Army talent management guidance is neither applied skillfully nor consistently
Field grade leaders are failing to implement talent management at the battalion level. Rather than follow the clear guidance expressed in Army regulations and doctrine, most notably Army Pamphlet 600-3 (Officer Professional Development and Career Management) and Army Doctrinal Reference Publication 6-22 (Army Leadership), mid-grade leaders too often perpetuate three mistaken practices. As a result, Army talent management guidance is neither applied skillfully nor consistently, young officers miss out on critical staff development experiences, and the best junior officers do not have adequate opportunity to highlight their talents and potential. To cultivate the vast talent present in the ranks, leaders must adopt a new set of principles for talent management aligned with institutional policy and better suited to developing 21st-century leaders.
There are several reasons why leaders persist with old ways that deviate from Army policy. Leaders resist methods different than their own paths to success. The Army has also under-communicated its vision for talent management and failed to educate leaders in it. There are also human failings of egocentric blindness and confirmation traps. The result of these problems is an unacceptable variance in officer development for lieutenants and captains. If the Army does not improve, these problems will be perpetuated as these officers move into the field grade ranks.
More is Better
The first flawed practice is the belief that lieutenants should spend as much time as platoon leaders as possible. This belief is deeply anchored in a military culture that privileges an officer’s ability to lead soldiers over competence in staff positions, which are viewed as second-class duties. I believe this stems from a misunderstanding of what DA Pamphlet 600-3 says–that “all junior officers should seek leadership positions in troop units whenever possible.” This is misread as junior officers must maximize time as platoon leaders. In reality, all lieutenant duties (e.g., company executive officer, any battalion or higher staff position) carry direct leadership responsibilities as expressed in ADRP 6-22—including developing, monitoring and coordinating team efforts, providing intent, and setting expectations. Typical tours of duty for platoon leaders are 12-18 months, which is ordinarily enough to judge leadership and interpersonal competencies. When a top performing officer is rewarded with a longer stay as a platoon leader, it is at the expense of broadening through duty performance in these other lieutenant positions. Moreover, extended tours as a platoon leader create a significant backlog of lieutenants waiting unreasonably long for platoon leader opportunities.
Lieutenants need a balanced portfolio of assignments to demonstrate their future potential as officers. Staff assignments provide vital planning and operational skills that all officers will need later in their careers. It also prevents those with an excess of platoon leadership experience from finding themselves later in staff positions without the experience and knowledge to understand the needs of subordinate companies, batteries, or troops. More is better rewards successful performance but comes at the expense of cultivating long-term potential.
Guarding Against Failure
A second flawed practice is that some field grade leaders treat lieutenants as something less than officers – at best as apprentice company commanders in training, at worst as children. Either way, lieutenants are not trusted and are simply there to learn passively. A lieutenant who believes his or her only purpose is to prepare for some future position will fail to engage in their present job, likely causing a massive chasm in trust with the soldiers they lead. This view of platoon leadership and other lieutenant duties diminishes those roles, effectively absolving lieutenants of accountability and degrading their authority as a commissioned officer.
Platoon leaders are not simply auditing a course on leading. Instead, by virtue of having completed pre-commissioning and basic officer education requirements, they are expected to fully uphold the Army values and demonstrate “character, presence, and intellect” in accordance with ADRP 6-22. This is especially true in combat, where they make life-and-death decisions as tactical leaders. In all settings—deployed or in garrison—they give orders, train their platoons, rate their platoon sergeants, and fulfill the vision of their company commanders. If not given the due authorities and responsibilities to lead as platoon leaders, they will not be fully successful later as company commanders.
Doing talent management right ensures alignment between the individual’s professional development requirements with the future needs of the Army
Order of Arrival
Too many field grade leaders blindly emplace officers in key positions based on their arrival date to the unit rather than merit. This practice conveys a sense of entitlement for leadership duties, that one is entitled to the position by virtue of merely waiting for some period of time rather than earning it. Top performers are not incentivized to succeed, and substandard performers have little motivation to change; after all, everyone will get a chance to lead regardless of performance. Strict adherence to an order of arrival queue violates the requirement to develop subordinates properly according to individual needs. Commanders are expected to ‘invest time and effort to develop’ and ‘make choices and take actions that ensure leaders of the future sustain the Army.’ It should be okay for some officers to spend more time in other appropriate lieutenant positions if that best supports the organization’s mission and aligns with the individual’s talents.
Combating These Practices
The Army should make four changes to eliminate these counterproductive practices and to better align officer professional development with institutional requirements. First, the Army must establish better, simpler tools, suitable for both commanders and branch managers for tracking their officers. This system must track inbound officers, time on station, demonstrated skills, performance observations, self-development activities, and future projections. Commanders would find this information invaluable for developmental counseling and provide openness and transparency over career management decisions, building greater trust within the organization.
Second, talent managers should institute a prerequisite that lieutenants will complete tours of duty in at least three key development jobs prior to Captains Career Course attendance. Ideally, these assignments would include: (1) in a troop leadership position (such as platoon leader) (2) in a sustainment or administrative position such as company executive officer, or staff officer such as sustainment officer or personnel officer, , and (3) an operations position (e.g., operations officer, training officer, etc.). This ensures broadening after platoon leadership and results in a more diverse officer pool reaching the Captains Career Course, and scaled development opportunities for top performers, while creating additional venues for officers needing greater development. Reinforcing the unit’s talent management system during developmental counseling instills trust and expectation management. This system, along with its developmental counseling, goes beyond the simplistic more is better and avoiding failure approaches.
Third, units must create a merit-based alternative to the order of arrival approach. After departing from the Captains Career Course, captains should have a minimum of one to two years of additional “seasoning” during which they can earn the privilege and responsibility of command. By serving in one or two positions, the officers would increase their base of professional experience, learn about the installation and unit, and have the opportunity to develop junior officers. The additional time would also afford battalion and brigade commanders the opportunity to assess captains for placement in the most appropriate command or staff position.
Finally, preparatory courses for brigade and battalion commanders should include greater talent management instruction as part of their curriculum. Institutionalizing this instruction is critical to communicating the Army’s vision on talent management, aligning local unit practices, and reinforcing the principles of Army Pamphlet 600-3. Including talent management in these courses provides a decisive venue to counter anchoring biases, false narratives, and to unify talent managers on successful practices.
Field grade commanders must understand and reinforce the timelines and principles contained in Army regulations to stop these poor practices in officer assignments and prevent new ones from forming. Doing talent management right ensures alignment between the individual’s professional development requirements with the future needs of the Army. The importance of the foundational period from commissioning to assumption of company command cannot be overstated. It is the foundation for success not only at the company level also as afield grade officer. When implemented correctly, this framework creates a more diversely experienced pool of company grade officers. Successful officers will have the opportunities to hone their skills, while officers requiring additional growth will have jobs commensurate to their professional development needs. Given the low cost and relative ease of these changes, the Army can implement immediately and more effectively cultivate the talent within its company grade ranks.
Rob McNellis is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and a student of the U.S. Army War College resident class of 2019. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.
Photo Credit: U.S. Army/Jesse Beals (public domain)