The Marine Corps’ new talent management plan forgets what makes the service unique
Talent Management 2030, the new plan for overhauling the personnel policies of the Marine Corps, threatens to change the ethos of the Corps.
Editor’s Note: This is the third of a four-part series challenging a major multi-year reorganization of the Marine Corps known as Force Design 2030. In this article, retired Marine Gen. Greg Newbold shares his view on the “fundamental changes” coming to the Corps’ personnel system.
No organization, no matter how successful, can afford to stand still. Truly excellent organizations are always both self-critical and inclined toward experimentation. The Marine Corps, despite a record of unparalleled combat excellence over its long history, is not exempt from this principle. But a distinguished record of performance ought also to temper impulsive judgments and radical actions without fully, even exhaustingly, testing each premise and outcome. This is most especially true in personnel policies which are inextricably linked to a culture that relies not on “things,” but on the heart and soul of its members.
Talent Management 2030, the new plan for overhauling the personnel policies of the Marine Corps, threatens to change the ethos of the service. But it isn’t just the Marine Corps that will be affected by these changes because a changed ethos of the Corps has consequences for the security of our nation. Some background…
The magic that creates U.S. Marines and distinguishes the Corps from other services and other militaries of the world begins at the recruit depots. Here, a diverse group of individuals, accustomed to the norms of a society oriented toward individual pleasures and rewards, arrives and is introduced to psychologically sophisticated shock therapy. The depth and rigor of this transformative experience are purposeful — to crush the natural bias of a society oriented toward “self,” and turn a collection of individuals with their own intentions and goals into a cohesive, seamlessly blended organism, much in the way that individual members of an orchestra become a symphony. But this symphony’s success or failure can have lethal consequences, so changing its orientation ought to be performed with delicate hands and an appreciation that some acts of human interaction under stress are eternal.
Dissecting Talent Management 2030 (TM 2030)
- TM 2030 establishes four categories for overhaul: New models for recruiting, assignments, increased career flexibility, and incorporation of new digital tools. Virtually nothing important in personnel policies is unchanged because the policy document suggests that anything but a complete overhaul would be “industrial age” thinking. While well intended, the dreams of TM 2030 make an all too frequent mistake in personnel policy overhauls — the failure to appreciate unintended consequences.
- The Dangers of a Default to Data: The idea that the Corps would benefit from more data in recruiting, retention, assignments, and promotion is a good one; unfortunately, TM 2030 carries this idea too far. For example, promotions and assignments determined largely by AI can break the bond between humans in the equation. There is already an example of how insidious this can be in the promotions for corporals and sergeants. Although leaders can still influence promotions to those ranks, the actual promotion authority is viewed as computer-driven at an impersonal headquarters. The slippery slope attendant to expanding this process has implications for how Marines interact.
- Haves & Have Nots. It is an alluring and attractive notion that the most talented Marines should be recognized and receive their due when it comes to promotions and assignments. Again, however, TM 2030 takes this too far by removing these Marines from the team and selecting them for favoritism in preferential assignments, promotions, and (astoundingly) additional pay. Other services have not taken a system like this too far, but even in their milder form, they create elites within a structure that depends on a “one for all and all for one” spirit. The Marine Corps already recognizes exceptional talent, but does so in a subtle way that preserves what we call “esprit de Corps.”
- The Unintended Consequences of Aging the Force: As with several of the stipulations of TM 2030, aging the Force has merit if thoroughly gamed and targeted to specific skills and not at the general population – particularly the first term population. Some important background first: The Marine Corps didn’t stumble into crafting a first enlistment force composed of a young cohort. Like nearly all the policies that created the world’s finest fighting force, the design of Marine Corps accession policies came about from rich combat experience and lessons learned. The first of these is that direct ground combat, experienced from the Greeks to Fallujah, is for those most “mobile, agile, and hostile.” And it’s not just their physical attributes, but their counterintuitive receptivity to the harshest conditions and dangers, and their resilience. The young cohort is “seabag ready” without the encumbrances of things acquired in the natural course of growing older. Additional years can bring more maturity and depth of experience, but there are some downsides that must be examined through to the end-state that results from recruiting individuals in their mid-twenties (or past). Older recruits are less likely to be enticed to give up personal freedoms for the harsh experiences of the initial enlistment. Older recruits are more likely to have a family and a job, and less likely to be open to experiencing the consequences of combat. The first enlistment as a Marine is just plain hard, with more sacrifices than rewards (other than psychic). So hard, in fact, that to an older cohort, it simply doesn’t make as much sense to give up so much. For example, a first-term recruit will certainly earn less than a $15-an-hour fast-food employee. An older recruit very likely will take a cut in pay to enlist and, if they have started a family or have other obligations, the math simply may not work. Consider that recruiting to meet annual goals will be more difficult (fresh high school graduates versus those more settled into early adulthood), and the recruits will also be less malleable to the rigor expected in the first term. The other services age the career force, but none of them targets a first term force, because they know from experience what the downsides are. Aging the career force selectively is long overdue and can bring richer skills and fewer incidents, but also brings increased costs in retention bonuses, pay, allotments, and upon transfers (household effects shipments). The community which suffers the most from a lack of aging is the direct ground combat community, and this is the one skill community that appears to have been excluded. Very importantly, retaining a more senior force also alters the pyramidal structure that recognizes the flow needed to avoid grade stagnation. Once again, it’s not that there aren’t advantages to selective aging, but it needs to be accomplished with a scalpel, not a saber. The bumper sticker, “aging the force,” doesn’t indicate great depth in assessing consequences.
