What Does Talent Management Mean for the U.S. Military?

What Does Talent Management Mean for the U.S. Military?

It is imperative that the United States military gets talent management right.

If there is one most overused and misunderstood phrase used throughout the modern military—and there are thousands competing for that title, no doubt—it might be “talent management.”  

At worst, it might be the leftovers of extant human resources mechanisms warmed over and replated—at best, it could encompass the strenuous testing, training, and narrow career tracks leading to the movable feast of our flag and general officer corps, for whom extant talent management worked fairly well.

Despite the great political courage of a few, and precious momentum earned on the shoulders of many, we have missed some grand opportunities over the past decade to define talent management and make it into the most transformative weapons system the nation has ever seen.  Like the term itself, the goals have been too ambiguous, the costs indefensible, and the return on investment incalculable. It is literally the programmatic challenge of the century. 

With current technology, the military has the capacity to learn about its people, provide feedback to those people as well as those entrusted to lead them, and therefore create a new vision about what service means for the nation. The data created from that learning must be used to create a deeper bench of measured, differentiated skills for our national security. Far too involved for “HR” to do alone; to have a chance, talent management must be one of the highest personal priorities of any appointed leader, civilian or uniformed. We are failing our future, which includes American sovereignty and our entire way of life, if we do not reinvent our approach to talent management now.

What Military Talent Management Originally Was

The “O.G.” of military talent management was the nation’s senior service, the United States Army. More precisely, it was born at the Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis (OEMA) in the revered “SOSH” (Department of Social Sciences) at West Point. Created in 1983 as a response to some of the most dismal recruiting climates (in terms of quality and quantity) the service had ever seen, OEMA became a powerhouse of data extraction and collection, both about the American workforce and each cadet who decided to serve. The Army took the long view, identifying stellar officers to attend top-drawer Ph.D. programs throughout the nation to lead OEMA, attracting labor economics specialists, historians, behavioral scientists, statisticians, and more.  By the 2000s, the Army had a full-blown, data-driven leadership laboratory up and running at West Point, gaining the attention of the Army’s most senior leaders. 

Starting with a plan for Senior Officer Talent Management, OEMA then worked to create a Talent-Based Branching Board at West Point which identified, measured, and curated the talents of each incoming cadet and matched them with the specific knowledge, skills, and abilities desired by the Commandants of each service branch. Often, incentives such as first duty station or a commitment to fully paid graduate education were used in this market-based approach to help place cadets in professional areas where they could be most successful.  

OEMA had even bigger plans, still not completely realized today: all officers would go through an entire career of talent development progression. Leveraging educational opportunities at the Army’s Command and General Staff College and Army War College to further learn about each officer, identified talents would be applied to specific career assignments. The goal: identifying a broader bench of talent from which to choose for the future senior leadership roles of the institution. If a future global state required a certain kind of future Commanding General, U.S. Army Pacific, or leader of Training and Doctrine Command, it would be far more likely for the institution to choose the right leader for the right time, and for the right reasons. Like General George Marshall’s famous “little black book” (more a mental record than actual) of known leaders who proved so valuable as World War II erupted, talent managers of today might provide a more transparent, data-driven slate of learning leaders for specific challenges.

General James McConville as Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army for Personnel (G-1) was a champion of OEMA’s work, and it was no coincidence that he was selected as Chief of Staff of the Army to carry those reforms through. General McConville, along with Admiral William F. (“Bill”) Moran, who also studied OEMA in his “Sailor 2025” program built in 2014, General David H. Berger, and General C.Q. Brown were seemingly (and wisely) chosen by political appointees as the “people” leaders of their era. Reforming our approach to people was identified as strategically important to our national security, and still is today, yet such reformation requires a significant amount of time and distance across inevitable political divides to carry through toward real progress.

What Talent Management is Decidedly Not

The Protean nature of talent management often lends itself more readily to definitions and expressions of what it is not, and why it could not be accomplished. The easiest (and seemingly most practical) thing for even the most visionary senior reformer is to empower each leader in the fleet or field to pick their own replacement through the evaluation reporting system, allow selection boards process to codify those choices in law, and call it talent management. Yes, this system is much better than the “waiting for dead men’s shoes” era of appointing officers for promotion over 100 years ago. Yet it represents a failure of both imagination and calculating reason for what is absolutely possible today.

Despite a relatively abundant time of personnel retention, one visionary leader who saw a need for a new approach was then-Chief of Naval Personnel (CNP) Bill Moran (later, Vice Chief of Naval Operations). The vision for a more flexible era of service, as expressed by CNP Moran in the fleet and at headquarters attracted a great following from junior officers and mid-to-senior level enlisted. A phrase from Moran’s December 2014 Proceedings article, “force for the future” was apparently lifted (the best compliment, of course, is flattery) and became “Force of the Future”—later created as the prized achievement of the late Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s tenure, by his own profession. Secretary Carter’s champion for these programs was an intellectual force of nature, former Rhodes Scholar, Congressman, and naval officer, the acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Brad Carson. The mere mention of Force of the Future (FOTF) still pains some retired senior officers and civilians with a grimace due to the speed, alacrity, and pure brute force of myriad programs seemingly forced upon them, during a time when it was often heard, “the prescription does not fit the disease.” The FOTF effort was truly immense, involving the entire Pentagon, an all-encompassing sprint of an effort rarely attempted before and never since, involving a top-down encouragement of specific values and objectives. The series of reform proposals of FOTF was equally staggering—targeting both civilian and military. Today, many of those “bad prescription” proposals are understood today as “just the way we do business”—a testament to the movement’s ambition and visionary success. 

Yet telling the Services how to promote their officers as part of those reform initiatives—a process enshrined in legislation and boiler-plated in bureaucracy—became too difficult and finally unwise, especially without a unifying vision for what talent management might mean.  Some flexibilities in the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980 were created through a series of legislative proposals that were signed into law. It was left to each Service to decide how to utilize them, according to the wisdom of the day—a “build it and they will come” approach. Those flexibilities are rarely fully exploited today, and certainly not in ways that are serving to avert current recruiting and retention problems of historic proportions being experienced by almost all the uniformed Services.   

“A Tale… Full of Sound and Fury… ”

What talent management also cannot be is a tagline thrown into every glossy strategy document in Washington, D.C., signifying nothing. Talent management has at times become bait for proposal documents by contractors and uniformed strategic action groups, large and small. It is easier to meet performance measures when the product is the process. Convincing senior leaders trained in Pentagon budget drills to invest in an unproven process is another thing entirely.

In early 2018, when then-Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly (future Acting Secretary of the Navy) announced his clean slate review of naval education, talent management was already part of every Navy personnel program document as a result of Sailor 2025. 

Under Secretary Modly (later Acting Secretary of the Navy), a brilliant Harvard Business School graduate who found success in corporate as well as government leadership, made education his signature program. In effect, Modly made education “strategic” by lifting it through intense personal attention to the level of his many other initiatives including audit, business operations planning, and information technology. By widely surveying how education mattered to personnel policy, and cataloging every input received, the study assumed a more bottom-up approach. He named the effort “Education for Seapower”—after the U.S. Naval Academy’s motto, his alma mater—and today, it largely stands as one of the few programs that survived the tumultuous Navy leadership transition from the Trump to the Biden administrations, no mean feat. Yet even then, the Education for Seapower study and report did not adequately define talent management; probably, needfully so in order to garner initial support amongst the naval services for elevating education as a warfare enabler, the real object.