FN Herstal

The Baldwin Files – Talent Management – Part 2 of 3

Read part 1 of Talent Management here.

At the end of the first article in this series, the newly formed Special Forces (SF) Branch had rejected my application. Initially, they provided no explanation. With my 13+ years of infantry experience, I certainly had expected to be competitive for a slot. My first thought was that a sufficient number of more talented individuals – with greater SF potential – must have submitted even better packets than mine. However, knowing that I would not have another chance, my second thought was to immediately reattack. Therefore, I drove to Alexandria, Virginia, to see the Colonel (O-6) SF Branch Chief personally. It turns out my first thought was dead wrong. The Colonel confirmed that I was indeed competitive. In fact, I would have been selected if not for my excessive time in service. The Selection Board – that he chaired – had done the math. With the time I had already accumulated, plus the Advanced Course, Degree Completion, and the Q-Course itself, I would have ~17 years of service by the time I got to my first SF Operational Detachment.

As a new Branch, they were looking for officers that could give SF at least 15 years – not 3. It was the first time I realized how rigid the Army’s 20-year service model was that backstopped all these decisions. My career was moving as fast – and I was performing at least as well – as all my commissioned peers. Nevertheless, my extensive enlisted experience actually made me an undesirable SF candidate. How crazy is that? I did not have time to contemplate the illogic of the situation in the moment. Rather, I assured the Colonel that I would definitely be staying past 20 if I got into SF. He was not entirely convinced, but admitted that a couple of people had changed their minds after the board and he had some empty slots. He gave me a shot. Although it would be 3 more years before I got that Green Beret, from that point on I was managed by SF rather than Infantry Branch.

Time passed, and all those mandatory schools went as planned and largely without any further personnel management incidents. I did have one brief scare as I approached graduation. Most of my compadres in the Q-Course were going to the newly reactivated 3rd Special Forces Group. I wanted 5th Group, but right up to the end it did not appear that there would be an opening for me. I was under some pressure from the School Cadre and SF Branch to choose 3rd but I held fast and fortuitously a slot opened up at 5th just in time. I spent the next 4+ years at 1st Battalion, 5th Group. That included two and a half years as a Detachment Commander, a few weeks as the Deputy S-3, and then 19 months commanding C/1/5 as a not-yet-promotable Captain. I thought I was doing pretty well.

SF Branch did not agree. According to the rules, my command of Charlie Company “did not count.” In effect, from a professional development and personnel management perspective, Branch considered that command a complete waste of time. I still had to get 24 months “Branch Qualifying” (BQ) time as a Major. That would be some combination of another Company Command, Battalion S-3, and / or Battalion XO positions. In hindsight, it sounds insane to disregard the experience I gained in command, but at the time, I was delighted! That meant I was going to get another command and I was all for that. I will confess that command is like crack to me. The more I got, the more I wanted. I PCSed back to Fort Bragg in the summer of 1995 and spent the next 14 months as an operations officer at SF Command. At the end of that purgatory, I took command of A/1/3. Early on, my Battalion Commander made it known that he intended to make me the S-3 after a year or so. Once again, I thought my career was right on track; and, yet again, I was wrong.

Select officers attend a significant professional development school as Majors; it is the Command and General Staff College (CGSC). At the time, only 50% of Majors were selected, and each officer year group got three chances. The majority were designated for attendance in the first or second look – only a handful got picked up on that last look. I had not been selected in either of my first two looks. I was in Senegal with half of my company when my Battalion changed command. The new Commander came to visit and to personally deliver the bad news. He told me that he, the Group Commander, and the SF Branch Chief had concluded that because I had over 22 years in service I was not going to be selected for CGSC. Therefore, it would be a waste of a BQ slot to make me the Battalion S-3. Essentially, he told me that 3rd Group and SF Branch were cutting me away and informed me that I would have to find some non-BQ position once I returned to Bragg. Presumably, I would wait in that dead-end job to be passed over for Lieutenant Colonel and ultimately forced into retirement. As usual, my professional skills and my potential – as objectively compared to my peers – were not the relevant factors; and, my experience was again seen as a clear liability not an asset.

