With prospective threats mounting around the world, the Navy can no longer continue to operate with a Goldilocks-like disregard for modern competitive corporate principles. New Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday began his tenure by urging the Navy to “rapidly modernize,” noting “people are our most important weapon system.”1 To do so, the Navy must dramatically alter its career management system, aligning its core principles to an objective, merit-based system to increase transparency and organizational trust. The Navy’s people—its talent—are watching, and will continue to jump ship if the service cannot right the course.
Corporate hiring processes are evolving rapidly to reduce bias/subjectivity and increase selectivity to pick the best-qualified individual for a given position. Companies such as Google, McKinsey, and Korn Ferry are leveraging analytics, AI, and even simulation to objectively increase hiring efficacy. Such tools allow companies to assess a candidate’s suitability and predict performance with objectivity. Juxtapose this against the Navy’s talent management system, which relies on a subjective combination of timing and “on course” officer fitness reports (fitreps) sometimes with insufficient regard to qualifications and experience to fill billets rather than match them with “best fit” candidates. This often leaves intellectual capital on the table, an insolvent strategy—but a fixable problem.
In competitive business markets, a single bad personnel decision can have strongly negative implications for a company’s market share, corporate stability, innovative capacity, and organizational trust. The Navy’s talent management strategy risks worse consequences; lives are at stake. Personnel management shortfalls are masked by 50-plus years of limited conflict—but at the cost of innovation and productivity.
But, most important, the way the Navy trains and manages talent has a significant effect on its lethality, and it must convert its industrial-age systems into ones that confer a competitive advantage. Adopting an objective, merit-based detailing system will improve organizational trust by increasing selectivity and rejecting the cronyism, timing, and subjectivity that damage today’s system.
Match Qualifications and Experiences to Billets
Successful corporations hire and promote individuals to critical positions by carefully matching candidates’ skills, experience, and proven performance to a position. This maximizes intellectual capital and improves quality, job fit, and continuity. In the military, not all service members with an on-course, “early-promote” (EP) fitrep possess identical capability, skills, qualifications, and experience. In addition, fitreps and service records do not capture fully the vital information required to maximize talent and make best-fit hires. As a result, detailing tends to focus on timing, word of mouth, and fitrep marks.
The Navy can change course by executing a deliberate approach that maximizes and recapitalizes a member’s experience and skills. To begin, communities must comprehensively delineate requirements and eligibility to fill critical officer billets. By defining prerequisite eligibility, subjectivity necessarily decreases—un- and underqualified candidates can be eliminated without regard to their high fitrep scores from unrelated positions. Minimum eligibility requirements should include documented skills, qualifications, validated programmatic exposure, and experience—these do more to distinguish among candidates than fitreps alone. This will enhance the data available to talent managers (detailers/placement officers) to give them better tools to operate more as headhunters to “hire” the best and most qualified individual for a billet.
Once billet prerequisites are determined, they must be advertised on an accessible and centralized internet-based detailing site, something similar to Indeed, Ziprecruiter, or an improved CMS-ID. Minimum requirements for postings should include billet descriptors, baseline and optimum experience, and bidding windows. Sharing this information publicly will empower people to take control of their careers by choosing to pursue objective qualifications to compete for desirable billets. Increasing transparency will dramatically increase organizational trust across the force and help the Navy retain and promote the best.
Align Fitrep Standards to Warfighting
The “new” fitrep system the Navy announced in 2017 threatens to become a popularity contest. Instead, the Navy should mitigate the need for the overhaul by requiring communities to use objective measures of performance for attainment and retention of warfighting qualifications and fitrep marks. It should make warfighting qualifications commensurate with leadership as the center of gravity for fitrep evaluations.
There are examples in every community of service members with below-average technical competence in their primary warfighting responsibilities who exert above-average effort in collateral duties, have the best jokes, and are extroverted enough to win a popularity contest over more competent but introverted officers to receive the early-promote fitrep. No doubt, being a competent administrator, an honorable person, and fun to be around provides value to the Navy; but these qualities are not a sufficient demonstration of warfighting competency. The Navy should establish objective warfighting-focused measures of performance that must be met to achieve an early-promote rating. If no officer in a summary group meets that standard, then no officer should receive the recommendation.
