Any discussion regarding the Army’s approach to talent management often produces the wailing and gnashing of teeth akin to a Wagnerian opera as a deluge of ideas struggle to find a balance point, crafting a promotion system that retains the best talent while also allowing additional time for those officers who need to grow professionally. In “Can the Military Halt Its Brain Drain?” Lt. Gen. David Barno and Nora Bensahel cite a 2010 Army study that revealed that only 6 percent of surveyed officers believe the Army does a good job of retaining the best leaders. While civilian firms continue to innovate new approaches to talent management, the authors assert that the Army is unable to become a “camouflaged version of Google or Facebook” as long as it sustains an industrial approach to officer promotions that is inadequate for talent management and retention. To be sure, the U.S. Army’s size, its unique requirements, and a host of other factors mean that it cannot adopt Silicon Valley approaches wholesale. But equally, to suggest that its bureaucratic mechanisms can never be reassessed and updated risks not only driving further dissatisfaction within its ranks, but eroding its mission effectiveness, as well.
While Barno and Bensahel’s article stops short of describing a Götterdämmerung-like crisis, their call for reform is warranted when one realizes that the Army promotion system uses time as the single criterion for deciding when to evaluate an officer’s potential to serve at the next level. Because the current system assumes that all officers require the same amount of time to develop professionally, exceptional leaders are forced to travel at the same pace as the rest of the herd. Therefore, I argue that the promotion system should consider officers for advancement to the next rank as soon as they complete the critical assignments, or key development billets, of their current grade — making it easier for the Army to more quickly and efficiently get the most qualified officers into the positions where they are most needed.
A simple change in promotion board timing could go a long way toward retaining the talent the Army needs. Clearly, the Army is unable to offer the same incentives that the private sector uses to prevent top performers from gravitating to a competitor. Stock options and performance bonuses conflict with the Army’s values for a number of practical and ethical reasons. However, the Army is not totally without options for better talent retention. By slightly altering its promotion system to prioritize professional accomplishments rather than solely time in grade, the Army would stand a better chance of advancing — and keeping — its best officers.
Two anecdotes combine to illustrate the comparative benefits of such an approach. Last year, while attending the Command and General Staff Officer Course (CGSOC), I was told that I would arrive at my next duty station and go straight into a key developmental (KD) billet — a required gateway through which an officer must pass in order to be eligible for promotion — as an executive officer in a cavalry squadron. Being a victim of my own hubris and ego, I categorically believed that I was ready to move mountains, part seas, and quickly become the best executive officer in the brigade if not the entire United States Army. After CGSOC, I learned to my dismay that I would have to serve a year on division staff before I became a cavalry squadron executive officer — surely another instance of the Army’s Kafkaesque bureaucratic malfeasance.
Six months into my job in the division future operations (G35) shop, I’m glad my KD assignment was delayed. I was not ready. Though I had never served on a staff, I believed I was ready to lead one by virtue of a sense of confidence gained by planning countless invasions of countries that only exist in CGSOC tactical problems. I admit that I needed time to grow before I was handed the baton. Had I gone straight to a squadron staff, I likely would have failed. And, in the era of drawdowns and reduction boards, I would have paid the price at my next promotion board. This time on staff has taught me the valuable lesson that I am not a unique and beautiful snowflake, as well as making it clear that I still have much to learn. Rather than being a developmental delay, I believe my current billet will make me a far better battalion executive or operations officer.
The story of a very close friend serves as a counterpoint to my experience. My friend was promoted a year early, or “below the zone” in Army parlance, based upon his performance as a captain. Further, he was also selected as one of a handful of individuals to attend the U.S. Naval War College instead of CGSOC. When he subsequently arrived at Fort Riley, his follow-on duty station, his superiors decided that he was ready to go straight to a KD job without having to spend a year “growing” on the division staff, and my friends at Fort Riley tell me that he is excelling as a battalion operations officer. Clearly, this individual has a bright future in the U.S. Army, but the earliest that he will become promotable to lieutenant colonel is 2018. Even if his chain of command believes him ready to serve at the next level, he will have to wait until he meets the Army’s time-in-grade requirements. In my opinion, the Army is going to squander two or three years of his potential while my friend waits for the rest of us to catch up with him.
These two vignettes — and countless others’ similar experience — show how the Army’s current promotion system is not optimized for maximum efficiency when it comes to talent management. The Army should rapidly assess, and where warranted advance, those individuals who demonstrate a uniquely high degree of acumen. Each branch could define the parameters of this new approach by independently determining what it considers a KD billet. Further, this KD-centric approach will empower brigade and battalion commanders to better manage the talent within their own organizations. They will have greater autonomy in deciding which officers are ready to assume critical roles and which officers need additional development, instead of being constrained by a year group-based promotion system.
