During my Unit Command Team Course we had a briefing from the Commander of Canadian Armed Forces Transition Group. It’s an organization that as it’s name would suggest, caters to transitioning members, primarily from the Regular Force. As my course was for Primary Reserve Commanding Officers and Regimental Sergeant Majors, one of our primary concerns was how do we convince transitioning members of the Regular Force to continue to serve on a part time basis. Let’s face it, Regular or Reserve, attrition is our nemesis. But for the Primary Reserve, capturing that former regular soldier or officer who left because the demands of full time service were no longer compatible? That’s gold! That is magic. That is experience that we are hard pressed to match. I can’t recall the exact question that was phrased, but the Commander’s answer was that yes, first and foremost, if they can keep the member serving, that is the ideal. It stuck in my mind and gnawed at me. By the time the member reaches the point they are at the transition unit, any effort to keep them in uniform is probably too little or too late, in my opinion. Humour me….
Today, all transitioning members transition through this organization, however, it was borne primarily out of a purpose to service our ill an injured. It was a place that our ill and injured could go so that they could focus on their rehabilitation to either get healthy and return to the unit, or focus on their next bound into civilian life. From my limited perspective, in it’s infancy the return spring back to the unit was broken and this unit facilitated a transition out of the Canadian Armed Forces. I think that is changing, but that is an aside, and I’ve drifted off topic a little. But by the very name of the unit, perhaps I haven’t. Because by the time someone has arrived at the Transition Group, their mind is made up; they are either leaving by personal choice, or because they are no longer medically fit to serve. The role of the transition group shouldn’t be to change a soldier’s mind. Their job should be to facilitate transition. It got me thinking about my own experience, and that of some of my close friends, and it had me going back and revisiting some of my other articles. Specifically, the article “Career Advice I Wish I Had Got.“
Retention is a tough problem to tackle, but it is a very important one. For the purposes of this article, please bear in mind that I am talking about my perception of the challenges with career management of Regular Force officers in particular, and how that relates to retention. My perception may equally apply to non-commissioned members as well, but perhaps not. The above disclaimer is really my way of saying that I’m about to make some broad brush generalizations about things I feel are wrong, and how those things end up hurting the Forces in the long run because it loses talent it can ill afford to lose.
To be perfectly blunt, I think that the CAF takes a view that is myopic, a little too simple or shortsighted, and hasn’t acknowledged the change in demographics. Just a few examples of variations of career advice/management or snippets of conversations that I have experienced or witnessed or given (yes, I’m guilty too) over the years:
- Nobody joins the Army so they can be a staff officer in some cubicle in Ottawa, right?
- In the Artillery, the age old debate rages between those who are Instructors in Gunnery (IG), and those that are not, and which path is the “better” one and why. What do you mean you don’t want to do the IG Course? Gasp! Don’t you know it’ll get you 2 extra points on the merit board? You’ll be a better Battery Commander because you will be more technically and tactically competent.
- You want to go to a Recruiting Center, or a Reserve Unit as their Regular Force cadre? Ohhhh, big intake of breathe, maybe even the disappointed/concerned Dad face “Are you sure? They aren’t seen as A-jobs. You will be a little out of the loop. You’ll have to make sure you make an effort to stay in touch with your old unit.”
- You want to do Tech Staff? “Okay, that’s not a bad option. It’ll get you the extra points as well, and you’ll get your Masters. But you know you may get pigeon-holed into projects for the rest of your career?”
- Said with a little bit of anger, disappointment, or with the intent to lay down a healthy dose of guilt, “What do you mean you don’t want to accept job X? If you turn this down you might not ever get the chance again. We’re offering you this because we see potential in you!”
What’s the common thread in all of those above examples? Not a single one of them considers what the member actually wants, or what their career aspirations are, and nor do they make it seem like it is “safe” for the member to express their desires. They are almost all premised on the assumption of career progression aimed to promotion and appointment into command positions. We are often far too presumptuous, to the institution’s detriment.
