Why Wait to Promote Potential? Because It Will Make the Air Force Better
In January 2021, Toyota dethroned General Motors after 90 years to become America’s top-selling automaker. One of the principles behind Toyota’s success is known as the Second Toyota Paradox: By leaving requirements ambiguous, pursuing an abundance of prototypes, and purposefully delaying decisions on production, Toyota has proven it can design better cars faster and cheaper than its competitors. Air Force officers have little in common with cars, but the “Toyota paradox” can still provide valuable insight into the service’s approach to promotions.
Consider each officer as a leadership prototype. The Toyota model suggests that investing broadly in the development of each prototype and then delaying selection of prototypes to advance until needed results in a higher-performing organization. Instead of committing prematurely through early promotion and subjective “high-potential” designations, as it has done in the past, the Air Force and its members are best served through predictable promotion cycles after established development periods.
In a recent War on the Rocks article, Kevin Rossillon argued that removing early officer promotions negatively impacts the retention of the most talented service members. However, research and survey data suggests that poor retention primarily results from developmental, cultural, and family issues. The current military promotion system pits officers against one another in pursuit of career advancement and inadvertently undermines the collaborative team environment that could foster even greater performance and innovation. Instead of reinstating early promotions, the Air Force should incentivize teamwork through developmental opportunities and improve the quality and frequency of feedback provided to service members throughout their careers.
When to Promote
Federal guidelines and administrative oversight control the promotion timeline for military officers. The Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, enacted in 1980, established numerical constraints on the number of field grade officers. Title 10 of the U.S. Code establishes the durations, known as the “time-in-grade,” that members must serve in specific ranks before becoming eligible for promotion or retirement. The combination of these regulations and congressionally approved budgets creates an up-or-out system where members must continually promote to the next rank after a specific amount of time-in-grade or leave to make room for new members to join and progress through the system.
The military relies on highly qualified and competent leaders at all ranks, especially at the senior levels, and adequately developing future leaders for these responsibilities is supremely important. Therefore, time-in-grade requirements are established for each military rank to develop members, prevent excessively rapid promotions, protect competitive principles, and provide budgetary controls on promotion rates. There is a significant quality advantage to be gained from deliberately delaying the selection of leaders for promotion until they demonstrate their performance capability at the level of responsibility most comparable to the job requirements they will assume after the promotion.
Over the last few years, the Air Force has overhauled its promotion system to increase stability and attempt to promote members based on the requirements of the service. This was necessary to address many of the unintended negative repercussions resulting from early promotions.
Accelerating careers presumed to have higher potential through early promotion frequently results in poor performance at higher levels of responsibility. Research by the Harvard Business Review found that “nearly 40% of internal job moves made by people identified by their companies as ‘high potentials’ end in failure.” The fact that many “school selects” from promotion boards failed to outperform their peers in their new ranks was a principal reason why the Air Force removed in-residence Professional Military Education selections from promotions in 2017. The Air Force went a step further in 2019 by removing early promotions for Air Force officers entirely.
“In Search of an Air Force Meritocracy” makes the case that removing early officer promotions negatively impacts the retention of the most talented service members. As a result, it recommends removing or reducing the time-in-grade requirements to incentivize exceptional performers and innovators through career advancement. However, members with the greatest individual performance do not necessarily cultivate the best team performance. Additionally, early promotions may overlook other talented members who were not identified for their potential, due to a lack of opportunity or lack of proximity to senior leaders. Both issues can result in mediocre organizational performance and a loss of talent across the enterprise.
Recent global workplace surveys show that it is most often not a lack of early promotion opportunities causing an exodus of talent from organizations but a lack of engagement, development, and recognition. Promotions are just one overt example of the recognition that workers desire. A joint survey by Workhuman and Gallup assessed the impact that recognition can have on employee morale and engagement, along with the associated cost savings and benefits. Twelve elements were identified to encourage engagement with best practices for mastering each. The element with the strongest correlation to turnover across the board was matching employees to jobs that fit their skill set. Other elements that strongly influenced turnover were recognizing employees for a job well done, receiving accurate and timely performance feedback, belonging to an organization where they could learn and grow, and securing development opportunities. A lack of these elements, in turn, leads organizations to bleed talent.
To date, the Air Force has tried to compensate for the deficit of these elements with aviation or other career-specific bonuses. But this has only resulted in a marginal improvement in retention. Instead, the Air Force should continue to invest in its assignment-matching processes to ensure that members with the most exceptional performance and innovative minds are matched to jobs that align with and expand their skill sets.
In a recent article, the RAND Corporation analyzed several options authorized by the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that could provide greater flexibility for officers who are uninterested or unable to conform to a rigid career ladder. The RAND recommendation to utilize merit-based promotion list sequencing as an alternative to early promotions was implemented by the Air Force in 2020. Before the removal of early promotions, it was extremely rare for officers to progress to the rank of brigadier general unless they recieved an early promotion during their careers. Merit-based promotions reward superior performers with faster promotions while maintaining the time-in-grade periods that provide a fairer consideration of all eligible members for future promotion consideration. Still, the additional time-in-grade does not inherently produce better leaders if the members are not adequately developed during that time.
Toward a More Innovative Force
To set the conditions for innovation, workers need a “shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” The Air Force’s current stratification system often undermines this culture of psychological safety. Officers surveyed in a 2018 Headquarters Air Force manpower directorate paper claimed that the Officer Performance Report system “is subjective, inflated, inconsistent, biased, and provides ineffective feedback.”
In an effort to improve feedback and performance, the Air Force has incorporated an Airmen Leadership Quality feedback form into the evaluation system that quantifies “the performance characteristics the Air Force wants to define, develop, incentivize, and measure in Airmen.” This feedback form provides quality benchmarks that aid supervisors in better assessing subordinates and relaying useful feedback. In addition, the Air Force has announced changes to the timing and format of annual performance reports, but not the incorporation of 360-degree feedback or a move away from “zero-sum assessment tools like stratifications or forced distributions.” The Space Force’s foundational talent management document, The Guardian Ideal, does outline a vision to replace annual performance appraisals with an ongoing collection of 360-degree feedback from teammates that may be worth implementing in the Air Force if it proves effective.
Providing opportunities to develop is crucial to retaining and employing talented airmen. A 2019 LinkedIn study found that 94 percent of workers surveyed would remain with their current employer if there were increased opportunities to learn and grow. The Air Force can match members with available opportunities by adopting the WD-40 Company’s performance goal-setting model that leverages performance reports as a tool to build trust and encourage collaboration between members and their supervisors. Although 360-degree assessments are most useful as a development rather than an assessment tool, it would still be helpful for supervisors to reference these assessments when rating peers against one another. This would ensure that the performance report stratifications match the perception of a wider cross-section of the organization and not just that of the supervisor. The utilization of 360-degree feedback would also ensure that performance assessments encourage and measure performance within a team rather than just at the individual level.
In the current era of strategic competition, the Air Force needs talented, risk-acceptant leaders and strategic thinkers at every level. Talented members choose not to serve for a full career for a variety of reasons and reinstating early promotions will not solve the root causes of this problem. According to Gallup research , the Air Force needs to address deficiencies in assignment matching processes, training members on how to provide valuable feedback to those they lead, and securing developmental opportunities beyond a select few to truly address its talent retention problems. Reinstating early Air Force officer promotions without addressing the lack of engagement, feedback, development, and recognition may worsen retention. The Air Force would greatly benefit from removing the developmental and psychological barriers that inhibit all members from reaching their full potential rather than simply focusing on the identification, development, and performance of those with “high potential.”
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.