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My Decision to leave the Military

For those Military Officers out there who are currently in the decision process to transition from the military or not I thought it might be useful to walk through my logic for departing the military. I am not writing this with an objective to influence a decision in any particular direction, rather to let those who are currently going through the process know that they are not alone in the challenge of making a tough decision. Each individual’s decision is highly personal and respected.

As I reflect on my decision to transition from the military I was somewhat surprised. While deployments were taxing and remote living locations back in the States not ideal, I can honestly say those were relatively low on my list in the decision making process. Fundamentally, my decision boiled down to two issues:

1. I didn’t feel like I had any control over the process. Sure, I submitted “preferences” to duty stations, but those were easily overturned by military needs or a commander expressing an interest to keep me on station longer than anticipated. I wanted some level of meaningful input into my own destiny and I didn’t feel like that existed. I was not adverse to deployments, hardship tours, etc (in fact I volunteered for them), but needed a say in the higher strategic path of my career.

2. The second ties with the first point in some capacity, the personnel process was highly bureaucratic with little or no ability to influence it and incredibly frustrating to try and navigate. Yes, if you had a high level relationship you might benefit from political capital that they might use for your benefit, but there didn’t seem to be a standard advocate with your interests in mind helping guide you through the process.

So ultimately I departed the military not to get away from deployments or the quality of life, but rather to be empowered and in more control of my career path.

There is a great analysis done by Sayce Falk & Sasha Rogers at Harvard University titled “Junior Military Officer Retention: Challenges & Opportunities”.

It is provided here for your review. Our appreciation for this analysis and we encourage additional studies such as this be conducted.

For your convenience here is an excerpt of their Executive Summary:


How can the military identify and retain a greater percentage of its most talented young officers?

The United States is currently approaching its tenth year of continuous warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts that have been labeled by Secretary of Defense Gates as “the captains’ wars.” By all accounts, the military has performed superbly, with much of that success attributable to its junior leadership. Yet even as the military finds itself with the most capable corps of junior officers in its history, it has also found that some of these young leaders are taking their hard-won experience elsewhere. To ensure that it is capable of meeting future threats, the U.S. military must retain its most talented leaders in the service – this is not simply a matter of quantity, but also a question of quality.

Junior Officers in Their Own Words. Amid all the concern for the health of the junior officer corps in recent years, very few have paused to ask the individuals concerned – the former officers themselves. In this report, we survey nearly 250 former junior military officers who left the service between 2001-2010 about their experiences and the reasons driving their decisions to leave. 75% of the officers we spoke to said that this was their first opportunity to provide feedback to the military after leaving the service. By and large, these individuals remain dedicated to public service and proud of their military experiences. Their responses and recommendations were poignant, thoughtful, and constructive; here, we attempt to give them voice.

Fully 80% of our respondents reported that the best officers they knew had left the military before serving a full career. Yet some factors widely portrayed as driving young officers from service were less important to our junior officer cohort than we anticipated. For instance, only 9% of respondents indicated that deployment cycles and operational tempo were their most important reason for leaving. In the same vein, nearly 75% ranked compensation and financial reasons as their least important consideration.

What does matter? Two factors emerged as areas of surprising consensus among former officers: organizational inflexibility, primarily manifested in the personnel system, and a lack of commitment to innovation within the military services.

    • Organizational Flexibility. The number one reported reason for separation among our respondents was limited ability to control their own careers. Frustration with a one-size-fits-all system was by far the most common complaint, with emphasis on bureaucratic personnel processes that respondents called “broken,” “archaic,” and “dysfunctional.”

    • Commitment to Innovation. In second place, 41% of respondents ranked frustration with military bureaucracy as the most or a very important factor in their decision to leave. Nearly half felt the military did a poor job at identifying and rewarding traits such as creativity, as opposed to qualities such as endurance or ability to follow orders. 

The Active Duty Perspective. Previous surveys of junior officers who have left the military have often been criticized for two reasons: (1) that such individuals are biased against the military (or as one active duty officer put it, “quitters shouldn’t get a vote”); or (2) that all junior officers have complaints, and those who leave are not particularly more discouraged than those who choose to stay. To address these concerns, we additionally surveyed 30 active duty respondents with similar rank and demographic characteristics as a reality check on our results. We refer to this active duty cohort throughout this report to provide a counterpoint for our survey results. Members of our active duty cohort have had successful military careers to date and were generally positive about their military experience – two-thirds intend to stay in the service until eligible for retirement. Nevertheless, they echoed many of the concerns voiced by our target sample.

Recommendations. The U.S. military is among our most effective and respected national institutions – it does many things right. But even great organizations have room for improvement. In this report, we propose some low-cost, high-return reforms with a goal to introduce greater efficiency and flexibility, which in turn may help to retain more of our nation’s most qualified young military leaders. Our recommendations are largely synergistic, and we have grouped them broadly into six categories:

    • Know who you have. You can only target your best employees for retention if you can identify them. High-performing organizations regularly grade personnel using a wide variety of quantitative and qualitative indicators, with a focus on identifying the top and bottom performers. We recommend that the military update its officer evaluation processes to provide a more rigorous and comprehensive evaluation system.

    • Reward top performers. Successful organizations integrate evaluation metrics that reflect institutional goals and explicitly reward the individuals who best reflect those values. In the military, a comprehensive rewards system should also include incentives such as new opportunities for assignments outside the military and mentorships with senior officers.

    • Give your people a say in their own careers. High-performing organizations offer flexible opportunities for employees to pursue their interests while maintaining a work-life balance. Although there is little to be done about current op tempos, we believe the military should consider a market-based system that better matches available assignments with an officer’s aptitude, interests, and career goals.

    • Promote innovation. Senior leaders in successful organizations encourage and formalize systems that promote creativity and innovation. In the military, this should be reflected in revised officer evaluation reports that identify not only past performance but future potential in order to create a clearer impression of a military officer’s true aptitude.

    • Be open to feedback. Studies demonstrate that high-performing organizations seek feedback at all levels, including from those who leave the organization. Junior officers who leave the service should participate in a formalized lessons-learned system that includes exit interviews and aggregates suggestions and recommendations for review by senior officers.

    • Continue to recruit. Junior officers value their own experiences but see few opportunities for challenge or professional development during the middle portion of their careers. Senior leaders should continue to “recruit” these officers even after commissioning through improved mentorship and by highlighting opportunities for interesting or unique careers. We do not mean to say here that we have cracked the code on officer attrition – nor do we claim to identify causal relationships between officer concerns and retention. But we do believe we have highlighted areas for the Department of Defense and the military services to scrutinize more closely. In fact, much of what we report is intuitive – arduous deployment timelines, quality of life concerns, ineffective superior officers, and insufficient financial compensation are all reasons why officers claim to leave the service. Yet our most important message is perhaps this: many young officers say they leave simply because they do not believe their skills and talents will continue to be rewarded with increased responsibility and freedom of action as they progress.”

If you found this useful please check our “Resource Center” located on our Transitioned Military Officer Community Page for additional information


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