Janine Davidson

Defense in Depth

Janine Davidson examines the art, politics, and business of American military power.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Want To Fix Retention? Start by Making the Military a Real Meritocracy

by Amy Schafer
July 14, 2014

Marines with Combat Logistics Battalion 15, Combat Logistics Regiment 17, 1st Marine Logistics Group, run in formation along Red Beach Training Area, Dec. 6, 2013. (Sgt. Sarah Fiocco, USMC/Courtesy Marines Flickr)


This commentary comes courtesy of Amy Schafer, research intern for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. She notes that an inflexible promotions structure and rigid “all or nothing” pension system push too many talented servicemembers to leave the military early in pursuit of other opportunities. A better system, Schafer argues, would emulate some of the best practices of Silicon Valley by rewarding high achievers and allowing more freedom in choice of assignment.

With July 1 marking the fortieth anniversary of the military’s all-volunteer force and with the continued military drawdown, it’s time to take another look at retention.  While budget cuts and sequestration may lead to fewer men and women in uniform, it is essential that the military considers ways to keep their best and brightest. There are many challenges to military retention, including the lack of a “meritocracy,” limited to no control over assignments, the “all or nothing” twenty-year pension system, and the role a family or spouse plays.

Tim Kane, a former Air Force officer, examines this issue in Bleeding Talent: How the U.S. Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution. As he argues, “The Army has bled talent for decades, a consequence of a deeply dysfunctional organization that poorly matches jobs with talent and doesn’t trust its officers to make choices about their own careers.”

There are several areas where reform could be highly effective in influencing the best junior officers to stay past their minimum service requirement; among the most promising is a system that more resembles a meritocracy.

A recent survey of over 5,000 active duty Navy personnel by CDR Guy Snodgrass presents hard data on the challenges and concerns facing service members as they decide whether or not to separate from the Navy.   According to the survey, 64 percent of sailors believe that performance rankings are based more on timing than merit, with 21 percent citing timing and merit, 9 percent citing neither, and only 6 percent believing performance rankings are based upon merit alone.

Meanwhile, Tim Kane interviewed 250 West Point graduates (from class intervals five years apart, to encompass a breadth of ranks and experience) and found 93 percent believed that, “[H]alf or more of the best officers leave the military early rather than serving a full career”.  As one former Marine Corps officer notes, “Among my peers, the ones with ideas are the ones getting out, because they just don’t feel the organization values them”.

The recent Interim Report of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission acknowledges, “[T]he uniformed services must be empowered with flexible personnel management tools to shape the force as security needs change.”  The commission examined the challenges of recruitment and retention in a time of fiscal austerity and made many recommendations for the modernization of the compensation and personnel systems of the armed services.


The “all or nothing” twenty-year mark for received benefits creates an imbalanced retention system. Members of the military are best served to either leave after one term—or stay the whole twenty years. This structure does not easily permit merit-based advancement. Source: Interim Report of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission

The commission recognized that if the compensation and personnel systems are not robust and modern, “[They] risk the inability to attract and retain personnel who may find greater employment opportunities in the civilian sector.”  Most importantly, the commission recognized, “Our people are the strength of our uniformed services”.

When it comes to retaining high achievers, it may be time for the military to seek lessons learned from the private sector.  An excellent performer should be able to reach promotion based upon merit rather than a pre-determined number of years.  If you examine the age and management distribution of Silicon Valley, you’ll see a community that values intellectual capital above all else—least of all age—and boasts incredibly competitive, merit-driven promotions.

The CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat are 30, 37, and 24, respectively.  Should a 24-year-old whiz kid a few years out of West Point be commanding a battalion?  Probably not, and the tech industry’s “move fast and break things” philosophy certainly does not grapple with the life-or-death implications faced in the military.

That being said, should a 26-year-old O-3 who has consistently excelled through multiple assignments and deployments be promoted two or three years early?  It certainly shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.  Tying promotion strictly to years served, particularly in the early years of a career, does a disservice to those who excel and outperform their peers.

Promotions based on merit ensure that high performers receive promotion faster, rather than making each new grade in lockstep with 5,000 of their peers. Using merit as a factor at every stage of an officer’s career progression could mitigate many reasons officers separate.

