Improving the officer ranks: Air Force promotion zones and Army BCAP

Talent Management amongst the officer ranks is a continuous process that must evolve if we are to retain and maintain a healthy military. In this episode, I share my thoughts on the Air Force’s initiative to eliminate the Below-The-Zone program and transition towards a more merit-based program, as well as the Army’s Battalion Commander Assessment Program initiative that seeks to expand the calculus on selecting the right personnel for arguably the most influential position within their service.

Army Battalion Commander Assessment Program

  • On 19 Dec 19, War on the Rocks released a podcast episode titled “The Army’s new approach to people” where they interviewed MGEN J.P. McGee, who was charged to  lead the Army’s Talent Management Task Force and developed the Battalion Commander Assessment Program (BCAP)
  • BCAP is designed to complement, not replace, the traditional board recommendation process
  • The program consists of physical, cognitive and non-cognitive assessments, written and verbal communication tests, interview with behavioral psychologists, 360 peer review, and take part in a blind panel interview with senior Army officers
  • An objective of BCAP is to amass talent assessment data about individual officers, ton include more than the amount of information traditionally used in selection processes
  • BCAP Components
    • Fitness – Complete an Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT)
    • “360 degree” peer review – Find people who worked with you and ask the simple yes/no question: “Should he/she be selected for CC?”
    • Panel interview – An in-person interview to assess the candidate’s communication skills and leadership perspective against provided scenarios
    • Psychological surveys – Using mental assessments to determine if toxic leadership is present
  • Assessment
    • Fitness – I like it. At minimum, a battalion leader must be able to demonstrate they can meet a standard at any given time if they are to hold other responsible to meet standards and affect careers
    • Peer Review – A degree of this could be helpful, but should be measured with caution. Depending on how the rest of the interview is structured, the binary answer of yes/no may not have enough context to be accurate
    • Panel Interview – I like the idea of attempting to remove as much bias as possible (the Air Force runs a similar effort prior to each Development Team board with the members to attempt to remove bias prior to reviewing records). If you are able to have a discussion with a candidate and ask them questions without knowing who you are talking to, you might change your mind based on the response
    • Psychological surveys – I assume this process has been developed to try and be as helpful as possible, but just like the other components shouldn’t necessarily be a definitive decision point
    • Overall – I think the idea of expanding the program sounds well-intentioned and could provide more context and transparency as to when and why personnel are selected for command. The undetermined portion is how resource-intensive this new program will be. I imagine fairly intensive, but good ideas usually require resources to work well

Air Force Promotion Zones

  • The Air Force Times published an article titled “Air Force to drop Below-The-Zone promotions for officers” on 9 Dec 19 that detailed the transition from current below-the-zone (BTZ) system to a more merit-based system
    • Continued effort under Gen Goldfein to improve our officer ranks
  • Current BTZ system can hurt both those who are, and those who are not, selected
    • Promoted early = less development time
    • Promoted early limit’s the ability to recognize emerging talent as it blooms
  • Performance > Preference
    • A merit-based system allows top performers to pin on earlier instead of being promoted on seniority or date of rank
  • The new system will allow officers to be eligible five times in a single zone
  • Col Jason Lamb, aka “Col Ned Stark”, delivered the following comments at last years AFA conference
    • Early promotions wind up earmarking some officers as “high potential” and giving them a fast track to higher leadership, even if they fail to develop or show problems later on”
    • Awards – Artificially creating awards to try and recognize everyone has diluted the awards system
    • Past performance is an indicator, but should be evaluated w/caution (promotion consideration should be relevant on what you can do TODAY)
    • Need to get better at weeding out “toxic leadership”, which includes holding hiring authorities accountable for the actions their subordinates take
  • Assessment
    • Overall, I believe the upcoming changes are good. I’m not worried about whether or not the changes will be advantageous to me. All I know is that I need to continue to work hard and trust that leadership will make the right calls for evaluating and selecting leaders
    • I don’t know if the BTZ promotion zone has worked against me. I was never rated as a #1 of anything during my Sq/CC tours, and I was aware I was competing against peers that were BTZ, but I assume that leadership made the decision to give the #1 based on merit and performance only. That may be naive, but I don’t waste my time stressing about it. I just focus on what I can control, which is leading the personnel assigned to me the best of my ability

What both systems need to work

  • Honest assessments are at the root of selecting the best for Sq/CC, which starts way before the Sq/CC selection process
  • Instead of trying to take care of everyone, we need to ensure we are consistently elevating the leaders that have proven themselves for the next level of responsibility. This also means that the rising leader may not fit the mold of current senior leadership, but if unit results are positive within resources available, evaluations and awards are not inflated and carry a consistent sense of integrity, and the overall unit morale is high, what else is there to measure? That is a leader who performs and motivates personnel to want to follow them to get the job done, either in garrison or deployed when it counts the most.