Bejtlich's Thoughts on "Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving"

Twenty-two years ago today I flew to Colorado Springs, CO and reported for Basic Cadet Training with the class of 1994 at the United States Air Force Academy. I took the oath of office pictured at left the following day. I left the service in 2001 because I could no longer fit my military intelligence and computer network defense career interests within the archaic, central planning commission-like personnel system the ruled Air Force assignments.

Today I read an article by Tim Kane, USAFA class of 1990, titled Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving. This article resonated so strongly with me I got a little emotional reading it. The following are some relevant excerpts.

Why are so many of the most talented officers now abandoning military life for the private sector? An exclusive survey of West Point graduates shows that it’s not just money. Increasingly, the military is creating a command structure that rewards conformism and ignores merit. As a result, it’s losing its vaunted ability to cultivate entrepreneurs in uniform...

The military’s problem is a deeply anti-entrepreneurial personnel structure. From officer evaluations to promotions to job assignments, all branches of the military operate more like a government bureaucracy with a unionized workforce than like a cutting-edge meritocracy...

In a recent survey I conducted of 250 West Point graduates (sent to the classes of 1989, 1991, 1995, 2000, 2001, and 2004), an astonishing 93 percent believed that half or more of “the best officers leave the military early rather than serving a full career.”

Why is the military so bad at retaining these people? It’s convenient to believe that top officers simply have more- lucrative opportunities in the private sector, and that their departures are inevitable. But the reason overwhelmingly cited by veterans and active-duty officers alike is that the military personnel system—every aspect of it—is nearly blind to merit. Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command.

Promotions can be anticipated almost to the day— regardless of an officer’s competence—so that there is essentially no difference in rank among officers the same age, even after 15 years of service.

Job assignments are managed by a faceless, centralized bureaucracy that keeps everyone guessing where they might be shipped next...

When I asked veterans for the reasons they left the military, the top response was “frustration with military bureaucracy”—cited by 82 percent of respondents (with 50 percent agreeing strongly)...

In a 2007 essay in the Armed Forces Journal, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling offered a compelling explanation for this risk-averse tendency. A veteran of three tours in Iraq, Yingling articulated a common frustration among the troops: that a failure of generalship was losing the war. His critique focused not on failures of strategy but on the failures of the general-officer corps making the strategy, and of the anti-entrepreneurial career ladder that produced them:

“It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.”

[A]n internal job market might be the key to revolutionizing military personnel. In today’s military, individuals are given “orders” to report to a new assignment every two to four years. When an Army unit in Korea rotates out its executive officer, the commander of that unit is assigned a new executive officer. Even if the commander wants to hire Captain Smart, and Captain Smart wants to work in Korea, the decision is out of their hands—and another captain, who would have preferred a job in Europe, might be assigned there instead.

The Air Force conducts three assignment episodes each year, coordinated entirely by the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base, in Texas. Across the globe, officers send in their job requests. Units with open slots send their requirements for officers. The hundreds of officers assigned full-time to the personnel center strive to match open requirements with available officers (each within strictly defined career fields, like infantry, intelligence, or personnel itself), balancing individual requests with the needs of the service, while also trying to develop careers and project future trends, all with constantly changing technological tools. It’s an impossible job, but the alternative is chaos.

In fact, a better alternative is chaos. Chaos, to economists, is known as the free market, where the invisible hand matches supply with demand...

Here is how a market alternative would work. Each commander would have sole hiring authority over the people in his unit. Officers would be free to apply for any job opening. If a major applied for an opening above his pay grade, the commander at that unit could hire him (and bear the consequences). Coordination could be done through existing online tools such as or (presumably those companies would be interested in offering rebranded versions for the military). If an officer chose to stay in a job longer than “normal” (“I just want to fly fighter jets, sir”), that would be solely between him and his commander...

I surveyed ex-military officers at Citi, Dell, Amazon, Procter & Gamble, TMobile, Amgen, Intuit, and countless venture-capital firms. At every company, the veterans were shocked to look back at how “archaic and arbitrary” talent management was in the armed forces. Unlike industrial-era firms, and unlike the military, successful companies in the knowledge economy understand that nearly all value is embedded in their human capital.

