Talent retention for a modern military: Bringing Silicon Valley thinking to America’s digital fighting force
Yesterday at the AUSA Annual Meeting I had the honor to sit on a panel with Lieutenant General Paul Nakasone, Commanding General of United States Army Cyber Command, to talk about how the Army can best manage a very special workforce – its cyber warriors.
Over the last several years, the Army has made tremendous strides in building what I’ll call its first “digital” fighting force (offensive and defensive) by creating a new branch of service, instituting recruiting and qualification practices modeled after the Special Operations community, and ensuring that such soldiers aren’t encumbered by the traditional path of “checking the box” with jobs that would take them away from their important and unique skill sets.
For this panel, I was asked to provide a commercial sector perspective by sharing what private industries are doing around talent management, and how the Army can incorporate specific lessons learned. In doing so, I also reflected on my own decision to leave the Army over 10 years ago, and what might have “kept me in.”
To be fair, there are two very separate sides to the “talent management” equation – talent development and talent retention. I’ll focus on retention in this particular post, but clearly the former is a massively important topic as well.
With respect to retention, the most important point to realize is that it’s never the benefits that keep people in a job (at least not the right people) – it’s the job itself. I’ve learned a lot about software engineers over the last 15 years, and the most important variables for them are 1) the challenge of their job and their ability to deliver on that challenge, 2) the degree to which they respect their first line supervisor and their peers, and 3) their future career path (thinking three to five years out).
With respect to the Army, when I talk to young soldiers and officers who are leaving the service, the most common thread of frustration refers back to points 1 and 2. They don’t feel “understood” by their bosses, and they are certainly not being pushed hard enough. At the end of the day, they are not being inspired by their immediate leadership, and that’s a tough nut to crack for an institution that doesn’t have the pedigree of technical success given its newness.
So what’s the solution, or at least what can be done to improve this situation? There’s a clear first step here: Invest in a slew of technical advisors who bring real software experience to bear, and get those folks to interact directly with the young soldiers. I’m not talking government contractors – I’m talking Silicon Valley and been there/done that engineers and entrepreneurs who want to spend time mentoring the nation’s finest. We need a construct for that, and I would think that some machination of the Reserve system could provide an opportunity, perhaps by modifying the traditional weekends plus two weeks per year to a more flexible arrangement of dynamic meetings and check-ins, physically and virtually. Think of it as similar to how the commercial world engages with lawyers and accountants – when you need them!
One other important point – plenty of organizations have anchored their success on not “worrying” about extreme turnover – they manage around it, and in the best cases, they actually build their models of success upon it. If you look at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey, for example, these firms realize that they are building a network. As long as someone spends two to three years there as a young hired gun, and is treated extremely well, they’ll be back as a client. Most importantly, they realize they are “building a network” and they certainly keep track of their alumni. What these firms don’t have is the ability to leverage a Reserve component – and that’s a tool the Army certainly does possess. Again, in a non-physical world this doesn’t have to mean donning a uniform for a weekend each month – come up with a more dynamic concept for collaboration once people leave, and be excited for their future career (and be helpful!). We’ve all heard it said that you’ll be remembered for the way you leave the organization; it’s important to note that this goes both ways!
All in all, it’s amazing to see where the Army is going, and I’m sincerely grateful for the opportunity to provide my insights.