The Role of the Personnel System in the Air Force Leadership and Retention Crisis
The U.S. Air Force graduates a new pilot training class every three weeks. Ten years later, a new pilot training class becomes eligible for separation from the active duty Air Force. Every three weeks, the Air Force has less pilots than it did before and the exodus shows no signs of stopping. Increasing contract extension payments, commonly referred to as bonuses, haven’t stopped the bleeding, while experience shortages continue to emerge in careers such as weapons systems officers, maintainers, and enlisted aircrew. In contrast to simplistic payment gaps, the Air Force is actually suffering from systemically poor leadership throughout the ranks. Poor leadership, and its correlation to poor retention, stems from structural flaws within the industrialized personnel system — which prizes uniform progression, homogenous personnel evaluations, and ineffective selection boards — hampering the selection of the best leaders to address the challenges facing the Air Force.
The Impact of Leadership on an Organization
Sporadic complaints of job and career dissatisfaction and poor leadership have been authored, yet no one has offered a root cause analysis as to why Air Force leadership is poor. Without understanding the root cause of leadership shortfalls, any recommendation to improve Air Force leadership, and retention, is most likely insufficient because it will not address deeply systemic issues, nor highlight to senior officers how a change will address a specific weakness. The authors of the bestselling book Primal Leadership state the best leaders produce better business results (mission accomplishment), talent retention, higher morale, motivation, and commitment. However, studies have shown military promotion criteria does not necessarily gauge leadership potential and frustration with a bureaucratic promotion system causes officers to separate. The Air Force has minimally addressed the role of leadership in its retention crisis, which is shaped by its personnel system. Of the more than 300 approved research topics for Air University students, less than a handful focus on leadership impact on retention. The Fifth Discipline explains that today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions to other problems, making it easy to miss how the underlying structure of the personnel system contributes to poor leadership and retention. Therefore senior leaders focus on the symptoms of the problem, airline hiring, instead of the cause of the problem, which can be summarized by the age-old adage that people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses.
The personnel system is a holdover from the industrial age championed by the likes of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Industrial systems apply “scientific management” that make decisions based on efficiency, optimization, averages, and populations; not on individual requirements, capabilities, capacity, or creativity. Industrial systems do not attempt to promote the right person into the right job at the right time to achieve the right outcome. Instead, they standardize skills, maintain an average, and manage a population. In order to empower an individual to innovate or simply perform outside of a generic average in a rapidly changing environment, organizations must ditch industrial age policies as an anachronism if those organizations desire to stay relevant. Talent and performance are multi-dimensional, and not easily measured in simplistic ways. Gen. Stanley McChrystal decries industrial age policies in his book, Team of Teams, because the ability to adapt to complexity and continual change is imperative compared to the efficiency of industrial modes. Similarly, Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast is trying to move pilot training away from an “industrial age” training model towards one that adapts to each individual. If leadership and innovation within the Air Force is to become more than a bumper sticker, its personnel system must move away from industrial age systems. While some changes are afoot, they are late to market and don’t fix the larger root causes facing the force.
Promotion rates are overwhelmingly dependent on tenure, not leadership performance or potential, which exemplifies the industrialized personnel system within the Air Force. Rank is a function of when individuals join the Air Force, not of the talents an individual provides to the Air Force. The industrialized nature of progress results in officers not being able to advance faster or slower than their peers any earlier than the first 12 years of one’s career, very rarely after that, and after most officers increasingly separate from the service. For example, pilots and other line officers are currently guaranteed promotion through the rank of major assuming they don’t have any negative indicators in their personnel file. After that point, “below-the-zone” (i.e. early promotion) rates for the 10 percent of officers allotted a “definitely promote” recommendation have roughly a 33 percent promotion rate to the rank of lieutenant colonel. The other 90 percent of the force receives a more generic “promote” recommendation with less than a 1 percent chance of promotion. However, those officers who are on time for promotion just one-to-two years later and receive the same “definitely promote” recommendation are 99 percent certain to be promoted. The reason for the change of promotion rates: The personnel system cannot handle varying amounts of individuals that move up the ranks at different times, so achievements are not recognized at the appropriate time.
