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For years, the U.S. Army has given "competency" pride of place in its officer development doctrine. In popular usage, competent means having requisite or adequate ability, and in a labor market context, it is defined as "an enduring combination of characteristics that causes an appropriate level of individual performance."1
Recent operational experience, however, clearly demonstrates the need for something more than adequate or appropriate individual performance by leaders. In an era of persistent conflict, Army officers must embrace new cultures, serve as ambassadors and diplomats, sow the seeds of economic development and democracy, and in general rapidly conceptualize solutions to complex and unanticipated problems.
These demands require the Army to access, retain, develop, and employ talented officers, not competent ones. This distinction is more than a mere parsing of words. In our view, talent is the intersection of three dimensions—skills, knowledge, and behaviors—that create an optimal level of individual performance, provided the individual is employed within his or her talent set. We believe that all people have talent which can be identified and liberated, and that they can dramatically and continuously extend their talent advantage if properly incentivized, developed, and employed.
To get optimal performance from its officers, however, the Army must first acknowledge that each has a unique distribution of skills, knowledge, and behaviors. It must also acknowledge the unique distribution of talent requirements across the force. Doing so will allow the Army to thoughtfully manage the nexus of individual talent supply and organizational talent demand, leaving behind industrial-era assignment practices that treat leaders like interchangeable parts and creating a true talent management system that puts the right officer in the right place at the right time.
Of course, talent management is a means to an end, not an end in itself. An officer strategy focused upon talent has but one purpose: to help the Army achieve its overall objectives. It does this by mitigating the greatest risks: the cost of a mismatch between numbers of officers and requirements; and the cost of losing talented officers to the civilian labor market.
Whether it likes it or not, the Army is competing with the private sector for the best talent America has to offer. The domestic labor market is dynamic, and in the last 25 years it has increasingly demanded employees who can create information, provide service, or add knowledge. The Army cannot insulate itself from these market forces. It must change the relationship between its officers and their strength managers from one that is relatively closed, information-starved, slow-moving, and inefficient, to one that is increasingly open, rich in information, faster moving, and thus far more efficient.
We believe that thoughtful, evolutionary changes can produce revolutionary results. The Army can transform its officer management practices from an almost feudal employer-employee relationship to a talent-based model through a series of relatively low-risk efforts. Following our previous monograph and this the second one, we shall continue with four follow-on monographs for a total of six devoted to the subject of talent in the Army Officer Corps. In the latter four, we will examine in much greater detail each of the four components of our officer labor model, viz., accessing, developing, employing, and retaining talent. We will recommend specific, low-risk, low-cost, strategically important changes. Though evolutionary in nature, they can collectively engender revolutionary effects and move the Army toward a viable officer talent management strategy. Only then will it be able to access, develop, employ, and retain the officer talent it needs to manage risk in the face of uncertain future requirements.
1. Lyle Spencer in Lance A. Berger and Dorothy A. Berger, eds., The Talent Management Handbook, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004, p. 65. Our definition is derived from Spencer’s.