The Army’s New Approach to People
How could symphonies inspire the Army to change the way it selects leaders? The answer might surprise you. Gen. James C. McConville, the Army’s 40th chief of staff, has given his marching orders: The Army’s top priority is people — more specifically, overhauling talent management. How will future leaders be assessed, selected, and promoted?
To understand the huge changes underway, Ryan spoke with Maj. Gen. J.P. McGee, who leads the Army’s Talent Management Task Force. McGee gives us a deep look inside his team’s efforts, to include a new battalion commander selection process that could lead to a cascade of personnel reforms. If you’re in the Army, know anyone in the Army, or are interested in the power of personnel policies, you won’t want to miss this.
Ryan: So, you’ve been given a pretty important job and one that’s the top priority of the Chief of the Army. How did this come about?
MG McGee: Well Ryan, first off, thanks for being allowed to be on your show and to be able to be part of this podcast … such an important audience. So I think the history of talent management in the Army is a fairly interesting one, in that it’s developed really over longer than about a decade. People have been talking about this a lot. I think the initial ideas of how to bring this came out of West Point, through an organization called The Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis out of West Point. It was formerly headed up 10 years ago by a gentleman named Col. Casey Wardynski, who’s now the assistant secretary of the Army, Manpower and Reserve Affairs. So he’s one of the intellectual fathers of this.
MG McGee: And then as Lt. Gen. McConville became the G1, he embraced this as an approach, and he stood up a task force to start seeing how we could implement talent management reforms to the Army. And at its core, what it really is doing is taking the Army from the way we manage our people, from a data-poor industrial age system, to an information age system that is data-rich so we can make better decisions about our people, both at the individual level and the institutional level. So I think he saw a lot of the areas that need to be improved as the G1. He then moved up to be the vice [Ed. note: vice chief of staff of the Army] where he continued to have an interest in this and he reinvigorated, I think, the Army talent management task force to be able to do this. And then as he’s moved into the chief, as the chief, he’s made people his number one priority and he’s asked us to be the change agents within the Army to start driving these changes.
MG McGee: And what he and the secretary have asked us to do, told us to do, is to start off with subgroups of the officer population, run pilots and prototypes to see what changes might look like, assess their effectiveness and then scale it rapidly to the rest of the officer corps in order to drive change. And that’s a precursor for that change migrating to the noncommissioned officer corps and then the civilian component over time. And I think the centrality of the role of the chief of this is really important, and he was the longest serving division commander in the 101st’s history [101st Airborne Division (Air Assault)], then served as the G1, and the vice and now as the chief. He brings a unique background in that he truly understands the people side of the Army and that’s why I think when he looks at it he realizes there are tremendous areas for improvement, and that’s why he’s putting so much focus on driving this change to make our Army better, more ready and more able to win in a future conflict.
Ryan: It’s very encouraging because something that I’ve just learned by observing over time, and I know a lot of our listeners have learned, unless the leader of an organization, whether that’s the Army or the defense department, really makes something a priority where they are investing personal time on the issue, it really just won’t get done properly.
MG McGee: If you look at the amount of time that he’s invested, I mean three years as the G1, two years as the vice. I mean, he not only has invested the time today, he’s also invested the last five years to understand this. So when you’re talking about management of people or the officer corps, one of the most fascinating aspects of this is the interconnection. So if you change one way that you bring in officers, that affects also the way that you develop an employee … over time.
MG McGee: He understands that connectivity because he’s been immersed in the subject. And so he’s not only spending the time today to do this, and we’re going to brief him and the secretary today on where we are with these different initiatives, he also has invested in the last, you know, five years, six years to really understand the system. So as he’s talking about it, I argue that within at least the time that I’ve been in the Army, which is almost 30 years now, we’ve never had a chief who understands the people side of the Army as well as this chief.
Ryan: So there’s been two pretty big developments. Well, one that just finished, and the other that is on the horizon. The first is that on December 6th I think, ATAP, the sort of new system for choosing new jobs, new assignments for all active duty and warrant officers who are about to get a new job. There’s this whole new system, this whole new way of matching them to these jobs. That just finished. Can you tell us a bit about that?