This system would not require a fundamental transformation of the Army’s promotion system, nor would it require an exorbitant amount of resources. Instead of promotion boards considering year groups, they would simply consider cohorts of individuals who have passed the mandated career gates. The throughput of KD assignments would remain roughly the same assuming the 18–24-month limit for serving in a KD assignment remains constant, so the number of officers to consider each year should therefore also remain constant. In simple terms, the only alteration to the current system that my suggested approach demands is that Human Resources Command (HRC) compile the candidates’ files for promotion boards when they complete their KD assignments as opposed to reaching a prescribed point on their time-in-service timeline.
As a related aside, broadening assignments offer another method of retaining the best performers and placing them in positions most advantageous to the Army. Regardless of whether we want to admit it or not, most of us have a secret wish list of all the illustrious opportunities that we want to enjoy between our KD assignments. Prioritizing access to these assignments for the most talented leaders could enhance retention. These range from graduate schooling to White House fellowships to foreign attaché positions. The system that I propose would have promotion boards devise an order of merit list (OML) based upon the performance evaluations and other criteria of those officers being reviewed. Broadening assignments would then be picked in order of OML rank, enabling the top talent identified by the board to have access to the most sought-after billets and allowing the Army to reap the benefits of giving them needed experiences while retaining their expertise.
This system pairs well with the new 401k-style retirement system that will soon take effect for all members of the military who joined after January 1, 2006. The saying “I’m just sticking it out until I hit my twenty years,” is muttered so frequently that it has become a pessimistic credo of many a malcontent field grade officer. Commissioned officers tend to understand when their career has reached its maximum trajectory. In the words of one of my former first sergeants, not everyone in this business is going to become the chief of staff of the Army. By considering individuals for promotion immediately after the completion of their KD jobs, the board can provide rapid feedback to individuals who will not be advancing to the next rank. This will allow them to find new careers in the civilian sector much more quickly, rather than waiting for years until the traditional year group promotion boards convene. Faster separation of lower-performing officers will further enhance talent retention by creating more space for the most qualified officers to advance.
A counter-argument to this system is that it would foster a sense of cutthroat competition amongst those waiting in the KD queue. But if the Army trusts its battalion and brigade commanders to lead soldiers in war, there is no reason why it should not also expect them to fairly manage the talent within their formations. No system is perfect and there will always be commanders who reward the wrong kind of behavior, but that does not detract from the advantages of relying upon the chain of command to develop leaders rather than remaining permanently wedded to an inefficient system that fails to put the right officers in the right places.
The current system is not fundamentally broken. And yet neither is it fully optimized to serve the Army’s needs. It promotes good people; however, I submit that it does so much too slowly. In a financially constrained environment, the Army needs to attempt to mirror the lean effectiveness of successful civilian companies, which give their leaders as much authority as they can handle as quickly as possible rather than making them achieve arbitrary chronological milestones. The Army should be no different. Accelerating the development of our best and brightest still allows for guys like me. In fact, a 21st-century talent management system would be better across the board — facilitating efficient separation of low-performing officers, providing incubation time for officers who will benefit most from it, and advancing officers ready to contribute more to the Army. As Euripides said, “The god of war hates those who hesitate.” And in a world that is becoming more unstable with each passing day, the Army cannot wait to place exceptional leaders in critical positions.
Major Cory Wallace is currently serving as an armor officer. He graduated from West Point in 2004 and has earned graduate degrees from both the University of Washington and the University of Kansas.
Blogs, Charlie Mike
The Best Career Paths for an Army Officer
A branch is a grouping of officers making up an arm or service of the Army. Officers are accessed upon commissioning into a single branch. Throughout their company grade years, it where they are assigned, developed and promoted. In their fifth and sixth year, they may receive a functional area designation within the branch.
Special Forces is the only nonaccession branch, recruiting officers with a minimum of three years of experience from the accession branches.
Officers serve their first eight to 12 years developing the leadership and tactical skills associated with their branch. They wear their branch insignia throughout their military service. All career branches are in the Operations Career Field.
Assignments for Army Officers
Most officers will serve in positions from within their basic branch through their company grade years. Some officers will serve in a functional area or generalist positions that are not related to a specific branch or functional area after they are branch qualified as captains. Following Career Field designation, officers are assigned to positions within their Career Field (basic branch or FA) or to generalist positions. This type of assignment pattern promotes assignment stability and development within a branch or functional area.