Lack of competency in core warfighting skills wreaks havoc on organizational trust and confidence; valuing personality over performance is a bad ethos. These violate a basic fiduciary duty to the taxpayers who were asked to pay for warfighting capability. The fundamental core of the Navy’s fitrep system must be based on objective warfighting standards to provide officers tangible goals to strive toward. The commodity of the naval enterprise is warfighting leadership—the Navy must build its talent management strategy around this principle.
Eligibility for Critical Warfighting Billets
Smart companies identify critical positions that require a more deliberate hiring process. These positions usually align with the organization’s core functions and will have significant, direct influence on the corporate bottom line. The previous CNO instructed the Navy to place warfighting first, and the Air Boss, Vice Admiral DeWolfe Miller, says “We fly; we fight; we lead; we win.” Our product is lethality.
To that end, the billets that have the greatest direct effect on warfighting competencies must be identified by each community and codified as “critical billets.” Each billet should have prerequisite measures of performance and experiential qualifications defined and disseminated to the fleet. Only appropriate applicants/candidates who objectively meet the criteria can then be screened for each billet. Consider as an example possible critical billets—critical because of their direct impact on lethality by way of training, tactics development, and/or technology—in naval aviation (the authors’ community):2
- Junior Officers: Weapons schools, Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) Weapons tactics instructor (WTI), and Test Pilot School.
- Junior Officer Post-Production: Squadron training officer and landing signal officer.
- Department Head Sea Duty: Tactics department head.
- Post–Department Head Shore Tour: Weapons school department head, Assistant department head at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC), or operational/developmental test program department head; FRS tactics/standardization officer, type command (TYCOM) tactics and readiness officer; OPNAV assistant requirements officer, TypeWing requirements officer, and Integrated Product Team (IPT) Lead.
- Post-Operational Command: Weapons school or FRS Commanding officer, OPNAV requirements officer, NAWDC department head and Deputy Program Manager.
It is this profound impact on a community’s lethality today and in the future that requires the Navy to arm its talent managers with the requisite information to match the best possible individuals to these positions.
A position description on the proposed website might look something like these examples:
OPNAV Assistant Requirements Officer
Minimum Application requirements:
• Post–Operational Department Head (04) with due course fitrep.
• Type Model Series (TMS)—Level 4 qualified.
• Test Pilot School and Project officer.
• Community Weapon Tactics Instructor with documented experience in acquisition analysis and environments.
Bidding Window: December 2019 – June 2020
Eligible Year Groups: 2003–2007
Tactics Department Head — Minimum Eligibility requirements:
• Due Course fitreps.
• Type Model Series ACTC Level 4/5 qualified.
• Test Pilot School or TMS Weapons Tactics Instructor or documented experience in Operational Test as a project lead/officer.
Eligibility: Screened operational department head.
By creating minimum eligibility requirements and increasing selectivity, the position descriptions start to shape career paths, giving the Navy and its people the ability to employ skills and experience to advance careers and warfighting capability. Research shows this kind of alignment between the organization’s core principles and personal career decisions is a key component of high-performing organizations. The benefits are far reaching: Officers gain by increases in fairness, career predictability, control, and transparency, while the service gets much-needed continuity, organizational loyalty, intellectual capital maximization, and increased competency at every level. Combined, these create a competitive edge that can directly influence lethality and retention.
The Navy’s retention challenges might make it appear the service should not be overly selective; we wholeheartedly disagree. Increasing selectivity to foster a culture of excellence will have a strong positive effect on retention. Harvard, Apple, Facebook, and similar organizations attract the best and brightest because their selectivity, prestige, and innovative characteristics create a brand of excellence that people want to be associated with. The Navy will never be able simply to buy talent; talent will choose the Navy only if the service sets and maintains high objective standards to foster a culture of excellence. We hope the Navy will break from today’s subjective management methods to maximize its human talent warfighting machine.
1. ADM Michael M. Gilday, USN, NAVADMIN 196/19, 23 August 2019.
2. These billets are suggestions and used for illustration purposes only, not a complete list of critical billets in the aviation community. The authors are aware cronyism and subjectivity cannot be eradicated and exist even in the best civilian corporations. We recommend leaders appoint an impact team comprised of select URL officers from multiple levels of leadership (O-3 to O-7) and disciplines to transform talent management—and our service—for the future.