MG McGee: I’d love to. So the Army Talent Alignment Process is a fundamentally new way in which we are going to sign officers, and it specifically affected the active-duty officer corps that was moving for the summer cycle. So we’re making the decisions now, where our officers are going to go, and they’ll start moving between April and May and then go until about August. The fundamental change is that in the past, under the legacy system, what you had was our Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, they had assignment officers who largely drove the assigning of officers and they were the intermediaries, but it was still a very centralized system that was run out of Human Resources Command, and it was centrally controlled. What the chief and the secretary over the last two chiefs and secretaries have told us is to establish a market-based system.
MG McGee: It’s a regulated marketplace where the first regulation is [that] readiness of the Army takes the first priority, but to allow something that allows officers to have much more transparency on what jobs are available, and then let their preference be the first consideration. And so what has happened is what you have in this marketplace is, first off, the Army figured out what jobs needed to be filled within the next summer assignment cycle. We went through the traditional process we’ve always done, because there are always fewer officers moving than jobs that we have to fill in. So there’s a prioritization process that happens, so that happened as it always has. When the market opened, what happened is through this software called AIM 2.0, Army Interactive Module version 2.0, a moving officer was required to describe themselves in detail, not just the front side of their ORB, the Officer Record Brief, but on the backside as well. Sort of a resume, if you will, with your unique knowledge skills, behaviors.
MG McGee: It also had references and it just had a lot more information about the officer who was entering into the movement cycle. On the other side of this marketplace, you had units which were told to do a duty description, and then talk about the unique knowledge, skills and behaviors, the talents that we would want to have within that position. And then that began a process where individual officers were allowed to contact individual units, and then we had pushed down the hiring authority down to the brigade level and then brigade commanders have been empowered with this new authority to create their own teams. In the legacy system, what would happen is brigade commanders would have a little bit of say, maybe one or two out of, say, 40 or 50 that they’d hire. But in this one they get to pick their entire slate of officers … that allows it to be picked [sic].
MG McGee: And the important piece of this is that when these matches are made, which we’re going through the process of right now, the first criteria that’s considered is the officer preference, and the second one is the unit preference. So officer preference is the initial and key determination for where an officer’s going to go, as long as it matches with a unit. I think interestingly the numbers are really very telling for us to embrace this authority in this new way of hiring the first time. So they’re almost 15,000, so 14,482 officers, who were involved in this assignment process for next summer. So it gives you an idea of the scale. They submitted a total of 873,933 preferences. So that gives you an idea of how much visibility and how many different jobs they could list. As of market closure last Friday, what we had was about 6,598 or 45 percent of those officers who were available, were able to achieve a one-to-one match –
Ryan: So their top preference.
MG McGee: Their top preference, through this negotiated process back and forth with units, but it was the number one…
MG McGee: You know, if I was a brigade commander and I was hiring someone, I would have a conversation with Maj. Smith to come be a battalion S3. If he put that as number one, and I put him as number one, that would be a one-to-one match. That happened with 45% of the matches that we had. That’s a fundamentally different way of how we hire people. There have been concerns that units in tough-to-fill locations, generally due to geography, places like Fort Polk and Korea come to mind, would be disadvantaged in this system because they couldn’t compete and they would have to have this centralized force distribution system to get the right level of talent. But when you talk to the commanders out there in those units, what you found is those units, those commanders were very happy to be able to talk about their own unit, advertise their own unit.
MG McGee: Field artillery brigade out in Korea actually had an advertising campaign where they put together flyers that talked to the advantage and they were very happy with the results that they were going to get because it allowed them to advocate for their units, [allowed] them to find the right talent and them to be able to bring them in. Now, we run this, we’re going to take the data, we’re going to analyze it for a month and make sure there’s no significant disadvantages to readiness to the Army, and then when we determine how that has all worked out and we’re going to finalize the assignments and then we’re going to go forward and publish the movement orders.
Ryan: That’s great. Were there any things that surprised you about how this went?
MG McGee: I think the only thing that surprised me… I did not think that we were going to have a one-to-one match rate at that high. I thought it’d be about 20, 25 percent. I think what I’m surprised at is how unit commanders generally have embraced this, actively gone after this and then made this work for them.
