The Space Force’s Critical Lesson for the Rest of the Military
Do you think telling NASA astronauts that they are in the top third, middle third, or bottom third of their peers in respect to their leadership ability will dramatically increase their motivation to be better teammates or develop professionally?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that rack-and-stacking rocket scientists using a single metric (leadership) is an ineffective method for talent management. This is why NASA employs a talent marketplace model similar to the Air Force, and the rest of the Department of Defense should follow suit and also revise their performance rating systems if they hope to achieve the same levels of performance, engagement, and employee satisfaction as NASA.
The recently released document, The Guardian Ideal, will serve as the Space Force’s guidance for talent management and development. The basic premises contained in the document provide a vision for shifting from the current military model, which mirrors the best civilian practices from the 1980s, to a new military model, which mirrors the best modern civilian practices. These methods include flexible career paths, incentives for developing new skills, and career advancement for members with exceptional technical, as well as leadership ability. The continual feedback-collection model proposed by the Space Force will also reduce the administrative burden on supervisors, imposed by annual appraisals, while simultaneously providing more frequent, accurate, and timely communication with team members.
The vision articulated by the Space Force should be adopted by the entirety of the Department of Defense. The military should recruit Americans who have aspirations outside of a traditional linear two-to four-decade military career. The National Defense Authorization Act authorizes modifications to the military’s current up-or-out system, and the Space Force is aiming far above the other services in its vision to maximize personnel development.
The Space Force’s approach to personnel management will be a test case for the other services and for the Department of Defense as a whole. The Marine Corps, for instance, released a new document on talent management that shows tremendous promise and aligns with the desires of all service branches to employ the talent marketplace model. Senior military leaders should allocate resources towards development by educating and empowering members with the maximum ability to drive their own personal and professional development to meet the military’s needs.
If more resources were shifted from management activities to development activities, then the Defense Department would not have to work so hard to get the right person to the right place at the right time, since the military would have many more qualified people to backfill any position. After all, if there is only one perfect person for the job and that person leaves, then that organization is in deep trouble. The department can look to some civilian companies (e.g., WD-40 Multi-Use Product) that employ a technology driven talent development and team performance assessment system as a model to be copied and modified for use in the Department of Defense. The steps taken by the Space Force hold a lot of promise and could make concrete, demonstrable improvements in the performance of the U.S. military going forward.
The Space Force has largely borrowed the talent development model utilized by WD-40 that is documented in the book Helping People Win at Work, written by Ken Blanchard and WD-40 chief executive officer Garry Ridge. This new model includes: team-centric assessments (e.g., team members provide feedback and assess each other based on a member’s contributions to the team’s mission) rather than solely supervisor assessments, career progression that does not follow a rigid path and timeline, and a focus on developing resilient people who quickly recover from failures and setbacks. The Space Force’s vision contained in The Guardian Ideal is to develop an inclusive culture that encourages cooperation over competition, but it has several significant barriers to overcome.
The current military officer promotion model is governed by the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act that was created in 1980 to modernize management practices and correct promotion problems following World War II. The Air Force and other military branches currently use a “rack-and-stack” system, pioneered by General Electric’s chief executive officer Jack Welch in the 1980s, which ranks peers on a bell curve from high to low performers to determine which to promote based on the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act thresholds.
The Defense Officer Personnel Management Act was effective at creating stable promotion timelines and uniform promotion rates. However, it led to high turnover, frequent moves, and shorter military careers, even for members with specialty skills critical to the organizations they were being forced to leave. The rigid hierarchical promotion model may have been appropriate for developing leaders to command conscripted and untrained troops in a large-scale ground conflict, but the reality of strategic competition today requires highly specialized teams of professionals that the talent management systems should help develop.
The proposed Space Force talent development system will incorporate work-life balance, resiliency, training, education, and individualized development. Instead of rigidly defined career fields, Space Force positions will be codified with desired skills and experience to help members identify the service’s evolving needs and identify how they can personally develop to meet them. The Space Force will use existing or develop new assessments that accurately measure skill levels. An Enterprise Talent Management Office will continually review and update position information to reflect changing requirements.
