How the ‘War for Talent’ Is Driving a Change in Identifying Leaders

The ongoing debate over the role of the police, in addition to a worldwide pandemic, has put unprecedented pressure on public safety departments across the country. The key to maintaining readiness and effectiveness during such turmoil involves capable leadership in key positions.

Jack Welch, the late chairman and CEO of General Electric, once said, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

Envisage Technologies has positioned itself as a Leadership Platform for guiding the training and development of our most vital resources—public safety personnel—in an ever-evolving and complex mission. We find it is helpful to review what other organizations facing similar challenges have done to identify and recognize leaders in their ranks. One recent example is the U.S. Army.

The Army’s about-face

The U.S. Army has been grooming new leaders to carry out critical duties for decades, but in 2019, the 244-year-old organization announced plans to change how it evaluates and grooms talent. Specifically, the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act granted the Army authority to develop a new talent-based system, and the Army Management Task Force (AMTF) was born.

According to the Army website, “[T]he Army defines talent as the unique intersection of knowledge, skills, behaviors and preferences (KSB-Ps) in every officer. A granular level of knowledge of KSB-Ps is the foundation of the talent management system.”

In 2019, under the leadership of Major General Joseph P. McGee, the task force oversaw the creation of a talent management program called the Army Talent Alignment Process, or ATAP. ATAP helped decentralize how the Army assessed future officers and managed personnel for promotion to the mid-level position of battalion commander.

An Army battalion commander is a mid-level management role and a linchpin in the organization. Battalion commanders generally know the names of everyone under their command but also rank high enough to shape Army strategy. This rank is roughly the equivalent of a battalion chief in a fire department, or a colonel or lieutenant colonel in a major metropolitan police department.

Assistant Secretary of the Army E. Casey Wardynski told an Army task force gathered in February that ATAP would be the most pivotal step the Army has taken since transitioning to an all-volunteer force in 1973. “The work you’re going to do will sustain [the Army] for years to come,” Wardynski told the gathering of Army brass in Alexandria, Virginia.

In a ‘war for talent’

McGee, who also helped organize the Battalion Commander Assessment Program (BCAP) that is part of the ATAP implementation, was even more succinct about the importance of the Army’s new promotion strategy.

“We are in a war for talent,” McGee said in October 2019. “We’re dealing with rapid change in technology, and we can’t equip the Army to adapt to that changing technology with an antiquated system.”

Prior to 2019, the Army had been using the same evaluation protocols for officer training for more than half a century. Previously, promotion evaluations included a candidate’s past military jobs, physical fitness scores, and personal recommendations from generals.

More modern theories of effective hiring and promotion aim to start with the outcome in mind. This means keeping the agency’s mission at the forefront, and looking for traits in personnel that will contribute to the underlying strategies needed to achieve that mission. The new processes include updated analytical tools including surveys by subordinates, cognitive evaluations, psychological assessments, and a series of simulated military scenarios to gauge leadership skills and problem-solving aptitudes.

Taking notes from other industries

The Army scouted outside the military environment for ideas on how better to assess talent and promote from within, consulting with such civilian organizations as Google and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The orchestra has been using “blind auditions” since 1952 because they stress anonymity and help eliminate bias. Likewise, since the early 2000s, Google has included employee participation in personnel decisions with the goal of creating a more balanced hiring model. Smaller software developers, including Envisage Technologies, have long seen the wisdom of using a blind audition system.

Since ATAP launched, Army battalion commander candidates arriving for “auditions” were assigned a number but remained nameless. During their audition, they were sequestered behind a curtain so the five-member selection committee couldn’t see the “salad bar” (ribbons and patches) on candidates’ uniforms.

This anonymity serves several purposes. First, it eliminates any gender, racial, or other biases on the part of the selection committee. Second, it allows for the collection of more information from candidates while effectively weeding out the unqualified; and lastly, it is designed to emphasize to candidates the expectations the higher rank would entail.

“The legacy system for selecting battalion commanders in our Army was good, but in today’s world, good is no longer enough,” McGee told the Alexandria group in February 2020.

