A War of Attrition: a strategic look at how turnover affects leadership

Introduction to the theory

Attrition - the action or process of gradually reducing the strength or effectiveness of someone or something through sustained attack or pressure.

What are we talking about? Personally I've experienced the appointment of leaders in command positions that are just plain inept. How did they get there? Why did this happen? 

***Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece. I'd love to receive funds to do research to assess the viability of these claims and possibly solve what I think is one of the biggest problems facing the United States Military today. Having said that, I have formed opinions based in statistical analysis of the DoD documents as well as personal experience in the United States Army from 2005 to 2010.

The United States Army as an example

As long as they can "pass" a test (or receive a waiver), pass physical standards (or receive a waiver), and meet security standards such as criminal background and mental health standards (or receive a waiver), individuals are accepted into the armed services.
At this point they are put through training, basic, and then trained in a specific job skill.
They serve 4 years and have a decision to either stay or go. 

In Ron Milam's book "Not a Gentleman's War" you can begin to understand the underlying reasons for joining the military. This can be directly translated into the reasons for exiting the military. Whether needs have been fulfilled or realizations about the facts of what the military does comes to light and ultimately affects turnover.

The DoD refers to those with 17 months to 6 years when they reenlist as "Zone A". "Zone B" and "Zone C" refer to lengthier terms as 6-10 years and 10-14 years respectively.

Retention rates, regardless of service, year (in the report presented), or gender, show undeniably that retention of first contract service-members is lower than those who have already committed lengthier times to the service. Many reasons for this may be, but let's focus on the effects of these retention rates.

Statistical Evidence


Statistically, Zone A is the lowest reenlistment rate. We should also note, that in the Army, and Navy a Trending down of Zone C can be seen. I will write on this downturn in a later paragraph. 

Now that we have facts, let's make an ASSUMPTION that there are two ends of a spectrum. Group A being high achievers, model citizens, intelligent, and actively engaged personnel. Then lets assume that the Group B is the opposite, less intelligent, less driven to achieve, either disengaged or actively disengaged, societal rebels, lacking direction. Group A are the type A personality that typically want to go to college, Achieve higher rank in the armed services by means of merit and wish to serve their country out of patriotism and helping their fellow Americans. Group B is here for the bonus money and the job. Group B understands fully that the armed services doesn't fire someone immediately for poor work performance.

Now that we have made that assumption, let me reiterate, this is not black and white, 50%/50%, this is a spectrum. One END is high achieving and another is the opposite, with many different people filling the spectrum in the middle.


How Attrition Affects Leadership

If we acknowledge the assumption that Group A typically reenlist less than those with Group B, we can see the attrition rate depicted to the left as I depict the Zone A at the bottom, Zone B in the middle, and Zone C as the highest pay grade at the top. 

Each zone has fewer and fewer of each Group A and Group B to choose from and must select from that pool their next generation of leaders. It is less likely, based in statistics, that the Group A would be able to see higher enlisted rank because there are fewer to choose from. Those that refuse to question authority and blindly follow orders end up being retained, whereas the Group A personalities remove themselves from the equation in pursuit of different means of satisfaction through the civilian sector.

What happens is a death spiral of poor leadership. The dregs are retained at a higher rate and the actual leaders remove themselves because they feel as if the service is not for them, and there is a higher level of achievement to be attained elsewhere. When the highest ranking non-commissioned officer is seen as a dolt, smart, active, high-achievers decide they don't want to reenlist. 

The service has no choice but to pick from those who are left - the 30% that they were able to retain. Understand that of the 30% retained, Zone B there was 50%, which is actually 15% of the original enlisted group of privates from 6-10 year ago. Of Zone C 75% are retained of that 15%, that's an astonishing 11.25% of the original batch from 10-14 years ago (Some Pre-Conflict). Fear of "The real world" "Change" and having to do actual work, those retained until retirement are more and more inclined to be Type B. Not to say that they are "under-achievers", many excel in combat skills such as physical fitness and have "experience".

Understanding that the lack in retention reduces the ability to retain good leadership potential is a key success factor for the military. Those that aspire to greatness, usually use the military enlisted program as a lily pad or stepping stone and nothing more.

As promised, lets talk about the decline in retention rates among senior enlisted ranks in the Army and Navy. These ranks in Zone C have been fighting a war in Afghanistan and Iraq for the last decade at this point. They go from enlisting into peace time and retention because of ease of job, to understanding that the wars in the middle east require work and lengthy deployments. These 25% or so percent decide to leave prior to gaining 20 years for retirement... why? It is my opinion that most of these (most) personnel are the Type B personnel that were coasting through peace time without any leadership mentorship or experience within the job. It can only be hoped that the retained 75% or so was of good leadership skill and knowledge.

Military Summary

In a basic way, the driven are driven out by poor leadership. This creates a death spiral by only providing poor players to be promoted. When these poor players are promoted, they continue the process of creating a disincentive toward the retention of "Group A" personnel. Group A personnel go on to be great civilians and contribute with Taxes or whatnot, but it can be argued that smarter, more driven, more common sense oriented personnel are needed to be retained in the military for many reasons.

We’re the military, so you’re supposed to say, ‘Obey your orders,’” Miley said. “That’s kind of fundamental to being in the military. We want to keep doing that. But a subordinate needs to understand that they have the freedom and they are empowered to disobey a specific order, a specified task, in order to accomplish the purpose. It takes a lot of judgment.
— General Mark A. Milley

In a May 5 article on Army.mil General Mark A. Milley states that he expects soldiers to know when to disobey an order and that 'Disciplined Disobedience' is required in today's army (can be translated to armed services worldwide). Changing the status quo and dynamic of leadership in the military means going from centralized power and chain of command to critical thinking skills and empowerment. How does the Army leadership keep those good leaders in at the early stages of enlistment to enact these crucial changes though? How will the army retain those they need and push those that have little critical thinking skills and ability to decentralize power out of the Army? Where's the decision making process for that?



