Monday, January 10, 2011

Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving: A Naval Aviator Perspective

The following contribution comes from CDR Herb Carmen. CDR Carmen is an E-2C Hawkeye and C-2A Greyhound pilot who previously commanded the VAW-116 "Sun Kings." He recently served as senior military fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Since first reading Tim Kane’s article in Atlantic Magazine, “Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving,” it has spread virally among the Navy junior officer corps. Although the Navy’s surface warfare and submarine communities face shortages of midgrade officers, Naval Aviation retention is not an immediate concern. While it’s important to recognize the cyclic nature of officer retention, we are certainly not in the midst of the type of widespread exodus that Naval Aviation experienced in the mid to late 1990s. What is it, then, that today’s Naval Aviation junior officers find so intriguing about Kane’s article?

As a post-command officer serving on a large staff, I recognize that I have a different and somewhat detached viewpoint from the perspectives of junior officers populating Ready Rooms today. The officers in Ready Rooms around the Fleet shape Naval Aviation’s culture and its “brand” from within. They are the ones most affected by promotion zone contractions and pipeline pools in flight training. Most importantly, in just a few short years these officers will be the squadron commanders leading the Fleet. With this in mind, I asked for JOPA’s thoughts on Kane’s article and received input from over a dozen aviators.

From O-3 to O-5 and from among nearly all communities, their perspectives vary almost as widely as their locations (Afghanistan, Nevada, Norfolk, Newport, Florida, California, and Washington, DC). Some are committed to a 20-plus year career, some have already chosen to leave the Navy, and others are yet undecided. Their comments point squarely at Kane’s discussion of merit:

“…the reason overwhelmingly cited by veterans and active-duty officers alike is that the military personnel system—every aspect of it—is nearly blind to merit. Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command. Promotions can be anticipated almost to the day— regardless of an officer’s competence—so that there is essentially no difference in rank among officers the same age, even after 15 years of service. Job assignments are managed by a faceless centralized bureaucracy that keeps everyone guessing where they might be shipped next.”
To state more directly: they feel held back.

JOPA is Still JOPA

After hearing from the junior officers, the same things motivate today’s junior officer that motivated my generation two decades ago: job satisfaction, sense of responsibility, accomplishment and recognition, camaraderie, benefits, quality of the leadership. What was notable was that several I spoke with found value in having the time and freedom to think and make decisions and such time and freedom to think was a significant component of job satisfaction.

Flying is still the biggest motivator, and several of the junior officers thought it would be helpful if some were able to stay on as instructors for longer tours, even at the expense of promotions. This concept of “employability rather than promotability” (PDF) deserves continued consideration.

The pace of promotions, however, is a concern among many. When the annual notice of selection boards hit the message boards last month, many who had expected to be in zone for promotion found that they had slid back a year. While the law governing promotions will be discussed here in greater detail, it’s worth mentioning that junior officers see promotion as one way the Navy can recognize their hard work. While they recognize just how tough today’s competition is for promotion and command screening, the officers I talked to would rather see the promotion rates drop slightly than be slowed down further by shrinking promotion zones.

When it comes to assignment detailing, surprisingly, only one officer I heard from liked Kane’s idea of free-market detailing. One felt it would tend to cluster the talent in a few popular units. Another thought the process would be too demanding on commanders. A third felt that the system of detailing we have today worked well but wanted more visibility to future open billets. Yet another wanted to see BUPERS handle all Individual Augmentee (IA) assignments and felt BUPERS could bring predictability, stability, and visibility to the IA assignment process. The officer that liked the idea of free-market detailing thought that the ability to apply to jobs with higher responsibility might be a way to accelerate upward mobility.

Overall, the same themes I remember hold true today. Junior officers want responsibility, job satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment. And they derive a lot of that job satisfaction from flying. The following paragraphs address topics that were common among those I’ve spoken with over the last few days with a few suggestions on ways to find, promote, and keep the Navy’s best talent.

Department Head Screen Board

For JOPA, the first daunting career hurdle is the Department Head screen board which follows selection for lieutenant commander. As stated in the latest precept (PDF), “The function of the board is to recommend aviation officers for the position of Department Head of operational and operational training aviation squadrons.” The average total opportunity for selection in 2010 was 53%. Some communities, such as VRC pilot, VAW NFO, and VQ(Turbine) pilot faced a selection opportunity for operational department head of 25% or less.

