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The Solarium 7: Proposals from young Army leaders

Aug. 3, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Captains participate in mid-July in the 2014 Solarium conference. It was up to the young officers to strategize improvements to the service and pitch them to the chief of staff.
Captains participate in mid-July in the 2014 Solarium conference. It was up to the young officers to strategize improvements to the service and pitch them to the chief of staff. (Army)
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Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno talks to captains during this year's Solarium event. He's now considering how he might put the captains' ideas into action. (Army)

Want advice on building the Army of the future? Ask its leaders.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno did just that earlier last month, calling 100 top-performing captains from across the service to Solarium 2014, a July 9-11 conference at the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. About six weeks before the event, they were divided into seven teams and tasked with addressing some of the force’s key issues, including retaining top talent, creating a culture of success, and maintaining training and mission focus as the war in Afghanistan winds down and budget concerns ratchet up.

Once assembled, they spent two days in small-group discussions hammering out their ideas under the guidance of facilitators from the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies — better known as “Red Team U.”

They then gathered to present their findings to Odierno and other senior officers in what was supposed to be a three-hour session. It lasted four hours, and went well enough that plans are being kicked around for Solarium-style events at other levels — noncommissioned officers, warrants, even civilians.

Some highlights from the presentations, including comments from some of the captains who made them:

Branded professionalism

The problem: While the captains said the Army has done a superb job in getting its message to the public, they suggested there may be opportunities to streamline the branding efforts, which “may be trying to say too much at once,” according to the group’s PowerPoint presentation.

The perspective: In meetings prior to giving their proposal, the group worked on ways to define the Army with a single word, eventually settling on “competent,” said team member Capt. Taneshia Johnson, with 13th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.

“From that, we’re able to say we’re tough, we’re sophisticated,” Johnson said. “We can fit all that into being competent.”

The plan: The group came up with a new brand — “Trusted professionals” — that would stress competence and could be applied to virtually any soldier, organization or specialty. The group didn’t propose removing the “Army strong” branding effort, but said the two concepts would work together to reach all stakeholders — from troops to recruits to lawmakers.

Many of the other captains and officials in attendance said this group’s presentation resonated with the room.

“We put a lot of heart into it,” Johnson said. “For the chief of staff to say, ‘Hey, sign me up, I believe in this’ ... I was extremely, extremely happy. ”

Keeping the talent

The problem: Rules that require promotions to be drawn from a given year group or from individuals with a minimum required time in service could prevent hard-charging, talented leaders from moving up the ranks, the group found. These circumstances, along with other limits in the career-progression process, could force top talent out of uniform.

The perspective: The group identified two basic reasons why talented service members stay (“choice of assignment/location” and “educational opportunities”) and two reasons why they don’t — burnout and “lack of control in careers,” according to the PowerPoint.

The plan: Increase the number of performance-based incentives available to elite-level performers, and allow “merit-based promotions at the field grade and higher levels to allow for talent to determine future positions, rather than TIS,” according to the PowerPoint.

The group also suggested offering sabbaticals, including paid ones to obtain advanced degrees. This would help avoid the burnout issue, increase educational opportunities and eventually push toward “a proposed end state” where “the right leader is in the right position at the right time.”

Training resurgence

The problem: As the Army retools after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, leadership must do more training with less money and help its members “regain our expertise as trainers after extended conflict,” according to one group’s PowerPoint presentation.

The perspective: Team member Capt. Carla Getchell, who serves with the Kentucky Army National Guard, said all the captains in the group had experienced a disruption in training at one time or another, and that the group as a whole expressed a desire for the force to become “the experts at training that we once were.”

The plan: Make improvements to “train-the-trainer” programs and enhance virtual learning — moving beyond the common online classroom and into a more immersive experience. Also, utilize cross-platform training in ways that the current setup might not emphasize — not only joint-service and active/reserve team-ups, but also working with local law enforcement agencies and even universities to maximize the educational opportunities available.

Smarter schooling

The problem: These captains didn’t sugarcoat it: “The full potential of education is not being realized,” and “distance learning completion does not equal mastery,” according to their PowerPoint presentation.

