Talent and national security

Seems like yesterday to me, but over the past decade, our Navy shed nearly 90,000 active and reserve sailors as we were forced to balance budget and force structure.

Now, after thirteen years of war, our sister services face a similar, even more daunting, and very public task.

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Yet as we work together to figure out the right number of "defenders" in defense, there's a younger generation urging us to consider something much deeper than mere quantity.

Those suggestions aren't about investing in new technologies or warfighting platforms. The change our newest members seek now is to better harvest and retain our nation's diverse talents – or risk falling behind our potential competitors in the future.

Just to be clear, these aren’t the upstart complaints of some unsure, disaffected group – these are warnings, usually accompanied by carefully drafted solutions, by veterans of the past thirteen years of war. In respectful, if not strident tones, their messages about change contemplate nothing less than the competitive advantages of America in support of national security.

What’s going on?

First, they're paying attention to the talent management revolution going on around us.  Inspired by the thoroughly American creed of opportunity, equality, and freedom to pursue individual gifts -- they watch their corporate peers rising past others based on merit, not merely when they joined the firm. Or they see opportunities to master a profession without worrying about an "up or out" system which assumes everyone must be groomed for the highest possible rank.

They wonder why they can't do the same, in service to their country.

They read of a talent drought coming to the corporate world, and think of how it may also affect our military. Businesses thus assemble new human capital pipelines to keep multiple talents groomed and close. Periodicals centering upon national security describe how the future return on ideas, and the talents which create them, will command a higher rate of return than that of capital or labor.

We know our recruiting, training, and career management systems have not evolved anywhere near the pace of change in the civilian market, and we’re now at the water’s edge. So we've experimented with ideas to open what is essentially a closed-loop human capital system in our Navy. Initiatives like the Career Intermission Program allow a partially-paid "sabbatical" in return for additional years of service. But as this newest generation tells us, we need to look harder. Side-ramps to service in our expanding, technology-rich fields, like cyberspace and information dominance, could help better harvest the diversity of America and leverage our natural strengths.

Second, we've learned, or re-learned, a great deal from this generation about the true power of motivation -- internal motivation. Striving hard not for wealth; instead, living to work for what or who one wants to be, not merely the things one would like to achieve. When Lieutenants to Commanders talk about their experiences in service, it's clear they knew what kind of world they faced post-9/11, and they understood exactly when they could have left. They didn't. Many volunteered for more.

Behavioral scientists today write of what this generation knows instinctively: motivation for external reward lags far behind the internal, and can even be detrimental to performance. We take pride in the increased trust and responsibility naval service provides compared to their civilian peers, especially in the first years after graduation. Yet we see signs of disconnect from the motivational ideals of autonomy, mastery, and purpose: a growing chasm between what combination of those three elements our juniors have, and what those juniors think they have.

We’re missing something that goes to the core of victory if they doubt the power of their free will and moral purpose in service to our nation.

Third, and finally, we must examine more fully the confluence between the two dynamics above -- how we differentiate talent and motivate potential with increased responsibility. Sure, we're taking some important -- yet insufficient -- actions now, like CIP as mentioned above, and empowering commanders with a larger say in identifying potential amongst their charges. Other, more game-changing ideas involve adjusting our current system of promotion where officers are locked into competition with those they entered service, moving heel and toe through an unchanging system of wickets.

Much -- but not all -- of this change towards larger talent management requires legislative action, such as altering the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) of 1980, which maintains the "up or out" direction desired immediately after World War II with the Officer Personnel Act (OPA) of 1947. Any real adjustment will require a Joint solution -- not one of our Services can step out of this straitjacket alone.

We are clearly behind our civilian corporate counterparts in fashioning productive pipelines to develop and differentiate talent, despite our closed-loop system. In 1973, we took a pretty big risk of our own when we created the All-Volunteer Force, betting that market forces combined with love of service would steer us away from a reliance upon conscription for our defense.

We're ready now for the next step.

Quantity is what we tend to focus upon in an era of budgetary tough choices, such as this one; but it is precisely the differentiated talents of our people, applied to our national security objectives, which have a quality all their own.

Moran currently serves as chief of Naval Personnel.