Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why do they leave?

We talked about it a bit last Sunday on Midrats, and there is an ongoing series of guest-posts over at InfoDis based on Tim Kane's article in The Atlantic titled, Why Our Best Officers are Leaving.

With his permission, below is a guest post from a guest to this blog who wishes to stay anon. With slight modification - the rest of the post is his.

I sent an e-mail to Tim Kane basically asking why he didn’t question the officers surveyed why they thought these conditions existed.

My answer, based on observations over 50 years; and for what it is worth, is culture at senior levels of the military. I lived and worked in Europe for a family owned company where I received a very emphatic lesson on culture. What it is, where it originates, and how it is sustained.

A characteristic of organizational culture is that it is clearly top down. It is set by the top guys & gals. New people in the organization either conform, are crushed, or depart in frustration. There is a middle ground; try to change things. Depending on strength of the culture and people at the top, they rarely succeed and usually depart.

Realizing that generalities are always simplifications and subject to challenge, I’ll state that the military officer corps is basically in three groups. Superb performers who have great integrity, are restless, entrepreneurial, trying make things better. They are willing to take risks, likely outspoken at times, perhaps a bit prickly, and don’t always say or do what the boss might prefer. They win unit awards, men respect and love them and will do anything for them; superiors typically consider them difficult.

In the middle are the guys & gals who are good performers and totally ambitious. They wouldn’t think of voicing ice cream call unless they were assured their boss loved ice cream and was willing to share. These are the guys and gals who answer yes sir, great idea sir, how high sir, black with a touch of sugar sir. They are competent, but their ambition overrules everything.

Finally and in every group are the mediocre performers.

Most of the people in the first group will depart as Tim Kane’s article suggests. They will find areas where their integrity, competence, ideas and drive are valued; also mentioned in the article. A few will stay and the military is better off for their presence.

The bulk of flags will be awarded to the middle group. Since they flourished in the system they value the characteristics that got them to the top, look for the same in their subordinates and don’t see any necessity for change. Expect subordinates to be submissive, tell seniors what they want to hear, don’t take any risks and above all don’t rock any boats. All will deny this characterization and then point to their collar when anyone questions the boss or voices a contrary opinion.

As a result, the system is self reinforcing. It works the same in civilian organizations as in the military. Difference is that if the boss is wrong in the civilian world, the business ultimately suffers and changes have to be made. (This is an over generalization as many jerks in the civilian world get promoted before their mistakes are readily visible – the next guy often pays the price.) In the military there isn’t any equivalent to profitability that will force change. So what if a toilet seat costs $450; so long as I followed all the regulations life is good and I’ll be commended for excellence in administration. We could not have won WWII with the risk adverse, regulation based culture we have today although from everything I’ve read, we began WWII with this same culture until the real warfighters could emerge.

I just completed Full Fathom Five the story of Jim Coe and the loss of the USS Cisco. His toilet paper memo is a recurring story and illustrates that we always had bureaucratic impediments for very basic material – even during wartime. However, the difference between then and now is that the risk adverse bureaucrats got squashed then; entrepreneurs who don’t stay within the lines get squashed now. My current read is Operation Dark Heart illustrating to some degree the latter.

You didn’t want to talk about Holly Graf but have been talking about what happened on the USS Enterprise. I believe all are connected and explained by the current military culture.

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