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The Best Defense

Beer call report: High time to reward good performers and get rid of the big failures

By Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez
Best Defense personnel symposium leaders

At last Friday's beer call we had a turnout of eight people. It was an intimate group of truly concerned people, and the meetup went very well. The only consensus was that the current system isn't working, but the discussion helped the two of us refine our thinking. As usual, it left us with more questions than answers.

Here are our notes: 

We've produced an organizational culture of risk-aversion and conformity, as well as a "stay in your box, just do your time" mentality. This is a tactical/operational reflection of a strategic leadership problem.  

The causes put forth were all related to incentives: short deployments, high rates of turnover, inability to fire people for poor performance (you can only fire for ethical transgressions), and a habit of sending non-performers away on training teams to Iraq/Afghanistan, even while we preach partnering as the main effort.  

As relates to personnel policy, we discussed it in the context of the RAND study which talked about DOPMA essentially unionizing the military. The group agreed that it's had the effect of driving many top performers away. Worse, for the ones who do stick around, the military is limited in its ability to reward them with faster promotions or movement to more prestigious/influential billets.  

A common trend is that all of this stuff is happening at such a high level, and yet it's having a dramatic impact on the lowest ranks (not just officers-it doesn't take long for enlisted Marines to know which of their leaders is good and bad). 

So who's to blame? 

Should we blame the high-performer who decides to walk away? He could keep serving, but how long can you be frustrated and under-appreciated before you go look for something better? 

Should we blame bad leadership? That's an easy answer, but most of the bad leadership is just a response to incentives. "That's just the way the game is played" has more power than we acknowledge.  

Should we blame the Marine Corps? It operates within the law, Anbar and Helmand are arguably the biggest success stories from the two wars, it's maintained expeditionary units across the globe the entire time, and oh by the way it stood up a new branch for Special Operations Command. It's certainly done its part.  

Should we blame the Congress? They aren't familiar with the personnel policy-most of them haven't served. And who puts them there in the first place? 

So should we blame the American people for electing the Congress? For choosing not to serve in the all-volunteer force? How can we? The message they got was to go shopping and that the wars would be quick and easy. 

What we decided was that we all share in the blame. No one person or group can take responsibility for everything that's going wrong. Instead, at every level, this is a response to incentives. 

So how do you change the incentives? We can debate specific fixes for hours. But most simply, you have to take care of your top performers and you have to get rid of those who aren't up to the task. That's not pleasant when someone has served honorably for a decade and has a family, but who does the military exist to serve?

PS: We'd like to give a shout-out to Schlafly Pumpkin Ale

Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez are two former infantry officers in the United States Marine Corps. The views presented here are their own and do not represent the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense. Yet one feels there is a good chance that Jay-Z is down with them. 

Flickr/Icrontic.com