Fix Officer Retention!
Death by Admin
The quickest way to buy back operational commanders’ time is to allow them to focus on leading and training in naval warfare rather than on ever-changing readiness and social program reporting metrics. Growing “administrivia” decreases commanders’ ability to become tactical experts and lead from the front; inhibits junior officers’ ability to become the subject matter experts that their squadrons, ships, or units need; and degrades enlisted leaders’ ability to develop fully their craft and pass on their experience to sailors. Burdened with bureaucracy—from general military training and redundant inspections to piles of compliance instructions—operational leaders have become office managers. Other individuals who are skilled in the use of information systems should be provided the education and given the resources to generate lasting improvements. Specialists who do not deploy and have atypical Navy career paths need to work closely with warfighters to fully understand our scattered requirements and to reorganize the entire information technology structure for better management of data, on both big and small scales. Reasons commonly given for not implementing such changes range from system security to separate managers of multiple databases to lack of funding. The Chief of Naval Personnel has begun to address the fixes, but the Navy needs to expand and focus these initiatives down to the O-5 operational level. The Navy should remove some burdens. At the least it should develop more efficient reporting and tracking systems. Useless periodic training and reporting structures have become annoying forms of micromanagement that must be eliminated.
Compensation should account for the lost personal and family time and high work demands that accompany command positions, sea duty, and deployments. The Department of Defense typically compares its pay scales to those of the private sector, but the job requirements are not the same. The department should not be considering private-sector salaries, but rather why people are paid at certain levels. The military needs to embrace a market-driven compensation system for what it can accomplish and how it might enhance retention. Private industry compensates leaders based on two cornerstones: time invested (viewed as effective effort, not simply seniority) and anticipated return on investment, or evaluated potential. This is a simple risk-reward determination. Industry ascertains not only the amount of time the company it has invested in the leader, but also how much time the leader has dedicated to the advancement of the company and how effective that time has been. Performance metrics, for both tangibles and intangibles, are evaluated, and compensation is geared to retain top-tier talent rather than just a certain number of people. Similarly, the military needs to adjust compensation to keep the right people in uniform—not simply the right number of people. Navy pay should be adjusted based on job difficulty, level of talent and skill required, and other socioeconomic factors such as location, time away from family, perks, and private market economy. Compensation should be based on more than just time in grade. Currently, Navy O-5 commanding officers receive bonuses aimed at keeping the required number of commanders in the Navy to fill those positions, but that bonus is not large enough to retain the best officers. The military accepts that it loses some of its highest-quality people to economic attrition. But, how many Class A mishaps that could be prevented by top-quality people would naval aviation have to suffer to make significantly bigger command bonuses worth it? Metrics in this area are hard to measure, but the basic tenets are not outside comprehension. Some argue that our selectivity for command is fiercely competitive and that market-driven compensation is implausible. But if a large number of top-performing junior officers are leaving at the pre–department head level, is the Navy really as selective as it would like to be? Junior officers who are lost will never compete for command. Commanding officers receive bonuses, but those bonuses tend to be a small percentage of their overall compensation. Successful O-5 command often is rewarded by an even harder job, and sometimes that harder job comes with a cut in compensation. The Navy should pay more for the hard jobs. Every O-5 job is not equal and should not be paid at the same level. Compensation should be increased to a level that retains the right people for specific jobs. This is not a duty-versus-money issue. It is a point of pride for most military members that their service is not about the pay. But the military must ensure that the most talented people are not leaving because of a lack of financial stability. People should be compensated for accepting the most difficult and demanding jobs, not just for their seniority.
The Golden Path
The Navy’s current advancement process is built on quotas and does not provide for a thorough and fair evaluation. Young officers’ aptitude for future leadership is evaluated based on the opinions of the handful of commanding officers for whom they have worked. Under the current system, ten years of service are evaluated in a few seconds. The Navy dedicates a week at a time to the selection of future leaders, and each person’s record receives less than a minute of scrutiny by a board of evaluators. This promotion board system creates a zero-flaw environment that tends to judge quickly and discard those who may have had a single misstep in their careers. From peer reviews to outside-of-command evaluations, the Navy needs to find fresh and efficient ways to determine who is best for the future of the Navy. Career-path rigidity is a symptom of a risk-averse leadership culture. In the current tunnel vision, certain jobs must be “punched.” Instead, the Navy should value quality people who perform well regardless of where their timing or luck may have led them. High-functioning strategists are needed as much as tactical warfighters. Failing to retain quality personnel comes at a greater cost than only a poor quarterly earnings report. The U.S. military is here to fight and win wars. To do that, we need our best and brightest. The Navy must demonstrate that it intends to keep those people, regardless of time in rank or career wickets.
