What kind of commander does the Marine Corps want? The significance of this question cannot be overstated. Officers selected for O-5 command have immediate and career-long effects on the hundreds of Marines in their units, consequently impacting the quality of the force for years after command is relinquished. More critical, these battalion and squadron commanders are personally charged with building the warfighting capability and combat readiness of Marine Corps forces deployed across the globe. As the Marine Corps transforms itself to more thoroughly integrate with the Navy and develop naval expeditionary forces, the best leaders are needed in command positions. Finally, O-5 command is all but a prerequisite for continued promotion and command at more senior levels. Very few lieutenant colonels not selected for O-5 command are promoted to colonel, and none who fail selection for O-6 command are promoted to the general officer ranks.
The Marine Corps wants “the best and most fully qualified for command.” But what it wants and what it gets may not be in alignment. The more compelling question, again, is what kind of commander does the Marine Corps select? The troubling answer is that the commander it selects is often determined by a crapshoot.
Though command board precepts provide some guidance to board members, the selection statistics show that board members often use selection heuristics that do not align with the precepts. In turn, assignments officers (monitors) and career counselors must infer career guidance from the selection statistics, providing advice that might be contrary to policy or even unachievable. Officers attempt to shape their career paths by playing a game of Go Fish!, in which picking the wrong card by chance often negatively affects their careers and the Marine Corps.
Command selection must not rely on examining records that were largely determined by a guessing game. Commanders must be selected through deliberate processes that ensure the intent of command selection is met.
The Commanders We Ask For
Marine Corps commanders are selected through the Command Screening Program (CSP), an order implemented “to ensure that Marines receive the best possible leadership and to provide all eligible officers with a fair and equitable opportunity to command.” In addition, the program seeks to formalize “an objective system that eliminates subjective bias from the process” using a standard of “best and fully qualified” for all officers screened for selection.
The CSP issues more specific guidance to board members through command selection precepts prior to each board. These precepts state the board will select those officers “whom a majority of the board consider the best and fully qualified for command.” Further, board members are reminded that “the Marine Corps has not established an expected or preferred career pattern for officers.”The precept directs board members to screen officers based on their performance in any given assignment, rather than on the types of billets to which they were assigned.
The only special consideration given for past assignments is one for successful tours with Marine Corps Recruiting Command (MCRC). Notably, the precept declares, “A successful tour of duty with the Marine Corps Recruiting Command should be viewed as a significant accomplishment in an officer’s career.”
To summarize, the precept calls for selections based on this simple guidance: select the best and fully qualified, don’t discriminate based on career path, but do give special consideration to those who succeeded in MCRC tours. According to this criteria, command selectees as a group should have incredibly diverse career paths, with a slight preference for those who had successful MCRC tours. But the data show this is not the case.
The Commanders We Get
To determine what the average battalion or squadron commander looks like, one can review the results of recent command selection boards and identify common traits.
Despite very broad guidance and the admonishment to avoid giving preference to assignment types, the Marine Corps selects a very specific type of officer for command—one who held company/battery/detachment command in their primary military occupational specialty as a captain, a “key” billet as a major, and attended resident professional military education (PME) at least once, either as a captain or a major. A key billet is understood by board members as a battalion/squadron executive officer or operations officer in the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) or a Marine expeditionary unit (MEU), regimental primary staff officer, O-4 company commander, or department head tour. In FMF tours, selectees generally had experience in more than one Marine expeditionary force (MEF). Finally, there was a strong preference for those with successful MCRC tours.
Board members generally assigned less value to joint tour fitness reports and those from special education program (SEP) utilization tours that prevented the officers from having a command tour as a captain or a key billet as a major.These observations are not categorical. There were outliers, but the profile described above is the statistically significant career path one should pursue to be competitive for command.
This career profile, or “commander’s career path,” is not new and has been the trend in command selection for at least the past decade. Determining why this trend exists is difficult, given the contrary precept language. But the trend is observable in the data, which is used by monitors in the guidance they publish. Aside from the explicitly required preference for MCRC alumni, why such a career path exists remains a mystery. However, former board members have repeated two key trends in briefs on command selection and through informal mentoring, and these trends correspond strongly with the data.
First, board members were far more likely to select for command those officers whose career paths matched their own career paths, even with middling performance evaluations, than officers whose career paths did not match—even if the latter had much higher performance evaluations. That is, assignment type was preferred over performance, despite the precepts’ prohibition against this voting behavior.
