Bringing the glory into public service

November 29, 2012 — Leave a comment
A Kind of Glory: Part III
In part I of this series, I quoted John Steinbeck’s beautiful essay from East of Eden celebrating the majesty of the individual human mind and its creative power.  In part III considered why it is hard for those in large bureaucratic organizations like the U.S. government to “find the glory.”  Modern economies depend on the division of labor; bureaucracies can undertake epic projects by distributing the load across a vast workforce, but the downside is that most employees will only ever deal with a tiny fragment of the finished project.  That can make job satisfaction elusive.  Employees must also suffer with all the bureaucratic minutiae that large organizations inevitably spawn.  Both these factors are all too present within the U.S. military and government.  They drive a lot of good people away, and create endless frustration for the good people who stay.

In part III of this series, I want to speculate about whether or not it needs to be this way.  Can we make it easier to “find the glory” for those serving in a large bureaucracy like the U.S. military?  Is it possible to bring the work and the glory closer together, even to put the glory to work for us?

Most people have passions in life, activities they wish they could do for a living.  The problem is that our passions seldom completely align with our jobs.  We don’t know how to make money off of them, or we think it’s not possible to make money, so at some point in our lives we make the decision to “grow up” and study something useful.  The passions are still there, pleading for expression, but they suffocate under the demands of tomorrow’s staff meeting and the next mortgage payment and finding a good health care package.  Nearly every artist in the world knows what I’m talking about.  Many people wither away in jobs they despise, then die filled with regrets.

Every once in a while, we find those who miraculously reinvent themselves midway through their lives.  They quit the secure job, forsake the regular paycheck, and take a daring plunge into doing that one thing they’ve always dreamed of.  Stunned relatives think they’re crazy, and for a while they’re living in an apartment again and burning through their life savings, but they do it: they find their footing, and in a few years they’re making money at something they love.  They write inspirational books and give motivational speeches, and we love these people, because we wish we had the courage to make that same plunge.

My dad did this.  He gave up a comfortable job managing a successful boat store because every evening after he work he built models and R/C submarines and boats and cars, and he’d always dreamed of opening a hobby store.  After a near-fatal car accident led him to do some deep thinking, he acted.  Eleven years later, he sold what had become the most successful hobby store on the West Coast and he was nationally known in the hobby retail community.  Now he does decidedly ungrown-up things like building completely functional replicas of R2-D2 and doing occasional contracts with Lucasfilm.  Wow.

If there is one thing that drives dissatisfaction with work, it is this gap between our work and our passion.  Smart companies nowadays are trying to close that gap.  Google popularized the idea of the “20% project.”  Employees are only expected to work on their primary project 80% of the time; they can commit the remaining 20% of their time to pet projects.  This policy lets a bunch of software geeks do the thrilling, Red Bull-pounding, frenzy of coding that they did in their garages as teenagers–in other words, fulfill their passion.  But more importantly, it has brought huge dividends to the company.  Many of Google’s leading technologies like gmail and Google Talk are a result of 20% projects.  The policy has helped Google employees find a little bit of glory, and simultaneously put that glory to work.

So let’s bring this back to government service and the military.  We aren’t a company; our work is quite different, and compared to the corporate world, it can be pretty exciting.  I’m fortunate to do something that is a passion, something that is a dream for many young Americans: being an Air Force pilot.  I’m certainly not complaining.  The problem, though, is that being an Air Force officer entails a whole lot more than flying airplanes, and just like in corporate America, the passion and the work can diverge.

In the military’s archaic personnel system, we are largely viewed as interchangeable parts and can be reduced to a handful of numbers on a single-sheet career summary.  The system can barely account for our actual skills, let alone the things we care about, are passionate about, and want to do for the rest of our lives. Our careers move on rails, and the system is so rigid and centrally-directed that it is ill-equipped to handle the unique contributions that talented individuals can make.  It can’t harness the glory.

I’ll share a few examples of missed opportunities:

1. Plenty of my fellow pilots have no interest in commanding a squadron, and are content to let the all-stars have the job.  They really want to do just one thing for the rest of their careers: fly airplanes.  But in an up-or-out promotion system, that is the one thing they can’t do.  In fact, there is only one place where they can do that and still wear a uniform: the Reserves.  So shortly after they hit Major, many of our most talented instructors and evaluators “cross the street” to the reserve squadrons.  The Air Force spends a vast amount of money on signing bonuses to staunch the flow.

