2 May 2016

Why the military needs unorthodox career tracks — now

By Naveed Jamali, Special to Military Times  April 29, 2016

My career has been anything but traditional. It has included stints in academia, a start-up, a Fortune 500 company, a foreign policy think tank — even four years as an operative working against Russian military intelligence.
I have always felt that movement (laterally or otherwise) was important career-wise, and that meant often finding myself moving from one industry and career to another. Accepting a commission through the Navy’s Direct Commission program and then serving in the Navy Reserve seemed to be the culmination of an utterly eclectic and non-traditional career. But, as I watch my military officer peers struggle with navigating the best way to serve to their golden 20-year mark, I have to wonder: Are rigid career tracks still the best means to develop military leaders who need to use cutting edge technology?
One of the early career lessons I learned in the private sector, was that career development was not tied to a promotion. Not every programmer became a manager, director and then a chief technology officer, with the inverse true as well. While a non-traditional career path such as mine is embraced and encouraged in the private sector, can the concept of a non-linear career be applied to the officer corps of the U.S. military? The biggest impediment to such an approach is the “up or out” policy that requiresofficers must promote or be discharged.

Under current rules, officers have two chances to be reviewed by a promotion board and move up to the next rank. Being passed over both times results in separation.
The first board generally occurs between nine and 11 years of service which, for a Navy surface warfare officer, generally means two division officer tours and one or two department head tours, and comes with tremendous experience. Aware that a singular path may not be diverse enough, the SWO community has a four-track career path. The SWO community also includes expanded maternity leave, graduate degrees and even a sabbatical program. Still, one of the defined paths are the safest bet to a promotion.
With an all-volunteer military, the need to attract and retain a robust and diverse workforce will remain a challenge. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has made it a signature push to make officer careers more flexible in an effort to recruit and retain the most talented, whether specialized experts or broad-based leaders. Both are needed in today's accelerating battlespace.
Unlike the military, my experience in the private sector, especially within technology, embraced my lack of uniformity. And former military officers, whose background is non-traditional for corporate jobs, are nonetheless sought after by industry.

“Non-traditional candidates are in high demand because they are viewed as bringing new ideas to the table,” according to Josh Forman, Navy veteran who works for information company Thomson Reuters. After multiple deployments to the Middle East, Josh says he “identifies individuals with qualities that would augment his client’s mission.” And he says he's not afraid of putting “former SWOs in positions that have nothing to do with ship driving … because their lack of specific experience can be made up by their skill, background and passion.”

That's an approach DoD should mirror to stay relevant.

As a young programmer, I was part of a creative culture that embraced and encouraged working outside of a traditional 9-5 workday. It also meant that there was less emphasis on career progression and more on performance. I was more likely to receive a bonus or a promotion if I had a strong track record of delivering requirements often, on time and on budget. Emphasizing individual performance as opposed to career progression, ingenuity and innovation was rewarded.

While structure is clearly an important part of the military, so is having leaders who are both innovative and creative. But that balance will be elusive so long as the Pentagon's up-or-out rules remain.

Naveed Jamali, a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve, is the author of the memoir, "How to Catch a Russian Spy."

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