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From Industrial Might to Intelligent Insight: The Army’s Overdue Talent Management Revolution

Updated: May 18

Jay Long's career has focused on tackling wicked problems and unlocking trapped capacity as an Army officer and entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, Jay co- founded both Parlay, a fintech startup focused on empowering underbanked small business owners, and Ground Truth Design, which trains public service leaders to use agile methodologies to solve complex problems. Jay also founded the EaGLE program, a nonprofit public sector career accelerator that has empowered over 150 rising leaders. These experiences are foundational to the ideas he presents here.

A quiet revolution is brewing in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Army's bureaucratic machinery. At its heart lies a fundamental question: How do we harness the potential of individual talent in an era dominated by intelligent systems and rapid technological advancements?

The Army's current talent management model is a relic of the industrial era, a time when the talents of individual leaders had a comparatively muted impact on the battlefield. In a pre-computer military, military power was closely correlated to the raw numbers of soldiers massed against a target. In this context, the military needed leaders who met simple performance standards and emphasized the potential impact of senior leaders over decentralized initiatives. Consequently, the Army's talent management strategy was focused on managing vast numbers of personnel through a simple centralized system. But as we stand on the precipice of a new age, where attritable drones replace our traditional reliance on manned systems, cyberwarriors can reach across continents with the stroke of a keyboard, and information operations can shape the perceptions of entire electorates, the stakes have changed.

Today, the difference between a well-placed cyber expert and a mismanaged rising leader can be the difference between a secured network and a national security breach. The impact of individual talent has shifted from a bell curve approach, where most lie in the middle, to a power law approach, where a few outliers can have an outsized impact. In this new paradigm, the services must recognize that the potential impact of individual talent is exponentially more significant than ever before. Given the complexity of managing an entire Army of disruptive talent, we need entirely different conceptual frameworks to harness their expertise.

Yet, at best, the Army's response to this seismic shift has been incremental. Instead of challenging the foundational assumptions behind our systems, we've often opted for iterative changes, tweaking the edges without addressing the core. This is akin to placing a band-aid on a wound that requires surgery.

The industrial era, with its assembly lines and standardized parts, prized uniformity. But uniformity can be a liability in today's complex battlespace where intelligent systems like drones, cyber tools, and information operations play pivotal roles. The talent management model of yesteryears, born from this industrial mindset, needs to recognize and harness the unique capabilities of today's soldiers.

Enter mentorship. As the Army transitions from industrial to intelligent systems, robust mentorship becomes a lighthouse, guiding us through uncharted waters. The mentors needed by today's rising leaders will enhance their awareness of opportunities for disruptive impact by providing a decentralized approach to experimentation at scale. Since we are still determining what capabilities we will need for the future fight, we need to balance enhancing opportunities for individual soldiers and growing the collective capacity of the force. Mentorship is uniquely suited to accomplish this goal by empowering rising leaders with the opportunity to refine their craft and challenge assumptions held by the entire force.

Further, challenging leaders to be more intentional mentors allows them to grow in their capacity to mold and empower talent. Already, senior leaders are acknowledging the need for more tailored talent management for our top performers. Speaking at a military mentors event, the outgoing Sergeant Major of the Army underscored the need to individually manage the top 10% of the force, ensuring they land in positions of maximal impact.

While mentorship is a force-multiplying capability, it cannot be treated as a panacea for an organization whose foundational talent assumptions are nearly a century outdated. The efforts of these mentors must be complemented by a comprehensive review of where our systems and policies are failing today's rising leaders and our nation. The insights surfaced by these combined mentors and talent management reforms should be the foundation for forming new systems from first principles for the challenges of modern warfare. That said, the path forward is fraught with challenges. Deep congressional support is essential for the sweeping reforms needed. Transitioning from legacy to modern systems necessitates amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act and entirely new legislation akin to the Goldwater-Nichols Act. Given the current political environment, expecting rapid change is optimistic at best. Instead of waiting for miracles, today's leaders should proactively work to empower and place the right talent to achieve disruptive impact through mentorship.

If we are incredibly thoughtful in our approach, we can use mentorship to cultivate the talent America needs to compete against other great powers in domains outside uniform service.

As America braces for a period of conflict characterized by economic and military competition, we must commit to developing soldiers across their entire professional journey. This includes when they depart military service. We must cultivate a leadership development model where transitioned veterans are given the access and resources they need to share lessons with the rising generation of leaders and enhance alignment across the civil-military divide. America's capacity to compete against great power rivals is contingent upon our capacity to leverage all of America's strengths. In this capacity, maintaining the connections forged by mentorship will be invaluable.

The U.S. Army stands at a pivotal moment. Our choices will shape our military's future and, by extension, our nation's security. We can either settle for making incremental changes to a system that is increasingly out of step with the times, or we can build a talent management system worthy of the men and women who serve our nation. The time for bold action is now.

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