May 1, 2011  

A better way to develop officers

Aimless with little impact. This describes an organization’s human resource policies when those policies do not support or are not congruent with the larger strategic direction of that organization.

With this in mind, the speech by Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the U.S. Military Academy on Feb. 25 was perfectly on target. Gates articulated a vision for the future strategic direction of the armed forces, and especially the Army. Then, in concrete terms, he put forth specific human resource policies that need to change to fulfill the Army’s mission.

In broad strokes, Gates first presented the external environment that will confront our armed forces. Officers will operate in an exceedingly complex and uncertain environment. In turn, the Army will have to enlarge its strategic competencies to include winning what he called “messy wars.” He posited that the Army will need to respond to an “extraordinary diverse range of missions,” ranging from less-frequent large conventional missions to smaller conflicts requiring “swift-moving expeditionary forces.”


The implications for Army human resource policies for officers are significant. Not only will the Army have to examine its staffing policies for officers, but it will also have to bring about important changes in the ways officer talent is developed.

If an organization hopes to fulfill its mission, the people hired must have the competencies to carry out that mission. Gates is precise in the competencies needed for tomorrow’s officer. If the Army is going to confront an unstructured and imprecise environment, officers who are versatile, adaptable, agile and entrepreneurial, along with possessing the already necessary traits of courage and selflessness, will be needed.

The experiences of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that these traits have to be at-the-ready much sooner in an officer’s career. Heretofore, officers at the rank of lieutenant colonel or colonel were in pivotal battle command positions. However, as Gates notes, we are now in the midst of “captains’ wars.” Lower-grade officers in these conflicts have been given, although originally not by design, and will continue to be given extraordinary responsibilities to address and resolve complex problems. The likelihood that these junior officers will continue to be critical to the mission is high.

So, as the Army maps out how it recruits and selects officers, it will have to develop processes that pointedly attract or screen for traits of versatility, adaptability and agility. This starts with challenging a current underlying assumption among many officers that any officer can perform any job equally well. Any business organization knows that the foundation of all human resource functions is a formal job analysis system. Most Army job descriptions read like a list of key expectations and required accomplishments rather than a properly designed set of tasks, duties and responsibilities associated with that specific job, and the knowledge, skills and abilities required of a person best suited to fill that job. Considering how the past 10 years have impacted the Army, creating jobs that previously did not exist and fundamentally changing jobs that did exist, it is no surprise that a thorough and formal job analysis is required at all levels. Such an analysis, and the resulting improved job descriptions, would provide better direction to commissioning sources with regard to admissions and development programs, as well as enable individual officers and their branch managers to conduct better person-to-job fit during career assignments.

When officer positions open, Gates suggests posting these positions so that talent can be better matched with the needs of the job. Since the Army promotes from within, one can easily see that it can take a career generation to change directions, as officers slowly percolate their way through the hierarchy. But such a slow process is at odds with future needs. So, job posting now has to be given serious due regard. It is the quickest way to ensure talented officers who already possess important traits and competencies are not only retained but are also able to bring about the organizational culture change that is needed. Otherwise, if the Army follows what Gates calls the current “bureaucratic rigidity in its assignments and promotions processes,” it will act in a manner counterproductive to its own strategic needs.

We are encouraged by the “Green Pages” project in the Corps of Engineers branch. This talent-matching electronic posting system allows officers to scan, on a quarterly basis, for potential openings. It also permits organizations in need of officers with specific skill sets to post for these positions. In this way, a closer match between an officer’s capabilities and career preferences can be made with the receiving organization’s needs. Technology can help us do a better job in matching people and their skills to openings — it hardly makes sense, as a real example, to take an aviation officer who earned, at the Army’s expense, a graduate degree from an elite university, and reassign him where neither his intellectual capital nor his aviation skills will be put to use. We can do better.


The need to change officer staffing policies is critical to the Army’s new vision. Even as important, though, is the need to change practices in how officers are trained, developed, evaluated and promoted. If the end point is an adaptable, versatile, agile and entrepreneurial officer, what is on the critical path to reach that end? Several important markers are on this road.

First, Gates suggests that important changes in the officer evaluation process could torque the organization most effectively. “Merit-based” and “individualized approach” are only two of the phrases that signal a need to revamp how officers are developed and evaluated. This, he argues, will help “combat the risk-averse, zero-defect culture,” the current culture that can impede the exchange of ideas needed for tomorrow’s Army. He quoted a talented former officer, “the personnel system is numb to individual performance.” So, Gates recognizes that the officer must be appropriately evaluated, with real differentiation among performers noted. At the same time, he underscores that evaluators also need to be supported in their roles to put value in nontraditional Army career paths of those they appraise, especially for those officers who may not have what Gates calls the “cookie-cutter backgrounds.” Otherwise, Gates fears, the very people who are versatile, adaptable and entrepreneurial — those who are out of the current mold but who have the competencies the Army needs to keep — will leave. The captains from Iraq and Afghanistan, now moving into the ranks of majors and beyond, have the most expertise in fighting Gates’ messy wars, and the Army can ill afford to lose that significant knowledge base.

The current Officer Evaluation Report does not do enough to distinguish between officers who possess or lack the competencies that Gates touts as critical for the Army of the future. At a minimum, this document needs to be revised, if not scrapped. Furthermore, as is done in traditional organizations, the Army will have to develop measures that will signal to board members that the rated officers possess these traits. In such a revised evaluation form, superiors could then, as examples, prepare critical incident reports or complete a behaviorally anchored rating scale, rating and ranking officers’ versatility. In any case, unless the information is collected and measured, there is little chance that officers who possess these critical competencies will be directed to assignments where they are most suited. Even worse, it would only be by accident that superiors would develop these competencies in their subordinate teams.


