Thursday, January 6, 2011

People Power

Outstanding Atlantic piece here by Tim Kane about the self-defeating nature of the U.S. military's promotion and personnel management systems:

65 percent of the [West Point] graduates agreed that the exit rate of the best officers leads to a less competent general-officer corps. Seventy-eight percent agreed that it harms national security.

The shame of this loss of talent is that the U.S. military does such a good job attracting and training great leaders. The men and women who volunteer as military officers learn to remain calm and think quickly under intense pressure. They are comfortable making command decisions, working in teams, and motivating people. Such skills translate powerfully to the private sector, particularly business: male military officers are almost three times as likely as other American men to become CEOs, according to a 2006 Korn/Ferry International study. Examples abound of senior executives who attribute their leadership skills to their time in uniform: Ross Perot, Bill Coleman, Fred Smith, and Bob McDonald, the new CEO of Procter & Gamble, to name a few. The business guru Warren Bennis reflected in his recent memoirs, “I never heard anything at MIT or Harvard that topped the best lectures I heard at [Fort] Benning.”

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.

Having worked for and around the Air Force since the early 90's, my experience indicates that Kane's analysis is dead on. It is standard for, say, a bright young lieutenant/captain to spend three years learning his job as an engineer, only to be shipped across the country and assigned to push paper in an acquisition office, or for a pilot with thousands of flight hours to leave the service before retirement for an airline job, rather than be reassigned as a staff toad in the Pentagon. Surely there's a smarter way to run a railroad than this, and Kane has some excellent suggestions.

Read the whole thing. H/T: The Blogfaddah.

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