In Navigation Plan 2.0, then–Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday writes, “People are our asymmetric advantage.” This is true. Yet the Navy loses many talented, well-trained, and qualified officers who find themselves off the so-called golden path for both milestones and promotions for department head, command, major command, and rank. Once off, officers often feel lost, goalless, and out of step with their warfare communities. Redefining career success and overhauling talent management could allow them to contribute significantly to the Navy’s “Get Real, Get Better” effort.
Retaining talent will require a multiaxis approach that includes clear policy reform, transparent and supportive detailing, multiple paths for advancement, more leadership opportunities, and an update to the Navy’s personnel management system. The Navy will need to evolve in these areas to be competitive and retain talent by building trust in the system.
Support, Reform, and Transparency
When the path toward promotion is obvious, officer detailing is nearly seamless, and members easily select for milestones, especially in naval aviation. However, officers not selected for milestones frequently find themselves in a gray zone in which the detailing process loses the clear path forward, and they often cease to be guided or mentored by others in their community. The conversation with detailers shifts from a discussion centered on goals, talent, and career trajectory to one that centers on filling a job—the “needs of the service.” There is no longer a path.
For many officers, this may be fine; perhaps they have solid career opportunities outside the Navy or, to maintain financial stability and maximize their pensions, they are content with whatever the Navy asks. But for others, it is a debilitating way to serve out a Navy career, with officers sometimes adopting a grind-it-out mentality until they can leave. On one hand, this kind of detailing can force an officer to broaden his or her experience and gain additional skills. It may even be rewarding if service needs align with individual interests. On the other hand, highly trained naval officers may find themselves in positions that are not personally rewarding, may not play toward their skills, are not in line with future career goals, and do not foster a sense of purpose for continued service.
How can the Navy motivate and support officers not on the path? What incentives are there to keep off-the-path officers’ talent in the Navy? In practice, this is likely to involve building more trust between an officer and Navy Personnel Command (PERS): an understanding that PERS will consider an officer’s amassed skills, strengths, and career goals in the same way private sector companies value a 20-year veteran employee.
The most obvious way to support these service members is to create alternate paths to success and promotion, such as transfer-redesignation and/or releasing officers to other communities. Of course, given the imperative to fill billets within a community, this strategy might not be especially palatable to PERS. Additional ways to appeal to off-the-path officers and provide clarity in the detailing process could include:
• Taking into consideration an officer’s long-term career goals—both in and out of the Navy
• Identifying an officer’s strengths, including soft skills that may not be represented in a forced-distribution fitness report
• Attaching value to relevant experiences vs. putting all O-5 commanders into one bucket for job placement
• Providing opportunities for mentorship outside an officer’s community
Despite changes to the “up or out” legal mandate included in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the Navy still has a promote-or-leave mentality that needs changing to help off-path officers. Other services are taking steps to clarify their policies for personnel management, a clear indication that talent retention in the armed forces is necessary. Ideas from other services could be adopted by the Navy.
The Coast Guard released a policy update allowing officers in zone for O-3 to O-5 to request to opt out of their promotion selection boards as part of Ready Workforce 2030, starting in promotion year 2024.1 “This policy initiative will provide more career flexibility . . . by allowing the Service to consider delaying an officer’s promotion timeline based on a member’s request to allow for opportunities that benefit the officer and the Service.” In January 2022, MarAdmin 11/22 announced a similar change to Marine Corps policy for officers up for promotion to O-4, O-5, and O-6.
The Army ensures selected officers are screened beyond just one board using a process dubbed the “NFL Combine.” This system looks at rising battalion commanders (an O-5 command) whom a board has selected and puts them through additional screening to assess fitness for command and strategic leadership potential. This can result in officers falling off the rigid path, an unintended consequence of this innovative way to ensure the Army gets the (not just on paper) best in command.
Writing in War on the Rocks, Air Force Major Kevin Rossillon highlighted the need to reimagine promotion systems that “ensure officers are promoted based on merit and future potential.”2 He suggested to “compare officers across year groups rather than within year groups,” which would “incentivize younger officers to innovate, take rational risks, and focus on excelling in their current positions.”
Multiple Paths to Opportunity
Every board selection round results in some top-performing officers not being selected, thanks in large part to insufficient opportunity. For example, performance review cycles often line up multiple top performers of similar pedigree, leaving one or more talented officers off path because of the current Navy forced-distribution policy. Alternatively, officers selected for some leadership opportunities (e.g., aviation special mission or operational training command) are viewed less favorably by boards and subsequently are not considered for selection to the next level of command.3 These examples do not cover every scenario, but they do highlight members of the talent pool the Navy needs to value.
The percentage of those selected for aviation operational command is small—historically, some 20 percent of eligible officers. Analyzed further, those eligible with a “number one” department head ticket had a selection rate of 30 percent, and the command selection rate for those department heads whose number one tickets were for six months or more was 50 percent. Based on this data, every year roughly 100 qualified and proven officers do not have the opportunity to command at the squadron level.
Changing the statutory board mindset could allow this pool of officers to remain competitive for promotion and navigate to nontraditional leadership opportunities. The current Chief of Naval Personnel is leaning forward on an evaluation prototype that could reach initial operational capability by fiscal year (FY) 2024. Hopefully, this new system could offer a balance between eligibility and opportunity while also providing a tool for cross-community standardization for off-the-path officers to move within the Navy.