Functional Areas for Army Officers
A functional area is a grouping of officers by technical specialty or skill, which usually requires significant education, training, and experience.
An officer receives his or her functional area between the fifth and sixth years of service. It is designated considering individual preference, academic background, the manner of performance, training, and experience, and needs of the Army. Here is a listing of the Branches and Functional Areas for Army officers:
Branch 11 Infantry: The infantry officer is responsible for leading the infantry and combined armed forces during land combat.
Branch 12 Corps of Engineers: An engineer officer is responsible for providing full support to the wide range of engineering duties in the Army. They can help build structures, develop civil works programs and even provide combat support.
- 12A Engineer
- 12B Combat Engineer (del 1310 / 1110 - 14)
- 12D Facilities/Contact Construction Management Engineer (FCCME) (del 1310 / 1110 - 14)
Branch 13 Field Artillery: The field artillery officer leads the field artillery branch, who neutralizes the enemy by cannon, rocket, and missile fire. The officer must be an expert in tactics, techniques, and procedures for the employment of fire support systems.
- 13A Field Artillery Officer
Branch 14 Air Defense Artillery: The air defense artillery officer leads the air defense artillery branch, who protects U.S. forces from aerial attack, missile attack, and enemy surveillance. They must be an expert in tactics, techniques, and procedures for the employment of air defense systems. They also become an expert in one or more systems including the PATRIOT missile system and the AVENGER system.
- 14A Air Defense Artillery Officer
Branch 15 Aviation: Aviation officers coordinate/lead operations using Army helicopters: OH-58 Kiowa, UH-60 Black Hawk, CH-47 Chinook and the AH-64 Apache. These operations can haul troops and carry supplies, as well as provide quick-strike and long-range target engagement.
- 15A Aviation, General
- 15B Aviation Combined Arms Operations
- 15C Aviation All-source Intelligence
Branch 18 Special Forces: The Special Forces officer is the team leader of an operational detachment alpha, a highly trained 12-man team that is deployed in rapid-response situations. The officer organizes the mission, outfits the team and debriefs them on the mission objective.
- 18A Special Forces Officer
Branch 19 Armor: Armor officers are responsible for tank and cavalry/forward reconnaissance operations on the battlefield.
The role of an armor officer is to be a leader in operations specific to the armor branch and to lead others in many areas of combat operations.
- 19A Armor, General
- 19B Armor
- 19C Cavalry
Branch 25 Signal Corps: The signal officer leads the Signal Corps, which is responsible for the Army’s entire systems of communication. Officers plan and execute all aspects of communication on a mission and are critical to the Army’s continued success.
Branch 27 Judge Advocate General's Corps: The Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps attorney is responsible for offering legal support that involves military operations. They primarily focus on the areas of criminal law, legal assistance, civil/administrative law, labor/employment law, international/operational law and contract/fiscal law.
- 27A Judge Advocate General
- 27B Military Judge
Branch 31 Military Police: A military police officer is responsible for leading the Soldiers that protect lives and property on Army Installations.
- 31A Military Police Officer
Branch 35 Military Intelligence: The Army’s military intelligence is responsible for all collected intelligence during Army missions. They provide essential information that often saves the Soldiers fighting on front lines.
- 35D All-Source Intelligence
- 35E Counter Intelligence (CI)
- 35G Signals Intelligence/Electronic Warfare (SIGINT/EW)
Branch 36 Financial Management: The financial manager is in charge of the Army’s Finance Corps, who are responsible for sustaining missions through purchases of services and supplies.
Branch 37 Psychological Operations: Psychological operations officer conducts operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences. Psychological Operations leaders lead from the front and adjust to dynamic environments that are constantly changing and challenging.
- 37A Psychological Operations
- 37X Psychological Operations, Designated
Branch 38 Civil Affairs (AA AND USAR): Civil affairs officers act as a liaison between the Army and civilian authorities and populations.
- 38A Civil Affairs (AA and USAR)
- 38X Civil Affairs, Designated
Branch 42 Adjutant General Corps: The Adjutant General Corps officer plans, develops and operates the Army’s personnel, administrative, and community activities support systems to build and sustain combat readiness.
- 42B Human Resources Officer
- 42C Army Bands
- 42H Senior Human Resources Officer
Branch 56 Chaplain: The Army chaplain has the responsibility of caring for the spiritual well-being of Soldiers and their Families.
Branch 60-62 Medical Corps: The Medical Corps is composed exclusively of commissioned officers who have a degree of Doctor of Medicine from medical school or Doctor of Osteopathy from osteopathic school acceptable to HQDA.