MG McGee: And let’s be honest, this is a new concept. This is the first time that we’ve done something like this on this scale. We’d experimented with a much smaller scale, and so there are always going to be learning curves. There’s learning curves in terms of the functionality of the software. There’s a lot of learning that’s been going on within units and how they embrace this authority, because it takes a lot more time. It’s not just 45 or 50 people show up on a brigade’s doorstep in July. You’ve got to go out there and actively start culling through resumes, finding out what your slates are, conducting interviews. I mean, I know I’ve conducted probably, just for my team, I think we have 20 to 25 slots that are coming open, and I think I conducted about 10 interviews myself just to make sure we get there.
MG McGee: So it takes additional time. I think we all knew that, and I think what you’ll see is the Army will start to adapt its processes in order to be able to accommodate this. But in terms of surprises, I think I’ve been impressed with the ingenuity and the way some unit commanders have just embraced this and moved out rapidly with it.
Ryan: All these things you’ve been telling me basically signals there are huge changes to the way the Army is going to be run from the personnel side. Some people might not be as comfortable with those changes, especially people already vested in the system, especially people who have done very well in this system, so the legacy systems so far. And a lot of people might be critical of some of these new initiatives and say, “well, this wasn’t executed well,” or “this could have been executed better.” What’s your response?
MG McGee: So I think for all of these major changes that we are going to roll out, our responsibility is to put together the best program that we can to explain the change, describe the change and then execute the change. But I know we’re not going to do this perfectly. But I think what Army leaders need [is] to be confident, and I think one of the things that we need to start addressing is that while we are used to having adaptation and change being part of the way we conduct operations down range, and as a standard part of how we conduct operations over the last 17, 18 years, some of that flexibility needed to be applied to the institutional side of the Army.
MG McGee: And so I would argue that the Army needs to become more comfortable with a new concept that has great potential that is not executed perfectly, [rather] than being happy with an older legacy system that doesn’t have as much potential but is fully well-executed and understood, and that degree of understanding that we are going to continue to iterate and change as we go forward. I think officers need to understand that’s in the context of creating a dramatically better system that is going to make our Army much better. I think in terms of change, there are really three different groups. So you have junior officers, who I think, and let’s just say that’s lieutenant and junior captains, who are tremendously receptive to this, and really are sort of feeling a need for some changes in terms of the rigidity with which we manage our officer corps. On the other end you’ve got some very senior officers, let’s just say colonels, and I think they realize that these impacts are not going to … these changes aren’t going to really impact all that much.
MG McGee: You’ve got the general officer corps who understands the priority that Gen. McConville has placed behind this and is largely supportive. Now look, they ask tough questions, and there is some skepticism, and they really want to make sure as we’re doing these changes that this is well thought out and that is a large part of the discussions that we have. But I think there’s an acknowledgement that we need to change. I think the critical piece of this, and I think we need to continue to focus our messaging on those officers that are mid-career, that understood the old system, invested heavily into it and now are having significant things change within it. And I think what I would ask them to do is at least believe and trust that we are doing this with an eye towards making our Army significantly better.
MG McGee: This isn’t change just for change’s sake. This is change in order to make sure that we’ve got the right Army for the future, to adapt to our future challenges and dominate ground combat operations.
Ryan: What are you doing to make sure that you’re hearing regularly from these sort of officers in the middle of the Army, in the middle of the rank structure?
MG McGee: So we have a very aggressive outreach campaign. I think I am one of the key messengers, but I’ve identified other members of our task force to go out there and talk to people. I think just, I mean if you took a look at my travel schedule, just in the last month, I have been to Fort Carson, Germany, Fort Leavenworth, Fort Bragg, I will be going to Fort Bliss next week. I mean, we are aggressively trying to get the message out, point to point. We’re also including questionnaires when I go to those, in order to gain the insights from the officer corps about how they view a current and future system to incorporate those messages in. We’ve also have a number of videos that we’re starting to roll out to explain the changes to the officer corps so they can understand how these new systems and processes work. So the strategic messaging campaign I think is really important for us to be able to describe and explain to the officers affected what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how it’s going to change the way they’ve been managed.
Ryan: The next big thing that you have on the horizon in January is a new way to select battalion commanders. Just so we can emphasize and put in context how big of a change all this is: What was the process like when you were being selected for battalion command?
