Talent Management 2030: A Case for Capability

By Major Ryan W. Pallas

“there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order…because of the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.” -Machiavelli, The Prince

From my earliest days in uniform, I have admired the men and women who have gone before me. I was eager to see articles published by retired senior leaders discussing the merits of Talent Management 2030. Unfortunately, and similar to Lieutenant Colonel Scott Cuomo’s analysis on commentary regarding Force Design 2030, I too “came away dissatisfied” with the representation of what Talent Management 2030 is and what it will do to the service if implemented. In fact, I will argue Talent Management 2030 is in keeping with the Marine Corps’ legacy of “adaptability, initiative, and improvisation” as captured by Lieutenant General Krulak in First to Fight. Staying married to costly and outdated policies and assumptions in an attempt to maintain Marine Corps’ culture becomes dangerous when “it locks an organization into dated and inappropriate ways of operating.”

In the summer of 2022, I departed Manpower and Reserve Affairs having served two years as an assignments officer or “monitor.” I interacted with hundreds, if not thousands, of Marines during my time. I also witnessed an anachronistic human capital system riddled by policy incrementalism face a declining population of eligible and interested men and women able to meet the demands of the service. I was responsible for assigning Marine aviators, an occupation facing severe retention issues, to positions across the Marine Corps. The Commandant mentions if these personnel shortages are left unaddressed it could impact operating concepts jeopardizing the Marine Corps’ utility to civilian leaders. Furthermore, while trying to balance the iron triangle of painful trade-offs within defense reform, a platform such as the F-35, a 412 billion dollar program, will sit idle and ineffective without the requisite human capital to employ it. The result is a decline in military effectiveness and misalignment of budgetary resources due to a lack of human capital. This decline is a result of a slavish devotion to the status quo regarding personnel reform which has “locked the Marine Corps into a remarkably durable process that has proved resistant to adaptation despite massive advances in technology, significant changes within American society, and mounting evidence of its inefficiency.” In November 2021, new life was breathed into a slowly decaying system with the Commandant’s revolutionary personnel reform, Talent Management 2030.

Talent Management 2030 identifies the current operating environment is not the environment the all-volunteer force was founded in five decades ago. Lieutenant General Krulak said, “leaders must be able to adapt and modify, then execute a new plan based on the current situation.” The current situation the Marine Corps finds itself in is “a time of exponential change, unfolding at unprecedented speeds… the combination of rapid technological advances, globalization, increased connectivity, and urbanization is reshaping our world in profound ways.” In fact, the former Deputy Commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, Lieutenant General David Ottignon highlighted this challenge during April testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, “FY22 has proved to be arguably the most challenging year in recruiting history.” The good news is this challenge is not new to the Marine Corps. Lieutenant General Krulak astutely recognized in 1984, a population of less eligible and interested men and women in military service would be a future challenge for the Marine Corps to address.

General Zinni, former CENTCOM commander, supports Lieutenant General Krulak’s claim that Marines innovate when the situation requires, “[w]e have a reputation for innovation.” Generals Cooling and Turner further solidify this adaptive mindset in their article Understanding the Few Good Men: An Analysis of Marine Corps Service Culture, “the Corps has developed a well-earned reputation for ingenuity, innovation, and improvisation.” It is not just service members that identify the ability to change as a predominant trait of the Marine Corps. Dr. Frank Hoffman, in his addendum to The Masks of War, concludes, “The Marines are different [from other services], as their Mask of War promotes change.”

If change and innovation are not threads of the institutional fabric of the Marine Corps, I am unaware of any other traits that are more defining throughout our history. Retired Lieutenant General David Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel identify in their work Adaptation Under Fire, “Adaptability is, and has always been, an essential attribute of successful military forces.” Talent Management 2030 provides the required adaptations in the form of revolutionary personnel reforms, to meet the challenges of the future and direction provided by lawmakers head on.

Why Change?

