Army retention system forcing out brightest leaders, promoting followers not innovators

Some of the most talented leaders in the US Army are often in danger of being forced out due to an archaic evaluation and retention system, according to surfacing reports.

Many US Army officers, including a Rhodes Scholar, a three-time “Jeopardy!” champion and a tri-lingual Special Forces officer have already been placed on the chopping block by the Army, with only a few of their careers spared at the last minute by US Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley.

As the Army struggles to keep the private sector from stealing away the service’s best Soldiers, it continually seems to shoot itself in the foot when it comes to retaining a dated promotion and retention system- one which often forces out some of its best and brightest before the private sector can even lure them away.

Captain Jim Perkins is one such Soldier who suffers under the current system.  An Operations Officer in the US Army Corps of Engineers, Perkins is also the co-founder of Military Mentors and Executive Director of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum- two organizations that promote good leadership and outside-the-box thinking in the US Military.

A graduate of West Point and Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business’ Master’s Program, Perkins was also a Combat Engineer Platoon Leader during a 14-month stint in Sadr City, Iraq during the Iraq War’s well known “Surge” campaign.

Despite his accolades, the Captain is about to be released from the service with severance pay, an issue that flies in the face of Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s dream to create a “Force of the Future” that rewards, guides and promotes only the best men and women that the military has to offer.

Perkins told Federal News Radio that the current system is “100 percent going against what Ash Carter is looking for. … The Force of the Future, [more educated, innovative Soldiers] is what it’s all about, but there are plenty of people, in the Beltway, specifically in the Pentagon who are fighting this tooth and nail.”

Still, Soldiers such as Rhodes scholar Lieutenant Joseph Riley (whose career was only saved through fortunate intervention by General Mark Milley after they were both speaking on the same panel) and a tri-lingual Special Forces Captain who deferred a Master’s program to keep up with his required duties found themselves being faced with discharge- all for taking a different path than what is considered the normal career progression course.

Perkins and other authorities on the matter claim the Army’s old mechanisms of career advancement often end up casting away professional talent due to the rigidity of the advancement process.

“We use an industrial, archaic system to manage personnel in the 21st century,” Perkins said. “With our evaluation systems, the metrics that we end up using to evaluate a person are just really poor.”

Verily, the US Army is in the midst of a talent crisis- in the most recent related study given back in 2010, only 6 percent of Army officers thought the service did a good job of retaining its best leaders.

Even in light of a drawdown from 1.3 million personnel to around 980,000, experts from the Atlantic Council think tank -such as Retired Army LTG David Barno and senior fellow Nora Bensahel- have warned that the Army must “reduce excessive deference to rank and position, reject Army anti-intellectualism and strengthen ethics and integrity.”

However, the Army often uses promotion boards -and their dated merit system- to assist in rank reduction.

“What we expect a promotion board to do is to select those officers who have demonstrated the potential to serve at the highest levels or at higher levels … the boards help us because they differentiate talent,” Army Talent Management Task Force director Maj. Gen. Wilson Shoffner noted.  According to Shoffner, the boards “are looking for a combination of several different attributes. We are looking to promote leaders of character, who have the right experiences, the right operational experience, who have demonstrated commitment to the profession and also have demonstrated competence in their profession.”

Despite many falling through the cracks, Defense Secretary Ash Carter continues to adamantly demand a higher quality of officer while still semi-embracing an outdated system (that often mistakenly trims the meat along with the fat) and continuing to try and bring in newer hires- even in the midst of a drawdown.

“We want people to consider military and public service because they will be better off for taking part in this incredible mission,” Secretary Carter said yesterday to ROTC students at the City College of New York’s Manhattan campus. “We’re going to help more Americans be open to helping us in that mission.”

Carter currently seeks to invigorate the Officer Corps across all branches through a series of reforms and pilot programs, including a multi-service ROTC model, internships, expanding outreach to females and minorities in STEM fields and offering more flexible scholarships.

Despite Carter’s lofty and often politically-correct goals, General Milley’s interpretation of what the future Soldier should look like seems to focus more importance on creativity and character than inclusiveness or opportunity.

“Our leaders then are going to have to be self-starters. They are going to have to have maximum amounts of initiative. They are going to have to have critical thinking skills well beyond what we normally think of today in our operations. They are going to have to have huge amounts of character so that they make the right moral and ethical choices with the absence of supervision under the intense pressure of combat. They are going to have to have a level of mental and organizational agility that is not necessarily current in any army really,” Milley said during a press conference last month, stressing that senior leaders will need to rust their lower-levels in a degraded combat environment where “being surrounded would become the norm.”

The Atlantic Council agrees with Milley, with fellow Bensahel saying that while the good ideas have sprung up with senior leadership, they have yet to properly filter down to lower levels.

“The need for broadening assignments,’ Bensahel said, ‘to have those sets of diverse experiences and so on that all of the service chiefs, certainly Gen. Milley in the Army, have said are a priority, but that message doesn’t always  go down to the promotion boards.”

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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