The Time to Fight
“Knife in the teeth” leaders will not remain in the service if they believe they will not be able to hone their skills and positively influence the cause to which they are sworn. Job satisfaction correlates to the ability to fight and win. Unfortunately, the Navy is not being allotted the resources it needs to meet the demands of the current global environment, which has led to a drastic reduction in flight hours, degraded aircraft and ship readiness, and a growing bow wave of troubles for the next generation of leaders. A warfighting organization needs individuals who prioritize initiative and motivation, but it is difficult for leaders to maintain motivation when their warriors are not getting the resources they need to be experts at their craft. Current leaders are forced to dedicate more energy to risk reduction and creative maintenance than to sharpening tactics and teaching sailors how to fight and win. Naval aviation once took pride in the fact that its pilots flew more hours per month than its potential adversaries, but with cuts to flight hours and fewer “up” aircraft, proficiency is becoming less of an advantage every day. As much as junior pilots want to fly, seasoned aviators want to be ready to lead in combat. Commanders should be able to dedicate most of their day to training and interacting with operational teams. They should have the confidence and tactical prowess to be the best warriors in their command, and they should consistently set and uphold that standard. Unfortunately, the Navy has turned commanding officers into administrators, managers, and paper pushers. Some are able to interact sufficiently with their teams about tactics, but to accomplish that they often sacrifice something else, such as deadlines for reports, family time, or their own health in the form of inadequate sleep, exercise, or diet. The Navy needs to shift its priorities and give its leaders their time back. It must put the knife back in the teeth of operational commanders.
Implement Radical Modernizations
It seems the Navy is heading toward a train wreck without attempting to change tracks. There is little attempt to stem the tide of voluntary resignations of high-caliber officers. Those high-quality second- and third-tour officers are leaving because they deem the problems are ingrained in the Navy’s culture and cannot be changed. Senior leaders are made aware of attrition percentages versus the number of officers the service needs to retain, but not of the caliber of talent that is bowing out. Navy personnel are very aware of job opportunities inside and outside the service, and many of the best are voting with their feet. The Navy must open the career path aperture and make changes to total force arrangement that are more than superficial. By implementing radical personnel and readiness system modernizations, it has the opportunity to make the military profession not just prestigious but also effective and rewarding. The Navy needs a culture that values the time of its leaders, that promotes the highest quality people, and that better rewards individuals’ investment in the organization.
• Minimize current social and cultural training requirements to gain time to improve warfighting skills. • Kill useless and redundant administrative burdens. • Categorize general military training requirements by pay band and time in service. • Increase the effort to build and improve the My Navy portal. • Revamp the Navy’s Global Address Listing to enable a single email address that lasts an entire career. • At the command level, remove all designation letters and consolidate and parse multiple inspections to a more manageable schedule to lessen the impact on commands. • Revamp the bonus structure so only those serving in specific jobs can draw a bonus. • Review, revise, and retarget community incentive pays. • Analyze naval officers’ total compensation packages today versus the 1980s. • Initiate a market-based detailing framework to allow officers to compete for jobs. Billets that are difficult to fill may require greater incentives, while billets that attract too many applicants might allow for a decrease in pay. • Eliminate year groups and move to a promotion system that requires job completion before gate approval. • Seek more ways to implement off-ramps and on-ramps so officers can pause and restart their careers. • Allow O-6 leaders to “hire” department heads with input from O-5 commanders. Allow O-7 leaders to individually hire O-5s with O-6 input, and so on. • Incorporate a meritorious advancement program. • Require FitReps to identify the bottom 10 and 20 percent of officers in a peer group. The Navy should not continue to write inflated evaluations on every officer, even those it should not retain. • Take advantage of early promotion opportunities and make success more important than seniority. When officers hit their wickets a year or two early, they should be able to move to the front of the pack and take on increased responsibility. • Create a working career intermission option for women and men who want to start a family. For example, allow officers to choose shore duty tours where they can contribute, retain medical and pay benefits, but not earn time toward retirement or minimum service requirements (while sliding their year group). Place them in a not-observed FitRep group in jobs that are administratively focused. • Track the quality of individuals submitting resignation letters. Better metrics will alert leadership to a coming retention crisis or a drop in quality of those retained. • Let the administrative chain of command handle administrative burdens. Lift requirements from deploying units and find ways to pull information rather than demanding units push data. • Reestablish and support officer clubs to boost morale and camaraderie and support mentoring. The Navy is a proud service that does many things right, but it needs a real culture shift to retain the best officers. It will not be easy, but now is the time to provide young officers hope for a rewarding future. Author’s Note: This paper is a shortened version of a research paper written for professional improvement. The author would like to acknowledge and thank Lieutenant Commanders Charles Schellhorn, Ryan Brown, and Kristen Smith and Lieutenant Patrick Frailey, without whose help and honesty this paper could not have been written.
This article appeared originally at U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings Magazine.