The perspective: Team member Capt. Kerney Perlik, commander of A Company, 2nd Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, out of Fort Hood, Texas, soon will leave her post to attend graduate school and then become an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy — an opportunity for higher learning she believes should be made available to top warrant and noncommissioned officers, in some fashion.

Her group also considered proposals that would’ve stressed face-to-face learning at the expense of distance education, but they were swayed by members of the National Guard and Army Reserve units, who said their training schedules would be next to impossible to complete without distance-learning technology.

The plan: Online courses should have more instructor involvement and be better integrated into “brick-and mortar instruction,” according to the group’s presentation. Also, a better user interface and an Amazon-like “recommendation engine” would give soldiers greater awareness of the education programs available to them. And Perlik made her points about what the group’s PowerPoint presentation called a “disparity in education opportunities,” saying warrants and NCOs need better access to internships, fellowships and vocational training throughout their careers.

Career management

The problem: This group’s PowerPoint slide summed things up: “How does the Army more effectively balance the aptitude(s) and interest(s) of an officer, with the requirements of the institution, to optimize the force?”

The perspective: “The millennial generation wants more comprehensive, individual feedback,” said team member Capt. Paul Lushenko, commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 502nd Military Intelligence Battalion, 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. “It really drives self-development and introspection.”

The plan: Create an online “dashboard” that would allow officers to have access to their personnel information, network with others in similar fields and share their goals and qualifications throughout the service. It would allow for the aggregation of all types of personnel data — from raw scores to personality profiles — that would allow both officers and talent managers to make the perfect match.

“We should clearly communicate to officers where they stand,” Lushenko said.

Culture clash

The problem: The “Army culture” has a long tradition of inspiring and creating bonds between service members, but in recent years, it’s become reliant on technology, decision-making has become too centralized, and specialization has made it difficult to maintain traditions and has “decreased esprit de corps,” according to the group’s PowerPoint presentation.

The perspective: “Our main culture issue was a lack of identity,” said team member Capt. Shawn Jokinen, with the Special Warfare Education Group (Airborne) out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “We have very strong subcultures, but normally we look internally ... we’re not all ‘soldiers,’ like the way the Marines look at it.”

The plan: Building a “soldier-first mentality” means action from the ground up, Jokinen said — likely part of the reason the group’s PowerPoint presentation suggested “subordinate leaders” be able to “take disciplined initiative” in developing these bonds.

Part of that bond-building is internal; the team suggested ways to stress face-to-face interaction rather than death-by-slideshow. Another part involves passing this culture along outside the base gates, reaching out to communities and spreading the Army message.

“It shouldn’t be a culture shock coming into the military,” Jokinen said. “It should be transparent, open.”

Mission command

The problem: Mission command has come naturally to an Army at war, often operating in an austere environment, but “as we’re developing additional kinds of advanced technology and connecting the force better, we’re going to have to do that more out of a matter of choice than necessity,” said team member Capt. Jason Crabtree, with Army Cyber Command out of Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

As Col. Chris Croft, head of the Center for Army Leadership, put it, “Our mission command requirement becomes that much more great in an Army of preparation, outside of a controlled environment.”

The perspective: Mission command means trust, Crabtree said — trust running in both directions along the chain of command, and trust in the information used to make command decisions, which can come via systems “that may in fact be actively contested by an adversary.”

It also means winning the struggle between training time and “last-minute taskers and higher-level requirements,” Crabtree said — a priority clash that presents commanders with difficult decisions and limits the lower-level training performed by junior officers.

The plan: Proposals covered a range of areas listed above: a push to quantify some of the taskers to allow senior leaders to see when units were getting too many; a way to gauge which programs came with strict top-level guidance and which allowed junior officers to address defined subject areas with their own ideas; and more opportunities for what Crabtree called “informal mentorship” — interaction between junior and senior leaders that extends beyond memos and short briefings.

Many of the other topic areas discussed would feed into this one, Crabtree said: “The reality for us was, we really felt that mission command was very much at the nexus of what was presented.”

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