“Without this program, we strip ourselves of some of the most talented people in our country who are willing to serve as officers within our Army, and make us better,” McGee said.

Applications outside the military

Gen. James McConville, the Army’s chief of staff, says the new evaluation system could eliminate 10 percent of officers who should not be commanding troops.

The Army promotes 450 battalion commanders a year, with each commanding on average 500 soldiers. If 10 percent of that number, or 45, are found to be unqualified, that could negatively affect 22,500 troops. In wartime, that risk could be disastrous.

On a smaller scale, the same life-or-death situations exist within the public safety arena. Police must be held to an extremely high standard, and qualified personnel with the right combination of skills and traits are desperately needed, contributing to the same sort of “war for talent” faced by the military.

By necessity, techniques for identifying potential leaders in a police setting are more subjective. In a small department, truly blind interviews are less likely to be feasible. However, using impartial training and compliance data to evaluate leadership decisions can improve objectivity and identify personnel with the traits and talents needed to achieve the essential goals of the public safety mission.

Departments looking to emulate the Army’s methods may want to explore the Acadis Readiness Suite, a training management platform developed by Envisage Technologies specifically for industries where choosing the right personnel is essential for handling both day-to-day challenges and sudden or ongoing emergencies. Agencies seeking to track the “unique intersection of knowledge, skills, behaviors and preferences” in their own personnel will find those tools in Acadis, which records and organizes training information so it is securely stored and easy to retrieve.

Acadis tracks compliance, certifications, and career development goals, all in one place. At a glance, supervisors can see which personnel have the certifications, training, or other qualifications to succeed in a particular situation. This enables quick deployment of appropriate personnel, saving time and reducing risk, and also easily identifies individuals who have perfected the requisite skills and achieved the career benchmarks needed to advance in the organization.

Data-driven decisions

Working with such raw, impartial training and compliance data is one way departments can move toward a more objective, mission-driven advancement system, because it offers a clearer and more defensible basis for decisions. Creating a rubric for advancement that evaluates such data will help determine who has demonstrated the skills and talents needed to achieve the stated goals of the department.

Another way to improve the hiring and promotion process is to clearly communicate department policies and qualifications to all potential candidates. If a particular qualification or certification is required, the ability for the candidate and the evaluator to locate that compliance information quickly will make the process much smoother.

Acadis also includes analytical tools useful in promotion decisions, including surveys, evaluations, and a framework to deliver a variety of online scenarios and tests. One of the easiest evaluation methods to conduct “blindly” is online testing, in which content and methodology can be structured to accurately measure the required knowledge and abilities for the position. In addition, practical exercises, such as responding to a sample complaint from a taxpayer or employee, can give insight into the candidate’s communication ability.

Overall, when evaluating training and compliance software for a public safety or emergency response department, leadership might take into consideration the roles that data collection, compliance records, and online testing will play in hiring and promotion decisions. After those decisions are made, the regular use of integrated conduct and performance evaluations can help ensure that mission-oriented standards continue to be upheld; and case management functionality for investigating use-of-force incidents and complaints of misconduct can provide accountability and legally defensible records in case questions are raised at a later date about an officer’s training, qualifications, or behavior.

Keeping the mission in mind

The new ATAP evaluation system is considered a win-win for the Army and its soldiers. Within several months of the program’s debut, 6,500 officers were assigned their first job of choice during a match process. In all, more than 14,500 officers participated, and of those, 95% were assigned one of their preferences and 98% of units placed personnel preferences into one of their vacancies.

The Army believes that ATAP will help it become a premier organization for development and performance by better managing personnel and tailoring how the Army acquires, maintains, develops, manages, and utilizes talent. In short, it helps puts their people first by more closely aligning them with their job preferences, and providing more flexibility and transparency.

America’s armed forces pride themselves on their ability to adjust and adapt to new situations as they develop. This time of fundamental re-analysis and change may be a good opportunity for the public safety industry to explore the Army’s new talent evaluation system and look for ways to improve their own processes and workplace culture, always keeping the mission in mind. With the tools available through modern software like Acadis, agencies of all sizes may find it practical, efficient, and beneficial to adopt similar strategies for managing and promoting their members.

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