View Full Version : The Path to Professionalism in the Officer Corps

10-06-04, 05:50 AM

The Path to Professionalism in the Officer Corps

By Donald Vandergriff

Third in a Series
The other day, I was fortunate to walk in on a panel discussing Reserve and National Guard transformation. It was co-hosted by The School of Foreign Service at Georgetown and no other than the Association of the United States Army (or AUSA). The lecture by one of the members of the panel dealt with force structure and transforming the Reserve and National Guard. Then the audience asked questions, which surprisingly got to the heart of transformation.

I was impressed by several of the questions. The questions dealt with what forces have to do today and in the future to evolve, to prepare to fight 3rd and 4th Generation Warfare threats. I even heard the latter term used in a question. I heard a lot asked about unit manning and unit life cycles. I heard that the personnel system was years out of date. It was based on beliefs and theories developed a century or so ago (“Hmm … I kept saying to myself, this sounds familiar”).

Then, from the panel, I kept hearing that nothing could move forward effectively until you -- “Change the personnel system!”

Due to the people who were saying this, I felt vindicated. I mean, a few of these people for a couple of years disagreed with me or disputed the merit of my arguments through back channel essays passed around to their Beltway buddies and within their think-tanks – and a “hit man” book review (that is where you have someone write the kind of review you want to see, usually damaging and a contrasting view to the book it is being written about).

But, what does “Change the personnel system!” really mean? I have been trying to define that question in my columns, or if you have my book, Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs, read Chapter 8.

Accomplishing “Parallel Evolution” means the evolution of the institutions that build a culture along with the evolving face of war. To me, the heart of these changes needs to be with those laws and policies that impact leader development and unit manning. For now I am focusing on the evolution of the officer corps under “Parallel Evolution.”

One of the two biggest obstacles to effective transformation is the way we manage the officer corps (the other is resistance to moving to a unit-centric personnel system). The first and most difficult change will be eliminating the “up-or-out” promotion system and replace it with an “up-or-stay” system. The “up-or-out” promotion system drives personnel policies that minimizes the probability that officers will have the time to develop the abilities to “rapidly grasp changes in situations and conditions” and “exercise initiative by independently planning.” An officer currently spends his career on a “treadmill.” It also develops the anxiety about getting promoted in officers and thus forces them to adhere to the “competitive ethic.”

The “up-or-out” system also fosters the “Peter Principle,” where individuals tend to get promoted to their level of incompetence. Officers then get stuck in jobs because there is no possible way to advance. That job will undoubtedly be unfulfilling.

Unfortunately, the Army does not generally take steps to move personnel back to a level where they can function effectively. Where the Army runs into problems is when it uses promotion to reward performance and minimizes potential. These two concepts – performance or competence and potential for leadership need to be separated somehow in the promotion system.

The new promotion system will have to become more decentralized. Those who know the officer should be the ones with the authority to do the promoting and selecting of individual officers. This means regimental and division boards should be established to view fewer officers for a longer period of time. With commanders remaining at their positions longer, they will be able to better assess (on a first-hand basis) which officers deserve to be promoted or selected for attendance at a staff college.

Brigade and division commanders should be empowered or trusted to appoint boards to promote officers up through the rank of lieutenant colonel. With the field narrowed by a smaller officer corps, centralized boards could then decide who gets promoted to the rank of colonel and higher, and select officers to command brigades and larger formations.

All boards at all levels will use three tools – the OER (written solely in regards to the officer’s character, an examination taken yearly, and the personal conduct of the officer in front of the board) – to determine promotions and selections. The bottom line in using such stringent tools is the implication that leadership and professionalism are critically important – too important to either rest on the sixty-second consensus opinions of disinterested officers serving the political agenda of the Army.

The type of officer needed for combat in the future will posses many qualities which cause uneasiness among superiors developed and raised in the culture of management science. A leader with strong character and imagination will always focus his unit on training for war, will spend his time on studying the art of war, and will not waste time in the diversions called for by the “up-or-out” system. Currently, the very officers who advocate reform will get out of the Army when they return from Iraq or Afghanistan or will be relegated to backwaters assignments.

The causes of poor morale, career anxiety, the emphasis on the competitive ethic and the transformation or elimination of bold personality types are the key reasons to rid the Army of the “up-or-out” promotion system. This is particularly troubling for the type of Army officer and organizations required to carry out high-tempo operations, in conditions that will require us “to fight outnumbered and win.” We invariably lose our warrior-leaders and our innovators under the entrenched personnel system. Only an “up-or-stay” system based on objective measuring tools and the trust and bond of an officer corps can create the type of leaders the Army deserves.

In an “up-or-stay” or “perform-or-out” (this term is from the work on junior officer development by Mark Lewis) promotion system, if an officer wants to get promoted, he will ask for it. The patterns for career management will change to support the number-one priority, a unit-centric personnel system. Initially, an officer will still enter the officer corps from one of three commissioning sources, but accessions (entry) will be more selective than ever before with a smaller officer corps.

