Monday, January 10, 2011

A Double-Edged Sword - The Military Is Losing the Best Officers, and the Private Sector Is Gaining Them : A Timely Atlantic Magazine Article

Tim Kane, writing in this month's Atlantic Magazine, has written a disturbing and well- researched article that is germane to my world - and to yours:

Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving

I think it is significant that I learned of this article separately from two friends. One is a West Point grad who chose to leave the Army after serving in Iraq and fulfilling his five year post-West Point commitment. He is now in graduate school. The other friend retired as a Major General after serving a full career in the Army.

Tim Kane, who himself attended the U.S. Air Force Academy and served as an Air Force intelligence officer, addresses the troubling problem of the escalating rate at which officers are choosing to leave the military. I have chosen a few excerpts to give you a sense of his argument and research.

"Why is the military so bad at retaining these people? It’s convenient to believe that top officers simply have more- lucrative opportunities in the private sector, and that their departures are inevitable. But the reason overwhelmingly cited by veterans and active-duty officers alike is that the military personnel system—every aspect of it—is nearly blind to merit. Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command. Promotions can be anticipated almost to the day— regardless of an officer’s competence—so that there is essentially no difference in rank among officers the same age, even after 15 years of service. Job assignments are managed by a faceless, centralized bureaucracy that keeps everyone guessing where they might be shipped next.

The Pentagon’s response to such complaints has traditionally been to throw money at the problem, in the form of millions of dollars in talent-blind retention bonuses. More often than not, such bonuses go to any officer in the “critical” career fields of the moment, regardless of performance evaluations. This only ensures that the services retain the most risk-averse, and leads to long-term mediocrity."

Kane continues his argument:

"In America today, capitalism is entrepreneurial: our economy is defined by individuals failing or succeeding on the strength of their ideas. Crucially, the military has not recognized this shift. And the Army, in particular, has not changed from its 'inefficient industrial era practices,' as a report by the Strategic Studies Institute put it last year. It still treats each employee as an interchangeable commodity rather than as a unique individual with skills that can be optimized."

The author reports on the results of a survey taken to elicit ideas from a panel of West Point grads.

"In fact, a better alternative is chaos. Chaos, to economists, is known as the free market, where the invisible hand matches supply with demand. The Strategic Studies Institute report makes this very point. 'Giving officers greater voice in their assignments increases both employment longevity and productivity,' it concludes. 'The Army’s failure to do so, however, in large part accounts for declining retention among officers commissioned since 1983.'

Here is how a market alternative would work. Each commander would have sole hiring authority over the people in his unit. Officers would be free to apply for any job opening. If a major applied for an opening above his pay grade, the commander at that unit could hire him (and bear the consequences). Coordination could be done through existing online tools such as or (presumably those companies would be interested in offering rebranded versions for the military). If an officer chose to stay in a job longer than 'normal' ('I just want to fly fighter jets, sir'), that would be solely between him and his commander."

* * * * * * * * *

I encourage you to read the article in its entirety.

Atlantic Article

Let me add a few thoughts of my own to Kane's well presented arguments. As an executive recruiter, one of my areas of specialty is helping my client companies to find talented men and women who have sharpened their leadership skills through military service. I place very senior executives and I place the next generation of leaders, many of whom have served as Junior Military Officers - JMOs. As a recruiter, I am delighted to see talented men and women making their battle-honed skills available as leaders in the private sector and service sector. As a citizen, it disturbs me that our military is not doing a better job of retaining the best and the brightest. To continue to thrive as a nation, we will need both gifted innovative military leaders and bright business leaders.

I have had the opportunity to know and to talk with hundreds of our warriors. Kane is absolutely correct in his analysis. With rare exception, the brightest and most entrepreneurial of our warriors are choosing to leave the military for greener fields. The reasons identified in the surveys that Kane cites are the reasons that I hear when I share a cup of coffee (or an adult beverage) with some who has wrestled with the decision to resign their commission and pursue a career in business. Many would have stayed if they had been given a reasonable chance to pursue their passion in an assignment that provided opportunities for continued growth and intellectual challenge. It is my hope and prayer that those in a position to move the behemoth that is the bureaucracy of military human resources will take to heart the recommendations offered above.

The reasons cited for leaving are completely consonant with the insights shared by Daniel Pink in his book, "Drive." (reviewed earlier)

Drive Review

Top performers are looking for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. With a revolutionary change in the handling of human capital, our military would be in a position to offer all three in spades.

1 comment:

Matt Bader said...

I just wrote a post on this same article on my blog. I think your perspective is definitely an interesting one as both a supporter of our military and a supporter of transitioning military leaders into the business world. As someone who is transitioning out of the military I can definitely relate to the torn feelings you have regarding the exodus of many good leaders from the service. Thanks for providing your insight on this topic and keep the posts coming.