By Patrick Hinton
Know Your Audience
Retaining soldiers is a perennial problem for military forces the world over. It is a central topic in the British Army in the face of a difficult recruitment environment. Much stock is given to the fluid nature of employment in the modern world, with a focus on younger generations. This has necessitated a discourse on how best to retain troops who look for more than a steady wage and job security. My interest in the topic was spiked by a 2018 War on the Rocks article by KC Reid which is worth a read if you have a spare ten minutes. Reid makes the point that approaches to leadership must take into account the different age demographics which make up the military.
Much has been made of the different approach to work and life of millennials, and more importantly, Generation Z, which organisations are having to coming to terms with. Broadly, Gen Z encapsulates those under 25 years of age which captures the vast number of junior soldiers and officers serving today. The more fluid conception of career and authority identified in younger people is particularly important for the military, which is necessarily hierarchical. Moreover, it has a career management structure generally based on a 15-20 year term, rather than the 3-5 year periods favoured by a younger demographic. As such, all organisations including the military must work hard to provide engaging employment. This demographic sees no problem is leaving an organisation which is not meeting their expectations.
Relevance Should Not Be Assumed
A strong starting point for military leaders who work with those in their late teenage years and early twenties is articulating relevance. Young officers and soldiers are more questioning of teaching and commands which may seem arbitrary or pointless. Having grown up in an information age, they are happy to fact check and look past facades of authority. Orders need meaning behind them. It is crucial to demonstrate the why behind requests in order to maintain and enhance engagement. Simon Sinek popularised this idea a decade ago and often cites military examples in his presentations. Yet there is a significant disjoint. Teaching by drills and learning by wrote has its place, but there is much to be gained by allowing these troops to search out solutions.
Much can be gained be demonstrating the purpose behind decisions; if that purpose cannot easily be identified, it will be questioned (quite rightly). It helps to bring all levels into the context behind decisions and provide a convincing vision for people to commit to.
Opening Up The Decision Making Chain
It is easy to be frustrated with people whose outlooks do not match your own. I often hear complaints about a softer generation which gives up when the going gets tough; this is short sighted. There is huge capacity in the junior ranks. One useful piece of advice I was given is to ‘start where they are’. There is little point getting frustrated when people do not meet your expectations which have been shaped by your own experiences. Instead, look to empathise with their views and match their strengths to what you ask of them. People are not blunt tools.
Take time to find out their interests and what motivates them. This could be done casually through conversation or more formally through an interview or survey. My unit has empowered a junior soldier with a technical background as the caretaker for information management. With this evidence to hand, it is much easier to shape decisions and announcements which your audience can grab hold of.
I would encourage people not to make decisions in isolation and work hard to bring in input from all age ranges and experience. The top corridor mentality of meetings and decisions is a significant limiting factor. The idea of ‘sharing your inbox’ and allowing your wider unit to see what comes into your in-tray is a good way to the disseminate context of decisions.
Actively engaging and demonstrating relevance may be uncomfortable for those who like the idea of subordinates following orders. Younger military personnel must be allowed to demonstrate their full capabilities, and this starts with a leadership decision to bring them into the fold. There will be frictions. They are a natural, digitally engaged recruitment and retention tool in themselves. They should be given the support to be able to do that. One example might be the growth of unofficial YouTube channels run by military personnel.
There are of course times when military personnel must do as ordered in a timely manner. In my experience, however, more time is spent problem solving and looking to provide a rich training experience. In this quest, bringing ideas and expertise from all ranks is well worth doing.
Note from 3×5 Leadership: If you are interested in learning more about Generation Z and the leadership implications of their generational norms, I encourage you to check out iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us, By Jean M. Twenge.
About the author: Patrick commissioned into the British Army in 2015. Since joining the Artillery he has worked with both surface-to-air fires and unmanned aerial systems. His interest in leadership started whilst coaching rowing at university and continues in his current profession.
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