I had gotten back from Africa and was about 6 weeks from changing command myself when that last CGSC board convened. I thought that my leadership’s assessment of my chances were probably about right – slim to none. I was home showering after PT when my Group Commander called. He said, “Congratulations, you have been selected for CGSC. You have an appointment to see the Training Group Commander at 1000 about his Support Battalion’s S-3 job.” So I hustled over to Training Group as directed. The first question I was asked, “why do you want this job?” I said, “Sir, I didn’t want this job, I had expected to be the S-3 of 1/3 instead. But don’t worry; I will do a good job for you!” I thought I was just being honest, forthright, and respectful, and left his office on a positive note. I was mistaken. By the time I got back to my office, my Battalion Commander was waiting for me – and he was mad. He was spitting mad, as was my Group Commander, and the SF Branch Chief. Apparently, the Training Group Commander thought I was desperate for a job and expected me to be more grateful. All he heard of our conversation was “I didn’t want this job” and decided it would be a cold day in hell before I would get any position in his Group.

It was the first time – but not the last time – that I would be declared persona non grata at Training Group; and a few weeks later after my change of command, I was also no longer welcome in 3rd Group either. The truth was that these leaders were the ones desperate to find me a job. They had trusted that I would not be selected for CGSC and had guessed wrong. None of them wanted to go back to the SF Flag Officers and explain why I had been shut out even as the Army was declaring that I was in the top 50% of Majors in my year group. My leaders and I gathered in the Group Commander’s office with the SF Branch Chief on speakerphone. I was the elephant in that room and they generally ignored me. After a few minutes, they realized that since there were no available BQ jobs on Bragg they had no choice but to send me to CGSC immediately. Instead of being one of the last of my year group to attend the school, I would be one of the first. Furthermore, post-Leavenworth, SF Branch would have to get me into another BQ job. It was settled and obviously resolved in my favor. I did not have to deal with the 3rd Group leadership much longer, but that SF Branch Chief would be in position for another 2+ years – and he knew how to hold a grudge.

I went to Leavenworth, leaving my wife at Fort Bragg because I had been tacitly promised that I would return there after school. Besides completing the CGSC curriculum, while there a Major is expected to take the opportunity to get a Master’s Degree. Consequently, that year was academically challenging for me and went fast. Towards the end, SF Branch started making noises about me taking another job for a year before going back to Bragg. I honestly tried to be accommodating to a point, and we eventually came to a compromise. I would stay at Leavenworth a second year as a doctrine writer for FM 3.0, Operations, and in return, SF Branch guaranteed me in writing that essential BQ job afterwards. That second year was rougher than the first, but my wife visited several times and it too passed. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel when the Combined Arms Center (CAC) G-1 called me to his office. He said, “Terry, you keep saying you are leaving this summer, but SF Branch says otherwise.” He then showed me a string of emails between him and the Branch Chief. The Chief had declared, “Sure, keep Baldwin for another year. I have no plans for him.”

I started working the phones. First, I called the SF Branch Chief and opened the conversation by calling him a lying mother_____, among other things. He seemed to be having fun with it. He told me – with what I took to be unbridled glee – that, “we have already filled the slate for all the Groups and there are no BQ jobs left for you.” Then he hung up. Afterwards I called USASOC G-1 to confirm what he had said. It was true, and that HQ had no choice but to work off the slate they received from SF Branch. In short, the front and the back doors of the system were apparently locked tight. There is an old Monte Python skit in which one man is trying to impress another by saying, “I will have you know, that among the people that know me, I am very well known.” That statement would accurately describe me. I started networking with friends. Shortly, one told me to link up with the 1st Battalion Commander at Training Group. I made a trip back to Bragg to meet him. We did not know each other, but had those mutual friends. It turns out that the SF Branch selected Major that was supposed to go out to Camp Mackall did not want to go way out there and had found something else to do. I WANTED that job, told him so, and promised to return ASAP to take that guidon.

That took care of one problem. Now, all I had to do was get orders assigning me back to Bragg. SF Branch certainly would not cut them, and USASOC, Special Warfare Center and School (SWCS), or Training Group, could not. Luckily, I had one ace left to play. I knew the 3-Star CAC Commander. We were never drinking buddies, but it turned out that I had been in 1/504 when he was the commander of 2/504. He had also been the 1st Brigade Commander in the 82nd when I was in 3rd Brigade. We had been on a couple of jumps together, including a particularly FUBAR one into Fort Stewart, Georgia. More importantly, I had been briefing the man every other week for a year as part of the FM 3.0 writing team. That is where we had reminisced about those good times. My O-6 Boss, the CAC G-1, and I went to see him. I explained the predicament SF Branch had put me in and told him I would not have a chance of being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel if I did not get back to Bragg right now. He wished me luck and turned to the G-1, “Cut this man some orders back to the Center of the Universe.” Technically, the orders were outside the system and probably not entirely legal – but they were good enough for me. Besides, there was a legitimate job waiting for me that otherwise would be unfilled and SF Branch was never going to have the nerve to call the CAC Commander out on it. That is how I not only got back to Bragg in time, but also managed to get the very best possible job for a SF Major in the process.  