This will allow the Army to return to advertising for potential officers using nationalistic service to the country and duty to the people as the number one reason for those individuals to serve, instead of paying for school or filling up a resume for life after the Army.

Here are some other proposed elements of the new officer corps system:

First, all potential officers will serve a minimum of two years with a National Guard or Reserve unit (similar to the Simultaneous Membership Program (SMP) employed in conjunction with ROTC programs now). Officers will then have experience working with the reserves.

Next, the mission of the commissioning sources is selecting and strenuously preparing their candidates to become officers. Meeting “missions” and filling quotas should not be a concern of the commissioning sources, but only having candidates meet standards – quality, not quantity is what the sources strive for and meet. Prior to becoming commissioned, officers will have to pass a comprehensive entrance exam.

Officers will then serve their initial four-year tour with a regiment. Branches will be eliminated and replaced by a triad of Combined Arms, Logistics, and Specialists. An initial tour in a specific area will not determine the officer’s path for the rest of his career. Officers may move from one area to another throughout their careers or remain in that one area as long as they perform admirably. This, of course, makes room for the late-bloomer, something that does not occur now.

At the end of this first tour (which aligns with the four-year, three-phase operational life-cycle of a battalion), accession into the professional corps will occur based on how well candidates scored on their second entrance examination, performance in the regiment, and a decentralized selection board examining the above mentioned tools.

The board will also determine the specialty of the officer into one of three tracks: tactical, operational or technical, while serving in one of the three areas of Combined Arms, Logistics or Specialist. Under this system, the Army would be able to spend substantial time on the development, assessment, and evaluation of its officers, instead of the “60 second” look-over officers currently get on promotion/selection boards for the search for the one “discriminator” in one’s “file.”

Instead, due to the use of a multitude of evaluation tools, and a smaller officer corps, the Army will become more objective in its personnel decisions – and the nation, Army and the officer will all benefit from the system. The following paragraphs briefly touch upon my scenario for the reorganization of the officer management branches and officer specialties. The Army will have to “recode” several military occupational specialties to align with the new, broader fields.

The Tactical Track ensures that an officer will remain at the company, battalion or regimental/brigade level throughout the rest of his career. After selection to the Tactical Track, officers will attend a tactical course, which focuses on small-unit leadership, decision-making and tactics. They may rotate from positions within one of the tactical levels to instructor positions and back. This track includes all units from both combined arms and logistical units involved in operations at the tactical level. Officers may remain in this track, with the option of being promoted to the level of colonel with a possibility of commanding a brigade.

Those officers, who score in the top 15-20 percent of the entrance examination to the professional force, and demonstrate outstanding performance in front of the board, will be admitted to the operational track. Additional requirements to the operational level will include an understanding of the art of war demonstrated on the entrance exam, and proficiency in a foreign language.


10-06-04, 05:50 AM
The Operational Track will consist of officers who become the operational experts of the Army and will rotate between command and staff assignments at the divisional or higher levels and back to the Army or Joint Staff. These officers will attend a combined version of Command and General Staff College and the School of Advanced Military Science (SAMS) – a two-year version of graduate school in the art and science of war. These officers become the institutional cradle for proficiency of the art of war at the operational and strategic levels.

The Technical Track relates to the specific inherent technical abilities associated with the more technologically advanced Army and the management of the tables of distribution and allowances or TDA Army (the part of the Army which provides the support structure for the combat units i.e., Training and Doctrine Command, Recruiting and ROTC commands, which needs to be drastically consolidated or reduced).

This field involves far more than the military medical and legal professions. It includes all positions that require graduate-level, civilian-related education or technical training such as the acquisition corps, academic instructors, operations research system analysis, comptrollers, computer programmers, communications specialists and facilities managers. Officers in this category could remain captains, with pro-rated pay, but would have to continually demonstrate their proficiency with periodic examinations combined with reviews of their evaluation reports. Officers could opt for promotion as the technical experts at division or higher levels, while the appropriate higher-level ranks would correspond with assignments at higher headquarters and responsibilities.

As one member of the Georgetown/AUSA sponsored panel indicated, the old personnel system is out of date, and it is time to transform it with changes in education, medicine and the culture in order to maximize the talent the Army has within its ranks. This is what the debate is all about: If the Army is going to transform, it must take advantage of its human resources, and allow the people to have a stake on where they can best benefit the Army, instead of the Army adhering to a century-old personnel system.

As the late Col. John Boyd once said as he responded to technological solutions, “It is people-ideas-hardware, in that order.”

Editor’s Note: See also the first article in this series, “An Army Built on Trust” (DefenseWatch, Sept. 13, 2004), and the second article, “Creating an Adaptive Officer Corps” ( DefenseWatch, Sept. 22, 2004).

Contributing Editor Donald Vandergriff is retiring next summer following a 21-year Army career including service as a personnel reform expert who consulted with congressional and Army leaders, and leading think tanks on personnel reform. He is currently writing his next book, Raising the Bar: Evolving ROTC with the Face of War. He can be reached at vandergriffdonald@usa.net. Send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com.