in its 2018 National Defense Strategy, which called for a “broad revision of talent management among the Armed Services.” Secretary of the Army Mark Esper added impetus by plainly declaring that talent reform was his top priority for next year and then tasking E. Casey Wardynski, one of the original champions of Army talent management, to execute sweeping changes as his newly installed assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs. To top off this remarkable confluence of reform efforts, the Army’s Talent Management Task Force has been reinvigorated and a former Army G-1 well-versed in talent management is now the vice chief of staff of the Army. The potential for a major transformation of the Army officer career management system has never been greater.

What could possibly hinder this historic and profound occasion? Some War on the Rocks authors have recently pointed out that successful talent management reform must tap the powerful potential of artificial intelligence. Another posits that both technical innovation and policy reform are essential to the change process.  Yet another looks to data-driven insights to inform the conversation.  The wisdom of these conclusions is unquestionable, yet regrettably for the Army, the biggest obstacle to reform is the service’s culture. Army culture consists of unspoken norms and beliefs that discreetly drive behavior and quietly influence decision-making. Of course, culture by itself is not inherently good or bad. What matters is how the culture aligns with the task at hand. Unfortunately, unless the Army’s culture is openly examined, discussed, and addressed, it has the potential to subtly undermine any talent reform efforts.

Probably the first cultural line of defense against talent reform — or for that matter, any transformational change — is the perspective that dictates: if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. This facet of Army culture emerges when senior leaders are asked to acknowledge that the system that made them who they are, selected them as exemplars of success, and placed the stewardship of the profession in their hands is flawed and needs to be overhauled. It is perfectly rational for senior leaders to conclude that it makes no sense to chase corporate fads and risk damage to an officer personnel system that, while not perfect, is good enough. This aspect of Army culture encourages uniformed leaders to patiently wait out the civilian “zealots,” hoping that despite all the high expectations of reform, only more nonthreatening initiatives such as longer maternity leave, expanded childcare hours, or more mothers’ rooms will result.

Another factor that will likely impede talent reform is the Army’s formidable egalitarian culture. The Army prides itself on being the service that leaves no one behind and treats everyone the same. Egalitarianism pushes back hard against any notion of offering high-potential individuals opportunities that will be denied to those with less talent. Thus, egalitarianism led to the 2004 decision to send all majors to resident Intermediate Level Education instead of just the top 50 percent. Similarly, an egalitarian culture convinced decision-makers during the Fiscal Year 2007 captain exodus to offer a retention bonus to all eligible captains regardless of their record of performance or future potential. And the Army’s egalitarian culture will work towards diluting talent management reform by pressuring reformers to avoid any initiatives that may highlight talent shortfalls in particular branches, sources of commission, or subpopulations.

Loyalty is another aspect of Army culture that will undoubtedly affect talent management reform. Senior Army leaders are exceptionally loyal to their subordinates, especially those alongside whom they have served and sacrificed for nearly 18 years of war. There is a well-intentioned and understandable concern that altering the paths to success for young warriors who are midstream in their careers is essentially pulling the rug out from under them. The potent cultural norm of loyalty encourages the belief that it is better to err in a way that honors their service — even if that ultimately inhibits effective talent management reform.

Any major talent management initiatives will likely be confronted by skepticism — a facet of Army culture that is especially influential when personnel issues are concerned. Despite the pure intentions of both civilian and uniformed senior leader reformers, there will be a lingering fear among the formations that, to paraphrase management theorists Chris Argyris and Donald Schön, the talent management theory espoused will not match the actual theory-in-use. The force has been jaded by past assurances that command of a training unit is on par with commanding a tactical unit or that a tour as a Military Transition Team advisor is career-enhancing. Until promotion board results match the outcomes promised by talent management advocates, skepticism will rule the ranks.

Lastly, Army culture rests firmly on a foundation of extolling the preeminence of the warfighter. From lessons learned in pre-commissioning, where merit is derived largely from physical fitness test results and platoon patrolling scores, to general officers bragging about successfully avoiding Pentagon assignments, it is the warfighter who is admired and emulated. This key component of Army culture is an intimidating, but often underestimated obstacle to talent management reform. Unless the preeminence of the warfighter is preserved, the force will look askance at talent management efforts, which is generally seen as getting the right person into the right role at the right time.

So how does talent management reform succeed in the Army, overcoming the foot-dragging effects of culture? It begins with senior leaders embracing, owning, and promoting reform. The mantle of transformation has to be shifted from resting solely on the shoulders of civilian political appointees to being shared by senior leaders in uniform — specifically those wearing two, three, or four stars. There has to be open discussion about how circumventing the personnel system with personal calls to assignment officers or using black books to get the best officers may be indicators that the current assignment system is broken. Uniformed senior leaders need to ask themselves if the world’s greatest army should be assessing its talent by spending less than a minute glancing at a photo, scanning a one-page officer record brief, and searching for key code words in an evaluation report. Transformational change is best executed when it comes from within. Uniformed senior leaders have to be convinced that change is not only necessary, but also feasible and desired.

On the other hand, talent reformers need to recognize the unique culture that makes the Army what it is. The Army’s primary function is to fight and win the nation’s wars, so it is only logical to retain the essence of its warfighting culture. The 1997 Officer Personnel Management System XXI (OPMS XXI) Study, the Army’s last major talent management reform effort, acknowledged this culture by creating the operations career field, which provided a clear (albeit narrow) career path for warfighters. Today’s talent management advocates must reassure the force that tomorrow’s Army will still be run by warfighters who have not forgotten who soldiers are and what the nation demands of them. By the same token, if warfighters are to assume the bulk of senior leader positions in the Army, they cannot object to being sent off to graduate school, fellowships, or other non-tactical broadening assignments in preparation for such positions.

Finally, to address the force’s distrust about how talent management initiatives will affect individual officers and subgroups, it is imperative that reform be as transparent as possible. Simulations should be run to project short- and long-term implications while pilot tests across the Army should allow policymakers to determine the impact and adjust the efficacy of actual initiatives. If a reform initiative reveals a talent deficit in a particular subpopulation, branch, or commissioning source, the root cause of the talent mismatch should be analyzed and corrected rather than discarding the entire initiative. In rolling out talent management reform, the force must be convinced that the policies — while not necessarily designed to treat everyone the same — are reasonable, fair, and in the best interest of the nation, the Army, and the soldier.

This essay is not an attempt to persuade talent management reformers what direction they should go in or which initiatives they should propose. We have fought those battles in the past to varying degrees of success. Instead, our intent here is to point out that the Army — while earnestly trying to accomplish noble missions — has repeatedly suffered because of the ignominious effects of ignoring culture. The stage has been set and the key actors are in position to bring about a radical transformation. We should not squander this rare opportunity by failing to recognize and adjust to the pervasiveness of Army culture.


Leonard Wong is a research professor in the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. Stephen Gerras is a professor of behavioral sciences in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College. They are the authors of “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession.” The views in this article are their own and do not represent those of the U.S. Army War College, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Philip McTaggart