How does this apply to civilian side businesses?

In a 2015 Gallup study and report dubbed "State Of The American Manager: Analytics And Advice For Leaders" Gallup concluded that there are great correlations between management and retention. One in Two U.S. Workers have quit their job because of poor management according to the study. That's quite a bit considering the military retention rate is 30-40% in Zone A and the 'harshness' of the job may be to fault for a large portion of that.

Managers that are incorrectly assigned duty based on skill and personality are a majority causal factor in this. Too many firms use flawed selection methodology for managerial placement. Basing promotion decisions on an employees individual performance and past experience in a sales role or as an "individual contributor" is not basis for whether a person can be a "people manager". Giving the high achiever in one role an entirely different position and responsibilities that sometimes drastically conflict with their personality and abilities. According to Gallup, 80% of the time this method of selecting managers "backfires". Just because the Electrical Engineer has a bubbly and extroverted personality doesn't make him an effective "manager of people".

According to the research, at least 80% of the time this methodology backfires.
— Fast Company - Mark C. Crowley (2015)

Similar to the military, pay structure is typically partnered directly with management or command level. These pay structures reinforce career progression toward "management" and result in people who would be great at becoming masters of their craft failing out as a manager. Realizing this and changing pay structures to allow for masters that do not wish or don't have the skills to manage can change the dynamic and propel the business to achieve greater things without promoting people to manager that don't really need to be in that position. There are other ways for people to get to higher paying jobs as an expert and not necessarily a manager. 

At one company, they effectively incentivized the sales force to leave their job and go to another company by phased sales quota requirements. Either they would become the sales manager (unlikely in 4 years) or they would not be able to make the quota for year 4 and in result make less money. In the short term, this plan made the company money by not paying out as much in commissions to each salesperson. In the long run, a skilled salesperson in a highly technical position is very valuable and turnover of that particular position is very detrimental. Anyone can sell "soap", to sell this particular product one must have engineering knowledge to be able to comfortably consult the client on their purchase. The market for technically savvy salespeople in this field is limited and to gain that knowledge one must have years of training and experience. You want low turnover here, this isn't flipping burgers.

Having managers that don't engage employees is a detriment. It's a simple enough sentence but it really plays a large role in retention. Managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores says Gallup. That's a huge number, 70%. That's near the Pareto Principle style number (20% of the Causes result in 80% of the effects). Engaging mentors and leaders are paramount in retaining future leaders and engaged employees. When you have to promote from within out of sheer need to promote, that person typically doesn't have the ability to motivate their employees, assert themselves to overcome obstacles, create an accountable culture, build trust, or make unbiased decisions for the good of their team. Gallup claims these 5 talents make great managers. Engagement, loyalty, productivity, profit, and service levels all share the five talents. 

I was always "fat" in the military. I never was a skinny fit guy that scored 300 (top score) on the Army Physical Fitness Test. I didn't fail, but I wasn't a top athlete. Most of the time I kept my weight in check, but I had to be under 176 and my body just doesn't like that weight. Having that background, the military PRIZES athleticism to detrimental effect. I was never going to be that athlete, but I was (am) extremely thoughtful and an expert in whatever I put my mind to. Tragically I predicted any downed aircraft prior to it's "Fallen Angel Call" and alerted my officers that the mission fell into that risk category that would most likely result in a downed aircraft. For one reason or another, leadership didn't like me being smart but they seemed to praise this kid who was dumb as a rock because he could run a 10 minute 2 mile. (I had great field grade officers don't get me wrong). These "managers" were focused on my weakness as an athlete rather than my strength as an operations specialist. 

Enforcing behaviors that support positive traits being accentuated and using teamwork to pair complimentary traits is a much more successful approach to mitigate weakness than focusing on individual improvement of those weaknesses. I'm not saying I should have remained "fat" and not been physically fit while in the military, I'm saying we should look at the important things someone can bring to the table and compliment with someone else that brings different things to the table.

Management shouldn't be an automatic result of sticking around and becoming skilled in your trade. It requires more than that. Great managers come from those with at least a little innate talent, and the ability to learn those talents that aren't inherent. Snowballing great leaders into more great leaders may seem easy, but it's just not. Having one great leader promote another great leader and creating a family of mentors is ideal but nearly impossible to achieve. So many factors are involved. 

In the book "Superbosses", Sydney Finkelstein speaks about the benefits of having a succession of great bosses create a family of leaders through mentorship. But in reality, he's written a huge book on this subject and highlighted only a few companies and people that actually can achieve this. It's not impossible, but it's up there. What we CAN do is strive to create that drive in our future leaders. We need to ensure that promotion isn't just because Todd has been here 8 years. Todd sucks, the whole office knows Todd sucks. Todd doesn't have the skills to lead nor is he even seen as a decent human being. He's just been here 8 years... That's no reason to promote, it's actually a killer, it kills productivity, it kills retention and it kills the potential for future leaders to get your company to higher highs and stray away from those low places (like not making budget for a year of months in a row... yeah that's a direct jab if you're reading this).

In all, its a snowball, either it's going to be a friendly snow man or an avalanche that kills you. The first step is gaining the knowledge of what's going wrong and how to solve it. The second step is just as important as the first, start the change.


Cory Myres is a Process Consultant and Leadership Advisor from Lubbock, TX