Fostering Excellence
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From the outside, military commanders are often perceived as having expansive control over their organizations. They are commanders not just ‘bosses’ right? The successes or failures of their organizations are believed to depend almost entirely on their leadership. More often than not, however, this situation is far off the mark and commanders find themselves mired in bureaucratic constraints which limit their ability to produce highly performing organizations.

The three keystones of any organization-those fundamentals upon which the success of every organization depends for its success-are who they hire, who they promote, and who they fire. How individuals enter, exit or promote within organizations largely determines how that organization will perform. As the book ‘Good to Great’ so aptly put it, “Start with the Who.” Unfortunately for military commanders, their direct influence, and even indirect influence, on these three processes are extremely limited. Instead of having control over who they have in their organizations, bureaucratic processes determine this for them and commanders are left to play their hand the best way they can.

Why Military Commanders End up “Making do” with Their Organizations

Hiring – Military commanders have almost no control over who ends up in their organizations. Recruits are ushered into the military by recruiters, not commanders. Commanders are entirely dependent on the machinations of a complex, cumbersome, HR process that places recruits in career fields with the larger, overarching needs of their armed services in mind with limited reference to the suitability of the career fit.

Assignments - Once recruits are in the system and move along in their careers, they are given assignments. The assignments are issued based on the needs of the armed service and sometimes the preferences of the individual, as an incentive to remain in the military. At no point in the assignment process, however, does the military commander weigh in as to who will get assigned to his or her command.

Promotions – Military commanders also have a diminished role in promotions. While they can influence who within their organization is nominated for promotion, larger, central processes take over and determine among all the nominees who will actually promote. Additionally, those who have been promoted in previous promotion iterations will be assigned to the commands as described above. In short, commanders cannot choose who ultimately gets promoted, nor who among the promotees will be assigned to his or her command.

Retention – Commanders are evaluated in part by retention averages, what percentage of their command remains in the military once their contract ends. High retention presumably means that a commander has fostered an effective organization with high morale which would presumably motivate members to remain in the military. Additionally, high retention rates keep the larger organization at a higher level of unit readiness – being closer to their full compliment. Commander’s superiors look at retention numbers from these two lenses to evaluate the performance of their subordinate commanders. So in two ways, commanders are incentivized to keep their retention numbers high, even if it means retaining low performing or unsuitable service members. The ways retention numbers are assessed place the interests of the commander at odds with the interest of the military at large.

Transiency – Finally, the transient nature of military personnel vis-à-vis their organizations, discourage commanders from tackling long-standing personnel problems. Either the problem employee is months away from being transferred or promoted out of the organization or the commander will be months away from being transferred or promoted out of the organization. Either the problem will be moved in not too long a period of time, or the commander will be moved from the problem. Long term problems with long term solutions do not usually percolate to the top of the to-do list.

All of these conditions, limited influence in hiring and promotions, handicaps with making tough retention decisions, and the transiency of the military all conspire to force commanders simply “make do” with what they have. Ideally, commanders would be empowered to have more control over who is in the commands, but in lieu of this lofty goal, here are some suggestions of things that commanders can do:

Focus on performance – Set high standards, rigorously enforce them and focus on the results. Craft a narrative with superiors, peers and subordinates that move the discussion away from retention numbers and to the quality of organizational performance. Leaders who have high performing organizations usually do well on performance reviews even if retention numbers are lower.

80/20 not 90/10 – In the military, it is a bit of a rueful joke that leadership must spend 90% of their time dealing with the bottom 10%-in terms of performance-of their organization. John Maxwell teaches something almost entirely opposite, that leadership should spend 80% of their time with the top 20% of their employees. Follow this rule and spend most of your time with your highest performers and those with the greatest potential. You will find this to be an investment that will yield both short and long term benefits. You only have so much time in a day, invest it wisely!

Less is More: Don’t fear undermanning. Having the right people in your organization, unburdened with underperforming coworkers often outperform organizations at their full compliment, but not with the right people. It is important to understand that your high performers are already undermanned after a fashion. They are already doing their jobs and the jobs of the underperformering coworkers, and they are probably resentful of it.

Move the Unsuitable on - Removing the underperforming from your teams will send the organization a clear message you value performance and a clear message to your top performers that you won’t burden them with underperformers. Commanders should ask themselves whether they would want to go to war with a service member in question. If there is any doubt, it’s probably time to help the service member along and out of the military. Remember, if you don’t want to go to war with this individual, then others shouldn’t have to either. Moving the unsuitable out of the military is a mercy for those individuals being processed out, as well as the teams they were on and the military at large. As a commander, you have the tools and influence to move folks on, use them!

The large, cumbersome HR processes in place in the military are unlikely change any time soon, but as stated above, there are some things military commanders can do to improve their organizations. They do not have to “make do” or settle. Focusing on performance, investing your time wisely, risking “undermanning” and using the tools you do have at your disposal to move the unsuitable on are all concrete things that you can do to make your organization phenomenal.

Michael Farr, PMP, is a Chief Master Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force and founder of He is passionate about recognition and enabling professionals to motivate their organizations through recognizing their member’s excellence. When he is not slaying dragons with his kids, he can be found at @fosterxcellence on Twitter and @fosteringexcellence on Facebook.

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