Within the military, there has long been broad agreement that it is advisable to “train to standard not to time” to achieve the best individual and collective results. In terms of promotions, retention and talent management in particular, I would suggest that the exact same logic needs to be applied. Effective talent management initiatives must focus on standards of soldier performance, not time in service or grade. Generally, individuals must be given more real power within the system to achieve what he or she defines as career success. That would be a good place to start if one wants to make talent management a reality and not just a slogan. In these three articles, I am simply highlighting some of the issues I encountered with the current system and subsequently offering some practical options to consider for ameliorating or solving some of those problems.

Moreover, it is clear to me that effective talent management cannot be achieved within the one-size fits all personnel management system we have today. In other words, you just about have to tear down the entire current system to rebuild an almost completely new structure. Talent management is only a fantasy until someone shapes a real system to make it work. In turn, that will have vast implications and impacts over training, professional schooling, promotions and every other aspect of personnel management to include force structure and budget. Some of this has been “wargamed” and brainstormed for years. One of the challenges with changing a huge complicated enterprise like the Army is that – in terms of personnel management – it is a zero sum game. X number of slots and Y number of people in perpetual motion. One domino moves…and, traditionally, they all have to move. It is going to take some serious work to change decades of culture, habit, and entrenched “tradition.”

Oddly enough, some of the possible solutions for meeting the Army’s future talent management needs may not be new at all. I have spoken often of the post-Civil War and post-WWI periods. Those were both times of minimum resources and slow promotions but notably high professionalism. Granted, in both cases we are talking about a very small Army compared to today. Still, some of the lessons on how they did “talent management” might very well be applicable in the 21st Century. For instance, consider making a “standard career” once again 30 rather than 20 years. With more time comes more opportunity to allow people to stay in positions longer – if they are doing a good job – in order to gain real mastery of their craft at that level before advancing. And doing so without greatly disadvantaging those waiting in line for the same jobs. Likewise, consider slowing promotions by stretching out time in grade timelines and thereby reduce the pressure to move people between jobs so frequently. However, initiatives like that may tend to limit options for self-directed career mobility. We do not want to over-compensate and go from perpetual motion to stagnation.

For much of our history, the Army had a reasonably effective regimental system that – among other things – naturally pushed personnel assignment and professional development decisions down to unit level. That had the great advantage of putting the decision on leaders who had better visibility of their soldiers. However, the mass mobilization for WWII and then the large post war draftee standing Army made centralization of those decisions seem desirable. I think it is past time to reevaluate that arrangement. Otherwise, the Army would have to take on the burden of customizing and essentially micromanaging the career of each and every soldier at the DA level – and that does not seem practical at all. Now, regimentalism is not without risks because it can be subject to cronyism if misused. Still, I would think that pushing the majority of personnel management decisions back down to unit level is one change we definitely need to contemplate.

Another area that I am convinced needs reexamining is the pressure that has built over the years to manage Warrants and NCOs in patterns that are similar to Commissioned Officers. Officers have traditionally been generalist and Warrants and NCOs have always been purposely specialized and stabilized in their assignments – at least as compared to Officers. The intent for some time now has been to move those two cohorts from assignment to assignment in order to make them more “well rounded” and less specialized in focus. The unintended consequence of these well-meaning policies has been a weakening of the critical continuity and “institutional memories” those groups had habitually provided. In other words, those policies may have been more counter-productive than positive. I would recommend at least reviewing the situation to see if it might not be advisable to reverse or at least adjust those management trend lines.

