The Navy’s Promotion System: A Global Force for Mediocrity

Have you ever wondered how we end up with such mediocre leaders and aviators as Department Heads and Commanding Officers?  I bet you have.  Most of us have.  We think back to various Department Heads and XO/COs we’ve worked for and can pick out a few great ones, a few awful ones, and a whole lot who could best be described as “adequate.”  There are a lot of factors that lead to this giant sea of mediocrity, but the most significant is the importance of “sustained superior performance” in our FITREP and career progression system.

First of all, it’s important to note that the ratio of highly-capable, capable, and incapable (if you’ll bear with me as we use those terms for three tiers of officers) is consistent with the “bell curve” we all remember from our grade school days.  Many large groups fall out that way – a few high performers on the top, a few weak ones on the bottom, and the rest getting by in the middle.  In theory, that concept is applied to a P-3 officer career path.  In the first tour, an officer is measured against a large pool of peers.  The expectation is that the weakest will be weeded out with poor FITREPS and “career-ender” shore tours.  The best will go to VP-30 – the proven path first shore tour (another topic that I discussed in a previous post).  The middle group will be spread out amongst other training commands and shore billets.  I’m not suggesting that this is the best way to do things, or that this is how all Commanding Officers think with regards to FITREP rankings, but the perception certainly exists that this is how things function.  The idea, then, is that the best people will be in the best position for success when the time comes for DH screening.  Only the best people become Department Heads, and only the best of those become Commanding Officers, or so the system suggests.  Too bad it doesn’t work.

The biggest issue is the ranking system.  Think about how many times you’ve heard about “sustained superior performance.”  I’ve lost count of the number of Command or DH screen board recap briefs I’ve seen.  It’s always the same shit.  The percentages may move a little bit, but the concepts are the same.  A high EP out of the first tour gives you really good odds for DH.  A VP-30 tour makes it a veritable lock.  A Carrier tour after that gives you the best odds at command.  Throw in some jokes about the “bureau” and the hilarious stories from the “tank” (like the time where the guy had a regression in his record and a few seconds after the record went up on the screens there were 20 laser pointer dots on the area of issue, or like that time when the one guy forgot to vote yes for a really strong record where the recorder said “this guy was a 30 guy and boat guy so let’s all “hit 100” so we can go to lunch”, and everyone waited for the last guy to “hit 100” until finally someone yelled “who didn’t vote?” and then you saw the final vote quickly go up and everyone laughed and laughed and WOULD YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP AND GET ON WITH IT! …..)

Sorry about that.  I get carried away with those “bureau jokes” that exactly two people in the audience can relate to, but that are made at each and every one of those briefs.  Again, I apologize.

So, getting back to the rankings, we are talking about how so many mediocre people can make it so far in a community that places so much emphasis on “sustained superior performance.”  Let’s start with the Junior Officers.  Let’s say you are up for your final competitive FITREP as a Lieutenant.  You will be ranked against a pool of all the other LTs in the squadron.  You would think that the best LT in the squadron will be ranked #1.  But what if the best LT is not up for his final competitive FITREP?  Straight seniority does not necessarily mean someone contributes more, or is more valuable.  So timing is clearly a key component, and one that the people being ranked do not control.  If you happened to check in to the command with a weak group of people, you can leave with a high FITREP number by just being decent in your job.  There may be five other LTs who are much better than you, but if they still have another FITREP before checkout, you’ll be ranked above them (as long as you are at least in that “capable” middle group we talked about – if you are in the incapable bottom group, this may not apply).  The command doesn’t want to screw you by ranking someone who is much more junior above you.  You may not be terrible, but you’re also not great.  But from now on, on paper, you look great.  Was your performance really “superior?”  Of course not.