For example, the military could explore allowing those at the top of their class of peers to choose between several assignments, allowing them some say in their career and location preferences.  A bright and talented officer who has an opportunity to chart his or her own path will likely select an assignment where they are excited to serve and which meets the needs of their family—both huge factors in morale and retention.

Though the philosophy behind assignment orders is almost always “service before self,” the private sector has demonstrated that employees who are engaged, passionate, and well-matched simply produce better work.

Choice among assignments could also open the door to valuing intellectual capital without necessarily tying it to leadership.  There are many brilliant servicemembers who are strong leaders—but it is not a role every person is comfortable with or excels at.  Why should a successful intelligence officer, for instance, be forced “up or out” if currently in a role the officer excels at and enjoys?

Tech companies in particular have shown a willingness to allow top engineers to continue to be promoted without forcing them to manage other engineers.  If the military were to allow another promotion “track,” so to speak, they may end up with more focused subject matter experts who are content to contribute their expertise for twenty or more years without ever commanding a unit.  This increases the level of specialization in the military while allowing those who are passionate leaders to lead earlier and more often.

As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked in a February 2011 speech at West Point, “How can the Army break up the institutional concrete, its bureaucratic rigidity in its assignments and promotion processes, in order to retain, challenge, and inspire its best, brightest, and most-battled tested young officers to lead the service in the future?”

It is essential that the military continues to try to find ways to mitigate the loss of talented officers.  The most important part of any military capability is the person behind it.  We must protect our human capital, and we must be willing to challenge outdated systems in order to do so.

Amy Schafer is a research intern for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has worked previously as a policy intern in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Schafer is a 2013 graduate of the College of William & Mary.

Post a Comment 12 Comments

  • Posted by Brian

    Whoever wrote this article apparently is not familiar with Warrant Officers. They ARE the specialized technical experts who are promoted based on their respective spheres of knowledge without having to worry about command or leadership positions.

  • Posted by Jesse Sloman

    Warrant officers are subject to the same time-in-grade-based models for advancement as commissioned officers. Stellar and mediocre WOs and CWOs are both promoted at essentially the same rate, with the frustrating results that Amy describes above. We may not hear about retention issues in the warrant officer community very often (partly because almost all of them serve until retirement), but they are governed by the same manpower policies that adversely effect the rest of the force.

  • Posted by Paul Dalen

    The AVF began in 1973, not 1974. You’re a year late.

  • Posted by Edward

    Flawed thesis. The military does not look for the “best and brightest.” This and every article fretting over their departure misses the mark. From my observations of senior leaders, the attributes that they all have in common is that they work hard and do what they’re told (regardless of personal consequences). “Brightness,” while it does exist in senior leaders — doesn’t correlate with selection.

  • Posted by raimius

    Having a “leadership” and “technical specialist” track for careers is a discussion you can hear a lot about if you talk with military pilots (probably less so with WO/CWOs). There has to be a balance between retaining subject matter experts in positions where they can be useful and developing leaders who understand the problems facing those at the unit level. There are some great technicians who don’t care to lead, and they seem to be career stunted or forced into less than ideal assignments. Others are not talented technicians, but they are good leaders. Unfortunately, some career fields reward technicians in the early years, then leaders in the latter years. It would seem this would promote talented technicians into leadership and keep leaders potential hidden (unless one is truly talented at both roles).
    Right now, services seem to promote on a relatively narrow career path, assuming that one should be a superior technician for a few years, then magically be a superior leader when they reach a certain rank. We do not seem to recognize that the better career path will place some people as technicians for their entire career, some people will be in advisory/staff/admin roles, and others will take to command better than the rest.

  • Posted by Greg

    A senior leader that works hard and does what they are told does not constitute competence in a leader nor does it foster an environment where logical decisions can be made if the leader lacks the intellectual ability to do so. Yes we in America value hard work, but there is a specific difference between someone who works hard and another who knows how to lead and manage. An effective Officer knows how to create a system where max output can be achieved by minimizing the amount of work needed to achieve it. Essentially, working smarter and not harder. Officers should not be doing the work of the worker bee. That is why we have the division of labor. Ultimately, rewarding those who what they are told 24/7 creates an environment of ass kissing conformists that learn everything on a monkey see-monkey do basis. We should be rewarding merit and not conformity.