Lieutenant Colonel Cuomo provides a detailed timeline of how, when, and why the Marine Corps was tasked to change based on the direction given by lawmakers after questioning the Marine Corps’ utility to national security. The sweeping changes resulted in Force Design 2030 which focuses on force structure, materiel, and operating concepts. Force Design 2030, as a stand-alone document, lacks the appropriate personnel reform to succeed. To illustrate this, many concepts within Force Design 2030 leverage a larger amount of experienced personnel to execute advanced operating concepts and reduce risk. The current Marine Corps personnel system, which has prided itself as a first term fighting force, blindly accepts consistent turnover and increased training costs. This model results in sacrificing combat effectiveness, unit stability, and creates an unsustainable requirement for recruiters to try and satisfy. All things the all-volunteer force sought to divorce itself from in 1973.

I do agree with two of the counterarguments presented. First, I agree “We risk everything if we adopt talent management models unsuited for our culture of fighting and winning “in every clime and place.” Unfortunately, the Marine Corps is already in possession of such a model and the risk lies in preserving the current system and the status quo. When speaking about Marine culture, it seems antithetical the service continually implements policies and processes that knowingly jeopardize warfighting capability or come at excessive costs when looking to remain the nation’s force in readiness. The current system is in fact “unsuited for our culture of fighting and winning.” Second, I agree the Marine Corps must remain the Nation’s premier force-in-readiness. If counter-arguments “have sought to raise the awareness of Congress, the DOD, and the American people that the Marine Corps is no longer the Nation’s premier force-in-readiness” the service can simply solve this problem by divorcing itself from the current personnel system designed to purge experience and skillsets that jeopardize the readiness the counterarguments so desperately look to maintain.

I must also admit I am not in a position to discuss the intimate details of secondary and tertiary effects of combat arms as someone who has spent a preponderance of their career as a Marine aviator. I default to the advice of a career infantryman, Stephen LaRose who said, “I have some candid advice to senior retired leaders lambasting the Marine Corps’ reforms: Look in the trenches. The character of war has changed. We will either adapt or perish.” LaRose rightly acknowledges the Marine Corps’ adaptability will once again be a primary driver of its future success.

The complexity of this new character of war and the resultant force structure changes are on display with alpha company 1/2, and the Infantry-Battalion-Experiment. A recent podcast summarizes how Force Design 2030 matured the force and provided overwhelming internal unit capability. The service now requires a personnel system able to recruit, train, assign, and retain such a force providing the ability to fully execute Force Design 2030. One may argue if these changes are currently taking place under the personnel system now, then reform is not necessary. I will dismiss that argument by saying the effects of Force Design 2030 within the current human capital system are not compatible. For example, the current system relies upon a pyramid promotion system that reduces available positions as rank increases. This will negatively impact Force Design efforts by failing to retain the non-commissioned and staff non-commissioned officers Force Design 2030 leverages to succeed. Without changing the current pyramid promotion system, one of many required changes, the negative results of this legacy system will silently cripple lawmaker directed changes captured within Force Design 2030.

If the argument presented is not in adapting personnel reform, and more with the Marine Corps taking its cues from the private sector, I would argue that this has been in practice since at least our 13th Commandant, General Lejeune. General Lejeune saw the value in learning from the private sector and taking those lessons learned to the battlefield. David Ulbrich, in his work Preparing for Victory, states “Lejeune and other progressive officers such as future commandant John H. Russell realized that victory on the modern battlefield required careful planning and implementation, and that achieving those goals meant taking cues from the business world.”

This is not to say the Marine Corps should embrace every private sector practice in the expectation of improving personnel reform, but the service will do well to understand it is competing for the same talented men and women to join our ranks. There are valuable studies in sociology that reveal as the all-volunteer force ages, civilian and military career paths become increasingly similar. For example, Morris Janowitz’s historic work from 1960, The Professional Soldier, illustrates the similarities between the military and the private sector occupations will continue to increase as time elapses. It should be no surprise the military is looking at the private sector to learn what practices are used to recruit and retain the very best our country has to offer. The Gates Commission, including the two volumes of studies that supported the Presidential Commission, also discusses the benefits of numerous military career options, including lateral entry.

