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Is it Time for a 360-Degree Officer Evaluation System?

Thursday, November 01, 2001

In his book Eisenhower’s Lieutenants, respected military historian Russell F. Weigley tells an interesting story about Gen. George C. Marshall, the World War II Army Chief of Staff and someone who wielded almost complete control over the promotion of general officers, and Col. James A. Van Fleet. Although Van Fleet had performed brilliantly in the European theater as commander of the 8th Infantry Regiment at Utah Beach and his senior field commanders had submitted his name to Marshall for promotion to briga­dier general more than once, Marshall kept rejecting the recommendation. As the story goes, “General Mar­shall had confused him with somebody else of a similar name whose competence Marshall distrusted.” Once the confusion was cleared up, Marshall approved Van Fleet’s promotion to brigadier general. Shortly after, Van Fleet was placed in command of the 90th Division. He played a prominent role in the final year of the victorious European campaign, and Gen. George S. Patton Jr. would later call Van Fleet his best commander and predict that he’d eventually be promoted to four-star rank.

This story illustrates that the promotion system the Army uses to select its senior leaders is not—and never has been—infallible.

Fast-forwarding from World War II to today, we’ve all seen a similar scenario played out each time promotion, command and resident Senior Service College or Staff College lists are published. While it’s true a majority of officers whose names appear on these lists are respected and considered deserving of their promotion, battalion or brigade command, advanced military schooling and so forth, there are always more than a handful of officers on these lists whose presence causes many to ponder: “How did so and so get selected for … ?” Perhaps even more disconcerting, a second line of questioning typically goes, “Why did so and so not get selected for … ?”

Before going any further, I want to say up front that I’m not now and have never been a disgruntled soldier who feels he’s been treated unfairly by the Army or someone who claims to have all the answers to every dilemma facing the Army or a malcontent who sees it as his divine duty to flood the Internet or Army Times with long dissertations on what’s wrong with the Army. To the contrary, I’m now proud and have always been proud to be an officer in the world’s best Army. Like most of you reading this article, I’ve benefited immensely, both professionally and personally, from the Army’s officer personnel management systems that have been in place during my 20-plus years on active duty.

Feedback from a recent Army study. On May 25, the results of the Army Training and Leader Development Panel (ATLDP) were released to the public. This was a comprehensive study involving more than 13,500 soldiers, including more than 9,000 officers, done by the Combined Arms Command (CAC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

The apparent willingness on the part of the Army’s senior leadership to candidly address concerns identified in this study’s findings suggests that the time for the Army to review the way we formally evaluate officers and select those best suited for senior-level schooling and command may not be too far down the road. The ATLDP study concluded:

The [current] OER [Officer Evaluation Report] is a source of mistrust and anxiety. … The OER is not yet meeting officer expectations as a leader development tool. The leader development aspects of the OER are seldom used, and senior raters seldom counsel subordinates. … Field feedback indicates that officers are concerned about the impact of a center-of-mass rating on career progression. … They see the term “center-of-mass” as negative and believe that a center-of-mass OER in a branch-qualifying position is career-ending. Many junior officers simply do not trust the system or what their leaders are telling them about the OER.

The CAC survey provided formalized empirical data supporting what anecdotal data have indicated for several years: There is a large and growing population of officers of all ranks, including many general officers, who believe our current officer evaluation system has serious flaws and should be replaced.

The Army’s current OER (DA Form 67-9) was fielded in October 1997. It includes a centralized senior rater tracking system designed to hold senior raters more accountable for their ratings and eliminate the systemic senior rater inflation that existed during much of the Army’s most recent drawdown, from 1990 to 1997, when the previous OER (DA Form 67-8) was used. However, like all of its predecessors, the Army’s current OER remains a formal leader evaluation tool that involves only senior ranking officers making assessments of the leadership qualities and potential of subordinates. In other words, an officer’s leadership attributes and potential continue to be assessed by people they are following—not leading.