We also need to objectively reevaluate the Service’s needs for generalists vs specialists across the board. Based on my experiences and observations throughout my career and especially during GWOT, I am convinced that we need fewer traditional commissioned officers (generalists) and more specialists (Warrants, NCOs, and select Officers). I also think lateral opportunities should be exponentially expanded. Shifting between MOSs / Branches – call it cross training – going Warrant, or seeking a commission in service – and even back again – should be routine. I also think we should relook the Specialist Rank system that was in place when I came in – E4-E7 – and / or perhaps the Tech Sergeant ranks of WWII. Those systems allowed people to advance within a specialty without necessarily assuming the leadership responsibilities of a “hard stripe” NCO. Similarly, a parallel non-command track for Officers associated with a new “Staff Branch” or other functional specialties. Those would be some of the personnel areas that I think could and should be adjusted to give the Army better options. At least we would have a better chance to manage talent more effectively than what we are doing today.

Finally, the system is at its best when administered impersonally – without undue animus or favor – in as much as that is humanly possible. However, the individual soldier should definitely take it personally. It is your career. It is your life. Recognize that when you challenge the system, it is never from a position of strength. The system inherently has more power in the equation. Still, do not ever be afraid to fight and compete for the assignments, schools, and opportunities, you want. So, wade right into the water and chart your own destiny. If the Services are serious about talent management, that is precisely the self-actualized behavior that needs to be encouraged. It is up to the institution to widen the career streams by allowing more professional options. Thereby reducing the pressure for soldiers to navigate only one single approved channel. Similarly, establish and enforce policies that slow down the institution’s self-generated rush of the (professional) currents. Consequently, the entire process should become less of a continuous struggle and more of a rewarding experience for the individual.  

The Army has a very poor track record with these sorts of well-intentioned personnel initiatives. Many of us remember the old regimental affiliation scheme. Of course, it was not a management system based on individual talents; however, it was supposed to at least provide stability and predictability in assignments. It did not do either. Then there were the “cohort” units of the late 80s. The Army declared both experiments successful, and then quietly did away with them. Nevertheless, I still believe better personnel management and, yes, even talent management can be done effectively – if we have the will. More importantly, it must be done. It is people not technology that ultimately matter. As I said the last time, we are still using essentially 19th Century mass army personnel management practices that are not going to serve us well in the 21st. We had better master the challenge of modern military talent management soon or I suspect we will pay an unacceptable price in more blood in the not too distant future.

De Opresso Liber!

LTC Terry Baldwin, US Army (Ret) served on active duty from 1975-2011 in various Infantry and Special Forces assignments. SSD is blessed to have him as both reader and contributor.

21 Responses to “The Baldwin Files – Talent Management – Part 2 of 3”

  1. MRC says:

    Terry,
    Great article as usual. I was in C/1/5 for your command time. I was lucky enough to have a couple senior NCOs (during my NCO time) and senior warrants (during my warrant time) looking out for me that recognized I was a better asset on a team (13 1/2 years straight) then in a staff function. But, during my time line I was an anomaly and not the norm. This was the time of a couple of senior NCOs who’s directive was to “stop hiding under your rucksack”. Occasionally it was detrimental when senior leaders did not want to hear my input based on “you haven’t held any staff positions so you don’t understand” but I usually got what I needed/wanted and was given a large amount of leeway to accomplish the task at hand.
    Changing the entrenched management system is an uphill battle that may or may not happen.
    TR

    • Terry Baldwin says:

      Travis,

      A truly effective talent management system would have to accept your definition of career success – without penalty. And I fully agree with your last point. It will be an uphill battle, and in this case I am not at all confident that any meaningful change will happen. The institutional inertia may just be too great.

      I always hated that “hiding behind the rucksack” nonsense too. I could have been accused of that as well. However, had you been under my command later in your career, I would have probably been pushing you to take on other challenges beyond the ODA. I know you had untapped potential.

      TLB

      • SSD says:

        I switched services when I commissioned, successfully finishing my career by “specializing” in SOF assignments as an AF Intel Officer. My assignment managers hated me because I told them I didn’t care about making O6. They fully admitted there was no magic career path formula to make Colonel as an Intel Officer, so I told them I’d do what I enjoyed and was good at. Looks like I got the last laugh

        • Terry Baldwin says:

          SSD,

          You, me and MRC are examples of people who fought against the prevailing current – with some success – and are satisfied with our choices. Unfortunately, we are the exception. It sounds like Stash, Joe, and Kirk, had the more common unsatisfactory experience and, therefore, have much less favorable impressions.