- 60A Operational Medicine
- 60B Nuclear Medicine Officer
- 60C Preventive Medicine Officer
- 60D Occupational Medicine Officer
- 60F Pulmonary Disease/Critical Care Officer
- 60G Gastroenterologist
- 60H Cardiologist
- 60J Obstetrician and Gynecologist
- 60K Urologist
- 60L Dermatologist
- 60M Allergist, Clinical Immunologist
- 60N Anesthesiologist
- 60P Pediatrician
- 60Q Pediatric Sub-Specialist
- 60R Child Neurologist
- 60S Ophthalmologist
- 60T Otolaryngologist
- 60U Child Psychiatrist
- 60V Neurologist
- 60W Psychiatrist
- 61A Nephrologist
- 61B Medical Oncologist/Hematologist
- 61C Endocrinologist
- 61D Rheumatologist
- 61E Clinical Pharmacologist
- 61F Internist
- 61G Infectious Disease Officer
- 61H Family Medicine
- 61J General Surgeon
- 61K Thoracic Surgeon
- 61L Plastic Surgeon
- 61M Orthopedic Surgeon
- 61N Flight Surgeon
- 61P Physiatrist
- 61Q Radiation Oncologist
- 61R Diagnostic Radiologist
- 61U Pathologist
- 61W Peripheral Vascular Surgeon
- 61Z Neurosurgeon
- 62A Emergency Physician
- 62B Field Surgeon
Branch 63 Dental Corps: The Dental Corps is a special branch of the Army composed of commissioned officers who are graduates of a dental school accredited by the American Dental Association and acceptable to The Surgeon General.
- 63A General Dentist
- 63B Comprehensive Dentist
- 63D Periodontist
- 63E Endodontist
- 63F Prosthodontist
- 63H Public Health Dentist
- 63K Pediatric Dentist
- 63M Orthodontist
- 63N Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon
- 63P Oral Pathologist
- 63R Executive Dentist
Branch 64 Veterinary Corps: The Veterinary Corps (VC) consists exclusively of commissioned officers who are qualified doctors of veterinary medicine.
- 64A Field Veterinary Service
- 64B Veterinary Preventive Medicine
- 64C Veterinary Laboratory Animal Medicine
- 64D Veterinary Pathology
- 64E Veterinary Comparative Medicine
- 64F Veterinary Clinical Medicine
- 64Z Senior Veterinarian (IMMATERIAL)
Branch 65 Army Medical Specialist Corps: The Medical Specialist Corps is made up of clinical dieticians, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and physician's assistants.
Branch 66 Army Nurse Corps: The Army Nurse Corps provides the nursing care and services essential to the mission of the Army Medical Department. Responsible for all facets of nursing relating to the planning, management, operation, control, coordination and evaluation of all nursing practices.
- 66B Army Public Health Nurse
- 66C Psychiatric/Behavioral Health Nurse
- 66E Perioperative Nurse
- 66F Nurse Anesthetist
- 66G Obstetrics and Gynecol
- 66H Medical-Surgical Nurse
- 66N Generalist Nurse
- 66P Family Nurse Practitioner
- 66R Psychiatric/Behavioral Health Nurse Practitioner (add 1304 / 1110 - 13)
- 66W Certified Nurse Midwife (add 1304 / 1110 - 12)
Branch 67 Medical Service Corps: From medical fields such as optometry and podiatry to laboratory sciences to behavioral sciences, the Army Medical Service Corps includes many areas of specialty.
Branch 74 Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN): A Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear officer commands the Army branch that specifically defends against the threat of CBRN weapons and Weapons of Mass Destruction. These officers lead an extraordinary chemical unit that is completely dedicated to protecting our nation.
Branch 88 Transportation Corps: The Transportation officer manages all facets of transportation related to the planning, operation, coordination and evaluation of all methods of transportation including multi-modal systems.
- 88A Transportation, General
Branch 90 Logistics: Logistics Corps Officers are competent in planning and directing multi-functional logistical operations across the tactical, operational and strategic spectrum of logistical functions of maneuver sustainment.
Branch 91 Ordnance: Ordnance officers are responsible for ensuring that weapons systems, vehicles, and equipment are ready and available—and in perfect working order—at all times. They also manage the developing, testing, fielding, handling, storage and disposal of munitions.
- 91A Maintenance & Munitions Materiel Officer
Branch 92 Quartermaster Corps: The quartermaster officer provides supply support for Soldiers and units in field services, aerial delivery, and material and distribution management.
- 92A Quartermaster, General