2. I have another colleague who is a strong pilot and excellent leader, who dreams of being a squadron commander.  Serving commanders recognize that he is a natural pick, but his paper record probably isn’t strong enough because he missed opportunities as a lieutenant and young captain.  To cite a hypothetical but typical example, his record is weaker than a guy who got a #1 stratification as a Lieutenant for planning the squadron Christmas party, and whose record snowballed from there.

3. A colleague of mine is skilled at mobile programming, and was working on iPhone apps for our Wing.  He got a by-name request by a general officer to do software projects, but was denied by his assignment team because they needed a body to fill a modest staff job that required no special talents.

4. At a time when fuel cost savings is a top priority for Air Mobility Command, our pilots rage at inefficiencies in the U.S. global logistics system.  We routinely fly empty or half-empty jets from place to place.  I have friends who earned Master’s degrees in subjects like Logistics Management and Operational Research, who could offer so much in this area, but our personnel system is blind to the content of degrees and is not equipped to capitalize on their experience.

I could go on, but you get the idea.  The rigid, centrally-directed, up-or-out promotion system limits how much officers can maneuver within their careers.  It makes it very difficult for officers to do that one thing that they really dream of doing with their lives, or are uniquely suited to do.  How many opportunities are we missing?  How much stronger would our squadrons be, if we let our best instructor pilots fly out their remaining years instead of driving them to the reserves?  How much innovation could we harness by recognizing bright officers who have great ideas, and letting them work in environments where they could bring those ideas to life?  How much better would our staff work be if we could actually look at what officers studied in their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and let them work–to whatever extent possible–in related staff jobs?

I’m also intrigued by the idea of offering sabbaticals.  We have an all-volunteer force, but after a decade of continuous war we have burned out and ground down too many of our volunteers.  We also expect our volunteers to serve in one non-stop burst, from the day they show up to basic training to the day they separate.  During that time we push them relentlessly, which has a perverse side effect: our professional military education (PME) assignments, those times when we are supposed to be learning and stretching ourselves to prepare for higher-level service, are often viewed as our only chance to rest. That doesn’t help our collective performance in these schools.

Is it possible to give service members voluntary sabbaticals, in ways that wouldn’t hurt their chances for promotion?  Imagine what it would do for retention, if tired mid-career officers could take a year to find the glory… whether that’s working on a doctorate, traveling the world, or just spending a quiet season with their families.  And imagine the potential payoff to the military and government, from officers who choose to broaden themselves through more study or civilian work during these periods.  I know exactly what I would do, if I had a year sabbatical; I would move right back to the Middle East, and spend a year immersed in the countries I was never allowed to visit because of the DOD’s ludicrous travel restrictions.  I can guarantee the government would benefit when I got back.

They two keys to these various suggestions are flexibility and choice: enough flexibility in the career ladder that jumping the rails doesn’t guarantee the stagnation or end of your career, and enough choice that passion and job requirements have a fair chance at aligning.  That means letting individuals seek out the jobs that excite them, and giving supervisors the freedom to hire uniquely talented individuals who bring more to the job than a good stratification.

These aren’t easy issues, and no doubt any change to our personnel system would invite a rash of second and third-order consequences.  Perhaps that is why no one has dared to try to change it.  Choice can only go so far, in a profession filled with undesirable billets that absolutely must be filled.  A commitment to duty and service before self will always matter.  And it makes sense that an organization like the Air Force wants its commanders to have a certain breadth of experience before taking the job.  I have no background in organizational management, and am not qualified to put forward specific suggestions.  This post is about speculations, not concrete proposals.  However, it is clear to me that the military’s personnel system is showing its age and is increasingly out of synch with the approaches taken by modern companies.  I do think there is a place here for real reform, and I think the biggest winner of all would be the organization itself.  If the organization can harness the glory, it will be that much stronger.


Mark Jacobsen

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A U.S. Air Force officer, C-17 pilot, Middle East specialist, and writer... a lifelong student dedicated to building a better world.

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