The Air Force needs to define what is required to perform well in each job, rank, and command, and open its aperture for progression away from homogeneous, ancillary, and box-checking indicators. The 2018 Force Planning Guidance for high-potential officers highlights the uniformity of the personnel system. Eleven of the 12 indicators are a list of sources of information or box-checking assignments. The 12th is a “highly successful squadron command tour(s)” which isn’t defined, nor is it a value, quality, or capability; it could simply result from being in the right place at the right time or having the right personnel. Four of the box-checking indicators are related to developmental education which the National Defense Strategy considers focused on accomplishment and not intellectual leadership.
When commanders are unable to identify outstanding performers through traditional means, they look to ancillary indicators that don’t affect the mission. Physical fitness scores are now so important in some tribes of the Air Force that simply passing an annual fitness test no longer suffices for officer progression. Individuals have been denied the opportunity to apply to prestigious programs such as the Weapons School and Test Pilot School if they did not achieve an outstanding score on their annual fitness tests. Even medals an individual earns as they move from location to location throughout their career are a function of rank, and not performance.
Homogenous Personnel Evaluations
The Air Force officer personnel system revolves around the officer performance report (OPR), a highly scripted form which homogenizes individual qualities for easy digestion. The OPR consists of ten lines of information, eight of which are broken up into three separate sections. In approximately 100 characters, an individual should describe an action, result, and impact of something they accomplished in that year, each in sentence format. Those three pseudo-sentences in each line should minimize acronyms and jargon, not extend into additional lines, and leave three or less spaces remaining in each line. The remaining two lines are reserved for stratification and a “push” to the next appropriate job which carries no weight in actual assignment selection, serving as a vestigial organ within the OPR.
The scientific approach to writing an annual evaluation removes individual talents, weaknesses, capability, growth, learning, and potential from the written record in order to improve standardization for senior officers to stratify individuals for promotion, command, or further education. A mechanistic evaluation stands in stark contrast to the efficiency report of Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley by Lt. Gen. George S. Patton. After you add in popular buzzwords that appear on almost every OPR such as led, innovate, or improved, you will find there isn’t much difference from the OPR of a superstar to a middle-of-the-road officer, especially when it is passé to write a poor evaluation of an officer that performs poorly.
The Air Force may release a new OPR in 2020. However, nothing has been released on this development in over a year even though its phased development process could contribute to reducing separations. As Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, says, “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, then you’ve launched too late.” Developing a new system in secret and releasing it once its perfected is the exact opposite approach to successful customer-focused product launches in Silicon Valley. Secret development will leave the new OPR lacking in unforeseen ways, and its potential focus on IT compatibility and grade inflation concerns could simply lead the Air Force to shift risk to center-of-mass gamesmanship seen in the Army. Slow to market solutions with an ill-defined understanding of the larger personnel system problems could quickly prevent the new OPR from fixing deeply systemic issues. Further, the same commanders who can’t motivate their subordinates to stay in the Air Force could stifle implementation of a better OPR if they don’t change the way they recognize and develop talent. As long as a single rater has the sole vote in an officer’s evaluation, the evaluation and subsequent promotions will not capture an applicable picture of an individual and will remain highly subject to internal politics.
Ineffective Selection Boards
The Air Force recently announced it was increasing the number of line equivalent promotion boards, increasing the subject matter expertise and nuance on a promotion. However, it has not yet provided any specificity in improvements to the boards which could improve leadership selection and retention. As most individuals separate before their first competitive promotion board to lieutenant colonel, this move may not significantly impact personnel changes and retention for years to come. Will individuals be considered for promotion during a wider career timeframe? Will the “whole-person” concept, which promotes individuals with homogenous development model, continue in its current form? Will senior officers continue to spend as little as 30-seconds on each record spanning a decade or more?
