More on talent optimization and where it is weak and strong

Hi Tyler, one point you didn’t mention in your talent optimization post was career path dependence. Getting an assistant professorship might require some of the skills required to being a great professor, but it absolutely does not require any degree of interest in or talent at management, even though (at least in STEM) managing a lab, including people management, attraction of talent, administration, etc., is the critical skill.

One generalization is that any sort of administrative job that selects among a highly filtered group (senior medical administration at a hospital that mostly fall to MDs, executives within technical organizations such as CTOs) is likely forced to ignore the best talent.

Nick_L in the comment section provides another interesting example: “Talent selection in the Armed Forces is in an interesting category. The only way to achieve the rank of General (in G7 forces, at least), is by entry as a 2nd lieutenant. Due to the (understandable) narrowing of opportunities the higher you go in the armed forces, the best talent frequently leaves around the time they make Colonel.” Note that that comment assumes that the skills that make a great 2nd lieutenant or colonel are the same skills that make a great general.

That is from an email by John McDonnell.


'the best talent frequently leaves around the time they make Colonel'

Mainly because to achieve admiral or general rank in the U.S. military means playing a political game - and that captain/colonel is as far as one can go without playing it. At least that was the observation of a number of people I knew a couple of decades ago, involving all branches of the American military.

There are a couple of other factors involved - term of service (it takes around a couple of decades to reach that point, which is also a retirement milestone), chance of being promoted past commander/major (lt. colonel is sort of a fuzzy middle ground, particularly for the Air Force pilots in the past), and just how well one can cash out by working for a defense contractor on a program one had previously been involved in.

(As a note for the apparently never ending stream of commenters here who simply do not understand this - 'political game' has nothing to do with left or right in any sense.)

Of course the political game has something to do with left and right in a very real sense. For one thing, the two sides are playing very different political games. The Republicans want an Army that can fight and win. The last time the Republicans asked the Army for anything a little bit political was when Eisenhower carried out Truman's order to desegregate the Armed Forces.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are not big on an Army that can fight and they are even less well disposed towards winning, well America winning anyway. They like an Army that is engaged in their social engineering crusades. I don't recall any of them asking whether forcing women on the Green Berets by scrapping all physical standards was a good war-winning move or not. But the Army has done it. They spent eight years producing a Navy with more sensitivity training than you could shake a stick at. A pity none of them could, you know, navigate or anything.

'Of course the political game has something to do with left and right in a very real sense.'

No it isn't - it about having higher ranked patrons, being assigned to the sort of duty that leads to promotion (think combat or commanding a ship), a partner that is able to play hostess/organizer effectively, and a number of other similar factors (plus luck, of course - lots of people want to be an admiral/general, but only so many slots are open). To provide a similar example - no one becomes a member of top management at a Fortune 500 company without effectively playing a political game.

'For one thing, the two sides are playing very different political games.'

You do know that the two sides for much of the American military is Army vs Navy, right? Why do you think the Marines were such a big part of the invasion in the second Iraq War?

Do you actually know anyone who retired as a major, a lt. colonel, a captain/colonel, or as an admiral/general in the last several decades?

I'm sure this isn't true. For example, medical doctors would enter as Major officers and there is no reason they could not be promoted to General the same as any other officer.

Medical officers are in a separate promotion category, along with a few other specialists. They absolutely do not compete for the same assignments or follow the same career path as "real" (Competitive Category) officers.

Doctors do not lead armored regiments, pilot combat aircraft, or command submarines either.

In addition to everything else wrong with this statement, new doctors fresh out of medical school start as Captains (Lieutenant in the Navy), not Majors/Lieutenant Commanders. The general rule is you receive career credit/time served equivalent to the length of your graduate degree if you're being hired for a professional position. Under the career progression when I was in the Army, that meant MD/DDS entered as Captains, JDs had to spend a few months as a 1LT before getting the bump.