          Too often the current system runs over people and eventually runs them off – talent be damned. Experiences like ours need to become the norm, not the exception. And it is the Services that have to radically change methodologies, not the individual Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, or Marines. So far, leaders are saying the right things…but it is still just talk at this point.

          TLB

          • SSD says:

            I will however have to point out, I would have never gotten away with what I wanted, had it not been for really great group commanders, a TSOC CG, and the green door world backing me up and telling my career field manager where I was going.

            • Terry Baldwin says:

              SSD,

              None of us would have without help from good leaders. Wouldn’t it be nice if the system itself provided that kind of individualized help routinely?

              TLB

  2. Kirk says:

    The Army spends way too much time on the political BS and personality conflict routines that you lay out here. Does anyone ever stop to think about the number of really good potential officers and senior enlisted we lose every year to people watching this crap go on from the outside, and then saying “Screw this… This ain’t what I want out of life.”?

    I know the decision I made to turn down West Point Prep when I was a young soldier turned on just these issues. I’d been watching my Platoon Leaders, considering that option, and after observation and consideration for all the political BS they were having to put up with and survive, my response to the commander when asked about taking that slot was “Hell, no… I just want to be a soldier.”. Unspoken in that was the continuation “…not a political ass-kisser…”.

    Other reason was the observation that the officers spent little time actually being soldiers, the way I saw it. A year in command of a platoon, maybe 18 months as a company commander, and then another 18 months as a battalion commander, if you got really lucky? Out of 20-30 years of service, and the rest of the time you’re away from troops playing politician in a staff job or schooling? Yeah; no, thanks… I’ll stay on the enlisted side.

    A commission looks really good, right up until you see what the job actually consists of. Once the blinders come off, and you realize what it actually consists of, well…? It loses all attraction. Staff time and politics hold little attraction to me, and stories like the one you lay out here are the sort of thing that I loathe. Petty men taking petty revenge over petty slights that exist only in their own minds.

    Makes you wonder how many other people simply opt out of the bullshit, to the Army’s overall detriment. The sort of people you were dealing with are far more destructive than we realize, and tolerance for their petty little power-trips allows their BS to do damage we can’t even begin to assess. It’s opportunity cost, as they disgust and discourage better men than they’ll ever be from even getting engaged in the service.

    • Stash says:

      A great article again, and Kirk – great and valid points. As a junior officer who got out after 4 years, I would add in another point: spending 90% of the time dealing with the 10% of bad apples and doing HR type duties bordering on case work. Not my personal primary reason but it has been a factor for peers I know that made similar decisions.

      • Terry Baldwin says:

        Stash,

        Good points. As a counter-point, I have helped turn a few of those so called “bad apples” around. It does take up a lot of time but I consider it worthwhile. I have talked about this before, and will hit it again harder in Part 3. To make the best blades, you have to hammer the steel. The harder the metal, the more you have to hammer. It takes extra work, but those harder heads – if hammered properly by a good leader – often make great soldiers. I was lucky that some good leaders took the time and effort to hammer me.

        Kirk,

        All good points. I certainly agree with you that the SF Branch Chief was doing some petty stuff at the end. The lying was egregious and indefensible, and I am not about to give him the benefit of any doubt. However, I do think he actually believed he was doing a greater service to the Branch by getting rid of the deadwood, a.k.a. me. The system agreed with him – if not his methods.

        We have no way of knowing if you would have provided more service to the Army as an officer if you had gone to West Point, or in the career you chose as an NCO. I would expect that if you had sought a commission you would have brought the same passion to that job as you displayed as an NCO. A commission, warrant or NCO rank does not change anyone’s fundamental character.

        I can only speak to my experiences as an officer, which I admit was not necessarily normal, but “political ass-kissing” was never ever part of my duties. Indeed, with just a couple of exceptions, my bosses highly valued honest and forthright feedback and advice. They knew that was what they needed, even if it was not always what they wanted to hear. Since many of the same people hired and rehired me over the years I must have been doing something right.

        Lastly, about the staff stuff. You are absolutely correct, it is not as much fun for individuals as “running and gunning” but it is essential for two reasons. One, staff work is what makes all the stuff happen between and across organizations. It is the mechanism that synchronizes resources and subordinate units’ efforts. Effective staffs make command and control at battalion and above as well as larger scale tactical and operational maneuver feasible.