  • Posted by Matt

    We have an institution where the above average are not adequately rewarded and leave early. The same system does not adequately punish the mediocre or worse. Over a long period of time the leaders gradually tip more and more toward the mediocre. Eventually, there will be a big crash as failed ideas more and more rule the day.

    This article is talking about the military, but the same failed concepts apply to universities and other large institutions – like the government. Do you wonder why the US cannot win wars anymore? Do you wonder why economists failed to see the 2008 financial crash beforehand? Do you wonder why the international order since World War II is starting to crumble?

    There is a serious and fundamental process problem pushing the US and other countries forward in time. And it’s not going to end well.

  • Posted by ADM64

    Also overlooked is the degree to which many have become disgusted with the increasing level of political correctness within the military. One simply cannot discuss, even on a cost-benefit basis, the merits of a fully coed force, on “diversity” in all its glories, and the Party-line officers and enlisted are required to toe in regard to this and many aspects of conduct. This factor is mentioned in survey after survey of the military and yet gets omitted in subsequent discussions because it is deemed too controversial. So, an environment that has typically compensated, somewhat, for the strictures imposed by discipline and regulation by allowing everyone to blow off some steam is now becoming prison-like in the degree of management imposed. People are unsurprisingly unhappy and leaving. And, that’s without the colossal double and lowered standards for women in the military, which is surely enough to make an utter mockery of claims of it being a true meritocracy. Some animals, it appears, are more equal than others.

  • Posted by Carlos

    I may only have about 30-years of total service in both Enlisted and Officer ranks; as well as time served as the Recruiting and Retention Officer for an Aviation Battalion.

    But here are my 2 cents’ worth on this matter.

    1) The military has provisions for individuals to get promoted ahead of the standard “schedule” (Promote ahead of Peers). A certain MAJ Dwight Eisenhower comes to mind as an example. Even during my Active Duty service (1984-1988) I witnessed a PFC who made SGT in less than a year after he successfully completed Ranger School. The problem with this is it is not always based on that person’s current merit. I know of quite a few Officers who performed well as a General’s Aide, make it up the ranks relatively quickly even though they became shit birds. These individuals were just milking their initial success and since they no longer had to work for it, they pretty much ROAD.

    2) Trying to compare the military to private industry is not always a smart thing. Allowing Soldiers to pick and choose their assignments ahead of the military’s needs is counter to everything the military is supposed to be. What’s next? Allowing them to choose what orders to follow or what missions to participate in?

    3) You wanna see a higher retention rate? Prorate retirement benefits based on their years of HONORABLE service. For example, at 30-years you get 100% now. At 20-years you get 70% now or 100% when you reach retirement age. Someone who served 4-years of active duty and 4-years in either National Guard or Reserves should be considered as serving 8-years and should be eligible to receive maybe 30% when they reach retirement age. A 4-year service would be 15% when they reach retirement age. Etc.

    4) You wanna see even higher retention rates? Get rid of the deadwood. Stop retaining the useless individuals who do not perform but are assigned to actual slots just so the Commanders can put a quantitative measure of their manpower on their OER. Make it easier for Leaders to get rid of those who are wasting slots. I had a soldier who showed up for his very first day, only to disappear from the face of the earth. It turns out he was homeless and had decided to go back overseas to “teach English”. It took us more than 2 full years to finally discharge him out of the military.

    When I was an Officer in the Reserves it took us years to discharge individuals who stopped reporting for duty. It took more than a year to finally remove one soldier who twice tested hot for drugs even after he went AWOL!! We could not get rid of “healthy” soldiers who could not pass their PT tests. Maybe allow Commanders to transfer such soldiers to a unit whose sole purpose is to evaluate whether or not they should be allowed to stay in uniform. This will free them and their troops from the burden of having to devote their time and effort to keeping such caustic individuals in their commands.