OERs used by the Army have always been somewhat paradoxical. No doubt, senior-ranking officers in the chain of command are experienced and fully capable of identifying highly competent subordinate leaders with tremendous potential. However, this senior-ranking population is clearly not the only one suited to identify superb leaders with great potential. There are other groups, such as peers and select senior-ranking subordinates, who are also capable of making these judgments, or at least contributing significantly to them.

As an adaptive, innovative and people-centered organization, why should the Army continue to place so much faith in an officer evaluation system that only “looks down”? It’s true there are some perspectives that can only be gained from this long-standing OER methodology. The principal drawback to such a top-driven system, however, is that it all but ignores—and officially it does ignore—the perspectives of peers who would serve with us in combat or on peacekeeping missions, as well as the perspectives of key subordinates whom we lead on a daily basis and who would be charged with carrying out our decisions and directives. Simply stated, Army officers must exhibit more important attributes than just merely “keeping the boss happy.”

It’s healthy for successful organizations to periodically examine their sacred cows—to differentiate between those who continue to serve the organization well and should be sustained and those who have outlived their usefulness and should be revised or eliminated. History, especially the history of warfare, has proved countless times that organizations which don’t follow this fundamental axiom ultimately fail.

It is from this philosophical perspective that I put forth this basic thesis: In both the near term and especially the long term, the Army will benefit from implementing an officer evaluation system that, in addition to looking down, also looks laterally and up. In other words, the Army should consider implementing a 360-degree OER system.

The ATLDP study is not the only fairly recent and comprehensive study that identified shortcomings in the military’s current assessment tool for the Officer Corps. In a January 10, 2000, press conference aired on C-SPAN announcing the release of the publication American Military Culture in the Twenty-first Century, several prominent former Army officers, speaking on behalf of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), described the shortcomings of the military’s current evaluation systems.

Those speaking at the time included three retired Army officers: Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer, a respected commanding general of III Corps in the mid-1980s and later president of the innovative Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C.; Lt. Gen. Howard D. Graves, whose last assignment on active duty before retiring in June 1996 was serving as the 54th superintendent of the United States Military Academy (USMA); and Col. Joseph J. Collins, whose final assignment on active duty was serving as a special assistant to Gen. John Shalikashvili, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“The current officer evaluation system focuses on and rewards immediate goals,” said Gen. Ulmer during the press conference. “The perception of a zero-defects mentality stems more from institutional and organizational shortcomings than from individual shortcomings. We’ve actually demotivated some people by our leadership and managerial practices.”

Relevant to this discussion, the CSIS publication had two key findings in Chapter 6. First, “Present leader development and promotion systems are not up to the task of consistently identifying and advancing highly competent leaders.” Second, “The services have yet to master an optimal system for consistently identifying, promoting and developing their best leaders.” Two of the publication’s key recommendations in Chapter 7 were:

  • “Improve procedures for developing, selecting, evaluating and promoting officers in all of the services.”
  • “Encourage and reward appropriate risk-taking at every level; this will help eliminate risk aversion and a zero-defects mentality.”

Many successful private-sector companies already use variations of the 360-degree evaluation system to identify their up-and-coming leaders and have for years. General Electric (GE), which has been one of America’s most successful companies, uses nontraditional formal assessments to determine the best candidates for upper management positions. GE’s net worth was $12 billion, and it was losing customer confidence, when recently retired CEO John F. (Jack) Welch was hired for its top post in 1981. Today, the company’s net worth is around $300 billion, and GE’s shareholder value remains strong. Welch was named “America’s #1 Manager” by Business Week on June 8, 1998, and he is now a best-selling author. GE considers peer assessments in selecting its upper management, and while he was GE’s CEO, Welch encouraged subordinates to assess his own performance in three-week development sessions he hosted periodically for high-potential managers.

In his article “Military Leadership into the 21st Century: Another Bridge Too Far?” published in the spring 1998 edition of Parameters, Gen. Ulmer compares the way the Army and corporate America identify their future leaders.

The leading American corporations are ahead of the Army in using best business practices in making promotion decisions. Many companies have evolved to a system of multiple sources of information to support promotion decisions. The evaluation of people for either development or selection … by anybody but the boss has long been considered intolerable. … The more closely we scrutinize either theory or practice, the more inadequate the exclusively top-down assessment of performance and potential appears.