MG McGee: So, the legacy battalion commander selection process is a good one. Here’s the way it went. What would happen is you would opt in to be considered for selection for battalion command or key billets. So some staff sections, some staff positions within divisions are listed as that. What would happen is a board would meet, there would be a panel of officers, they would review your officer record brief and they would review all of, about the last five OERs [Officer Evaluation Report] that you contained in your file. They would then give you a score in terms of how they rated your file and then they would go to the next one.
MG McGee: What Gen. McConville asked us to do was take a look at this whole system and see if there is a better way for us to be able to do this. So really the question was, was this the very best way that we could pick battalion commanders? So why is it important for us to pick the battalion commanders? So battalion command is an incredibly important position in [the] Army. First off, the role that they play in accomplishing our mission, both here in the United States when we’re training forces and then when we go abroad and fight command operations, [is] absolutely critical.
MG McGee: It is critical not just in how we conduct our operations, but in terms of the retention of our very, very best soldiers, noncommissioned officers, and officers in terms of the climate that they set. Then it’s also the first significant cut from which we start picking of those officers who will go on to be colonels and someday go on to be general. About 90 percent of our general officers have been battalion commanders or key billets in terms of their career advancement. The other 10 percent largely is within functional areas where they don’t have battalion commands. So when we looked at this process, we realized that, one, when a file goes before a board member, they review that file for about 90 seconds to two minutes. They really focus on a couple things, specifically the first and last sentence of the senior rater portion of every officer evaluation report.
MG McGee: When we did a further analysis what we started to realize, if you look at an officer evaluation report and all the data that’s on there, really the only data that’s looked at is the block check, the first and last sentence of the senior rater portion. What we start to say is, there is more information that is contained in an average tweet than is contained within an OER that is actually going to determine whether you’re going to be selected for a job as important as being a battalion commander. So while we said this is a good enough system and it produces good results, sort of good enough isn’t enough anymore for the Army. So what Gen. McConville has to do is take a look at what it might look [like] to do something different. So we ran a prototype and we did it down at Fort Benning and we brought in two different groups of officers in June and July. They came off the alternate list for infantry and armor.
MG McGee: So we already had an established “order of merit” list and where they had been placed based on the central selection system. Then after the first iteration of this, the results were so interesting that we invited four people off the primary list to come and be part of the July piece. What we found is when we ran them through a five-day assessment, that we had a fundamentally reordered order of merit list because it took a more holistic view of the officers that we were considering. So some officers couldn’t do something as simple as pass a height-weight test. Some officers were determined to be toxic leaders. Some officers were determined just not quite ready for command. Then when we went through –
Ryan: All this wouldn’t have been caught or probably wouldn’t have been caught by the old system, by the legacy system?
MG McGee: That’s correct. Then when we reorder the order of merit list based on looking at scoring the events that we had within that assessment, we had a 30 percent change either up or down in terms of where people scored on the order of merit list. So in the face of that, Gen. McConville made the decision that we were going to do this for the entire Army, informed by that process. So what we’re going to do in January is going to look a little bit different.
Ryan: Tell this from the perspective of, you’re the major, lieutenant colonel that’s going to be showing up at Fort Knox –
MG McGee: – that’s right –
Ryan: – when you and your team are out there, what should they expect?
MG McGee: It’s a good question because we just went through three days of rehearsals for it last week. So let me just talk about how they got there. So we asked a group of officers who are in the zone for consideration for this, whether they wanted to opt in to be considered.
MG McGee: So, it’s a voluntary decision whether they want to be considered for battalion command. From that group, there were 1,135 officers who said “I want to be considered for battalion command.” So when the board met, they met in the standard central selection process. They went through and they rank-ordered every file from one to 1,135. We took that rank-ordered list and we said, let’s just say for infantry. If infantry needs to have 50 battalion commanders, then we’re going to find the top 50 plus the next 30 who are going to be the alternate list plus an additional 10 because there’re probably some people who are going to be deemed not ready to be [in] command. So then from that list of 1,135 under this formula we picked the first 90 infantry officers and we said, you’re invited to come to Fort Knox and participate in the battalion commander assessment program.