The problem with the Armed Forces in the US is that they have adopted a rather pointless corporate promotion policy - Up or Out. You are either working hard to be a General or you need another career. The problem with this is that being an Army officer is not one job. It is many different sorts of jobs. Officers tend to like fighting or like being a soldier. In peacetime people always promote the latter, which means when a war breaks out you usually have to fire them all until you find one of the former. Those that like being a soldier do well with the uniforms and often with the administration. Those that like fighting can do well with both but mostly they are difficult people no one likes much.

Among both sorts there are those that like being an officer with the soldiers and those that like being an officer among other, usually lower ranked, officers. The British tended to be wary of the latter and looked down on anyone who wanted to be promoted above their regiment.

So in the US Army, if you like fighting and you like being with the ordinary soldiers, the good part of your career is going to top out at Major at best. Maybe a Lt Colonel these days. Beyond that you need to be political and start sucking up to Congress-critters rather than caring about the well being of your soldiers. Now a big Army has room for all sorts of soldiers, but a decent Army needs people with more than 12 years of service in the jobs that actually make the Army function - the Sergeants and the Captains. Where does Up and Out leave them?

The Germans used to make a sensible distinction between officers that were good fighters and those that were just competent, but appointing fighters to command but giving them a Chief of Staff to manage the routine administrative work. In my limited experience of hospitals, universities and the like, everyone is moving towards a Stalinist-Corporatist model where the Chief Administrator has all the power and vastly disproportionate wealth. But in the end they are political appointments. If they were appointed because they were good researchers, they would love research and would resent being pulled away from it. If they liked teaching or cared about patients, they would not try for promotion. Promotion goes to those that see what political steps they need to make to suck up to the powerful so they can leave the ostensible reason for their career behind. Which means that often A level talent is managed by B level administrators - or more commonly these days, Bs are managed by Strong Cs. No one with any real talent would go into university life. This is deeply resented by all concerned because the managers know that their subordinates think they are mediocre failures. And the mediocre part is at least true.

The solution ought to be to copy the German Army - give the head of every lab a Chief of Staff who will manage the administration side. After all, a good lab, a productive lab, by definition is not well managed. A lab that is not well managed has no conflicts because it has no intellectual life. If people are thinking new things and throwing out new ideas, they are fighting all the time. Managers hate that. Which is why managers usually can only tolerate even more mediocre intellects. The very idea that management is a key skill for a STEM lab is why so much of university life is sterile. Although I am sure they graduate a lot of students and attract all the right grants, get to sit on the right committees - and produce nothing anyone will ever read.

'or you need another career'

You really don't know any higher ranked officers, do you? The military-industrial complex takes very good care of its own, and I cannot think of a single personally known retired military officer under the age of 55 who was not promptly employed in the defense contracting industry after leaving the military. (Having the necessary clearances being a big help, of course.)

You are really spectacularly missing the point today aren't you? That is two for two.

If you say so - you seem to think that the American military officer corps is actually a creature of partisan party politics. It isn't, and I notice you continue to refuse to answer whether you actually know any retired officers of any branch, much less all three.

SMFS, I've worked side by side with military officers from all four armed services, ranging from O2s to 2-stars, for 15 years. Staff officers, former special ops, pilots, sailors, Marines, logistics guys, intel weenies--the whole gamut.

Clockwork has your number on this one. His description of the office politics involved in promotion in the officer corps is broadly accurate. You don't know what you're talking about.

Let me guess, your employed as a diversity trainer for the defense department?

@DevOps Dad:


Program management. Formerly arms control, specifically counter-WMD and threat reduction, and before that wargaming, modeling and simulation, operations research, and systems analysis. With some software development, exercise design and facilitation, and process improvement on the side at various points.


So Much for Subtlety is right. You are really spectacularly missing the point. Of course he doesn't know any high-ranking officers in the military. Actual knowledge ain't what Subtlety is about. He's about making sweeping generalizations based on a barely surface-level understanding of the topic in question. To put it another way, Subtlety is the quintessential Trump supporter.

