Army Officer career management

Giles has leadership experience in the Single Service and Joint environments, both in training an operations.

A 2015 article in ‘The Atlantic’ magazine laments the poor retention of talented officers within the US military and identifies their rigid and archaic career structure as the root cause.  Most of the problems identified in the article will be immediately recognisable to any British officer and most would accept that the British Army has a number of problems with its career structure which need to be urgently addressed.  A list of the most pressing might include:

  • Generally poor retention, especially of high quality officers.
  • Technical specialisation often being treated as a B-stream career option and limiting promotion prospects. Inadequate specialisation, with generalists in areas that would benefit from specialist knowledge e.g. procurement.
  • Insufficient time in any given role, both to afford job familiarity and allow individual officers to take responsibility for long term projects.
  • An ‘up or out’ requirement, forcing individuals to move away from jobs that they excel at or enjoy, into less suitable roles.
  • A hierarchical system of selection for high rank, likely resulting in many of the most suitable individuals missing out.

This last point is worth expanding on: In any modern army, Generals are required to display a series of soft skills akin to any CEO.  As it stands, CGS is selected from the best generals, while those generals are selected from the best Brigade commanders who, in turn, must have been excellent commanding officers.  Those COs would have been selected on their performance at company level, with the majority of company commanders serving a previous tour as Adjutants or Ops Officers, jobs filled by those who prove to be excellent platoon commanders.

Among the skills required to be a good platoon commander are low level leadership, small team management and good fitness.  Few of those skills are relevant to 4* command, yet we are limiting our generals only to those who displayed these skills at platoon level.

This is unlikely to result in those possessed of the skills to make great 4*s reaching that level, as the current system means that the must excel at every level of command on the way up.  Instead those with the talents most needed to become a general end up stalling in their careers and likely leaving the army early.  In short, many of the best generals leave as mediocre captains.

So how do we address this issue, along with the other major issues identified above?  If we are to really deal with the problem, we need to radically depart from the current career management system.
The first requirement is to separate the process of selecting high command from the process of finding our best junior commanders.  We should look to create a true executive stream, selected at captain, of the 5% or so who most possess the skills relevant to high command.  These individuals should be fast tracked through a career of key staff appointments before reaching 1* much earlier than might currently be expected.  The Civil Service’s MIDIT scheme could provide something of a model.

Meanwhile we should look to create multiple specialist streams for those who do not get selected for high command, or who opt for a different career path. A command/combat stream would see officers occupying command slots for three years or more at a time and with reduced staff roles, but with a ceiling of brigade command.  A procurement stream would generate in-house procurement specialists who can remain in post long enough to take responsibility for entire projects.  Many other streams, including cyber and other technical specialisations, could be created.  Each stream could be incentivised separately with different pay or terms of service to suit specific roles.  One consequence of this change would be a reduction in the number of officers available to fill generalist staff roles meaning that uniformed personnel would have to fill a staff role only where necessary, with the remainder filled by civil servants.

This new system has several benefits:

  • Those with the best skills for high command actually reach that position without being filtered out along the way for being a mediocre Lieutenant.
  • Those who are good at lower level command get more time in those roles to the benefit of both the army and the individual.
  • Officers can stay in post long enough to get to grips with their role and take ownership of long term projects.
  • Reduced throughput of officers reduces the recruiting requirement, allowing an increase in quality of those selected.
  • Increased use of Civil Servants means that we have individuals who can stay in staff roles for much longer than uniformed personnel (sometimes 5 years or more) and are considerably cheaper.

This system represents a significant departure from the current career structure but current manning and retention figures show that either the army must change quickly or risk irrevocable damage from mismanaging our talent.

The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to

Officer Cadets march past the front of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Old College, followed by instructors and the College Adjutant on horseback.
Image courtesy of MoD/Crown copyright

Leave a Reply

7 Comments on "Army Officer career management"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Although I can identify a lot with the article I’m not sure I agree with the sentiment that CGS was selected because he was a good platoon commander – I don’t think the Golden Thread exists as much as we tell ourselves. What ‘success’ (discuss!) at one level does give you is access to opportunity at the next, perhaps too much so. But people do perform differently at differing levels. From personal leadership at platoon level, to organisational leadership at unit and formation up to strategic leadership. The demands are different (if overlapping) and suit differing people. Sometimes people develop… Read more »
Lowly Lt

Really interesting comment about preparing large numbers for Operational command however there are very few slots for it. Would that mean that Op Command could be it’s own career stream with a rigorous selection criteria and thr kudos to match. With the other streams emulating it leading to more purposeful Career Management System?

I wholeheartedly agree with the premise of the article including the unspoken aspect of broadening the talent pool for strategic command appointments beyond the combat arms. A note of caution on expectations re: public servants. The Australian experience has shown that duration of tenure can be much shorter than the average military posting cycle. This incurs costs associated with recruitment; financial, time spent shortlisting and interviewing etc, and disruption while managing a vacancy. Public servants must also be appropriately career managed to avoid talent attrition. None of this should rule out their use, but it must be an informed course… Read more »
Garry Hearn
Giles, many thanks for this article, it raises many points. I wonder if you could turn it around at touch and start from a combined perspective of ‘what does the individual want, and what does the army need.’ Traditionally we have sought our senior leaders from the ‘command’ cohort and it could be argued that organisationally we have done quite well from the practice, however in doing so we have missed out 2 groups; the non-command, and the ‘specialist’ (not sure I like this term) cohort. Therefore, the aim could be to retain the command cohort and expand to ensure… Read more »
The discussion on career management needs to accept some realities: No career management system is free from mistakes and business models don’t always have the right solution. The MIDIT system, for example, is a mixture of the Army’s WTE tagging (for MIDIT post jobs) combined with the Army’s career management system. When I recently spoke with a banking business they realised that what they wanted from their career system was close to what the Army does – but for some, not all. The problem will remain that specialisation is important for technical (and perhaps operational) competence but ‘generalisation’ is important… Read more »
Luke Hoare
A confession or admission first of all. I am a regular officer currently researching a part-time PhD in the History of Meritocracy in the modern British Army at the University of Reading. So clearly, I would have a view on this. I think there is a genuine consensus, both inside and outside the Army, that the current select / stream / promote / retain model is not as effective as it should be. At all. But the real challenge is how understand the historical context and interpret the current position to be able to suggest alternative models. For example, a… Read more »
A very interesting article and I wholeheartedly agree with some of the points. It is almost a given that the Adjt and OpsO end up with the two top reports in most mainstream units, save a pesky LE slipping in there to muddy the waters.. This ultimately helps with the initial stages of promotion but i don’t agree this takes them through to 1* or above. A person will always need to show relevant (different) skills as they progress. Also the ability to adapt to the different challenges at the different levels of command. Managing a platoon is very different… Read more »