MG McGee: We sent those invitations out to 816 candidates. 24 have opted not to come in for various reasons, medical reasons, family reasons, professional reasons. So right now there should be 792 candidates that are going to come into Fort Knox starting on the 15th of January and ending on the 9th of February. So when they arrive, they’ll go through a process and it’s all really to help reorder and establish the order of merit list for who’s going to go in command. So the first thing they’re going to do, and again there’s a whole lot of transparency about most of the parts of this, and there’s some things we’re trying to keep opaque just so we can make sure we have good assessment vehicles in place for them. First thing that they’re going to do is they’re going to arrive at Fort Knox and they’re going to go through a height-weight test, and then they’re going to begin the first part of a two-part written assessment test.
MG McGee: Next morning they’re going to take an APFT [Army Physical Fitness Test] and then that day they’re going to go through a series of assessments and those assessments are going to include another writing assessment. There’s going to be a cognitive, non-cognitive assessment battery they are going to take, which is developed by the Army Research Institute and has been in use for about 25 years now across the Army. They’re going to take a series of psychometric tests in order to determine, in order to really, to inform a follow-on interview that’s going to happen with an operational psychologist, which is part of the whole process. The following day they’re going to run through the leadership reaction course with their peers. Then in the afternoons they’re going to go through a psychologist interview for about an hour taking the results of everything that they’ve learned about the candidates and bringing them in. Interestingly, and I think notable, we have also embarked on the largest collection of peer and subordinate feedback in the history of the Army to drive an important decision.
Ryan: So 360?
MG McGee: So it’s sort of like that. We’ve slimmed it down because the  was very large and it was very tough to fill out, and we’ve called it the Army Commanders Evaluation Tool. What it is, is a very direct survey that has been sent to peers and subordinates that we as an Army have found about the candidates so they don’t get to self-pick them. The idea is it takes about 10 to 15 minutes to fill out the survey and it ends with a very simple question. There are whole bunch of things about leadership attributes and there’s a free-form portion for it, but the final question is, should this individual be a battalion commander or not? Yes or no. Binary choice. So that information all is going to feed into the totality of the assessment for the individual.
MG McGee: It’s going to be fed into the interview as we’re gaining these insights. The final event that’s going to occur for the candidates is that we are going to have a panel interview, but it’s going to be a little bit of different panel. So some of these things will look the same. Every panel will be headed up by a two-star general. There’ll be two one-star generals as well, and then two former brigade commanders for a panel of five. They’ll also have a nominative, so at the highest level, a command sergeant major who’s going to be a nonvoting member, but will be there to provide their perspectives on whether they think this officer would be a good candidate to be a battalion commander. What’s different about the interview though is that we’ve anonymized all the information about the candidates so you don’t have any of the background information and all of the assessment information has been presented, but it’s been presented in an anonymized fashion.
MG McGee: Then when the candidate comes in for the interview, we’re doing it in what we call a blind panel. Okay. So this is a technique that we’ve learned from other organizations, specifically symphonies, which have found that if you create a barrier so you can’t see the person who’s being evaluated, you eliminate a significant amount of the bias that you would normally have for or against a candidate. So when symphonies did this what they learned is that when they erected a screen so you couldn’t see the candidates, is they did fundamentally different hiring decisions when you only could hear the musician play as opposed to when you had a chance to look at the musician. So we’ve erected, we built these rooms with this screen that you can speak through, but you can’t see through. The candidates are going to be asked a series of questions and then they’re going to be required to respond.
MG McGee: Follow-on questions are going to be allowed. At the end of that, the panel members are going to be asked to provide a score around the individual on his or her verbal communication skill and then make a final determination on whether that officer is deemed ready for command or not ready for command. If the individual officer is deemed not ready for command by the majority of the panel vote, then that individual will get a chance to compete again next year. If that individual is deemed ready for command, they’ll be put in a category and at the end we will reorder the order of merit list and we’ll take five things into consideration.
MG McGee: So one will be the score on the APFT. The other will be the score on their verbal communication skills. The other will be the score on their cognitive non-cognitive assessment. The other will be a score of their written assessment and the single largest percentage will be their manner of past performance based on their rank order from the order of merit from the central selection board. So past performance still matters and is carried forward. That will be combined together and that will create a new order of merit list. From that we’ll decide who the primary list is and who the alternate list is for battalion command and key billet.