How does one’s potential drastically diminish in an instant, just because they dared to say that the career path the institution saw them going on wasn’t the same one that they envisioned, for whatever reason? Who benefits from shaming them over their choices? Who benefits from blindly pushing them on a path they are not fulfilled by? Nobody.
I know it is incredibly difficult to manage the needs to the service with the needs of those that serve, so I do not envy the career managers in the least. They have a challenging job and will be unable to make everyone happy. I also acknowledge that when the time comes and the service does need you to go somewhere that might not have been your first, second, or even third choice, there are times when you really do need to just suck it up and go. What I’m talking about is the climate that surrounds the very topic of career management in general. Breeding loyalty, obedience, service before self all help create a culture where we never really learn a person’s true desire. That creates problems. That is not a relationship built upon trust.
I have had some fantastic support in my career when I had to make tough choices for personal and family reasons, and I am so very grateful for that. But the kind of support I was shown by two different Commanding Officers in keeping me on track to complete the Joint Command and Staff Course at a time and in the manner that most suited my needs, is too rare. I didn’t really have an exit interview when leaving the Regular Force. But funny enough, the Brigade Commander of the Brigade at the Garrison I was on at the time, an officer I had worked for in the past, but no longer worked for and wasn’t artillery, reached out to me when he heard the news and wanted me to come by for a chat. He prefaced it by saying that he wasn’t going to try to change my mind, but that he wanted to know why. He wanted to see what had transpired and where my head space was. That small token of his time, and a realization that he wasn’t going to change my mind, meant the world to me. But imagine the difference it would have made had my own chain of command bothered to listen to me, to really have a conversation about my future six months prior? That it didn’t happen led to my article, “The Truth May hurt, But Lack of Honesty can be More Harmful.” As arrogant as this may sound, the Canadian Armed Forces is lucky they didn’t lose me outright. I opted to stay for part time service, but I could have walked completely. And are they really wanting a person of 23 years experience to walk?
You become an officer because you want to lead, but leadership can exist in many forms. Very quickly however, you are pressured/brainwashed into believing that you should want to command. I was a staff officer in a cubicle in Toronto. It wasn’t necessarily my dream job, or what I specifically was trained to do as an artillery officer, but I had a section of officers and non commissioned members who work for me. They needed some leadership, just as much as anyone else in uniform. Why are we made to feel “less-than” because we are leading in a different environment? I had at one point wanted to be in recruiting, but I was made to feel that that would have been career suicide. Are we really that immature as an institution? My fear, and why I am writing this article, is that I think the answer is yes. I hope that it has changed since I left the Regular Force, but I fear it hasn’t.
Other military forces subscribe to the up or out philosophy, by policy. We do not, and nor should we, in my opinion. But nevertheless, we have a culture that is very closely aligned with it and I think it is to our (the CAF’s) detriment. Waiting until someone is sitting in front of you, telling you they need to release is too late for you to act concerned and ask what it is they really want to do, or why they are not satisfied. It is not the time to start bending over backwards, trying to appease someone and keep them in uniform. That is an afterthought, and nobody wants to be an afterthought. An afterthought is too little, too late. We owe our people more than that. If we value them as we say we do, if we value diversity as we say we do, then we should allow people the safe space to articulate what it is they want from their career without the fear that they are hammering a nail in their career coffin.
Transition is not the time to change a person’s mind. It is a time to wish them well, to set them up for success. Send them to their next destination with the hope that you have prepped them well, and someone else will reap the benefit of your efforts in training this person, and that will reflect positively upon the institution. Sometimes, transition is just because it was never a good fit. Sometimes, it is because of a physical or medical limitation. Sometimes, it is a cultural issue. Whatever the root cause, it should invite the institution to reflect and see where they can change. That I have yet to have been briefed in my 26 years of combined service on the attrition statistics speaks volumes to me. I am not bitter, but I am disappointed. We owe our people more than that. We owe them a safe space to have a conversation about their career aspirations, whatever they may be, without fear of repercussion. They are not an afterthought. Instead of too little, too late, let’s engage early and often with a view of doing a better job of striking the balance between the needs of the service and the needs of the member. I think that is a crucial part of leadership.