Second, board members were far more likely to select those who attended resident PME than those who completed nonresident PME. That is, PME residency was strongly preferred, despite Marine Corps policy requiring resident and nonresident PME to be considered equivalent. This trend is confirmed by comparing data on selection to resident PME with rates of selection to command. For example, I examined the FY2017 Marine Corps O-5 command list and found that those who attended resident PME were selected for command over those who attended nonresident PME at a rate as high as 9-to-1.1
Regardless of other factors, those who aspire to command are left with the lesson that they should model their careers to match a more narrowly defined career path, despite board precept language, and they should attend resident PME. Yet this is simply impossible for many officers.
Choosing to Match the Profile Is Almost Impossible Task
It is no secret that Marines have very little control over their assignments. Generally, officers identify their assignment preferences to their monitor. Monitors, in turn, attempt to meet the mandate of putting the right officer in the right assignment to support the needs of the Marine Corps. But when one monitor is slating orders for hundreds of individuals while managing inventory and vacancies to support the needs of the force, it becomes almost impossible to accommodate assignment preferences.
Moreover, orders send Marines to commands and not to specific billets. The receiving commander determines which individual is assigned to which billet. Based on manpower taxes (such as headquarters staff positions that are on the table of organization but not on the staffing goal, general’s aides, individual augments, and other requirements), it is not uncommon for officers to go an entire three-year tour without filling a key billet.
Finally, selection by the Commandant’s Education Board (CEB) is completely out of an officer’s control, and the program to which a CEB selectee is slated—resident PME, SEP, or another program—is largely arbitrary, based on comparing officer preferences with available CEB assignments. Furthermore, although CEB also uses a “best and fully qualified” standard, those already assigned to the national capital region (NCR) when screened for CEB are selected for resident PME at significantly higher rates than those who are not, presumably as a cost-saving measure because they will not have to relocate to attend resident PME schools located in Quantico, Virginia, or Washington, DC.
In other words, officers have almost no control to model their careers to match the commander’s career path or increase their chances for selection for resident PME attendance. Whether they can hit the wickets that make them most competitive in the eyes of any board becomes a matter of luck. Consequently, many Marine Corps officers are selected for O-5 command not by design, but by accident.
Deliberate Commander Selection
How can the Marine Corps change this?
Prioritize performance over billet assignment. Officers cannot control their assignments, but they can control their performance. This is why the CSP and command board precepts make it clear that boards should prioritize performance over billet assignment. However, board member behavior shows little adherence to this CSP guidance. This can be better controlled by withholding billet assignment history from board members, compelling them to select commanders based on fitness report relative values and key comments from evaluators.
Control for PME bias. While policy is clear that resident and nonresident PME are equivalent for purposes of promotion and command selection, board member behavior shows a bias for officers who attended resident PME at rates as high as 9-to-1, as previously mentioned. The CEB selects for education and not for command, yet command board members use resident PME selection as a proxy for excellence, a flawed method to apply when selecting commanding officers. If these schools truly are equivalent, there should be no distinction between resident or nonresident PME in an Official Military Professional File (OMPF), and board members should be blind to the type of PME completed by the screened population.
Leverage the Army’s Battalion Command Assessment Program (BCAP). Though not a one-to-one comparison, the Army and Marine Corps share similar processes for battalion command selection. Recently, the Army conducted a pilot for the new BCAP, which included evaluations on written communication skills, cognitive assessments, peer and subordinate assessments, a double-blind panel interview, and other new metrics. Command selection using the BCAP, when compared with the original process using only evaluations from supervisors, saw a radical shift in who was selected, including an average change of 35 percent up or down the order of merit list for command. Notably, the officer who was rated “worst” in the old system was rated “first” in the new system, illustrating that more holistic evaluations can drastically change who is selected. Such shifts will incentivize new leadership, learning, and performance behaviors among officers throughout their careers, creating an even more competitive pool of potential commanders. The Marine Corps should assess the BCAP and identify if it has aspects that can be adopted to better select the commanders it wants.
Best and Fully Qualified
Given the incredible responsibility commanders have in executing the Marine Corps’ responsibility to the security interests of the nation, it is imperative that those selected to command are selected deliberately, not accidentally. By prioritizing performance over assignment type, controlling for PME bias, and identifying positive results from the BCAP, boards will be better empowered to select the “best and fully qualified” officers for command. This, in turn, will position the Marine Corps to have the best leaders at the helm as it moves down the path of naval integration and builds combat readiness for future threats.
1. MAJ Brian Kerg, USMC, “Marine Corps Professional Military Education (PME) Equivalency: Marine Corps Resident and Non-Resident Intermediate PME Seen through Promotions and Command,” Research Report for the Air Staff College, Air University: Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, 2018, 30.