        Two, it does serve to educate officers (generalists) in particular into how the warfighting sausage is really made. The old saw about amateurs’ talk tactics and professionals talk logistics. In order for anyone to be a good generalist, it is necessary to have a broad understanding of all the battlefield functions. It is not something that can be truly learned from a book or a class.

        Serving on a real staff is necessary to provide the experience that senior multi-functional leaders of all ranks absolutely need eventually. I agree with you that in a peacetime garrison environment a staff is often misused with picayune make work. The staff equivalent of painting rocks around the parade ground. That nonsense may be all too common, but it is not the true measure of the value of a staff.

        TLB

        • Kirk says:

          Looking back on it all, I think I could have had more impact, had I done my career differently. However, “impact” ain’t always what it’s cracked up to be, and I’m pretty sure that a commission would have meant either a severely truncated career or a transition to Reserve/NG. The Regular Army does not seem to cherish people who tell unpleasant truths, and that’s a fact.

          The thing that just irritates the hell out of me is that the Army has this knack for misusing personnel, and ignoring the fact that some round pegs aren’t going to fit into the convenient square hole they want them to. I volunteered for Drill Sergeant, at one point–They had too many damn Sergeants on the trail, at that moment, and so they chose to put my ass in USAREC, a job for which I was totally unsuited. That experience nearly ended my career, because I was an abject failure in USAREC. Something I was pretty sure would happen, and which all of my commanders agreed with. I did not and still do not relate well with civilians, let alone teenage ones.

          The Army would have been a lot better off had it listened to my commanders, and either kept me out with line units or sent me to Drill Sergeant school. Unfortunately, there’s precisely zero input taken in at DA level from the actual people out on the ground who know the soldiers they’re selecting for duties, and they keep chewing up good soldiers trying to cram them into positions they’re not well-suited for.

          The other issue is that the idiots who try to “manage careers” really have no damn idea what they’re really doing, either at the unit or DA level. I did a really good job as a SSG(P) in a line platoon, so my genius CSM and Battalion Commander thought it would be a brilliant idea to have me take the Battalion Support Platoon as a SSG(P)–A job which really should only go to a senior SFC that’s getting ready for a 1SG position. You stick someone like I was at that point, before they’re fully seasoned as a line Platoon Sergeant, and you’re just asking for trouble. Especially when you do like I did, and basically tell the HHC 1SG and Company Commander that you don’t want the job because you want to stay in your line platoon.

          Unfortunately, they were such a pair of jackasses that no other SFC in the battalion would work with them, and I got stuck in there against my better judgment. Ensuing year-plus in that job did me no favors, especially since both the CSM and the Commander who’d stuck me in there to “solve a problem…” both left in short order. Stupid decision, all the way around. Also didn’t use what few talents I have effectively–In a line platoon, I was able to do what I did best, planning and conducting training. In the Support Platoon, I was basically the HHC commander’s bitch-boy and did zero training, aside from every range that HHC got tasked with.

          I don’t have much use for any of the so-called “personnel management” that the Army does, at any level. They don’t pay attention to what real experiences you need to grow and be effective, and don’t give a rip if they throw you into a job you’ve got zero background in. One of my peer SFC’s in another assignment had gone from newly-promoted Sergeant to SFC out in USAREC, had fallen foul of some recruiting fraud perpetrated by his subordinates that he’d missed, and had USAREC throw him back to his old job–Which he had exactly three years experience at doing, as a junior enlisted soldier. As a guy suddenly thrust into being a platoon sergeant in a combat engineer battalion, that poor bastard was screwed. He literally had never worn stripes in a real NCO slot in that job, and it showed. Poor bastard put up a good front, which may have been a mistake, because nobody really knew his situation until after he’d spent around two years screwing everything up by the numbers. Never should have been in that position, but they stuck him there, programmed for utter failure.

          • Terry Baldwin says:

            Kirk,

            Almost everyone in the Army has a “I-was-obviously-not-a-good-fit-for –the-job” story. If it did not happen to them personally, they saw it happen to someone else. Pounding ill-fitting human pegs into holes they are not suited for does nothing but temporarily fill holes. And, I do mean temporarily. In a year or so we pull out all of the pegs and start pounding every one of them into new holes! In the process we disillusion far too many and they vote with their feet and leave. How exactly does a system that facilitates and perpetuates high turnover help sustain unit combat readiness? It does not.

