If military leaders were serious about retaining talent, they’d collect some numbers on who is leaving and why

If military leaders were serious about retaining talent, they’d collect some numbers on who is leaving and why

During the summer, the Best Defense is in re-runs. Here are some favorites that ran in late 2012 and in 2013. This item originally ran on April 2, 2013.

By Maj. Peter Munson, USMC

Best Defense commission on junior officer management

The recent battery and counter-battery of general officer articles on talent management in the face of a military drawdown is doing little to advance the debate toward any solution — or even agreement on the problem. The debaters are undermined by their hyperbole. Surely, not all of the military’s best officers are leaving. On the other hand, from the volume of complaint, it seems sure that there is something awry with talent management in the armed forces. A more qualified assertion would be that more top talent is leaving the military than should be the case. Yet, as deeply as I believe this statement to be true, I cannot prove it. Therein lies the greatest problem: a personnel system that seems not to have a measure of its success or failure in retaining talent vice retaining numbers.

The sad fact of the matter is that we lack the data to fully define the talent management problem, so there is no way to come up with meaningful proposals for solutions. This is a debate characterized by hyperbole and personally charged anecdotal evidence because real data on the phenomenon are almost completely lacking. The fact that the armed forces do not apparently collect data on departing servicemembers for talent management purposes is telling. There is a healthy stable of data available on each servicemember: performance evaluations, standardized testing, civilian and military school standings, physical fitness tests, and so on. Correlating these data to retention and separation propensities should be a relatively easy thing, but as far as I can tell, this work has not been done and it seems not to have been released into the public domain.

Yet, even with the existing data, we have a problem. While we have top-down performance evaluations, physical fitness, and IQ-like intelligence test data, these data leave out what may be the most important dimensions of leadership. There is no widespread data on emotional intelligence, personality type, or 360-degree perspectives on military officers, even though these tests are readily available and could easily be done for those screening for key billets, or for a sample population of separating officers. These would also be an extremely useful statistic when considering who is getting out and who is staying in.

Absent these data, we have to rely on works like that of Tim Kane, former Air Force officer, Ph.D. economist, and author of the book Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution. Sadly, the lack of data left Kane to rely on opinion polling — what people perceived about the talent of those leaving the military and their reasons for doing so — rather than first-order data. This method left Kane’s conclusions open to dismissal by the powers that be, but the indictment is really on a system that has no knowledge of its own talent challenges.

As long as there are no publically available data on these issues, each side in the debate about talent retention in the military is informed only by their personal choices and the anecdotes that validate that choice. There cannot be a truly informed debate without some facts to start from and, inexplicably, these facts are completely lacking. If senior military leaders were serious about talent retention, these data would already be at their fingertips.

Peter J. Munson is a major in the U.S. Marine Corps. Though selected for lieutenant colonel, he is leaving the Marine Corps with sixteen years of service this summer. He is the author of War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History (Potomac, 2013).