Ryan: I have a couple of questions. So if I understand this right, the board is still having its say before. So to a certain extent, you’re still accepting the rank-ordering of the board in that you’re picking the first swath at the top of their list.
MG McGee: Right. So it’s much wider than it ever was before though. So when you actually run the numbers, it’s 72 percent of the people who opted in have an opportunity to come to the BCAP [Battalion Commander Assessment Program] and participate. So it’s a fairly wide cut to allow people to come in.
Ryan: This is also a pretty resource-intensive comparatively way of doing this. Is that correct?
MG McGee: It is absolutely a more resource-intensive way. I mean, in terms of the structure of people you’ve got to build to run this, in terms of the bringing of the panel members out, the costs are not insignificant, but they’re not insurmountable. I think it is Gen. McConville’s way of emphasizing people and saying that the Army has a better way of doing something, then we need to be able to embrace it. Especially when it comes to things as important as who is leading our people.
Ryan: I know I might be getting ahead of your skis on this one, but is there an intent or vision of perhaps expanding this process or this model beyond battalion commander selection?
MG McGee: So I think we’re trying to gather all the lessons that we can about how we’re doing this now, but I think there is an interest and at least we’re exploring the options of what this would look like if we did this for colonels level commands as well as doing this for sergeant majors at some level.
Ryan: How much more involvement from Congress do you need? So Congress already passed some pretty sweeping changes to basically giving the services a lot more leeway on how they do leadership selection. This is in part a legacy of the late John McCain’s leadership on Senate Arms Services Committee. How much more participation from Congress do you need to really see the chief’s vision through on this?
MG McGee: So the 2019 NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act], which encapsulates many of the changes that we’re working through right now, is the largest change in terms of authorizations to services since the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act was adopted in 1980. Right now we’re in discussions and there are some other areas that we need, but nothing of a significant fashion. We’re going to ask for maybe some changes in terms of the way we manage the warrant officer population.
MG McGee: That just hasn’t been updated for a number of years. Right now I think our mission is to fully embrace the flexibilities that Congress has given us and then through that we’re going to learn where we need to have additional flexibilities, but right now we’re still exploring how we can fully embrace what Congress has given us.
Ryan: That’s really encouraging because I mean this is just how institutions work. This was the case, for example, with the FBI that we found after 9/11 is not a lot actually needed to be changed in laws. It’s that institutions tend to be very conservative in how far they’re willing to push it to the boundaries of the authorities that they already have. So it’s good that you folks are thinking ambitiously about this.
MG McGee: Well, that’s our mission. So our mission. …
Ryan: It’s good that you folks are thinking ambitiously about this.
MG McGee: Well that’s our mission. One of our missions has been to take the authorities given to us in 2019 and then write the policy, get it approved, and then oversee its initial implementation across the entire Army and then transition it over as a completed initiative. And so I think it’s our mission, of many missions, to institutionalize these changes and processes so it becomes a standard part of how we manage our officer corps. So, more than a few come to mind. So we’ve been given the authorization to have 770 brevet promotion positions available. Okay? So that means that we can have a position, let’s say it’s for a colonel, and in this Army Talent Alignment Process, you could have lieutenant colonels compete to fill a position that’s been identified for brevet promotion.
MG McGee: And if that hiring authority picks a lieutenant colonel to fill that position because that officer is better qualified, once that officer goes through a board process back here at the Pentagon, that officer’s promoted [to] the rank of colonel, paid at the rank of colonel, and holds the rank of colonel until he or she leaves that, that office. In the Army Talent Alignment Process, we identified 225 positions as available for brevet promotions. We were using this to incentivize people to go to some of the hard-to-fill locations that we have, as well as other areas that we just need to have a wider look at the people we want to consider for those positions. In the next cycle we’re trying to expand another hundred and then by next summer we’re hoping to be at a full 770. That’s just one example of many.
MG McGee: We’re also working on how we can allow officers to, and we’ve already institutionalized this, how they can opt out of promotion boards, so up to two years –
Ryan: Ending up-or-out.
MG McGee: … Ending, well, modifying up-or-out. I think we haven’t broken the code yet on how else you can manage. With a cadre as big as our officer corps is, 90,000 active duty officers, you have to have a couple different ways in which you manage the officer corps, and timing has to always be a consideration, but what that right balance is. So I wouldn’t say it ends up-and-out. I think it creates more flexibility in up-and-out right now. And then from that I think we’re going to learn how we can then make further modifications.