The most effective job matching will occur when every member in the process can see both the job requirements and their own assessed capabilities, then apply for jobs that they both desire and are qualified to perform. Talent marketplaces allow for the wisdom of crowds to be effective in that well- informed individuals should be able to make better decisions on their own behalf and on behalf of their organization than a specialized team of experts can make with a strong bias toward supporting organizational needs over the developmental desires of the members.
Accurate job requirements and validated member capabilities will allow for a regulated market approach to job matching. This will increase hiring transparency and effectiveness by enabling Space Force members to see the job requirements for a desired position and seek developmental opportunities, either internal or external to the Space Force, to ensure they are qualified. In other words, if people know the job requirements and know their own capabilities, then they can make well-informed decisions about the next job they should pursue to get to where they want to be and where the organization needs them to be. In addition, algorithms (similar to Amazon or Facebook recommendations) can be employed in a talent marketplace model to help guide members towards relevant jobs, based on their assessed skills and desired future goals.
Official performance assessments will shift the focus from individual-based accomplishments to an individual’s contribution to the team. On average, diverse teams outperform their less diverse counterparts by at least 25 percent, so members will be deliberately placed to bolster diverse, multidisciplinary teams, based on each member’s assessed abilities. Individual performance will be evaluated by fellow teammates, based on a member’s contribution in achieving the mission, with team leaders achieving slightly greater recognition, based on their additional supervisory responsibilities and expectations.
The Space Force hopes to replace the annual performance appraisal system with an ongoing collection of 360-degree feedback from teammates (supervisors, peers, and subordinates). This would update a real-time rolling average to assess promotion readiness based on a combination of current performance within the team, situational decision-making, and other behavioral components that can all be consolidated into something similar to a three-year average that falls within the 6-10 scale (e.g., 10.0 superior, 8.0 slightly above average, 6.5 well below average, etc.) currently used by officer promotion boards.
Member performance will be evaluated by teammates with respect to expertly developed value statements that will be aggregated to provide a more holistic assessment of member performance. This continual collection model will free supervisors from the administrative burdens inherent in annual appraisal systems and increase the frequency and quality of feedback provided to members to encourage constant development. Limiting the performance data time frame to a few years, versus a full career, will better indicate significant increases or decreases in performance and incentivize Space Force members to take smart risks and learn from mistakes, since failures will not follow them forever. In other industries, this type of appraisal has produced superior results and higher workforce satisfaction.
The Space Force’s proposed performance assessment system will consolidate the feedback data from teammates using a standardized web-based system that will be debriefed by a coach. Developmental feedback will focus on acquiring and strengthening skills and encouraging personal and professional growth. Coaching and mentoring programs will be central to sharing perspectives and insights, and reverse mentoring programs will ensure senior leaders gain insights from junior and underrepresented demographics.
A blend of different assessments that measure current performance within a team, applicable skills, and aptitude to determine future potential will help match the best qualified (versus the best mentored or most well-known) members to the right jobs at the right time in the Space Force. Better assessments of member potential should also reduce many of the insidious biases that have led to diversity disparities within the military today, while increasing the transparency within the personnel system and providing more accurate and timely performance feedback to members to encourage their development. The final and most complex step to address will be revising the rigid, complex, and slow hiring and transferring systems that are a barrier to acquiring and retaining talent.
The talent management systems should be flexible enough to support shifting mission requirements. Regulations need to be modified to enable smooth and timely transitions between full-time and part-time employment and capitalize on the ability to bring members into the service at the appropriate grade for their skill set. The Space Force specifically lays this out as a requirement for civilian hiring practices. It would be invaluable if the military regulations were also revised to ease the transition between active duty, guard, and reserves, with the ability to hire civilian technical specialists into an equivalent military rank, similar to the way that doctors and lawyers are currently brought into the military today.
All the U.S. military branches have recently expressed a desire and taken action to reform their personnel management systems. The Marine Corps Talent Management 2030 released in November 2021 plans to adopt the talent marketplace model currently employed by the Air Force. The goal of Marine Corps Talent Management 2030 will be to better align the talents of individual Marines with the needs of the service to maximize the performance of both, while also incorporating feedback to help highlight any toxic traits from peers and subordinates that may not have been apparent to supervisors. Other proposed Marine changes are an increased focus on retention, robust screening for member interests, correlated data-driven job matching, a revised waiver process, and explicit exclusion of applicants “previously convicted of sexual assault offenses or sexual related crimes and offenses, domestic violence, or hate crimes, effective immediately.” The fact that the Navy and Army are also shifting to talent marketplace solutions indicates that all services acknowledge that members would perform better if they had increased control over their personal and professional development.
