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What Happened to Retention?

I recently attended the Infantry Manning Forum at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was struck by the lack of time given to retention, in favour of recruitment, as the answer to current manning issues.  This despite the figures given clearly showing that most Infantry leavers do so voluntarily, rather than being forced to do so. 1  Yet retention received only 30 minutes of discussion, as opposed to nearly 3 hours spent on recruitment.  

Whilst I am sure that more senior people than me worry about retention, the lack of communication on the subject has driven pen to paper.  The lack of attention that retention receives chimes very much with my own experience and forms my thesis.  I believe that retention activity is conducted poorly by the military.  I believe that too often the cry is that we don’t own the correct retention levers to make a difference.  And I believe that is wrong; there must be wider debate on the subject.  So, let me know.  Do my practical suggestions chime with your own experiences?  If you disagree with my ideas what do you think we can do to improve retention?  And how do we go about communicating this to the chain of command to get formal buy in?  

I studied the civilian sector’s efforts to retain their talent2. The short story is that the primary retention lever (to use military parlance) is inculcating in an individual a feeling of value to the organisation by considering their vision of their future.  Several methods are employed: empowering subordinates; giving subordinates a voice to the hierarchy; honesty; and the ability for subordinates to shape their future.  Each of these is currently a well talked game in the military, but we rarely back them up with action in my experience.  Appointments boards for junior officers are shrouded in secrecy; communication between Battalions is guarded by the Adjutant; forums to allow a junior group to gain consensus before proposing ideas to senior ranks are few and far between, etc.  What really surprised me was that financial reward is very rarely used as a retention lever in civilian retention policies, despite often being the first lever analysed by the military during the termination process.

I conducted a straw poll of colleagues to discuss what we in the military do well, and what we do poorly.  73 people joined my initial debate, and the results were worrying.  Of note, 55% do not feel valued as an individual by the organisation, a statistic which mirrors the Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey (AFCAS) and competes extremely poorly with similarly sized organisations in the civilian sector.  95% feel that retention activity by the hierarchy occurs too late, i.e. only once an individual has signed off.  59% feel that the current internal and external boarding system is too shady.  These figures do not chime well with the main strands of civilian retention outlined earlier.  Further analysis of Service leavers from the Beige List (BL) 13/14/15 cohort showed that very rarely was a reason for leaving not within the military’s ability to influence, it just occurred too late.  There was a common thread running through all interviews conducted: that the departing officer no longer saw a future for himself in military.  Their vision of the future had become disconnected from the military.

What can be done?  Having served, at this point, for over 18 years, as both a soldier and officer, I both understand and believe that the needs of the Service come first.  But that should not absolve us from making every possible effort to inculcate a feeling of value in an individual.  The article written by Colonel Wills MBE in Combat Magazine 2016 states that ‘we must maximise the talent we have.  This must include…embedding personal development as a core activity.’  My thoughts on three measures we can take to better align individual and organisational visions are below, but they are just my bright ideas as I seek to develop debate on the subject.  This is not an exhaustive list but the start of a conversation.  Hopefully.  

Define the endstate

Corporate branding consists of 2 components: the vision and the mission statement.  Irrespective of its financial impact, in the civilian sector, branding is used both as a recruitment and retention tool.  Recruits will gravitate to a strong brand, and employee satisfaction is increased.  The presentation of the new Infantry Brand is a welcome step in providing a vision, but individual Regiments must rapidly update their own brands to sit within the Infantry context.  They must simply and succinctly define their vision for their Regimental future.  These should be short enough to be easily memorable (key to any brand) and highlight analysis of where that Regiment sees itself in ‘the future’, rather than articulating its current role, which is sadly the state, having read a lot of Regimental magazines.  Increased collaboration between emerging (and some resurfacing) concepts such as Strike, Specialised Infantry, Corps warfighting at scale and the enlarged Air Assault Brigade should be central to this.  We must ‘make the…goals of the company [or Regiment] clear’ , better defining our aspirations to ensure we are not stuck in ‘The Present’.  If you are already on the inside, chances are you know what you’re currently up to; more important to retention is where you are headed.  Field Marshal Montgomery’s definition of leadership discussed rallying men and women around a ‘vision…based on moral authority; the truth.’ 3We must propose brands or charters that truly incorporate ‘The Future’, ensuring they meet the needs of both new joiners and those currently serving. 

Set the conditions for success

To increase retention, civilian policies aim to create an environment in which employees feel like an asset.  This ties heavily with good leadership, but analysis of my discussions suggest that our procedures must also be developed.  This will require more investment in Regimental Headquarters (RHQ).  Most are simply not staffed, nor are the requisite reporting or career management incentives in place, to enable success.  If these recommendations are to be realised, the Permanent Establishment of a RHQ must be appropriately resourced to enable the increased responsibilities

Flow of information.  Technology (and frankly, a good old-fashioned annual get together) should enable Regimental issues to be analysed and resolved by forums other than just Regimental councils.  A formal forum, for example, of Majors (and another for Captains) within a Regiment would give ‘leading talent a voice’.[1]  Synchronisation with higher or lower forums would allow for flow of information, and taskings up and down the chain, prior to presentation at a Regimental Council.  Opening Regimental issues to ‘the floor’ would allow a RHQ to harness the collective minds of the organisation rather than relying on its own horsepower, and give those individuals a voice to the hierarchy.  These forums must be energised, empowered and maintained by RHQ to retain relevance.