Ryan: Do you think there are certain career fields that lend itself more to not having up-or-out apply as much? Like intelligence for example. Let’s say someone’s really great at analyzing China’s military, they don’t want to lead teams of analysts, they just want to keep doing that job.
MG McGee: Absolutely. And I think that’s part of the art of figuring this out. Because there are some fields where you would want to have that in terms of how you develop people and keep them moving forward and then develop the right sort of skill sets and you would want to have them ready for higher levels of responsibility and not have people stay at a certain grade. But I think there are all sorts of fields where you would want to have a depth of talent and depth of experience to provide true expertise, and I think we’re trying to determine how you would actually be able to retain officers to be able to do that. Because right now, so much of our incentive structure, if you will, is linked to promotion, that we’ve got to find some way to start changing that system.
MG McGee: I would just say that I think what we’re beginning to do is create a much more flexible career path and career pattern. That flexibility, if that’s the way we apply it towards managing our people, is going to apply towards our mindset to other problems as well. And so I think there’s a linkage between rigidity of how you manage your people and sometimes a rigidity of thought in terms of how we can do this. And I think what we’re doing is starting beginning the development of a much more broadly flexible and adaptive way of managing our people, so we can be much more operationally ready. And that would translate I think over time in a battlefield success. That’s the intent of all of this.
Ryan: So we’ve talked a lot about officers on this episode, but what about the soldiers who make up most of the Army, the enlisted personnel. What’s on the horizon, what should they expect to change and what’s the time scale for that?
MG McGee: So a few things about the noncommissioned officer corps is interesting. So first off, many of the things that govern the way we manage our officer corps is based on law. So Congress gives us the laws by which we manage the officer corps. Which is why the 2019 NDAA was so important. For the noncommissioned officer corps, it’s really all governed by policy. Okay? So that’s one of the good things. So we don’t need to go back to Congress to ask a bunch of changes for how we manage the NCO corps, because those authorities are all existing within the Army.
MG McGee: So, we are in the process of working with Sergeant Major of the Army Grinston to stand up an element within the task force focused exclusively on the development of talent management initiatives within the noncommissioned officer corps. We’re still in the early stages of this, but I think it’s the right time. Because right now we have about a year-plus under this current configuration of working within the officer corps and understanding how to look at these problems and start to drive change.
MG McGee: I think we can apply these to the noncommissioned officer corps in a different fashion because the NCO corps is different. Many of the management issues are different. One of them is just scale. But I think we’ve got a good framework for how we can proceed forward and I think over the next six months you’ll start seeing some of these initiatives beginning their pilot and prototyping as we can start driving change within the noncommissioned officer corps as well.
Ryan: So just stepping back, when I started War on the Rocks when I first got interested in military affairs and defense, I didn’t think I’d be talking or thinking that much about personnel policy. It’s not why I got into it. It wasn’t what I was passionate about. One of the surprises of War on the Rocks has been how much interest there is for articles, podcasts, like the one we’re having now on this topic. It’s probably our sexiest topic in a way and something that on face value, especially outsiders, doesn’t seem especially exciting. How has your career prepared you for this job, inform the way you’re doing this job?
MG McGee: I’ll talk a little bit about my career. So I started out as an infantry officer, so I graduated from West Point in 1990, I started out as an infantry officer. Served multiple tours in the Ranger regiment as lieutenant and as a captain and as a major and then time at the Joint Special Operations Command. I think at least during those periods what I was able to see was the value of having an assessment and selection process in order to at least help in instilling high standards within organizations. And frankly I often wondered why we couldn’t scale some of these programs to the entire Army.
MG McGee: And I think if you look at the BCAP, I would like to point out that it is a very different process than what the Ranger regiment runs or any other sort of special operations unit, because those are really designed to find, amongst a large number of candidates, the perfect and right fit, sort of a screening-in. I think the BCAP gives us more insight into people and how to make that decision. And if it’s doing any screening, it’s mostly screening out those who are not ready for a command. And so, I do think it’s fundamentally different, but the structure, at least I’ve been informed, that you need to do a lot of things in order to find the right leaders to put in positions. As a battalion and brigade commander for both platoon leaders and the company commanders, I would run my own program with lieutenants and with captains to make sure that I knew the lieutenants and captains that I was putting in a platoon leader or a company command, because I wanted to make sure they were the right fit for the organizations and the missions … the missions they were going to occupy. So I believe in that.