    5) Stop using the military as a political football. The military should never be used as a Social Experiment at the whim of whoever is in the White House at the moment. It is hard enough to train and lead these young men and women for what could life-and-death situations. Forcing them to deal with situations that can only make matters worse just because someone made a campaign promise is criminal.

    6) Stop messing with Veterans’ benefits. When I signed up to serve more than 30-years ago I was promised certain benefits if I were to complete my initial 4-years of Active Duty. Those benefits have since been taken away or modified at the whim of someone who was voted into an office that pretty much guarantees that they’ll be financially set for life.


  • Posted by Luddite4Change

    How exactly do we define merit?

    Given the limitation of our current (or any) evaluation system its going to be less than perfect.

    Do we select officers for advancement (either regular or accelerated) based upon their duty performance, or on some more highly subjective call of “potential”?

    All to often in my 30 years in service, I saw two individuals who performed in an identical manner receive differing evaluations due to either OER timing (i.e. in a one year period one officer received two report and another only one) the “pool” that the officers were competing against.

    Perhaps the best we can achieve to be good enough and generally more right than wrong. Over the course of a 20-30 year career, those issues will generally work themselves out and the “best” officers can be identified.

    Food for thought…..why review the entire record of an officer/NCO when they go up for promotion? Shouldn’t the board only be voting on the quality of service at that person’s current rank? (This, IMHO, will go along way to fixing the problem that Carlos highlights above).

  • Posted by Vespasian Chancellor

    Over many years, thanks to bungling by the military and meddling by Congress and various Administrations, Commanders have very little ability to single out top flight performers and steer them to proper, challenging, visible assignments so they can be properly challenged, grow, learn their profession, and be promoted ahead of their more pedestrian peers.
    God help you if a certain percentage of those people are not female and minorities.
    As a retired Naval officer and several times joint services Commander, I found that with a great deal of work and luck I had a 50-50 chance to get a proper assignment for my Navy junior officers and mid to senior level petty officers out of most Detailers. Really outstanding personnel we personally introduced to the Detailer so he/she could see why they ought to get what amounted to special treatment for the good of the Navy. Put the best performer in the toughest job and you will get the best results.
    The Air Force was totally hopeless, nothing we ever did worked. OTOH, if we could find the right general officer we could and did get Army assignments “corrected”. These were rare occasions and I believe we spent much more time and effort attempting to take care that our best performers were challenged with outstanding assignments.
    WRT promotions, again I found it much easier to get top Navy people promoted. Perhaps we understood the system better. Our top performers got top notch promotion packages. In one 2 year period we got 3 POs with under 10 years of service promoted to Chief Petty Officer, one CPO with 12 years promoted to Senior Chief and 3 below the zone officer promotions, one to Commander. This out of a total command Navy population of about 250.
    Over the years in Joint Assignments I found that if all the right words were used in the correct way, it was sometimes possible to get AF officers promoted below the zone. Not much luck with AF NCOs.
    The Army was again somewhat easier that the AF to deal with, although I must say I have never in my life been lied to about personnel affairs so much as I was by the Army. If they couldn’t get their way they simply lied about it. Very frustrating.
    The thing that seemed to me the very worst characteristic about the military personnel system was actually the way people, especially officers, were moved around so much. Many officers never really understood their jobs before they were moved on to new ones. The Army was IMHO the very worst at this, but all the services were bad.
    If say the Army is moving an Officer from one Cavalry outfit to another in Germany, then moving them every 18 months may not be so bad. But moving some one from a stateside unit to Korea to Kuwait every 18 months is just stupid. They haven’t learned all about one target before going to another and another, never being even 90% prepared.
    In more technical fields it is even worse. Having some guy who was, say, an F-15 driver until last month trying to help with a tough, delicate near insoluble intell/human terrain/tier 2 target problem is worse than a joke; it can be a disaster.

  • Posted by Brittany

    I find this article extremely interesting and I would agree that there are some serious problem with the military personnel system. What I find even more interesting is how similar this article was to a blog post I read on the Harvard Business Reviews website talking about the difficulties of hiring good managers in the private sector. Perhaps business best practices aren’t as fool proof as we would like. It would be interesting to see how a company of comparable size to the U.S. Military complex performs in comparison.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required