Secretaries Carson, Modly, and others took to heart what any political leader who has been successful in taking on the hard rows of personnel policy reform, from the late Congressman Ike Skelton during the creation of the Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 to the current day: they invested enormous and precious resources of time, personal intellectual effort, and political capital to champion those reforms, both in public and private. These investments, as history shows, often incurred great personal costs. And still, in current manifestations of both education and personnel policy initiatives, the term “talent management” is bandied about as if everyone knew what it means, still eluding the potential of what needs to be for our national security.
What Talent Management Might Be
Talent management is attractive exactly because it is such a potentially powerful though shapeshifting term. Prosaically, everyone wants to be seen as “talented”—and recognized for their hard work in developing what they uniquely bring to their teams. Thus far ill-defined, talent management needs to signify something palpably real to people who may choose to serve, and if proven worthy, to lead. Yet at the same time, for our most senior leaders who have the power to fence off budgets and convince Congress of their motives, talent management must also mean something strategically real—as important as the throw-weight of a submarine-launched nuclear ballistic missile. Or hundreds of them.
This latter point was not always so clear. When developing talent management concepts in 2014, then-CNP Moran and staffers were invited to General Electric’s famed Crotonville learning campus in New York state. As the GE provost-leader answered their questions, a group of fresh-faced “students” sauntered through the doors of the large cafeteria—identified as part of a new leadership-in-training cohort—the best of the best. Thinking of seizing an opportunity, one staffer asked, “How do you keep this special kind of young talent in—what do you do to retain them?” Without hesitation, the provost replied, “And why would we build such fences—what would be the point?”
Today, those fences of retention appear to be the only means of providing a reasonable return on taxpayer investment for what are seen as the costs of recruiting, educating, and training our people. Yet what is the point, as the provost asked, if we haven’t adequately defined what we are looking for, or do not measure what qualities we have within to start? Our current “fences” of life-altering, nearly decade-long service obligations, narrow, unforgiving, heel-to-toe promotion pathways to positions of leadership, and last-chance monetary incentives mean nothing if the military cannot measure human capacity differently for the future.
Our industrial-age methods of determining “end-strength” for our military’s human population, counting people as interchangeable parts, are, in effect, eroding our future national security through an inflation of lost opportunities. We have no idea about the quality of talent flowing through the military and back to civilian life, and no way to measure what we might need—looking either forward or backward in that flow—in times of peace or crisis. The “talent management” systems of active and reserve components are divided by universes of space and time: not only do they run completely different systems of staffing and resourcing, but more importantly, they lead competing and almost adversarial approaches to the same target: American human talent.
Neither have we come close to correctly valuing the combination of education and talent management. If education is part of how we learn about our people, and measure that learning, should we not retain those measurements, study them, and make the investment matter as an expected return? What if we tested weapons systems in our federally-funded laboratories and just threw away the results, never creating performance parameters, and never intending to learn from them? That is essentially what we do with our people today. There is so much to learn about our people when the opportunity to learn is presented before them.
Developing a deeper bench of diverse, measurable talents for our military’s future is a real and achievable strategic outcome of “talent management”. Current technologies combined with an ever-increasing knowledge of human and machine learning tell us that it is possible. It is possible to identify specific talents in individuals and to groom those talents over careers in service, both active and reserve. It is possible to provide feedback to each person who decides to serve—where their talent and proclivities best lie, and what future states they might achieve, armed with an institutional, data-driven curiosity about who they are as human beings. It is possible to preserve data about each individual in a transparent manner, and at the same time prepare the institution with multiple mixes of talent desirable for various possible future states and national needs.
Instead of the best available, we could actually promote our best qualified, and just not those qualified for the job, but qualified to lead in a particular role during the era that role demands. Instead of settling for who is available within the narrowing gates of a graduating class two or three decades old, availability should reside in a much larger pool of those who have already proven their willingness to serve—if only we would measure and retain what we’ve learned about them. The ultimate strategic act is planning for an uncertain future. In the end, talent management, properly defined, is the necessary strategic leadership of a learning institution. Leading our people with actions, not just words; leading by listening and learning about them; and by doing so, leading and empowering them to achieve their dreams in service to our nation. That is the most American national security strategy of all.
Steve Deal, Captain, U.S. Navy (Ret.) was the Executive Director of the 2018 Education for Seapower Study and Report. He served as Deputy Chief of Staff to the Secretary of the Navy and Deputy Chief Learning Officer for the Department of the Navy. During his twenty-seven years on active duty, he commanded Patrol Squadron Forty-Seven, in Ali Air Base, Iraq; Joint Provincial Reconstruction Team Khost, Afghanistan; and Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Ten in Whidbey Island, Washington.
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