I completely agree with this article, especially the concepts of an "internal market" for hiring and retaining talent. I hope someone with the power to implement change reads Mr Kane's article and fights the bureaucracy to improve all the military services by nurturing their most important resource: people.


K. Brian Kelley said…
I know the military bureaucracy contributed to my leaving active duty in 1999. I was also in the USAF with the standard pending promotion to captain (O-3). Turned it down and separated partially to pursue ministry but also partially because of getting jerked around by personnel and the way assignments were handled. I wasn't the only one of my class who left for this reason.
Daimon Geopfert said…
This captures my feelings fairly well. I was following almost the same path as Richard (Academy, OSI, AIA) and hit a certain point where I looked around and realized that something was obviously wrong. There were disconnects in regards to the requirements of very specialized positions and the skill-sets, professionalism, desires, and mind-sets of the folks that were being placed in those roles. Being a relatively small community, everyone in the AF cyber world knew of a handful of folks that would be perfect for such positions, but you could never seem to get them there. The roles were always filled by random comm folks that just happened to have the right career field designation, rank, and a desire to live by Sea World/Six Flags. Before long those of us that were there but couldn’t get the personnel we wanted got frustrated and left, and those people that were frustrated because they could not move into their perfect role got frustrated and left. All that are left over were the good, but vanilla, folks that would could never be expected to take the organization to the next level.
Anonymous said…
I would have to agree with this summation. While I wasn't an officer, I ended my enlistment because the Navy couldn't seem to make up their mind what they wanted to do with me. I was trained as an Electronics tech, spent my six year first term at a 3-star staff command in J6-Comms working as an IT guy.

I pushed really hard to cross-rate to the new network security rate, CTN. Got signatures from a host of O-6s and a few admirals, had some folks talk to the selection board to make sure my package had the appropriate waivers since the selection process wasn't open to ETs at the time... and had the package disqualified due to our admin dept. failing to properly submit it.

Spent a few weeks going back and forth with Millington about orders before I decided to take the advice given to every zoomie: Know when to pull it.

I did and things turned out great. Did the contractor gig, engineering at first to start a resume, but I've done network security (GCIA stuff) for the last 5 years and am getting progressively better at it.

That said, not a day goes by that I don't miss the uniform, the comraderie, or being at sea... In my heart, I miss saluting the flag on base and if the DoD offered me a chance to use my skills for them, I'd do it in a heartbeat.
DFIR_Janitor said…
On a side note, are there reservist CND/CNO units? It would seem like that would be great way for people to make private sector wages, but still contribute to national defense part time. I think that would keep the talent level higher than what it is today.
Kevin said…
Not a bad idea, but in general I suspect that O5s are better at picking out good or bad officers than junior O3s. So I'd suspect that it would work better with the O5 CO having the authority to select the officers he wants in his squadron/battalion/department or ship. Though that doesn't rule out allowing the O3 to have lots of influence.

A similar process could be used for enlisted also. In really small communities, like SEALs, it apparently already does work this way. I'm told the teams essentially draft people as they complete the year-long qualification process and where you go after than depends largely on your personal reputation.
Unknown said…
I dealt with your story at least 2 dozen times, my last gig in the Navy was as a career counselor (while the Navy took its sweet time processing my medical retirement). Dealing with NPC was an exercise in frustration. The purpose of the career counselor rate as I saw it was to put the sailor in a job were they would have best chance at success. Unfortunately NPC very, very rarely saw it that way.
David said…
From my experiance in the Navy, I've always looked at the structure of Military job placement as a process developed since the age of sail to avoid mutinony and treason. By removing the personal applications they are essencially keeping individual commitment and dedication to the central beaurocracy, as opposed to officers and units.

Their is a higher chance that your proposed system would be abused for personal interests, presedence could be given to family members or even for monitary gain. Officers in the United States Military are not immune to the temptations of corruption, and I think the current system takes that into account very well. If a particular unit were selectively populated by currupt officers the consequenses could be disasterous, not only for the mission, but also for the security of our democratic nation.