MG McGee: And then I think, since my time in special operations, I’ve been able to work in different fields. From being a battalion or brigade commander of the 101st, working for Adm. Mullen on his staff. Working for General Odierno as his XO [executive officer]. And then getting out of my comfort zone completely and going to the 1st Cavalry Division as the deputy commander for support. First time being in an armored unit in my career, which was a tremendous learning experience. And then from there to Army Cyber. But I think what I’ve seen is experience in operations in conventional units, in special operations units. I’ve conducted operations as a counter-terrorist and as a counter-insurgent.
MG McGee: And then I’ve also done operations in cyberspace. And I think that breadth of skillsets is probably representative of what a lot of officers are going to need to have going forward into the future, because the multidomain operations call for officers who have a diverse set of skill sets across multiple domains, not just one. It’s obviously a further expansion of that.
MG McGee: To your point about personnel business being interesting and informative, I think, much like you, this is my first job working deeply in the world of Army personnel. When I was the deputy commanding general at Army Cyber, I was in charge of the talent management program for Army Cyber, so I at least had a couple of years of learning this, but on this scale. But I really do think that how we manage our people, how we, do all these things, how we acquire them, how we develop them, we employ them and how we retain them … [is] really vital to how we perform as a service in combat operations and keep our country secure. And so I think there is a centrality to this. Certainly for the Army which is so people-centric, that it is absolutely vital for our long-term success.
Ryan: And how is it different for career fields like infantry versus these very special career fields and newer career fields like cyber? How are the different ways that you’re thinking about this?
MG McGee: There’s some critical differences. So, in a field like, say, being an infantry officer, there is a seasoning and developmental process that needs to happen. And I think the path that we have for officers in those fields is very solid. And I think it’s time-proven and it’s great. But I think for some of these emerging fields that will play a key role in how the Army conducts combat operations, and we don’t have decades worth of experience in these things. If you look at something which is going to be really important to us in terms of, like, cloud computing: And so we can’t say that the person who is going to be the expert in cloud computing within the Army needs to have been commissioned 25 years ago. Because 25 years ago, no one even used the term “cloud computing.” And that’s just one of many technological changes that are going to be coming to us.
MG McGee: And so, we need to have an agile personnel system that can keep pace with the rate of technological change that is going to happen out there. Because this rate of technological change is going to affect the way we conduct ground combat operations.
Ryan: What is your next big push after this battalion command selection that you’re going to be overseeing at Fort Knox? What is the next big push for your team?
MG McGee: So we are still in development on a whole bunch of different ones and I think we are still going through a process of analyzing about 10 different initiatives and then trying to figure that out. So we don’t have a firm path, but we’re going to have this in the next couple weeks. And of course then we’ve got to get that approved by senior leaders. So I can’t really, I can’t really say right now, but there’s a whole bunch of different things that we’re looking at.
Ryan: Okay. And this Fort Knox situation, this sounds like a lot of people converging on Fort Knox from lots of different places. This sounds like this could be a heist to steal the gold at Fort Knox. Is that what you really have planned?
MG McGee: So I think we’ve been studying, we’ve been using as our documentary evidence, the film Goldfinger. Those will be a number of the questions involved in the Battalion Commander Assessment Program so we can find the best candidates to actually do the heist at Fort Knox.
Ryan: Have you actually gotten a chance to tour those facilities while you were near Fort Knox [crosstalk]?
MG McGee: I have not. I’m looking forward to spending a month at Fort Knox to oversee the execution of the BCAP, so I’ll try to see if I can get over there and see what’s really going on.
Ryan: All right.
MG McGee: If anyone’s interested in learning about all the different initiatives and see more information about everything that the Army Talent Management Task Force is doing, I’d ask you to go to talent.army.mil, and you can see a list of resources that we have there.
Ryan: Well, thanks so much for your time on this. This was great. And I know a lot of our Army listeners, especially, are going to be curious to hear how this goes.
MG McGee: Thanks for the opportunity, Ryan.