- Lateral Entry Pitfalls: TM 2030 postulates that the Marine Corps needs advanced skills in high technology fields that can only be satisfied if we absorb individuals with these skills directly into the Corps with advanced grades/ranks commensurate to their experiences and abilities. The identification of the problem is correct, but the solution is flawed. The Marine Corps has programs in place to accommodate the need for specialized skills that don’t entail the consequences of such a radical step. There are over 22,000 civilians employed by the Marine Corps and probably thousands of technical representatives of industry that provide special skills. These programs can be expanded. Increase these programs, and you avoid the strange experiences likely to result from shoehorning a very civilianized individual into the most cult-like corner of the Armed Forces. There are new indications that the direct accessions will still be sent through recruit training or Officer Candidate School, but any experienced recruiter of any service will describe this as wishful thinking. For example, the premise of the program suggests that the skills sought are unique and cannot be sourced from the current talent program. By their very nature, these skills are in high demand in the civilian job market and will, therefore, command salaries and benefits beyond the range permitted by the military pay scale. As just one example, ZipRecruiter says that the average mid-level cyber security employee makes $100,000.00 a year. If you don’t want “average,” you’ll pay more. Contrast that with the base pay for a major with less than two years of service who will make $60,000 a year. We can add a housing allowance, but the private sector more than offsets that with stock options, bonuses, and complete stability in geographic location. And the kicker now is that we’ll shave their heads, put them through the most rigorous psychological and physical crucible of any of the services, and then send them to wherever they are most needed – potentially including six-month deployments at sea or to a combat zone. Imagine that recruiting pitch. There will be some patriots who may choose to do this, but the long experience of older recruits’ ability to endure boot camp and OCS indicates that the attrition percentage will reduce accessions to this program to the degree that it is not productive. By the way, this has been tried to a degree previously with a Direct Commission Program for staff judge advocates in the early 1970s – an abject failure (abandoned quickly) that didn’t go nearly as far as the program envisioned by TM 2030. As indicated, proven sources of this talent can come from the civil service or through technical representatives from industry.
- Enhancing the Assessment of Potential Recruits: TM 2030 stipulates that the Corps will adopt additional assessment tools for prospective recruits, including comprehensive psychological profiling. This is a positive initiative if paced according to the ability of all participants to contribute without the dreaded unintended consequences. For an example of those, one can look no further than the current significantly harmful introduction of the Medical Review of Authoritative Data (MROAD) program that has caused three of the services to badly miss their recruiting targets. The program is already being paused (not halted), but the harm has been done and all the services are looking at a severely constrained recruiting situation for the year. Prudence over enthusiasm; testing over haste.
- Centrifugal Policies: TM 2030’s Talent Marketplace envisions a Marine Corps in which individual Marines, commanders, and locations have much more influence on assignments. An admirable sentiment, to a degree. The Air Force currently operates in this way, and it fosters something the Marine Corps largely shed two generations ago: mafias of officers whose success or failure depended on their association with a senior officer. It can promote careerism, something that strikes at the heart of a “service before self” ethos.
- Enhanced Parental Leave: TM 2030, by going beyond the programs of every other government agency and the private sector, could create resentment against and obstacles for those it was designed to help. Again, well-intentioned, but not screened for unintended consequences. For example, we can take the hypothetical case of a second tour officer who looks to start a family with two children (it could be more). If you add up the cumulative time off (including non-deployability from the time of pregnancy to one year afterward, specific work limitations, exclusion from training for the last four months of pregnancy, parental leave for one year, and a “phased return” policy allowing a return to work gradually) for these two pregnancies, and you create the conditions for perceived special treatment that need to be carefully considered. In a special skill area, with a small roster and high demands, you exacerbate an already difficult situation. Are the standards of a civil agency not sufficient for an expeditionary, “first to fight” military?
There are other aspects of TM 2030 that demonstrate initiative and a desire to advance the Marine Corps personnel policies. Among them are paperwork reduction, additional support tools for reenlistments and selection boards, upgrading HR systems, and the 360-degree evaluation (tested first in a pilot program, as many of the new policies should be).
In conclusion, each of the services fulfills a unique role in national security. The Marine Corps’ role is codified in law as expressed by the 82nd Congress – “an expeditionary force in readiness” and… “The nation’s shock troops must be the most ready when the nation is generally least ready.” What the nation needs and expects from the Marine Corps is to carry out these responsibilities and create the characteristics necessary for the service to be faithful to its missions: agile, responsive, expeditionary, frugal, lethal, and always successful. Logically then, the composition of the Marine Corps must exist as a force that embodies these missions and their attendant characteristics, and so must its culture.
Other services can appropriately abide by different standards of readiness and comfort, but for the Corps to adopt their lifestyles or those of the private sector, it would fundamentally change and lessen our ability (in the words of a legendary college football coach) to be “mobile, agile, and hostile.” Because the margin of success can be razor-thin for those “first-in,” absolute unity of effort and cohesion are essential. Individuality — an admirable trait in Palo Alto — must, in the Marine Corps, be subsumed within a seamless performance where all actions are subordinate to the unified effort to accomplish the mission. Tinker with this, damage the fragile nature of the institutional culture, and you are not experimenting; you’re gambling.
Greg Newbold is a retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General who commanded at every level from platoon to division. His last assignment was as Director of Operations for the Joint Staff in the Pentagon. In retirement, he operated a science and technology think tank, and co-founded a private equity firm and consulting group. He has been a director of a dozen non-profit and for-profit companies.
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