That being said, in the Enlisted Resesrve side of the house, there has been an increased interest in each members skills, other than those directly trained by the institution. Temporary Active Duty assignments almost always require a resume and interviews before a candidate is selected.
CG said…
Pretty much right on. Anyone with talent in a field will get lumped in with everyone else in their branch/job code. Your career is manged by someone that you probably havent met and doesnt know anything about you except for your ORB and *maybe* an email from you with job requests.

is it any surprise that people with talent/skills/aptitude would leave and manage their own careers?

as far as the Army goes i know there has been some push to get some new things added to ORB like certifications, deginate people with particular aptitude in areas, and they are allowing people to pick a functional area much earlier in the career. may help some but chances are that anyone good at *cyber* will have to check too many boxes before they get into the jobs where they could make a real difference/be happy

i'm fully out a few years now and i feel like i make a much bigger difference to clients now than i did while i was in. the fact that i manage my own career is an added benefit.
Anonymous said…
@DFIR_Janitor to answer your question, yes there are reserve CNO units and they're a nice work-around to the problems described above.

I left active duty several years ago. The mantra of the communications officer career field was: "I'm a leader, I just need to manage, I don't need to know this stuff". Tech school and my first supervisors constantly reinforced the idea that my technical skills were of zero-use to the military as an officer. I navigated myself to a good position later, but ultimately left active duty. Funny, I found this essay before I left active duty and the same parts highlighted here resonated with me.

A year after active duty, an Air National Guard unit found me. The Air National Guard is an interesting contrast to Active Duty Air Force.

First, ANG units have their own hiring authority. My unit was built from nothing. They focused on staffing it with quality people who bring something to the table whether it's technical skills, mission experience, or something else.

Second, as a traditional reservist, I can go on orders for one day or several years. I now have the ability to steer my military career in a way that I did not have on active duty.

Third, the guard is very entrepreneurial in nature. We do not augment an active duty unit. We're expected to be our own self-contained military capability. We have to find resources, make relationships, deliver on promises, and in the past... we had to find opportunities. Build on success, rinse, lather, and repeat and I see something very special that I never saw active duty.

Fourth, we do it ourselves. We do not rely on contractors to get the job done. Those who were active duty will understand what this means.

Fifth, many of the reservists I work with are very successful in their military careers, civilian careers, or as community contributors or even all three. It's really amazing to work with this kind of a group. We're out there, you won't know us as part-time military, but we give each other familiar nods at conferences.

I probably won't ever be as a great as the "leaders" I met in the Air Force--the ones who have the innate ability to "manage" because technical skills are below them. But, I know the guard has given me an opportunity to serve and apply my skills in a way that is very personally meaningful to me.

P.S. Let me add, since I left active duty, I've seen an incredible culture shift in the Air Force communications career field. Officers are now expected to master real technical skills in their initial career field training. The Captain-level refresher courses are teaching the old-33S folks technical skills. The expectations really are changing. The work is not done yet, but a meaningful shift is in the works. It's a fantastic time to be part of this.
Anonymous said…
I have to take a different view of things. I don't expect my officers to master the technical skills. That's not an officer's jobsnor should it be. Enlisted guys are the technicians, officers are the adminstrators and supervisors.

Simply put, as a Marine we lived by the idea that the officer's job is to know and dictate WHAT needs to happen. The NCO's job is know HOW to make it happen and to see that it does.

The important part is for both parties to unerstand their role.

A little allegory that hints at this ideal: did you ever notice that in the older days of warfare IE civil war and before, the officers never had rifles? THey had everything from pistols to swords. (or shotguns for you Vietnam vets) Why? Because they officer's weren't suppposed to fight. Those swords and pistols were personal defense weapons only. Why? Because if that officer was on the line shooting, then he wasn't doing his real job of leading. (IE: positioning his units, directing fire, coordinating the movement of his men, managing the big picture.)

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