Saturday, January 15, 2005

Comments On Marine Corps Gazette Editorial Jan 2005

MCG Editorial

I read with interest this month’s (January 2005) editorial in the Marine Corps Gazette concerning relieving Commanding Officers of command. Indeed it was a cautionary note to senior commanders to seriously evaluate whether relieving COs of command is truly beneficial in all cases. There are often, as the editor points out, clear cut and legitimate reasons for COs to be relieved, and in these types of cases (serious UCMJ violations, inappropriate behavior with subordinates, etc.) relief of command is the proper solution. He cautions about relief in more ambiguous circumstances such as erosion of confidence, squadron safety records, and other less clear-cut circumstances. I couldn’t agree more here.

Relieving a CO midstream can be devastating to a unit. And while I am not familiar with the specifics of the two cases the Editor cites, he is correct about its short term and long-term effects. I experienced this twice in my career. Each time the unit cohesion was reduced; unit confidence was shattered, as many junior officers wrongfully assumed a share of the blame; and reconstruction was long and painful.

Also to the editor’s point, is the need to use relief as the last resort, and to very carefully use it after extensive counseling and mentoring by the senior commander. The implication is that this rarely happens, and based on my experience, I would agree.

The other chilling message these unscheduled COCs send is that we are returning to a zero-defect system. A management approach that punishes mistakes and risk taking, and rewards risk avoidance and anonymous, benign activity. There are officers who can remain virtually unknown as they fail to take measured risks, and rarely stick their necks out when appropriate. In the end, they will have the records that will get them commands, but they will have little of what it takes to be in command. We are better off being a bit bolder and making mistakes, than we are continually working to stay off the skyline with the next higher echelon. The hasty relief of COs reinforces the zero-defect mentality amongst officers, and in the long run, will produce increasingly less capable COs.

I will take one issue with the editorial, and I will belabor the point to some degree. In combination, our evaluation system, our promotion selection system, and our command screening system are incapable of producing consistent, high quality results. I am not saying we are not getting good COs. In fact on a visit to MCAS Miramar last summer, I was impressed at the choices the Corps had made, of the COs that were known to me. These systems, however do not support the objective of consistently getting the best leaders into our leadership ranks, and into our leadership billets.

First, the performance evaluation system needs a lot of work. At best a CO is in position to directly evaluate an officer less than 5 percent of the time. The remaining 95 percent must then be filled in with supposition, opinion, and conjecture. There needs to be broadened input into the system. Modern technology supports the idea of anonymous peer evals at a low consumption of time and energy. Dial in, or computer assigned evals, done by contemporaries of the officer reported on, works is a legitimate way to fill in what Reviewing Officers are physically incapable of seeing.

The officers within a unit HAVE to be rated on a curve. Period. This will give a level statistical base in which to compare officers of different units and different MOSs competing for promotion against officers that have been assigned to different size staffs. The current system is abused when statistical derivatives are used in the selection process, where no level statistical field exists. The statistical “truth tellers” are invalid if the original basis for their calculations are not mathematically based.

Eliminate all reporting occasions that are easily manipulated to avoid ranking some officers in the bottom 50 percent. We all now what I am talking about. This kills the legitimacy of the evaluations, and skews the data…compromising the “purity” of the system and potentially opening the door for lesser-qualified candidates.

The conduct of the current promotion systems is archaic at best. Today’s computer and video technology can lend depth to the current one-dimensional view now delivered to promotion board via a review of an Officer’s Qualification Record (OQR). Reliance on a paper file to select LtCols who will lead our combat maneuver elements is outdated in the era of web conferencing, PALM devices and PDF files. Allow Marines to “talk” to the board via the fitness reports, giving each MRO a space to describe the challenges and successes of the reporting period. Get more input to the board, and use technology to do so.

Change the way promotion selection boards work. As I am going through the “Case Preparation and Briefing Guide” Rev. 2 Apr 96, I am amazed to learn that,

“Case preparation should take no more than 60 minutes per case. You will eventually reduce record preparation to approximately 45 minutes ore less per case as you master the techniques.”

Wow. A whole hour to review a 14-15 year career. Combined with the actual presentation before the board, a record will get a whopping 66 minutes (max) consideration at an officer’s most critical juncture. Looking at it the other way, the Marine Corps has spent only 66 minutes in the first step of the process to select future COs. Seem adequate?

Promotion to LtCol and screening for command, HAVE to be more rigorous. By accepting them in there current forms we are leaving in place a woefully weak system that is not modeled anywhere in business. I had two days of interviews, conducted by ten people, in order to get my first job out of the Corps. That was for a position that paid $53K and had only 25 direct reports. Promoting a Major to LtCol, then giving him command of a half a billion dollars worth of airplanes based on a couple of hours spent screening a paper record, does not measure up. Period.
Great editorial, but let’s don’t skip over a systematic problem that could be a large factor. Fix the evaluation, promotion, and screening systems, and you will reduce unscheduled Changes-of-Command.

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