What if you are being ranked against some other LTs on their final FITREP cycle, but they want to go to a non-standard shore tour?  Again, you might be a decent, but not great, performer being measured against much better performers, but you can come out on top if the others plan on leaving the Navy, want to do a unique shore tour in D.C., want an NROTC job, etc.  Some Skippers may say that future jobs aren’t factored in on rankings, but I’ve been in the Department Head meetings and on the email discussions where this comes up.  The rationale is to avoid “wasting” a good FITREP number on someone who won’t be competing for DH or Command.  Because of this, at the Department Head board, there will always be a lot of #1s and #2s who really should have been #3s, #4s, and #5s (or even lower).  On paper they performed well, but in reality they were beneficiaries of good timing or good luck.

This idea applies at the DH level just as much as it does amongst the JOs.  Again, I saw this numerous times on a DH tour.  Two LCDRs are ranked against one another, one who completed a CVN tour and another who performed very well at a VPU disassociated sea tour, and the ranking is all but set in stone even before either has had a chance to demonstrate their “superior performance.”  The rumor that the folks at Millington try not to pair up two “strong” records (and, thus, have them compete for a single #1 ranking) has been out there so long it is all but gospel now.  Well, where does the sustained superior performance come in then?  As long as you’ve been in the right jobs (which you may have been in because the better people didn’t want to go) and have high FITREP rankings (which you may have because the better people were choosing to leave the Navy or go off the proper career path, or because there were no better people in the small group that was leaving the command in your time frame) you won’t have to really be “superior” – the deck will be stacked in your favor.

So, the result of all of this is that a lot of average people are made to look above average.  And once you’re christened with that label, if you stick to the career plan, it’s a tough one to shake.  I’m wondering about the downside to ranking people strictly on their performance in their job for the period of evaluation.  What if past and future jobs are not considered?  What if rankings are across all peers, and not just the few who are checking out at the same time?  Wouldn’t we get a truer sense of “sustained superior performance?”  Why should it matter that the best guy is getting out of the Navy?  How is that “screwing” the ones who are staying in?  If they wanted to be ranked ahead of the guy getting out, then they should have done a better job than him.  If we keep doing things this way, we will continue to have what we have now, which is a lot of mediocre people in high places.

Is the promotion system the only thing keeping us from excellence in the higher ranks?  Not at all.  It’s but one part of a couple of interacting forces.  I think the promotion system has cultivated risk-averse behavior in every thing we do – from daily FOD walkdowns to liberty policies to mission performance.  The only way to prove that you are a sustained superior performer is to get a #1 ranking.  Ask yourself how do many get that ranking?

I’m working on a risk aversion article that is pretty extensive.  Hopefully it sums why our pussies are so big.  In the meantime, here’s some more credible reading on mediocrity in business.  I found many parallels to what we do.

  1. #1 by VPISCOOLERTHANEVERYTHINGIHAVEEVERKNOWN on 15September2011 - 3:01 am

    How much time do we waste on talking about career path, getting the “right” jobs to enhance our FITREPs, etc.? I am amazed as how much energy and time is put into determining how well people do in their jobs, and I’ve seen the ranking process a bit – rank everyone based on a sense of where you want them to end up (i.e., I love this LT cause he did a great job reviewing NATOPS jackets… he was here every day when I left to go home… and, most importantly, I just generally like him…), then work backwards to give scores based on where they should fall out.

    What if we spent the time we put into determining performance and getting the “correct” FITREPs into trully understanding tactics? Talking to sub crews about how to keep contact? Learning how to fire SLAM-ER overland? Talking to helo guys about their tactics? What if we also took the time we spend on FOD walkdown and do those things… oh wait, sorry I’m being blasphemous.

    Anyway, I don’t know the solution. I just think we spend too much time trying to play the game of rankings/FITREPs/etc. rather than on legitimately becoming better at the actual purpose the American taxpayers pay us for.

  2. #2 by Terry Rothchild on 30October2015 - 8:34 pm

    Fuck the “Golden Path”. By the time anyone with a vision, someone who could make a real difference in the VP community, has waded through the miles of shit required to make command, they are already broken. The “Golden Path” forces them to go against their wishes and those of their families, until they are just another cog in the machine, talking about the importance of SLAM-ER and getting their hours this month. It’s 1984 all over again, except instead of loving Big Brother, they all end up loving readiness in the end.

    …I’d rather take the rat.

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