The Air Force’s talent marketplace application within MyVector already employs a bidding and matching system for available jobs. Every company grade officer and field grade officer position in the Air Force (with the exception of colonels for some reason) uses the talent marketplace system for job matching. Every job that a service member could possibly fill — including in other services, other governmental opportunities, and other industries — should be advertised on this secure yet transparent system. Members could see what is available, while hiring authorities could see the full slate of members to select from and use algorithms to help them determine the right person to fill the job. This is the means for how “[w]e will make targeted, disciplined increases in personnel and platforms to meet key capability and capacity needs.”
In addition to job matching, systems such as MyVector should also encourage members to develop personally and professionally by providing mobile access (via a personal cellphone app and personal computer in additional to government issued phones and computers) to developmental opportunities that align with each member’s goals and the military’s needs. If the military truly values professional military education, college education, computer coding ability, foreign language proficiency, professional certifications, and other technical skills, then these resources should be available virtually to every member, all the time. To instill the habit of lifelong learning, the military needs to provide consistent and easy access to educational resources and encourage development throughout every phase of life. The education attained through talent management and development platforms can be fed into the algorithms to improve job matching recommendations in real time.
The main impediments to developing talent in the military are budget and bureaucracy. Bureaucracies inherently resist change. In order to achieve the vision articulated in the 2018 National Military Strategy of “a Joint Force capable of defending the homeland and projecting power globally, now and into the future,” the military should deliberately change today, rather than when forced by a peer competitor tomorrow.
While the budget for the Department of Defense and the personnel it employs is substantial, the portion of that budget allocated to personnel issues is principally distributed through paychecks and retirement benefits, with minimal relative investment in improving the actual systems that manage and develop personnel. If servicemembers and their units really are the “beating heart” of the services, then the money required to fund the coding efforts to transform the personnel system should be allocated today, since the long-term investment will result in massive dividends in both performance and retention.
If the money spent assessing military command candidates or retaining tactical experts were instead allocated towards developing all members though the use of their own teammates, then programs such as the Army’s Battalion Commander Assessment Program or aviation bonuses could be rendered unnecessary. If the annual fuel budget of a single transport aircraft were instead allocated to reforming the personnel systems, then the environment both outside and inside of the Department of Defense buildings would improve.
The Space Force’s talent management and development vision should not be limited to the Space Force, but adopted as the vision for all military branches. “[I]nclusive teams, mission-focused and populated by bold, innovative, and empowered people” should be the heartbeat of the Department of Defense, not just the Space Force. Support from Congress and senior military leaders will be crucial to enable it. However, the ultimate success or failure of these initiatives will be based on whether each servicemember acknowledges the looming threats to our country’s security and proactively embraces the necessary change before we all lose.
The Department of Defense should focus on talent development rather than talent management in order to reap the performance from the personnel necessary to maintain the advantage in strategic competition. The Space Force’s vision expressed in The Guardian Ideal describes a modern model that follows civilian best practices that have been shown to greatly increase organizational, team, and individual performance.
To achieve the desired personnel performance, the focus needs to shift from solely developing future senior leaders to developing the total force, and the technology exists to accomplish this lofty goal today. The reality is that there are no late bloomers, only risk-averse gardeners. The effective application of technology can help incentivize members to meet the requirements that the services actually value and need. This will help right the wrongs of poor personnel management that has resulted in retention issues and enabled peer competitors to close the performance gap with the U.S. military over the last few decades.
Lt. Col. Reagan Mullin is a Colonel Assignments Officer at Headquarters Air Force. Previously, he was the Chief of Officer Assignments for the Air Force Special Operation Command A1 Personnel Directorate. Mullin is a special operations MC-130J and PC-12 Instructor Pilot with 3,000 flying hours supporting numerous contingency operations throughout Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense or the US Government.
Image: Space Force