Wars are won by hard charging, square-jawed men who like to fight. Wars are won by Col. Kilgore and George C. Scott, not by pointy-headed bullet counters who know how to do the duties of a staff officer. Never mind that modern war fighting is mostly about training and preparing the men under your command to standard and executing doctrine and not about riding about on a white horse or charging trenches with a Bowie knife clenched between your teeth. Those are the movies that Subtlety saw and that's just the way it is, dammit!

I think the point is you really don't know who will be a good general unless you have them already tested by fighting a war or two. Even combat experience is not a good test of whether someone will be a good General as the skills and the capabilities to fight in the field are going to be very different to commanding and organizing large numbers of men and materials (for instance you may be a great coward but great organiser). There is probably not a good way to solve this problem other than by having lots of wars or in the US approach by having such an overwhelming advantage in technology that it really doesn't matter if you have geniuses in charge or just career focused butt suckers.

Wars are won by hard charging, square-jawed men who like to fight. Wars are won by Col. Kilgore and George C. Scott, not by pointy-headed bullet counters who know how to do the duties of a staff officer.

Love your work dude. I mean that is impressive. Unfortunately if you had actually read what I wrote (I write this so often I should coin an abbreviation - although usually it goes to mulp or Prior) you will have noticed I said that the German Army got it right by pairing a fighting general with a pointed headed bean counter as his Chief of Staff. You do kind of need both of them. You can have all the pointed headed bean counters you like. You won't win many battles without someone who enjoys fighting battles. See George B. McClellan for instance.

But whatever. Obama's team is known for their youthfulness and its associated evil of knowing everything so they don't need to read what other people write much less understand it.

The back bone of the US military command structure is an hereditary oligarchy. See Douglas McArthur, George S. Patton, John McCain and many others.

Was. Is? Like Colin Powell? John Shalikashvili? Who was part of a hereditary military oligarchy. His family on both sides had fought for the Russians for generations. Although his father managed to fight for the Tsar, for his native Georgia, for his wife's Poland, and then for the Nazis. So fighting was clearly something he did well.

I was thinking of something along these lines in addressing management and promotion in software development teams. The best team leaders (or managers) are often very enthusiastically followed by their team, but are horrendous on the administrative side. I guess today's solution is a project manager. Maybe we need a sort of "chief of staff" for the tech leaders.

Some part of your description sounds eerily like academia these days. It's up until you are a tenured professor or out. There is not much room for technically competent senior researches who are bad or don't like dealing with students or university politics. In the end, the bulk of the research gets done by fresh "recruits" who haven't learned the ins and outs of their field yet, while those who have either get promoted to glorified politicians ("professors") or find a career elsewhere.

The problem is not so much entering as a butter bar, the number of MOS for them is pretty wide. You can spend your first assignment in the Pentagon getting all sorts of admin experience or you can go fly jets. For that matter, you can enter enlisted, go mustang, and make your way up to general (albeit you need to be a rockstar to go this route).

The problem is that you have to get past a gatekeeper for each promotion. In the bad old days this meant that you had to impress someone above you enough for them to think you would be competent at the next set of responsibilities. These days, there are a large number of "objective" measures which result in all manner of silliness (e.g. people screwing around outside the wire to get a CAR) as people game the metrics rather than do the far harder thing of get good at their jobs.

What makes it particularly bad is that every 4 to 8 years we have a major shift in the metrics. Some of this is driven by technology (e.g. the rise of drone warfare) and some is by politics (even within an administration focuses can shift dramatically). Lastly, the military has not had a real competitor to provide completely honest feedback in some time. Back in the day, you could see who took how many casualties and how many objectives they secured at that cost. These days casualty rates are far too low to pick out from the noise. Likewise, objectives have shifted to things that take years to measure and are ancient history by the time the promotion board meets. We also have so few senior casualties that we no longer have rapid domino promotions based primarily in the field.