Each selection board differs in its application based on its purpose, but shares similarities with others in its industrial approach. The Combat Air Forces Command Board, which chooses officers that can compete for fighter and bomber squadron command, relies on pre-selection by wing commanders and career box checking. The nomination form for this board formalizes pre-selection by requiring senior raters to annotate if the individual is part of a “game plan.” A “game plan” is when wing commanders choose future squadron commanders from a pool of individuals they know prior to an actual command selection board. Simply described, nepotism plays a significant role in shaping a supposed objective selection process to determine who is eligible for command. The board also relies on if an individual has already checked the director of operations box as a career milestone. Most individuals fulfill a director of operations tour before squadron command, then senior developmental education, operations group command, and then wing command. When combined with at least two years as a staff officer, most must be selected for the command track at the 14-year point in their career to be eligible for brigadier general at the culturally accepted 24-year career point. This box-checking timeline highlights how the Air Force promotes commanders, but doesn’t necessarily develop them. Individuals who don’t follow this timeline or defined career path such as foreign area officers, have an even more difficult time being recognized for the qualities they provide the service.
This command selection setup provides the appearance of meritocracy without having to perform a meritocratic evaluation. In most cases throughout the Air Force, a simple task such as a job interview is not conducted for command selection. In instances when someone is competing for a command outside of a current career field or job, individuals rely on general officers to campaign for their hiring to a specific base or unit. Choosing the right officer for the right job at the right time to overcome the current challenges of that unit to achieve the right outcomes is not formally considered in the command selection process. In 2018, the National Defense Strategy recommendations to change what the Air Force values in personnel were not included in the Combat Air Forces command selection process.
Checking all of these boxes is not required for combat or leadership success. Aviation legends such as Col. Hubert “Hub” Zemke and Gen. William Momyer commanded fighter groups in World War II after only about five years in the service. Jack Welch, famed CEO of General Electric, took over after only 20 years with the corporation. Satya Nadella only spent 22 years with Microsoft before becoming its CEO. Box checking over decades is only required in an industrialized personnel system where inputs, not outputs or outcomes, are measured for promotion.
Successful companies such as Google and McKinsey have found ways to attract and retain talent that look nothing like the current Air Force personnel system but mirrors other functions within it. To reduce the roll of internal politics or nepotism in promotions, these companies bring in unbiased outsiders to evaluate individuals by using a variety of sources. In the Air Force, evaluations and promotion recommendations in an airlift wing could be conducted by human resources professionals and senior leaders from an intelligence wing to evaluate all officers. This remedies the current over-generalization of promotion boards, unit politics of a single rater, and uniform progression as long as all individuals of a rank are eligible for promotion or job progression. This is similar in some ways to how an accident board is run, so the expertise and institutional inertia of such a change wouldn’t be insurmountable.
Moving Beyond Industrialization
Senior Air Force leaders must break from their human resources vacuum and acknowledge systemic problems within the Air Forces industrialized personnel system, which develops and promotes poor leaders, and significantly contributes to its retention crisis. Because there isn’t a free-flowing talent market into and out of the Air Force, it is easy to become complacent with the only human resources system they have ever known. Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman refers to this as “what you see is all there is,” meaning that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern.
A properly resourced research and staffing process can build on the small changes already occurring in the Air Force to build a personnel system for the 21st century. Solutions should identify and value the benefits of good leadership to a team or unit at every level, identify the right people for the right jobs, and not be seen as system where officers wait in line for their turn. The Air Force should develop qualitative and quantitative measurements that evaluate the capabilities of prospective and serving commanders. Issues such as combat capability, retention, morale, as well as unit and individual resilience should be a few of the factors considered in this holistic system. Since individuals rarely spend more than a year in a job and three years at a location, the Air Force should also find ways to understand the impact of an individual on a unit or team after the individual has moved on. No one can predict the future, therefore the system should be flexible and maximize cognitive diversity of the force as the environment within and exterior to the Air Force changes. Lastly, an evolved system should be transparent, since there can’t be accountability without transparency.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to leadership success. Senior officers should establish a dialogue with the force as it develops a new system, communicate new requirements to Congress, submit modifications through the National Defense Authorization Act, and convince personnel to stay in while the personnel system evolves. The Air Force should look broadly and publicly within the department and to the private sector for human resource solutions, and test and evaluate them while reversing the impacts for poorly performing adjustments. Whatever it decides on, the Air Force should move much faster than its bureaucracy is comfortable with. Failure to retain talented individuals able to lead in our dynamic world will leave the Air Force flat footed as countries like China and Russia rise to challenge the United States. The clock is ticking.
Lt. Col. Adam “Trader” Chitwood is a B-1B instructor pilot and distinguished graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School. He currently serves as a staff officer in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman John Linzmeier