Non-operational commanding officers in aviation often excel during demanding overseas or sea-duty tours following command, yet they remain less competitive in promotion boards. Over the past three promotion boards, selection to captain for this group dropped significantly. In FY21, aviation officer opportunity for selection to O-6 was 122; 42 non-operational squadron commanding officers were selected (34 percent), while in FY22 and FY23 combined, only 1 non-operational officer was selected out of 153 (0.65 percent). Indeed, the community value slide for aviation ranks the “best and fully qualified” O-5s who commanded operational squadrons (deploying fleet squadrons) above those who commanded non-operational squadrons (training commands and special mission). Although that order is unlikely to change, the community could evolve to appreciate the value of non-operational leadership and work harder to create opportunities for quality officers.
A large percentage of operational commanders also find themselves off the path to major command. Subsequently, these officers are left to fight for the same jobs as O-5s who never held command, giving the impression that having O-5 command adds no value. The Navy recently established the maritime space officer designator, and the most recent NDAA directed the Navy to establish a cyber officer designator. Communities ripe for future opportunity include strategy and plans as well as maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (MISR). Could the Navy create opportunities for post-O-5-command officers to fill leadership roles in these communities through probationary officer continuation and redesignation or lateral transfer boards? Detailing hurdles related to resource and community sponsorship should not be the only reason the Navy cannot evolve to offer these opportunities to qualified officers. In addition, releasing officers into specialty programs such as attaché positions and other nominative opportunities should not be constrained by the concerns of individual communities. To retain talent, the service needs to embrace a whole-of-Navy approach.
Currently, the Navy has roughly one-tenth the number of Army or Air Force officers in fellowship and educational billets, a career opportunity that earns service members a strategy subspecialty code. Prioritizing growth of educational opportunities to equal the other services will increase the Navy’s maritime strategist talent and advance long-term maritime strategic goals. In the long run, a strategy and plans community could offer talented officers stability and foster purpose-driven retention, similar to officers who land in the acquisition community.
The need for MISR specialists across the Navy is growing—its relevance is on display in the current conflict in Europe. The investment to train MISR-qualified officers is substantial, yet most return to standard career paths for operational department head and command billets. Establishing a designator or specific career path for MISR would create opportunities for officers, increase return on the Navy’s investment, and encourage purpose-driven retention.
The attaché program—particularly at the smaller embassies—and other nominative specialty opportunities are likely to benefit from the inclusion of talented officers with operational experience. Attachés collaborate with allies and partners abroad to advance U.S. goals, a role highlighted in the Navigation Plan, which says, “Our alliances and partnerships remain our key strategic advantage.” Releasing off-path officers from their communities earlier, without first requiring an arduous tour, to these demanding and important billets would not only create more opportunity for officers looking to advance their careers, but also further the joint force strategy.
Modernize Personnel Management
There are several ongoing initiatives to modernize and transform the Navy personnel management enterprise. The Talent Management Task Force and the MyNavy HR system are designed reduce the mystery of what goes on inside the detailing process and increase transparent communication while improving advancement and distribution alignment for the sailor as well as the detailer.
Going a step further, imagine a personnel dashboard for Navy service members. Administrative departments across the Navy would input personal information, qualifications, evaluations, personnel and operational tempo, Exceptional Family Member Program status, colocation needs, and other such data. That could be paired with projected rotation dates and coded job fill lists, thus giving officers—specifically those off path—a transparent and detailed jumping off point to start a conversation with the detailer.
The dashboard would help eliminate process bias by using an algorithm to inform decision-makers, e.g., highlighting jobs that balance sailor needs/preferences and Navy requirements. Willingness to be flexible or take a hard assignment to meet the needs of the Navy would also be documented with a PERS note on the sailor’s dashboard, highlighting his or her contribution to better inform subsequent detailing. The result would allow detailers, who are balancing placement for hundreds of personnel, to have better information, helping them be trusted by the sailors they serve. Modernization at PERS also would magnify the MyNavy Coaching initiative, which helps develop Navy talent and encourages sailors to reach their full potential.
None of this is a plea to blindly promote or change Title 10 rules within the Navy, nor is it an appeal to alter the selection of the best and most fully qualified officers. Instead, it is a reminder that the Navy should embrace the new NDAA, allow officers more control over their career paths, modernize and make transparent the personnel experience, and appreciate the fact that off-path officers have talent worth retaining. A well-known management expert wrote in the Harvard Business Review that the secret to retaining talent is making them feel valued: “To win their loyalty you need to enable them to keep growing and learning in their own individual way, without making success impossible.”4 It will take the right civilian and uniformed senior leaders within the Navy to help the service evolve from what has worked in the past to new approaches that will retain well-trained talent, preparing the Navy to deliver the sea power the United States needs to deter, defend against, and defeat its adversaries.
1. Annie Sheehan, “Policy Update: Opportunities for Officers to Opt Out of Promoting at Certain Pay Grades,” My Coast Guard News, 6 October 2022.
2. Kevin Rossillon, “In Search of an Air Force Meritocracy,” War on the Rocks, 28 September 2022.
3. CDR William T. Miante, USN, “There Is No ‘T’ for Training in the Warfighting TACRons,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 149, no. 7 (July 2023).
4. Roger L. Martin, “The Real Secret to Retaining Talent,” Harvard Business Review, March/April 2022.