Making the jump to O-7 again has the problem that you now must pass muster with a different set of evaluators. This again shifts the metrics and again it is easier to game those than to demonstrate the actual skills required. And that continues with every rank thereafter. I have known several O-7/8 who were retired for not being able/willing to play ball with the politicians.

Much of the talent maldistribution that I have seen in medicine and the military comes from the same source. We want an "objective" metric so badly that we ignore all its downsides. It is always easier to game the metric than to be good at the job.

In a related note, The Washington Times has a report on the collapse of the German military.

" Three years ago, Germany's military made headlines when it used broomsticks instead of machine guns during a NATO exercise because of a shortage of equipment.
[Independent commissioner Hans-Peter Bartelsthat] has now reached the conclusion the German military is virtually “not deployable for collective defense.”
In October, reports emerged that not a single German military submarine was operational
Bundeswehr pilots are using choppers owned by a private automobile club to practice because so many of their own helicopters are in need of repair. And about half of all Leopard 2s — the tank which is most common in the Bundeswehr — were out of order as recently as November, which left the country with only 95 tanks of that type.

I’ve seen similar reports over the last several years. It’s remarkable. It not only that are the not spending enough to start with, they appear to be getting considerably less than they should for what they do spend. I think several (most?) of the European militaries are in the same boat.

It's probably a good thing that the German military is basically extinct. It would also have been an improvement if there had been no German re-unification. The country should have been broken up into its small former units, Brandenburg, Bavaria, Holstein, Minden, Furstenburg and so on.

It's true that professors in general make poor department heads (not being selected as professors for talent in those kinds of skills), and at many (most) departments it's a service, not a reward, unless someone is just very good at it. On the other hand, the rise of a professional managerial and administrative class in universities comes with a sort of principal agent problem where management seems to have operated in its own best interests rather than that of the ostensible aim of the university. I think that a certain level of inefficiency can and should be tolerated for the sake of keeping the university closer to its historic mission.

You hit the nail on the head.

For some reason John T, your comment reminds me of the Wizards of the Unseen University, of Ankh-Morpork. Management at its finest, really..

I have been named department head starting next July. For me it is clearly a service, mot a reward or promotion, and I have accepted it reluctantly. I'll do my best but I know I'll be mediocre in my day to day tasks. The department will survive since it is well-functioning on its own, with no major conflicts and enough dedicated faculty. While I will try to serve the interests of mathematics and scholarship in general in my position (trying, as you put it, "to keep the university closer to its historic mission"), I know the head of department has no real power on the really important things.

Sorry, that what an answer to John Thacker.

We try to rotate the tenured professors through department headship every couple of years. It works wonders in developing unit cohesion because so many have served their time, coming out with an appreciation of what the current Chair must be dealing with. As John Thacker pointed out, that adds a certain level of inefficiency as the price.

Getting an assistant professorship might require some of the skills required to being a great professor, but it absolutely does not require any degree of interest in or talent at management, even though (at least in STEM) managing a lab, including people management, attraction of talent, administration, etc., is the critical skill.

This is true, but it also serves as insurance against the kind of Harvard Business School / McKinsey "management" experts with no domain knowledge creeping in and running things. Or at least they're stuck at higher levels with no operational responsibilities.

STEM management is hit or miss. You get a few antisocial types who shouldn't be managers, but you also get domain experts who are very invested in the subject, have a strong work ethic, and pay attention to the details.

Cue the management consulting world...

During my time at one "highly prestigious" one, my observation was that financial institutions, which promote based on deal/trading skill (luck?) or ability to generate large, lumpy profits (M&A luck?), very often end up with zero management skill, at least in the upper middle to upper management. Therefore, they outsource the actual management to very high paid consultants who run a shadow management organization. At the time, this was roughly confirmed by the grandfather of the financial services practice of said consulting firm.

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