While this may seem like the Navy has the enviable luxury of “pick of the litter” among aviation lieutenant commanders, the Department Head screen may be unwittingly stripping the Fleet of potential talent. Officers who don’t follow the “proven” career path feel they face an uphill battle for selection. This drives officers to seek a very rigid track for the first ten years of service while overlooking other opportunities and experiences that might be very beneficial later in their careers. The danger is that the first 16-18 years of an aviator’s career path will become too scripted, overly tactical, and platform-centric. To prevent this, precepts for the Department Head screen board should recognize the value of the career skills and experiences that transcend the department head level and accept variability in career paths that contribute to diversity of experience within Naval Aviation.

Fitness Reports

Because the competition is so tight for department head and command, the fitness report system is critical to breaking out the top performers. Having written or edited performance reports from all four services (PDF), I would argue that the Navy and Marine Corps have the best systems to identify top performers. The forced distribution on competitive reports helps to break out the top officers in each reporting period. But there is still some room for improvement.

While it is easy to identify the very top performers, it is far more difficult to break out the officers “in the crunch,” those officers with very strong and competitive records that fall on the edge of the selection threshold. When officers have nearly identical records, choosing an officer in the crunch sometimes boils down to a “tiebreaker.” A bit more fidelity might be helpful. Many reporting seniors I’ve talked to keep about a 4.0 average or higher when writing fitness reports for lieutenants. In effect, “above average” has become the average because there is no performance trait to choose between “Meets Standards” and “Above Average.” This leaves little room to use the trait average as a discriminator in selection boards.

The flexibility to rate an officer’s performance as meeting standards while recognizing his/her performance may still be below average might be an effective way to set a more realistic average and grade distribution. With a more realistic average, breaking out the top performers then becomes a bit easier as well. The following set of performance traits might accomplish this task:
1.0 – Below Standards
2.0 – Progressing
3.0 – Meets Standards
4.0 – Average
5.0 – Above Average
6.0 – Greatly Exceeds Standards
With this system, a reporting senior’s grade distribution might be less statistically skewed. A more normal distribution would give selection boards the opportunity to make better use of the data beyond the comparison of averages used on today’s Officer Summary Record (OSR). The comparison of the standard deviation of the officer’s trait average from the reporting senior’s average would clearly highlight those officers that have a significant breakout from the pack in the eyes of the reporting senior, particularly if a reporting senior carefully manages the variances of the grades he/she assigns.

Even if grading system improves, fitness report timing is still critical to an officer’s career potential. With so many good records to compete against, selection for department head or squadron command could come down to comparing the number of months officers were ranked number one. This is exactly where the reporting senior’s trait average data might play an important role in helping a selection board pick the top officers.

Early Promotion and The Lineal List

If the perception among junior officers is that they feel held back in their careers, it might seem obvious that we should promote more of the top performers earlier. After all, the Air Force—which uses a Promotion Recommendation Form in addition to performance evaluations—often promotes its top officers early to major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel. But in the Navy’s career milestone-based system, promoting an officer a year or two earlier than his/her peers can actually hurt that officer’s career. Early promotion reduces the time the officer has to successfully complete the prerequisite career milestone tours. For example, an officer selected for early promotion before he/she obtains the top fitness report ranking among his/her peers will probably not screen for squadron command.

All the military services’ promotion systems are based in law. The Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) established a military officer management system that drives how officers are promoted. DOPMA drives the “up-or-out” promotion system we use today. In general, officers move through the system in groups and compete for promotion to the next higher grade against other members of the group at set years-of-service (YOS) points. The Navy groups its officers using lineal numbers determined upon commissioning. This lineal number is criticized by a number of aviation officers as too rigid and some liken it to the labor system used by the airlines for its pilots.

Short of an overhaul of DOPMA, is there an alternative method that might allow for merit-based promotions? One method might be to “restack the deck” at each promotion selection board. Instead of retaining the previous lineal order, those selected might be placed in a new order of merit while those passed over for promotion retain their existing lineal number. The selectees’ order of merit could be determined by fitness report data (standard deviation from reporting senior’s average), selection board confidence rating, or combination of the two. This subtle change and a return to a more distributed promotion phasing plan would allow top performers to promote slightly faster than their peers.

Let Them Run With It!

Naval Aviation’s Ready Rooms are full of incredibly energetic and talented junior officers that are driven by job satisfaction, responsibility, and a sense of accomplishment. We must recognize that these Sailors are our relief and give them the tools, experience, and responsibility they need to thrive as tomorrow’s skippers, CAGs, and admirals.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the US Navy, or any other agency.

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