I would be disingenuous if I didn’t point out that Gen. Ulmer is a vocal supporter of what this article refers to as a “360-degree officer evaluation system.” In the same Parameters article, Ulmer emphasizes the need for some form of subordinate input in leadership evaluations: “Only the led know for certain the leader’s moral courage, consideration for others and commitment to unit above self. If in fact we prize these values and want to ensure that we promote those who have routinely demonstrated them, some form of input from subordinates is required.”

Should we change OERs again? I believe the Army should consider asking some tough questions pertaining to the way we rate officers. The institution will probably be better served in the long haul if the following questions are answered not only by the well-intentioned people working in Washington, but also the entire officer corps:

n Given the fact that we introduced the current OER just four years ago and that the previous OER was used for nearly two decades, can it be possible that we already need a new OER?

n The current OER has been praised by promotion, school and command boards, and others within U.S. Total Army Personnel Command (PERSCOM), but it has not been universally accepted by the Army Officer Corps. Should the “center of gravity” for any Army OER be what works best for PERSCOM boards or what is accepted and works best in the field?

n Should we do away with DA Form 67-9 and replace it with a new OER that includes some form of peer and subordinate input?

n If there is not enough momentum to totally replace the existing OER with a 360-degree OER system, should we, at a minimum, consider significant changes to the current OER?

Let’s ask every company-grade, field-grade and general officer in the Army to answer those questions or similar specific questions. The Department of the Army, the Department of the Army Inspector General and PERSCOM routinely send surveys and questionnaires to officers and conduct “sensing sessions” with different populations. Let’s disseminate a short survey aimed at getting feedback on the perceived long-term utility, or lack thereof, of our current OER; thoughts on a 360-degree OER system or revisions to the current OER; impact of evaluations on Army career decisions; and provide ample space for other comments. The responses from the survey can serve as our guiding light.

The Officer Corps has heard lots of rhetoric over the years pertaining to OERs. Our core Army value of selfless service mandates that we should all work as hard as we can in the toughest positions, accomplish the missions we’ve been assigned while properly caring for the soldiers and government resources we’ve been entrusted with, be a team player and have confidence that the Army will take care of the rest—which in the context of this article, would include promotion, selection for resident military schooling and senior-level commands.

Stay or go? There have traditionally been two critical decision points when most Army competitive category officers decide to stay or leave the Army: after initial obligations expire from Reserve Officer Training Corps or USMA commitments and following company command.

Under the previous OER (67-8), the unofficial ground rules were fairly clear and generally well understood. If an officer did not have what the Army considered a successful command—generally defined by a top-block OER—the officer would not likely be selected for resident Command and Staff College or battalion command. The officers who had successful commands knew relatively early in their careers that almost every Army door remained open to them, and the converse was also true. As such, the months following company-level command became a decision point for a whole generation of officers.

Many of today’s field-grade officers, and just about all present and recent battalion and brigade commanders and current general officers, went through nearly a decade, 1989-1997, when all they got were top-block OERs under the previous OER. All but the most egotistical and pretentious officers in our ranks knew these reports were highly inflated. Nonetheless they praised our virtues, downplayed our shortcomings and gave us cause for optimism that a rewarding Army career was possible.

Is that still the case today with the current OER (DA Form 67-9)? The answer is no, at least for 51 percent of the Officer Corps and in many cases an even higher percentage, depending on how the senior rater interprets the Army’s guidance on the current OER. The fact is, regardless of how hard officers work, how tough their jobs are, how well they do or how much they’re respected by their peers and soldiers, more than half of the officers today are being told that they are “center of mass” officers. Why is this problematic? because the typical person who enters the Army as an officer has not been center of mass (COM) in most things he or she has done in life, so such an evaluation is an antithesis of what so many officers stand for and is almost always demoralizing.

We all know about statistical bell curves and the natural dispersion among any population. However, regardless of an officer’s rank, it never feels good to be told, “You’re center of mass,” which is instantly interpreted as run of the mill and no longer competitive for the best positions in the Army. Seasoned field-grade officers are not affected as much by a COM assessment. These more senior officers already know for the most part what Army opportunities remain available to them, based on their past performance and the positions in which they’ve served, and they’ve already made the decision to make the Army a career.