            I say that the current system is actually optimized not to retain talent, but rather to deprive the Army of soldiers and officers – just as they are seasoned enough to be of real value to a unit. In effect, the system is fratricidal and designed to encourage the majority of our junior officer and NCO leaders to self-select out at the end of their initial contracts. In turn, we spend enormous time and effort bringing newer people into the front end of the pipeline to replace our loses. There is no real logic or military necessity that drives this dysfunctional methodology. We allow that nonsense to continue simple because that is the way we have always done it – at least since WWII. If an enemy had such a devastating casualty producing capability, we would be working tirelessly on an effective countermeasure. We certainly must stop doing it to ourselves – and soon.

            TLB

            • Kirk says:

              That’s exactly what I’ve said for years, TBH.

              Has SSD ever gotten you my email? I sent it and permission to transmit it to you, but haven’t heard anything back, as of yet.

              There’s a really odd feature to Army culture, and it goes back to before WWII, even–We seem to be highly adaptable in crisis, but once the crisis is past, whatever we were doing is what we continue to do until the next crisis comes along and forces a change. Then, we keep doing that, until the next time around…

              I’m not convinced we really have a handle on a lot of things, to be honest. The more I look at the things the Army does on the daily, the less certain I am that anyone really knows what the hell they’re doing, or how the Army actually functions as a social mechanism.

              A good deal of this stems from the mentality that permeates the upper ranks–They seem to be convinced that the world revolves around what they say, and that all they need to do in order to effectuate change in the organization is to make a decision, issue an order, and wait for everything to work out.

              They never bother to examine what’s going on out in the real Army, where there are a dozen different signals being sent by things like existing policies that weren’t change, culture, and all the other influences that soldiers have on their behavior. Those, the upper brass operates in complete obliviousness to, and never bother to stop and analyze why policies fail.

              The “Black Beret” thing is a good example of that: I think Shinseki and his courtiers really thought that the process of creating an elite unit mentality flowed from some unique identifying factor like the beret, and then that recognition was a key element in developing an elite force. The reality is that the flow is actually in the exact opposite direction, and that elite recognition factors are what they are because the people wearing them are elite. If we’d put the Army’s trash collectors in black berets back during the 1970s, the beret would never have the cachet or the recognition factor that it developed. Likewise, if we’d decided that the Rangers were going to wear pink panties on the outside of their trousers, well… Everybody would want to be wearing pink panties outside their trousers.

              These people literally do not understand how a lot of this works, which is frightening, when you consider the implications of that.

              • Terry Baldwin says:

                Kirk,

                No, I have not gotten your email. I will hit up SSD, sometimes things get backlogged. I think you are spot on about a number of the points you are making here and in the comments below.

                We do still have a expand in a crisis manning model for the Active Duty Army. That leads to the one size fits all and every soldier has to be interchangeable framework that makes meaningful talent management all but impossible.

                So, all of these Lieutenants and Sergeants we are hemorrhaging out at the end of their first term are supposed to be recallable in an emergency. Except they are not.

                Even a few years after ETS, whatever expertise they had is hopelessly outdated or has atrophied and they need almost as much re-training as a new recruit.

                Retaining talent is simply something our old school personnel management system is not designed to do.

                TLB

                • Kirk says:

                  I’d also submit that our system isn’t doing a very good job of fostering or developing that talent, either…

  3. Joe says:

    “Cut this man some orders back to the Center of the Universe.”

    Sorry, I was in El Paso attached to Corps for 3 years (ADA): 2000 miles away and Bragg was more important than God Himself, too funny.

    It took me a while to figure it out at my unit: “USMCorps… XVIII Airborne Corps… oooooohhh now I get it.”

    Hats off to the spear tips and hyper-leaders, but most of us just want to go to work, do a good job, get a raise or promotion every few years based on merit, and not be punished for existing.

    • Terry Baldwin says:

      Joe,

      And effective talent management would absolutely have to allow for ALL the people you describe in your last point. Some want to try to go faster. Some don’t. In either case, we do not need to force people “up or out” just because that is the way we have always done it. If you are the best IT guy in your Signal unit, but do not want a leadership role, so be it. If you are performing at or above standards, why in the world should we run you off? Maybe you just go up the Specialist / Tech ranks and that is your personal definition of career success.

      TLB

  4. Will Rodriguez says:

    Great story. I have a similar one though it ended differently. (I’ll skip the BDE commander that wasn’t aware of his rating profile and my lying BN CDR).