Regimental appointments.  My discussions suggest that most junior officers feel they are not well informed enough to make internal posting preferences, and they see the boarding process as secretive rather than open.  Both factors impact on an individual’s vision for their future within an organisation.  Creating an open and honest working environment is vital to retention of talent.  The Appointments Board (probably at Regimental level rather than APC) system requires greater transparency to ensure that junior officers feel it is valid and serves their interests as well as the Regiment’s.  Little career projection seems to be given in a timely manner, which is disruptive, and it is too guarded.  Transparency could be improved through the production of records of decisions, with direct liaison authority granted for individuals at the start of the process; rather than the Adjutant being the sole guardian of formal dialogue.  Changes to the Appointments Board process must be proposed to ensure that junior officers are better informed, feel part of the process, and understand why decisions about their futures were made, and by whom.

External postings and guidance.  Junior officers also feel that they do not receive enough guidance on external postings.  This has an obvious impact on officers as they reach the oft trumpeted ‘Captains’ menopause’ prior to Staff College.  A career review at Army Personnel Centre Glasgow or by the Adjutant should not be the sole nurturing someone receives before they embark on the transition to an external posting (whether that is post or pre Staff College). Indeed; Regimental HQs could use this opportunity to influence other organisations by furnishing them with appropriate staff officers.  Regiments that choose to retain talent within Battalion must be aware of the consequences that can have on an individual’s promotion to Major.  When combined with a limited number of enhanced reporting profile posts at Battalion level, positioning at Beige List is rarely reflective of positioning at Staff College (ICSC(L)), so have we as an organisation got something wrong in our report writing process?  I believe greater manning risk must be taken at Battalion to ensure that young officers receive more than the Adjutant or Operations officer profiles prior to promotion.  Or at least send those that aren’t in those roles out to E.  Hand in hand with external postings, RHQs must do all they can to facilitate operational deployments for younger officers.  Ownership of manning risk by RHQs, to enable inter-Battalion or Divisional reinforcement, will reassure Commanding Officers that their liability will be maintained if required, and will allow them to make the most of potential operational deployments as a retention lever.

Develop the individual

This goes hand in hand with a better flow of information and a more transparent process.  Mentoring ‘is about the moral component of fighting power, specifically motivation and moral cohesion.  To that end it should be underpinned by leadership, from higher command to lower, rather than the other way around.’ 4 Leadership doctrine states that ‘mentoring is about broader, through life development; [a mentor] is likely to be a trusted friend or colleague, often more senior, with whom ideas and plans can be discussed.’ 5 Mentoring schemes that I have been exposed to in the military advocate a relaxed, informal, and bottom-up approach with junior ranks making an approach to those more senior.  In a hierarchical structure such as the military, this approach is rarely utilised.  I would suggest the reason lies in a combination of junior officers not yet understanding who they actually want to talk to, and then feeling that rank is an obstruction to dialogue.  The latter point highlights why mentoring should not be down to the chain of command (CoC); they are responsible for career management.  

My research suggested that the current approach to mentoring is not favoured by a youthful target audience.  The US Army has a formal mentoring programme called the Army Career Tracker, in which a junior rank at defined career points will apply for mentoring to a senior rank.  This relationship is then formalised with relevant annual report access granted to the senior rank.  Some Regiments have already adopted a slightly more structured take on mentoring, notably the Household Cavalry.  Other options could include a regional focus to mentoring, with senior officers given responsibility to mentor junior officers within their ‘catchment’ areas; designated by RHQ.  A good starting point for any development of the scheme might come from the Principles of Capacity Building, which can easily be translated across for Terms of Reference (TOR):6 recognise partner-nation priorities and needs; apply bespoke, local solutions with realistic goals; culture and people before skills and equipment; honest measurements of effectiveness and impact; cooperation not dependency; and ensure all actions are auditable.

A directed and empowered mentor should provide each officer, including late entry officers, a bespoke vision of their future.  They should use their experience to provide achievable and realistic advice on career guidance within an open and honest relationship. The mentor should liaise with the junior officer’s CoC to ensure they retain accountability; the needs of the Army come first and therefore ultimate direction must sit with the junior officer’s CoC.  Enforcing this as routine business will ensure that this retention activity occurs throughout a career, rather than too late.7


So, to very briefly summarise, I believe that we aren’t doing enough to retain our talent and I have evidence that backs that belief up. I’ve provided some thoughts on how we can improve, and I hope you’ll provide some more.  Critically, we must put procedures and processes in place to help align an individual’s vision with that of the Army, if we want to stand any chance of keeping talented individuals serving for a full career. 

Major Anon

The author has served in the Infantry for nearly two decades, most of which has been spent at Regimental Duty with operational experience of both Iraq and Afghanistan.  The author is keen to develop debate on retention of talent within the military, to ensure it remains at the forefront of decision makers’ minds.  The opinions expressed within this article are the author’s own, and do not reflect wider Army or Regimental policy.


  1. Kenny OBE ADC, D, Colonel.  ‘Resolving Infantry Manning’.  Presentation, Infantry Manning Forum, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, 2018.
  2.  http://www.selectinternational.com/blog/bid/148239/5-things-successful-companies-do-to-retain-top-talentand https://www.nextgeneration.ie/blog/how-to-retain-top-talent/are two good articles among many.
  3. Developing Leaders, A British Army Guide, page 5.
  4. ADP Ops, Chapter 2.  It will also benefit the physical component through increased retention of manpower.
  5. Developing Leaders, A British Army Guide, page 47.
  6. AFM Tactics for Stability Ops Part 5: Military Support to capacity building, page 4-3.
  7. Ibid, page 4-1 highlights the requirement for ‘Persistent engagement’.

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