In contrast, almost every time one of our lieutenants or captains is given a COM report, a different dynamic occurs. This younger officer, who typically has not yet decided to make the Army a career, is likely to mentally balance that COM assessment against the future prospect of lots more of them, a mental backdrop of the 65-hour weeks they worked during the rated period, amount of time they’ve been away from friends and family, a soul-searching assessment of how much fun they’re currently having and the $75,000 salary and $10,000 signing bonus they have already been offered, or could be offered tomorrow, by corporate America. A COM OER, especially in company command, can be the final impetus for a young officer to decide it’s time to leave the Army.

We certainly hope other dynamics, such as a sense of patriotism, duty, camaraderie and so forth, will also enter the stay-or-leave equation, but a 1999 Army Research Institute (ARI) study estimated 36 percent of the company-grade officers they surveyed intend to leave the Army. That represents a 14 percent increase over a similar population a little more than four years before. It is true that any ARI survey, or any survey for that matter, represents just a snapshot of a sample population. We shouldn’t ignore these numbers, however. While it appears to be leveling off now and getting back within acceptable levels, the recent trend line for captain attrition was a concern for the Army’s senior leadership not that long ago. That number is projected to be somewhere around 9 percent this year, noticeably higher than what it was a decade ago. Is our current OER part of the problem, or worded differently, could a new OER be part of the solution?

If we hope to reverse this trend, maybe we should consider developing a 21st century 360-degree OER system designed from scratch instead of using a top-down assessment vehicle, which may have already outlived its usefulness after only four years and that models others like it that have been used in the past.

Will it be easy to change? Will there be opponents to change? There will always be people who will immediately say it can’t be done. There are also some officers, who would never have survived under such an enlightened system, who will say it shouldn’t be done. The fact is, however, more and more junior officers are dissatisfied with the status quo, and they’re letting their feet do the talking and going to work for innovative private-sector companies.

Where do we go from here? First, I believe it’s in the best long-term interest of the Army that we make the transition from our current officer evaluation system to some form of a 360-degree evaluation system, or at the very least make major changes to our current OER. As envisioned, a new 360-degree OER would factor in the senior leaders’ perspectives, as we do today, but it would also include official OER input from peers serving in similar duty positions, as well as input from select subordinates, commensurate with the rated officer’s position and rank. For example, under a 360-degree OER system, a battalion commander would no longer be rated only by a colonel and a general officer.

Several fellow battalion commanders at the same post, his or her field-grade officers (for example, S-3 and XO) and his or her command sergeant major would all also have official OER input, which would be visible to future Headquarters, Department of the Army (HQDA) boards.

Second, I recommend doing away with the current system where block checks are used to identify rated officers as being either above center of mass (ACOM), center of mass (COM), below center of mass (BCOM) [retain] or below center of mass (BCOM) [do not retain]. Replace the current blocks on the back of DA Form 67-9 with some fundamental statements and questions, along the lines of those shown below, and give an officer’s rater, senior rater, select peers and select subordinates official input. The expanded pool of people with input would “rate” the rated officer on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best rating. For example:

  • This officer possesses the moral, physical and intellectual capacity to continue to serve this nation as a commissioned officer.__________
  • This officer is always ethical and cares more about the Army, this command and his or her soldiers than for his or her own military career and advancement.__________
  • Where would you assess this officer’s leadership skills in comparison to his or her peers (others of the same rank and position)?_________
  • This officer leads by example and exudes the Army’s seven values. _________
  • This officer has made the organization to which he or she is assigned a better organization. _________
  • I’d follow this officer in combat and trust this officer leading my family members or close friends into combat. _________
  • This officer is an asset to the Army and should continue to be promoted and placed in positions of increased responsibility. _________
  • This officer should be placed in command of soldiers. _________

By adopting these subjective criteria or some thematically congruent variation and allowing a bigger population to make these assessments, we will increase the likelihood that an even higher percentage of outstanding officers will reach their full potential. We can also more accurately separate the self-serving officers from the truly superb leaders who have earned the respect and admiration of their superiors, peers and subordinates—which should be the same population we want leading America’s sons and daughters in the 21st century.

