The Bayonet

Tuesday, Jul. 15, 2014

Chief of staff taps captains for talent-management ideas

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FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. - The Army wants to put the right people in the right jobs at the right time - especially with shrinking budgets and manpower and an uncertain global security environment - but does it do that very well?

Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Raymond Odierno asked a group of captains how they think those talent-management efforts are working and what improvements, if any, are needed.

Better interaction between the Soldier and his or her branch manager is necessary and the process needs more transparency, said Capt. Paul Lushenko, noting this has been a perennial and festering problem.

He added that the Army would, of course, need to balance the aptitude and interests of the officer against operational requirements. Commanders would also need to play a role in the decision-making process.

Odierno cautioned that although it's important that commanders play a part in talent decisions and scouting, given a choice, they would choose the best 10 captains to be in their command.

That wouldn't be fair to the captains, who would be competing against their peers for promotions and other opportunities and it wouldn't be fair to other units where they might be drawn from.

"Certain units have a history of drawing good officers," Odierno said, adding that "as chief, I want to spread talent across the Army."

The topic of talent management was one of several discussed at the Army's second solarium. The first was convened by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1953, across the defense establishment to formulate Cold War strategy.

Solarium 2014 dealt with pressing issues with which the Army is grappling. One hundred and five captains from across the Army met in Washington July 9-11, to wrestle with problems and brainstorm ideas and solutions, after interacting with their teams for a month online.

The event culminated in each team presenting its findings to the chief.

Seven teams, each with about 15 members, were divided into two teams focusing on talent management, and one team each for vision and branding, culture, mission command, education and training.

Odierno said he values inputs from junior officers, many of whom will still be around when the Army of 2025 matures.

He used the Socratic method of discussion, which encouraged the captains to contradict his own views and argue their own points in a back-and-forth discussion.

"My biggest fear in life is (that) no one's telling me what's going on, so I focus on understanding how other people are seeing things and getting their perspectives," Odierno said, acknowledging that duties and responsibilities in his role as chief often isolate and prevent him from having candid conversations with Soldiers in the field.

Lushenko continued to explain his team's thoughts on talent management, using captains as examples, offering that the approaches discussed could also apply to other Army ranks.

YOUNG GUNS Some of the captains said it is not uncommon in the private sector to see young chief executive officers running large companies.

Throughout American military history, young officers have often risen quickly through the ranks to command large formations during wartime. Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer is an example.

They wondered if a 28-year-old officer might have the talents and inclination to command a brigade, side-stepping or bypassing the current system year-group and time-in-service requirements in favor of a merit system. Perhaps a commander could take a prudent risk in selecting such a person for command.

Odierno waxed hot and cold on this idea. "I like your argument, but there are some impediments," he cautioned.

A brigade commander needs to have a certain level and types of experience, he said, including "tactical and technical leadership capabilities that allow you to operate across the broad spectrum of problems."

Broad spectrum, he said, could be anything from understanding how recruiting works and having experience as an instructor at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, to getting a master's degree in international relations with experience at the joint level or with a coalition partner. Command at the company and battalion levels would be desired as well.

"You're entrusting the lives of America's sons and daughters" to the commander, so taking a risk like that would be too big a gamble, he said.

"We're not a company like Apple or CISCO that's about profits and margins," he said. "Ours is a complex system of life-and-death responsibilities where learning mistakes could cost the lives of hundreds of people. We can't walk away from the responsibility of command."

Besides that, there are statutory requirements that prohibit favoritism in deep selecting, he added.

But the idea of elevating talent quickly is, nevertheless, worthy of consideration in other ways, he said.

Could a cyber expert or financial wizard be quickly elevated to colonel? "I'd be comfortable with that," he said, meaning developing a fast track for technical specialties where the likelihood of command in battle is near nil.

"We've got to figure out how to do that with the authorities we now have and determine what new authorities we need, realizing the process could take five to 10 years," he said.

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