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It’s no secret in the military that if you want a pay raise, you need to promote and that means entering a leadership role. The military has directly tied its financial incentives to leadership above all other competencies. The leaders make the most money, whether or not they perform well as leaders. In 1776, when the bulk of the military were uneducated, and the military was less technical (though that was changing and would continue to change), the military paid its leadership more because they were educated and it needed educated men leading the armed services.

The nature of war and the military has dramatically changed since then. The military has increasingly become specialized, demanding a great many technical competencies. Engineering, computer, mathematic, linguistic, business and even human resources skills are becoming increasingly common and requisite in a military career. This has led to increasing educational requirements on the armed forces at large. In some career fields, it is an open question whether the military commander or senior non-commissioned officer will be more (or less) educated than the troops he or she leads.

As before however, pay is largely associated with rank-leadership roles-and not with performance. If a service member needs to increase his or her pay, he or she must seek leadership roles in the higher ranks. They must promote out of their areas of technical expertise. In other words, the military is financially incentivized to promote, not necessarily to perform. The military does have performance reviews, and in theory they should ensure that only the best promote, but these systems often fail to deliver, in part because so many of its members are clamoring for promotion because that is the only way to increase their earnings.  

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This scenario has two unhealthy effects on the military. First, many who are unsuitable for leadership assume leadership roles anyway-their higher rank requires it. Not everyone is suitable for leadership; not everyone has a talent, acquired skill, or inclination for leadership. The current system ensures that many individuals without the skill, talent or desire for leadership, end up as military leader anyway , and they subsequently under-perform.

Second, many service members are happier performing in technical careers that they love and are good at. However, the pay quickly caps out for those performing technical tasks. The effect is that the talent and skill for technical tasks are lost as these individuals promote out of those tasks to assume leadership roles associated with a promotion. The baseline of the military’s technical skills is kept artificially lower than its potential because it incentivizes its high caliber technicians to promote out of their technical duties.

Having everyone performing at their highest levels, in competency areas where they are most suitable is literally a matter of life and death for the military; reorienting the financial incentives so that individuals gravitate to what they are best at is in the military’s interest. While submitting a plan to fundamentally reinvent the military pay system is beyond the scope of this article, here are some broad-brush suggestions on changes the military could make:

Reduce the Leader/Led Pay Differentials – The differential in pay between leader and led needs to be reduced. By way of example, an IT professional in the military will make approximately $30,000 less than his commander per annum. With a pay difference that large, what is to keep that highly skilled IT professional in his career field; he would be financially better off to promote out of his IT duties. Reducing those pay gaps are an important step in retaining talent and deincentivizing service members from making career moves that are not in their or the military’s best interest.

Education Bonus Pay – The military could provide additional monthly stipends for service members in a field where the civilian sector offers advanced credentialing. Those who maintain these credentials which enhance their job performance would receive additional pay on top of their base pay. Examples for technical or administrative career fields could include HRA, CISSP, CPhT or relevant collegiate degrees. Those in command could receive additional pay for Six Sigma or PMP certifications for instance.

Team Performance Bonus – The military could award yearly bonuses to those teams or organizations that performed exceptionally across a base, region or industry. For instance, a base IT organization that kept its networks operational at higher rates than other bases in the region could receive an end of year bonus. Both the leader and the team are in it together, working hard to become a high performing organization, both leader and led with the same financial incentives at stake.

Individual Performance Bonus – The military already has in place a robust system of recognizing individual performance and achievement. Incorporating a meaningful financial bonus into the program would be an easy win for rewarding exceptional performance irrespective or rank. The military also has a formal evaluation system that could be leveraged to award performance bonuses.

The aim of these incentives, or any adopted incentives, should be two-fold; first, it should reduce the base pay-differential between leaders and led. It should also make a technical, or non-command, career in the military more meaningful and financially rewarding. Second, the system should reward superior performance. Both leaders and led should be financially incentivized to focus more on performance and less on promotion.

Of course, some will object that fewer service members will seek leadership roles, and they are exactly right. That is not a bad thing however; the military needs service members seeking leadership responsibilities because they enjoy them and are good at them, not because it will allow them to get paid more than their peers. Suitability is the watch word here. The military will perform better when leaders and led are operating in careers that match their talents and interests, and can be compensated for their contributions to the military, not their rank in the military.

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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