By Casey WardynskiJanuary 28, 2010
The U.S. Army has made significant investments in its future, especially in its leadership. In particular, the Army has devoted billions of dollars to officer undergraduate-level education, world class training, and developmental experiences. Since the late 1980s, however, prospects for the Officer Corps' future have been darkened by an ever-diminishing return on this investment, as evidenced by plummeting company-grade officer retention rates. Significantly, this leakage includes a large share of high-performing officers, many of them developed via a fully-funded undergraduate education.
In the last few years, the Army has responded to this challenge with unprecedented retention incentives, to include broadly offered cash payments.
The objective has been to retain as many junior officers on active duty as possible. However, such quantity-focused incentive programs run counter to a talent-focused Officer Corps strategy. The objective should not be merely to retain all officers, but to retain talented officers while simultaneously culling out those lacking distributions of skills, knowledge, and behaviors in demand across the force.
Retaining sufficient rather than optimally performing officers may have dire consequences for the Army's future. New officer cohorts of high-potential talent may be driven away by the prospects of serving under lackluster leadership, while those continuing their service may experience stunted development due to a dearth of talented mentors.
Low junior-officer retention increases risks to the well-being and capabilities of the Officer Corps in other ways as well. It strips away the Army's ability to screen, vet, and cull for talent, forcing it instead to over-access, increase promotion rates and compress promotion timing. It degrades the developmental experiences of junior officers and undercuts the Army's ability to discern which officers possess the talent it needs. Left unchecked, such developments could significantly undermine the Officer Corps' performance levels, taking perhaps a generation to rectify.
Given that the Army is competing in the American labor market for its officers, its retention strategy must be built upon sound theoretical concepts. It must focus upon talent, guard against systematic decision-making errors, redress market failures, and create an employment climate that powerfully meets the expectations of officers with talents that are in demand. It must also be continuously resourced, executed, measured, and adjusted across several years and budget cycles. Absent this, systemic policy and decision-making failures will continue to confound Army efforts to create a talent-focused Officer Corps strategy for success. With mutually supporting practices in the realm of accessions, development, and employment, however, a sound officer retention strategy can forestall a talent crisis, allowing the Army to select its leaders rather than settle for them.
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