Should the Army’s senior leadership not be receptive to the total OER revision described above, another possible interim option is to modify the current senior rater portion of the OER. Specifically, change the current ACOM, COM, BCOM (retain) and BCOM (do not retain) categories on the back of DA Form 67-9 to the new categories and additional descriptive verbiage shown below.

By using the revised format shown above in lieu of the current wording on back of the OER, or the more comprehensive subjective statement/ question format and expanded pool of people with OER input discussed earlier in this article, we could eliminate the negative labeling that comes with being called “center of mass,” as well as the individual and institutional self-fulfilling prophecy that is frequently derived from such labels.

 Today’s officers need to be recognized for what they’re doing for today’s Army, but the current system tends to keep people on the same glide path, positive or negative, based on OERs they got years ago. Maybe more junior officers will decide to stay in the Army if they’re not placed in a “box.” With a more diverse population having input to their OERs, these changes could lead to a realization that their competence, caring, candor and courage would be recognized and lead to increased responsibility.

With such an enlightened OER, maybe our junior officers, and maybe even some more senior officers, would become more innovative and start taking more prudent risks, which is exactly what we need them to do—given the daily challenges that abound in today’s Army.

What are the benefits? In considering whether or not to implement an unconventional 360-degree OER system, a logical question for everyone to ask is, “What are the historical benefits of this type of system?” According to John Feenor and Jeffrey M. Prince’s Using 360-Degree Feedback in Organizations, its benefits can be grouped into four categories:

1) 360-degree assessments offer new and wider perspectives by which an individual’s skills, behaviors, abilities or performance can be judged.

2) 360-degree assessments alleviate some recognized deficiencies of top-down single-source assessments.

3) 360-degree assessments provide the unique opportunity for individuals to rate themselves.

4) 360-degree assessments can be used to reinforce organizational values and vision.

The road ahead. One option is to prepare a questionnaire and canvass all Army officers to gauge their thoughts on the current and possible revised OERs. Then let an organization with experience analyzing military data, such as the Rand Corporation or ARI, analyze the feedback. It is important during this phase of the process to preclude the Washington bureaucrats, uniformed and civilian, from overanalyzing the feedback until they find something they don’t like, which they invariably will. Keep it simple—use basic statistical data analysis. If a significant majority of officers support the 360-degree OER or some derivative of it, start with a pilot program at a post where there are a lot of officers. Use the lessons learned from the program to make refinements, and then implement it Army-wide. Maybe during its infancy, the wider feedback of peers and select subordinates would initially only go to the rated officer as a self-development tool. However, at some point, in order for the Army to accrue the maximum potential of the 360-degree OER system, the entire expanded report should be seen by HQDA boards.

The Army’s senior leadership might determine, however, based on the ATLDP conclusions and recommendations, that an additional survey of the Officer Corps is unnecessary. In this vein, one of the ATLDP’s recommendations was for the Army to “conduct a review of the OER this year to examine its leader development aspects, the terms ‘above center of mass’ and ‘center of mass,’ and the counseling and forced distribution requirements. Involve the field in the review. … Reinforce the leader development aspects of the OER to increase communications between junior and senior officers.”

By all accounts, the current OER is an asset to the officers who sit on HQDA boards. For years now, we have all heard reports of how pleased board members are with the current OER because, in essence, it makes their jobs easier. However, the center of gravity for an OER should be how well it serves the entire Officer Corps and the Army as an institution, not merely the relatively small number of officers who sit on boards.

Changing the Army’s OER is always a complex challenge involving not only changes in administrative procedures, but also significant cultural changes—which are always emotional, complex and met with resistance—but the prospect of keeping high-performing officers in the Army is also a formidable challenge.

When it comes to officer evaluation reports, let’s for once think outside the box—both literally and figuratively— and find an evaluation system that produces, recognizes and retains the type of officers we need this century.