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12-11-03, 08:46 AM

The New Officer Corps: ‘360-Degree Evaluations’

Last in a series

By Donald E. Vandergriff

In my two earlier articles in this series, I proposed a transformation of the U.S. Army’s officer corps to match the service’s decision to dramatically reorganize how units are manned, trained and deployed. I also described a new selection and promotion system for recruiting and evaluating officer candidates (see “Transforming the U.S. Army Officer Corps,” DefenseWatch, Nov. 6, 2003, and “Tools for Transforming the Officer Corps,” DefenseWatch, Nov. 21, 2003.

A vital component of this new system will be what I term “360-degree evaluations” of all officer candidates and commissioned officers, the subject of this article. This is, simply put, formal ratings of an officer’s performance by superiors, peers – and subordinates – the latter constituting a truly revolutionary innovation in the Army’s “top-to-bottom” personnel system.

Recall, this will be part of a truly new officer culture that includes an accessions system where only the best candidates are commissioned (“better no officer than a bad officer”); tough academic standards, including decision-making speed drills; close monitoring through continual evaluations in leadership positions under stressful force-on-force free-play exercises, and graded performance in combat physical training exercises (such as litter carry races, tactical foot march races, etc.).

The officer candidate is finally commissioned after passing a comprehensive examination and receiving a letter of endorsement from the chain of command of his or her commissioning source – ROTC, OCS, USMA, or the soldier’s previous unit – under the philosophy that only those who know them can best make the case for commissioning them – not some distant, centralized board looking over stacks of paper and doctored-up digital photos.

Once the officer is commissioned, he will fall in under a unit life cycle in a regimental or “regionalization” unit system , a home district for soldiers and officers. This is my favorite option in a list of possible courses of action that the Army Stabilization Task Force is now studying to best enhance Army effectiveness. But even at this point, the new lieutenant is still not considered to be part of the profession of arms.

It will be during that initial service in an Army unit life cycle that the new officer must put everything together he or she has learned in previous training to lead soldiers. At the end of that cycle, the lieutenant will then take a second and final professional examination. Upon passing the examination and approval by a special regimental board, the lieutenant will finally enter the professional officer corps.

During both their initial service with a unit and afterwards, officers will continue to be evaluated and mentored on their performance. Because the new officer corps will be characterized by a much smaller size and its members known for surpassing the strenuous entrance requirements already discussed, it will be necessary for the officer evaluation report system to change as well to reflect the new culture. In particular, junior officers will have the ability early on to learn their profession and take risks without fear of today’s “promotion anxiety” caused by careerism and the “zero-defects” culture.

The Officer Evaluation Report (OER) will still be used, but it will be only one tool of many to evaluate both performance and potential.

The final aspect of the new the OER is peer and subordinate ratings – along with ratings by superiors – of the officer. Employing such a system will prove that the Army is truly dedicated to promoting and sustaining a healthy organization.

A review of each officer’s record would quickly identify what type of an individual he or she has become: One who pleases superiors at any cost; one who angers superiors because he or she dares stand up for peers and subordinates, or one who contrives to be popular with all, but an ineffective leader. While this procedure will add additional paper to the evaluation, the net result will enable the new Army culture to fully assess its future leaders.

Peer and subordinate input into the evaluation system is essential if the organization wants to identify, reward and develop leadership. There is simply no alternative – particularly in light of the fact that leadership strengths and weaknesses often reveal themselves last, even to an experienced boss.

There are three aspects to peers/subordinate ratings the Army must embrace if this is to work: First, the system can and must be designed with simplicity of use and administration in mind. Second, the capabilities of automation should be able to minimize the extra workload at all involved levels. Third (and most important), the change is essential for the health of the Army and must be accepted by all of those leaders who have come up through the existing personnel system.

Successful examples of this system are readily available for study: Several organizations in the Army today use “180-degree evaluations” (peer only). In the American business community, AT&T, Frito Lay and Eastman Kodak Co. use “360-degree” systems for evaluating their senior and middle management personnel.

Within the Army, schools also use performance counseling to supplement evaluations. At career courses, students in a 16-man seminar get “hacked” upon in writing by their peers in the seminar. This includes a “straw man” ranking of top-to-bottom performer based upon both objective criteria (observable behaviors and actions) and subjective indicators (“I would have this guy on my left or right flank any day”). This is often the most effective component to get the attention of officers who have abilities, but are either not trying or do not have an idea how to improve their leadership style without changing their principles.

The bigger problem with the current OER (and all previous versions) is that there is a mix of objective, observable and quantifiable skills and abilities along with evaluation comments that are absolutely subjective in nature. While subjective comments remain a prerogative of the rater and senior rater in today’s Army, in the business world, our OERs would easily get a company crushed in court.

The bottom-line challenge in implementing a “360-degree” performance appraisal for Army officers is the simple fact that it manifests a profound culture change.

In particular, allowing subordinates to comment on their superior’s performance will succeed only if the Army can devise both criteria and process to ensure that it does not become a popularity contest with the same dire results that occurred in the beginning of the Civil War when the most popular civilian – not necessarily the best officer – became the regimental commander.

Subordinates should be limited to commenting only on the superior officer’s observed behaviors with specificity and facts. For example, a subordinate would not comment on the officer’s decision-making capability unless they were in numerous positions to observe the behavior, not just the effects.

Subordinate comments on an OER have a tremendous value for counseling. This, in reality, should be effective enough to crush ineffective leaders early before they get promoted into more incompetence. This is why the OER, even today, can easily reflect a “360-degree” appraisal through informal/semiformal systems within the unit.

The odds are not good that senior Army leaders will rush to embrace such a radical, across-the-board change that will allow their subordinates to suddenly rate them openly and honestly. The only way I see success in creating this tool is to start at a selected unit and implement a test version of the system with outside monitoring and observation. Then, if it shows promise and results, the Army could gradually expand it over a period of time to include the whole service.

The Army badly needs a new officer corps to handle the transformation issues of the 21st century that will enable it to win the wars of the 21st century. To grow and nurture that new cadre of military leaders, the service will need equally revolutionary tools for accomplishing that goal, particularly this new form of rating and evaluation. And that means Army officer culture must change, from the youngest lieutenant to the most senior general.

Their common enemy is an antiquated personnel system that wastes money, distorts careers and does nothing to help the Army carry out its mission.

Donald Vandergriff is a Contributing Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at vandergriffdonald@usa.net.




12-11-03, 06:50 PM
Send 'em to The Basic School