    I wasn’t allowed to take the BQ position I wanted in my just created secondary specialty because Infantry had a position to fill (Spanish speaking CGSC instructor). Infantry knew they were losing me but could fill one of their major slots eventhough it would screw my opportunity for promotion.

    Funny thing was I wasn’t CGSC qualified. Infantry branch didn’t care when I told them. Upon arrival the school (WHINSEC) was angry at me when they learned I wasn’t CGSC qualified and when they called Infantry branch they learned they didn’t code the position correctly so Infantry was able to screw them by filling the slot with an unqualified officer.

    I stopped everything and knocked out CGSC in two months before the next class started because it was the right thing to do and just committed myself to getting jobs I wanted. Do the best job there and forget about getting promoted.

    It was quite liberating being an “Iron Major” not pursuing promotion but focused on doing the right thing. My final position was doing the legwork for the future Infantry e.g. situational awareness, increasing lethality, incorporating UAVs and technology, developing simulations to train the force. It was daily Discovery channel stuff for my last four years and the only enmity I still harbor is for the lying flesh peddling human trafficers at Branch.

    Lessons?

    Some personnel officers slotted people against their requirements knowing it would hurt the individual’s chances for progression. Why? Their OER quantified filed slots not progressing careers. Harder right vs. easier wrong? (I’m a big believer that an integrity violation should end a career.)

    Commanders must stringently ensure their personnel tables are accurate.

    Looking forward to Part III

    • Terry Baldwin says:

      Will,

      And those Infantry Branch Managers knew full well that an instructor slot at CGSC required someone who was a graduate. They would never send someone to be an RI who was not Ranger qualified. The right thing for them to do would have been to call the school and help the G1 there recode the position correctly – and then fill it accordingly.

      But as you say, they just wanted to fill slots expediently and move on. There is more of that ethically questionable behavior going on than the system will admit to. Maybe if the Branch Managers actually thought of soldiers as their valued customers rather than just pegs to fill holes it might get better?

      I am glad you were able to take positive action and make some lemonade out of the lemon they handed you.

      TLB

  5. Papa6 says:

    I like reading LTC Baldwin’s articles. I always learn something.

    I’m probably way out of my lane here; but I wonder why do officers and NCOs have to promote? It seems like every time I had a really good officer or NCO leading me, they got promoted and had to leave.

    I’ve worked with some of our Commonwealth allies and they have a system in place that allows NCOs to stay at a specific rank for their entire career, if they choose. I don’t think officers are allowed to do this in their regimental system though.

    Might this be a solution for the US army? My favorite job was being a squad leader and then a platoon leader. To get a “raise” I had to leave positions that I loved.

  6. Terry Baldwin says:

    Papa6,

    Every country does it a little differently. Usually that is tied to their history and unique military culture. We largely adopted our current (S, G, J) staff structure from the French in WWI but adjusted it to American tastes. In terms of military careers, in typical American style, we have made promotions (and the resulting pay raises) the single measure of professional success.

    You either get promoted on a strict timetable or you are forced out. Talent may let you move a little faster forward than everyone else – but it simultaneously precludes you from ever standing still in one job. No matter how good you are in that job. You must always keep moving with the herd. That does not make much sense today. I would argue that it never did, and it is past time to overhaul our system.

    TLB

    • Kirk says:

      The mentality that causes this stems from the culture of the Army, going back to the foundation of the Republic.

      One of the underlying assumptions was that the Regular Army wasn’t a “force in being”, but a frontier constabulary with a wartime role to provide leadership and professional skills for the mass of the militia. Our entire cultural construct is based on this underlying assumption, and that’s what’s caused most of these issues for us. We do not have a “professional army” mentality; we think, down deep at the root of things, that our fundamental purpose as American professional soldiers is to provide cadre for a mass militia/conscript army of mediocrities, which will defend the nation in battles of attrition.

      Because of that, we’re trying our best to produce “Jacks of All Trades” in the officer and senior enlisted ranks, because our assumption is that we’ll have to suddenly produce another 8,000,000-man force to re-conquer Europe and Asia.

      Some of this is so deeply rooted that most of us haven’t ever thought about the base assumptions, or ever even questioned them to the slightest degree. But, they’re there, still influencing us to this day.

Leave a Reply