As debate intensifies in Congress about reforming the Pentagon's retirement and personnel policies, a new survey I conducted in partnership with Military Times yielded high scores for leadership culture in the U.S. military services compared to private sector firms, but far lower scores in talent management. The survey measures 40 elements of leadership and management practices in any organization, with goal of getting beyond narrative critiques of the armed forces.
Everyone from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to junior officers and noncommissioned officers seems to agree that the personnel system needs reform. But how exactly? I've talked to hundreds of reformers in recent years, all sincere and full of passion, but diverging wildly on what is broken, and more wildly in what should be done about it.
Popular management theories can easily lead reformers astray, particularly the golden era gurus such as Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis. They describe management as the opposite of leadership. "The manager administers; the leader innovates," wrote Bennis in 1989. That's fine for individual development, but not relevant when thinking about organization-wide modernization. For the organization, leadership culture is complementary to personnel policy, not its opposite. Values are one thing, job-matching is another: in some firms both are strong while in others both are weak. The standard business case concerns a firm that is strong at management, but weak on one or more leadership dimensions. It turns out the Pentagon has the opposite problem.
The Leader/Talent matrix I developed over the past two years was in consultation with senior military officers, Silicon Valley executives and academic experts. We distilled 40 elements which were framed in a descriptive statement that can be assessed on a 4-point scale (where 4 equals "always true" of the organization, and 0 equals always false). For example, one of the statements about leader development is "Young leaders are given serious responsibilities." The average of 360 military responses is 2.7, slightly better than the 2.5 average of 244 company responses.
Across five categories of leadership culture, the military scored slightly higher in two — Purpose and Values. Purpose includes measures of employee passion, motivational leaders, and compelling vision. The average score for the U.S. military in the Values category — with measures of trust, teamwork and integrity — was the highest for any category in the survey. On the downside, the U.S. military received much lower ratings in the eyes of its employees on three of the five categories for talent management: Job-matching, Promotions, and Compensation. This does not mean that the military pays its people less, but rather that it pays ineffectively and wastefully compared to the average American company.
The U.S. military scores 1.24 points below the private sector on the Job Matching category (on a 4-point scale), which includes measures of local hiring authority and the ability to remove poor performers. The lowest score, in absolute and relative terms, is 0.4, which the military got on "Bonuses are used effectively to reward good work." While the military uses bonuses heavily, it seems that troops perceive them as blunt and broad rather than efficiently targeting the right talent.
So, who cares if the Pentagon has old-fashioned personnel policies? John McCain, a U.S. senator and heroic Navy fighter pilot who survived half a decade as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, summed up the typical veteran's attitude about serving in uniform: "Not for profit, but for patriotism." And he's right. The problem is when organizational values are misaligned with policy, exactly what the divergent talent scores indicate. Because of the way the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard are managing talent — coercive assignments, inflated OERs, six-figure bonuses, mandatory job-hopping — they also have worse scores on measures of organizational performance. Weak retention of top talent is one factor largely explained by lower Leader/Talent scores, but regression analysis also finds significant correlation with lower worker happiness and work quality. In short, improving talent management in the U.S. military will boost retention, morale and mission success.
Could the survey data be biased by non-random respondents? That's a possibility, but the survey was designed and deployed to check that. First, three-quarters of military respondents are on active duty. They were more, not less, critical than veterans (for example, giving an average 0.8 score on the statement "Poorly performing employees can be easily removed, relocated, or fired" compared to the 1.3 score from veterans). Second, we can see valid, significant gaps among the categories even if the military respondents are more (or less) critical than a random sampling. For instance, the same pattern among Leader/Talent categories emerges regardless of rank, despite higher marks given by higher ranks across the board.
A third check on bias in the survey is two subsamples that validate the overall findings. While most respondents are self-selected individuals who clicked on the Military Times survey link, one group of high-potential Air Force officers at a selective service school were asked by their dean to anonymously participate, and all but one did. Their responses were nearly identical to the self-selected Air Force respondents.
To confirm the private-military differences, there is a subsample of 66 respondents who assessed two employers: one military branch and one private firm. Their assessments were identical to the overall sample, with very large weaknesses identified in military job-matching, compensation flexibility, lack of individual career control and promotions based on seniority more than merit.
Of course, the best way to validate these preliminary findings is for the service branches, commands and units to conduct organizational Leader/Talent surveys with a wide, random sampling. My current findings are preliminary, but clearly point to a wide gap between the military's strong overall leadership culture relative to hugely negative marks for many of its personnel practices. A working paper with full results from the Leader/Talent survey will be published in coming weeks by the Hoover Institution. Throughout 2015, additional respondents to the Leader/Talent survey are welcome to participate.
This new generation of leaders led by Secretary Carter in the Pentagon, returning from a decade at war, is gearing up for a serious fight to fix the personnel bureaucracy. I've heard from more than one senior officer that there aren't any bad guys in this fight, just the "institutional concrete" that Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned about in his farewell address. The challenge is knowing which weak spots in that concrete to hit first, and those targets should be clearer now.
Tim Kane (@TimmerKane) is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He is a veteran Air Force officer and author of "Bleeding Talent." Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His report is "The Leader/Talent Matrix: An Empirical Perspective on Organizational Culture."