Military Brain Drain
The Pentagon's top brass is driving away all the smart people.
In his recent book Bleeding Talent, Tim Kane joins a growing chorus of serving and former junior officers to deliver a wake-up call to today’s military leadership in the face of a major drawdown. Their message: If you ignore the expectations of today’s young, combat-experienced leaders as you shrink the force, your most talented officers and sergeants will exit, stage left.
The military bureaucracy’s response? "Good Riddance."
During any military drawdown, equipment, training, force structure, and end-strength will inevitably be sacrificed. But the "crown jewel" that must be preserved in order to be able to fight and win in the years ahead is human capital. Recruiting and retaining highly talented people remains the best guarantor of success in future conflicts. No distant campaign against a wily and unpredictable enemy in the 21st century will be won without innovative and creative military leadership. And that leadership is most at risk in the coming thinning of the military’s rolls. And the officer corps most of all.
A colleague told me of a recent meeting with a roomful of senior generals in which he outlined the looming "talent drain," highlighting the prospect that the most exceptional officers will flee the force in droves over the next five years. Their response echoed the one I hear all too often from both active and retired generals: "If they want to leave the team, we’d be better off without them."
In no business enterprise would the large-scale loss of an organization’s top performers be greeted with such indifference. In fact, given the likely impact of such losses on any firm’s bottom line, corporate chieftains would likely soon be looking for new jobs themselves if they dismissed their responsibility for managing their best talent. In today’s competitive and uncertain environment, any company that loses its top talent will go out of business.
But in the military, not so much.
With more people than it needs as budgets shrink, and no management redlines to alert service leaders to the loss of their best young leadership, the military simply assumes there will always be more than enough talent to go around. Managing decreasing numbers becomes more important than fighting to retain the best manpower. And a "so what" attitude among senior military leaders toward the loss of highly skilled talent is seen as acceptable, a bravado that is often encouraged by those who "stayed on the team" through previous drawdowns. After all, many of today’s generals think, "As junior officers, we stayed while others left, and we’ve made out just fine." Plenty of talent will stay, as it always has. Why worry?
There can be no more deadly, pernicious outlook from current or former senior leaders. It conveys a fundamentally flawed message to the military’s young leaders that individuals don’t count, that talent doesn’t matter, and that even in the hyper-competitive world of the 21st century, in the U.S. military, "parts is parts." This outlook has the potential for deadly consequences as end-strength plunges.
Secretary Bob Gates challenged the Army in a February 2011 speech at West Point to change in order to retain and empower the kinds of leaders it will need for the 21st century. Gates observed: "[The] greatest challenge facing your Army and my main worry [is]: How can the Army break up the institutional concrete, its bureaucratic rigidity in its assignments and promotion processes, in order to retain, challenge, and inspire its best, brightest, and most battle-tested young officers to lead the service in the future?" Cadets cheered, junior officers were encouraged, and the bureaucracy changed not at all.
Two years later, the worry described by Gates remains — while the primary response from the military services has most often been silence and a denial of the problem. As I’ve noted before, and as Gates pointed out in his West Point speech, the Army (and military writ large) is competing for talent with Google — not a 1950s widget factory. And it is going to start losing, dramatically.
It does not have to be so. There is no reason not to listen and respond to the concerns of younger officers — while also fully meeting the needs of the service. But you can’t do it with a World War II mindset, an insular outlook, or an Industrial Age personnel system — all of which are markedly in evidence today. And in the coming years, throwing money at the problem is not likely to be as easy as in the past.
So what must the senior military leadership — the service secretaries and four-star generals — do?
First, know your talent inventory. Make sure you can identify your performers — the top 1, 5, and 25 percent, and subsequent percentages below. Measure your attrition against each category, and hold your personnel managers accountable for keeping as many of those in the top tiers as possible and disproportionately shedding poor performers. If the reverse happens — if the best leave and the worst stay — you have failed.
Know your intellectual capital, which may not always correlate with your "top performers." Know what percentages of your officers score in the top mental categories at each rank to monitor potential loss of intellectual capital. Look for non-standard undergraduate degrees and unusual life experiences and find a way to weight those factors.
Know your outliers. Exceptionally gifted individuals often struggle in their one-size-fits-all initial assignments, and their early ratings may reflect poor performance rather than growing pains. The best platoon leader in a brigade may not grow up to be the best four-star strategic leader. Collect every leader’s SATs and GREs and analyze against who fits where on the performance curve, and fight to avoid wholesale losses of your future intellectual capital. Balance current performance against intellectual potential as you shape the force.
Empower your personnel managers — and hold them accountable — to create the coming smaller force with the performance and intellectual specifications you want. Don’t let the end result of who stays in fall to happenstance or whim, and don’t accept marginal outcomes because it’s simply too hard to individually manage top performers and sharp thinkers. Demand that managers incentivize the best to stay, and rigorously examine quality leaders who depart so you can correct the system. Don’t settle for mediocrity and call it success.
Get your field commanders into this fight. Require them to take on the mission of keeping the best on board. The best will already be doing this. Give them access to strong retention incentives — graduate schooling, assignment overrides, broadening opportunities — that can be decentralized to those on the cutting edge who know talent the best. Insist commanders at all levels in the field make this a top priority.
Finally, find a way to give today’s officers more of a voice in their assignments and in their lives. If there is one key generational difference between today’s young officers and those of my generation (and there are many), expecting a voice in their future is the one that most stands out — for the officer, for his or her spouse with a separate career, and for their family. One answer may be the creation of "yellow pages" to apply for assignments as Tim Kane suggests. Officers and their families want choices, not simply orders. Another is simply more humane one-on-one dialogue between human resources directors and individual officers. During a rapid drawdown, the human resources impetus is to "dump" officers, and no one is held accountable for the ensuing quality drain as many of the best exit. That meat-ax approach to management has to end if the military is to retain critical talent in this drawdown as a hedge against a very dangerous world.
It’s time to listen to Kane and Gates — they have it mostly right. Senior service leaders must take a harder look at themselves in the mirror when defending a 60-year old personnel system. It is 2013, not the Mad Men era of 1963. And sustaining the military preeminence of the United States starts with a uniquely American ideal — cultivating the best and brightest, so they can lead the force into a dangerous future. It should be the first priority of today’s senior military leaders, not their last.
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