Along with a more individualized approach to performance review, Gates believes that peers and subordinates should have input into an officer’s evaluation. This reformatted appraisal process, called the 360-degree review, is radical for an organization where discipline is essential for execution of orders. Even so, asking peers and subordinates to give input about others’ work on the specific output domains relevant to their positions can provide a rich source of performance indicators.

However, unless those who will do the appraising, whatever their level, are trained in what feedback is to be provided, the 360-degree feedback will just be a waste of time — aimless with little impact. Thus, as an example, it would be appropriate for a soldier to provide feedback on the degree to which his platoon leader provided sound tactical leadership or conducted safety briefings. Contrastingly, work requirements, such as handling budgets, may not be appropriate for a subordinate to evaluate in the 360-degree review. The key is training for those who will participate in the appraisal process.

While Gates does not want to lose these valuable performers, he is also frank in acknowledging that those in the lower 20 percent of the performance curve need to transition out. In terms that perhaps we can all appreciate, how many of us would be inspired to do our best when one out of every five people with whom we work is not performing? Perhaps it may be time to consider, in the face of scarce resources, discharging from the Army very junior officers in years one, two or three of service who have exceptionally low evaluations. These low performers would have a concomitant prorated reimbursement obligation back to the government for the college education it underwrote for them. This may be radical. However, the Army, like all public entities, has an obligation to complete its mission while being good stewards of the resources with which it has been entrusted, including both human and financial ones.

The Officer Evaluation Report is the form used to appraise Army officers. The form tends to be either a “yes” or “no” evaluation — hardly a useful way to differentiate the good from the better or from the best. Boxes checked off with a “no” require justification. One wonders how many “yes” checks are made, even at the performance margin, since these require no justification and, perhaps more important, result in no agitation. Gates expresses concerns that the “avoid making waves” syndrome in the Army has permeated the evaluation process, to the organization’s detriment. Most likely, as in other organizations, there are barriers to conducting performance appraisals with rigor — appraiser discomfort, fear that upper echelons will not support one’s decisions and loss of friendship, among other concerns. Certainly, though, if courage is a value treasured by an Army officer — the courage to take what West Point cadets call “the harder right” — completing officer evaluations with integrity has to be part of that courageous behavior.

Beyond the evaluation process, Gates raises concern about and suggests potential direction for officer training and development needs. Officers need to persist in their intellectual development after graduation. Superiors should help map out development opportunities, especially to close gaps in officer preparation. Likewise, Gates hopes that superiors would guide junior officers to unique Army assignments. These irregular career opportunities have the real potential to enhance creative thinking and examine one’s work through a new lens. Officers should become adept in conversing in another language or operating in another culture. If these development options are not offered or, when undertaken with gusto do not reflect positively in a performance report, the movement to developing that adaptable officer will be dead-ended.

Gates pointed out, several times over, that the Army, like almost every private and public organization, is facing budget constraints. In turn, force reductions are inevitable, and the time it may take to be promoted will probably be lengthened. Thus, Gates urges that nonfinancial rewards, closely linked to his concern on development, can nonetheless retain top performers. He asks that commanders pay attention to the intrinsic value of assignments when deployed officers return home.

Junior officers, he noted, have had incredible responsibilities in theater. These included caring for the lives of hundreds of troops, accounting for millions of dollars in materiel, and negotiating between and among warring factions. Bluntly, Gates says he is “terrified” that these exceptional officers will now be in cubicles “reformatting PowerPoint slides” once back stateside. The secretary knows that the Army has to do better than this. How? Perhaps a start would be to ask the returning officer how best his next assignment can be shaped.

Second, mechanisms should be established to make it easier to move from branch to branch, maximizing talent for the immediate issue at hand. Third, branch managers should help find unique positions for their best talent, as another way to develop new competencies and to retain talent. Fourth, consideration may need to be given to changing the length of a rotation in nontheater assignments, a variation of homesteading.

As an example, rotational military officers have a three-year assignment at the military academy. These officers typically spend their first year simultaneously learning what they will be teaching and the pedagogical science behind it. In their second year, there may again be new courses to teach. By their third year, when they are in a terrific position to provide meaningful curriculum enhancements and reform, they face the prospects of reassignment and wind down. The return on the academy’s investment, for the betterment of the education of future officers, is not maximized. We daresay it also feeds into a short-term focus that can typify many Army assignments, which, regardless of location, is not an ingredient for long-term and positive change.

Gates is retiring. His reflection points are important ones, ones informed by his experiences both before his 2006 appointment as defense secretary and thereafter. Organizations in the midst of leadership changes are tempted to “wait it out” or “see what happens.” We hope that is not the case here. We hope that Army commanders begin to operationalize now the human resource reforms Gates put forth. After all, none would argue with Gates’ proposition that the Army needs versatile, agile and adaptive leaders. Now would be the perfect time for Army leadership to promote those competencies. AFJ

Karen E. Boroff is a visiting professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where she teaches human resources management. She is professor and Dean Emeritus at the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University. Maj. Aram M. Donigian is an assistant professor at the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at West Point, where he teaches negotiation for leaders and human resource management. Maj. Zachary J. Mundell MAJ. is an instructor at the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at West Point, where he teaches negotiation for leaders and human resources management. The views expressed here are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Academy or Army.