If the Army can re-think how it selects and advances its leaders, can you?
The way the Army promotes leaders over the years has – like a lot of things in the Army – been resistant to change. When I was a young officer, promotion was primarily a seniority thing. You didn’t make captain until you had put in a required amount of time as a lieutenant. It didn’t really matter how great of a lieutenant you were (note: I decided to leave the Army as a young captain – after about seven years of service).
As a career progresses however, promotions become more competitive and officers are weeded out (think of a pyramid, where fewer and fewer executive-level slots are available near the top).
Although the promotion system has been around for years, the Army has completely re-tooled it’s process for one of the most important personnel decisions it can make: the identification of new battalion commanders. In this excellent article in the Harvard Business Review, Col Everett Spain first identifies the problem:
In a 2009–2010 survey of 22,000 soldiers, 20% said they were serving under a toxic leader. Another survey showed that fewer than 50% of army majors believe the service promotes its best members. (The picture in the corporate world is similarly bleak. In one study, researchers estimated that half of senior executives were failing in their leadership duties. Another found that 16% of managers were toxic and 20% were incompetent.)
To it’s credit, the Army decided to act. First, it’s helpful to understand the typical promotion process that had been in place for years:
It’s little wonder that the army suffered a crisis of competence in its leadership ranks. Ever since centralizing its officer selection process, in the 1980s, it had chosen battalion commanders by having multiple senior officers simply score each eligible lieutenant colonel’s file, which contained subjective performance evaluations, an assignment history, and an official photo. On average, some 1,900 officers would be eligible for consideration each year. Each file review took about 90 seconds; the key text examined in each performance evaluation was shorter than a typical tweet.
The “official photo” was a big deal as I remember it. It was supposed to demonstrate if you had the sort of “military bearing” one would look for in a senior officer. They were taken in dress uniform, typically posed in the position of attention, unsmiling. Naturally, you can see the idea of an “official photo” accompanying your promotions packet as a flashing neon sign that say “Bias Risk!”. Recognizing that, the Army recently announced they were eliminating the idea of the official photo.
As the HBR articles lays out, the Army wisely looked at the process for selecting these battalion commanders – the first “executive level” leadership job for officers. The lieutenant colonels who are considered for these coveted commands have generally been officers for 17-20 years. Given the intense “move up or move out” pressure on senior leaders, these positions are highly competitive. More importantly, they are incredibly important to the readiness and operational excellence of Army units. It is from this pool of battalion commanders that the Army’s future generals will come, so “getting it right” is critical on many levels.
Some of the key areas of change revolve around eliminating bias. Do you think these ideas might become more common in the civilian world? For example:
- Interviews are conducted by diverse selection panels which include both voting and non-voting members (these non-voting members bring unique insights that improve the panel deliberation). Panelists are rigorously trained in the process, and panelists must recuse themselves if they know the candidate in any way.
- Use of double-blind interview techniques. Some of us have read about the double-blind interview process developed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1952, where potential musicians were asked to play pieces from behind a black curtain. In these Army interviews, candidates were similarly seated behind a black curtain, thus reducing (though not completely eliminating) unconscious bias based upon physical attributes like ethnicity, attractiveness, or physical awards like wings (which are awarded to soldiers who have successfully completed airborne or air assault school).
Significant effort was put into how questions are formulated. Maybe the most surprising to me was this:
Candidates were required to wait 30 seconds before answering each question—an instruction driven by what psychologists know about certain personality traits. Because extroverts are typically comfortable thinking out loud, whereas introverts tend to process information silently, the waiting period was meant to ensure that the former did not have an unfair advantage.
There’s much more. I recommend reading the entire article.
A logical question would be “what do the candidates themselves think about the new process?”. From the article:
In exit surveys 96% of the candidates, including 98% of women and 96% of minority officers, said that BCAP was a better way to select commanders. Two months later, after candidates had learned the results, 97% thought the new program should be continued.
The nature of how people are selected from leadership roles will continue to have problems associated with unconscious bias into the foreseeable future (to read about a hiring mistake I once made, go here). But if the US Army can adapt and change, so can we.