Opinion

Why the military needs unorthodox career tracks — now

My career has been anything but traditional. It has included stints in academia, in a start-up, in 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 for me, 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 figuring the best way to serve to reach 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? Is this the best way to motivate our military force?

As the Department of Defense moves away from a pension system and towards a more civilian 401(k)-style retirement plan that will vest after several years, how will future members of the military remain motivated to dedicate their working years to the service?

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 being true as well. While a non-traditional career path such as mine is both 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? Perhaps The biggest impediment to such an approach is the "up or out" policy that requires a requirement that officers must promote or be face being discharged.

Under current rules, The power to promote in the US military has moved from commanders reviewing subordinates to a centralized review of all candidates under the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA). Under DOPMA officers have are given two chances to be reviewed by a promotion board and move up advance to the next rank. Being passed over both times results in separation. and failure to promote results in being separated from the service.

The first board generally occurs between nine and 11 years of service which, for a Navy surface warfare officer (SWO), for example, 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. Additionally, tThe SWO community also includes expanded maternity leave, graduate degrees and even a sabbatical program. Still, one of the defined paths are the however, if an officer wishes to maximize his or her chances to promote the safest bet to a promotion. is to follow one of the defined paths.

With an all-volunteer military, the need to attract and retain a robust and diverse workforce will remain a challenge. This is a concept heralded by Secretary of Defense Secretary Ashton 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. who has "made a commitment to the men and women in uniform, to President Obama and to the American people that as Secretary of Defense,  [he] will drive change to build what I call the force of the future: the military and the broader Defense Department that we need to serve and defend our country in the years to come."  If people are the key to keeping our military superiority then as Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said isn’t a career path and culture that is defined by "flexibility, transparency and choice" required and does such a culture currently exist? Asking Adam Hesch, a former SWO, why he decided to leave the Navy his answer was simple and to the point: "as a junior officer you have responsibility but no authority and combined with leadership that is risk-adverse and a culture where you do things because we've always done them this way."

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.

Naveed
Naveed

Naveed Jamali is a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Naveed Jamali

"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 with the Navy, Josh says he "identifies individuals with qualities that would augment his client’s mission." And he says he's not afraid of Josh isn’t afraid of risk taking such as 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." But is Josh’s view on risk accepted by senior leaders in the private sector? According to Kirsten Bay, the CEO of Cyber adAPT the answer is yes: "American ingenuity has been a function of thinking in innovative and non-traditional ways, and our workforce needs to continue to be reflective of that...[m]ixing in new, non-traditional thoughts and ideas is the only way to push the boundaries of what is possible."

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

 As a young programmer, I found that I was part of a creative culture that both embraced and encouraged working outside of a traditional 9-5 workday. It also meant that there was less of an 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. Putting an 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. As such if finding a balance between structure and flexibility is an important requirement for the military, however, as long as up or out remains in place such an effort will always be limited. 

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

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