Barriers to Change

Many of the counterarguments accept the current process of cumulative incremental improvements over time. There are two problems with this line of thinking. First, some of the authors suggest in the absence of proof dramatic reforms have taken place. Unfortunately, this fails to be corroborated by Dr. Bernard Rostker, one of the most experienced individuals on the all-volunteer force. Dr. Rostker started his career as an army officer in 1968 and culminated as the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness in 2000. For almost forty years, Dr. Rostker’s career was either directly or indirectly involved with personnel issues for the U.S. military. Dr. Rostker concludes, “The military personnel system in place today is fundamentally the same one put into place after World War II, with minor modifications.” In fact, when the late Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke of personnel reforms in his 2001 confirmation hearing, a decade later the Army found “Despite everything else that’s changed since September 2001, the ugly reality of 2011 is that the Army still trains its personnel, assigns them jobs, and promotes them through a centralized, bureaucratic system that was already dysfunctional in World War II.” Therefore, Talent Management 2030 correctly identifies a lack of dramatic personnel reforms confirmed by Dr. Rostker. Talent Management 2030 avoids the pitfall within military planning identified by Carl Builder, “there is considerable evidence that the qualities of the U.S. military forces are determined more by cultural and institutional preferences for certain kinds of military forces than by the “threat.”

The second problem with minor modifications is incrementalism is the default speed for military personnel reform illustrated by a 2021 RAND study. Stephen Rosen identifies, “Almost everything we know in theory about large bureaucracies suggests not only that they are hard to change, but that they are designed not to change.” This incrementalism has resulted in the personnel system’s inability to successfully recruit the required men and women to serve. The Army was unable to recruit 15,000 men and women. The other services barely meet their fiscal year recruiting goals by using a last resort tactic: reaching into their delayed entry pools of Americans intended to enlist in their respective services in 2023. The system designed to provide competitive economic wages has resulted in economic hardship for our service members and families, and failed to retain critical occupational specialties. The Marine Corps’ current system is unable to provide the requisite human capital as defined by Major General Donald Weller in June 1960:

It is to provide enough good Marines for our operating forces and the supporting establishment. To state this overriding goal in another way, it is to give operating force commanders the human raw material needed to put together a fighting machine of the highest quality; similarly, the supporting establishment commanders must receive the necessary raw material to sustain the fighting machine.

Lieutenant General Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel highlight the problem with incremental change relative to your surroundings, “Adaptability is therefore a dynamic process that must keep up with the rate of change in its environment…“There’s no point in saying we’re going at half the speed of Moore’s Law when the world is going at Moore’s Law . . . It’s not how fast we’ve changed. It’s how fast we’ve changed compared to the world.” If the Marine Corps continues to operate at incremental speed, it will fail to keep pace with the world around it and fall short of the historic record of adaptability the service once prided itself on. As MCDP-1 states, “Tempo is a weapon—often the most important.”

A Way Forward

One of the greatest aspects of our service, more so than any other service, is that the voice of every Marine counts. As General Zinni identifies, “This means also that we are encouraged to speak out … no matter whose ox gets gored.” This dialogue has always produced a stronger and more effective Marine Corps, but the unfortunate truth is the Marine Corps is inclined to adopt new operating procedures and technologies while preserving anachronistic personnel policies and practices under the guise of culture. This deliberate acceptance jeopardizes combat effectiveness through consistent turnover with the unfortunate byproduct of excessive costs. If this is to change, it requires a completely new system and approach to human capital. I will agree the Marine Corps must do better at transparency and publish reports illustrating the progress made toward Talent Management 2030 objectives as it has done with Force Design 2030.

This discussion is larger than a single service, but leveraging the lessons learned by the Marine Corps can do two things. First, the Marine Corps can lead the Department of Defense into the future. For a service fearful of “being excluded or sidelined bureaucratically” it is now in a position to navigate the turbulent environment the Department of Defense faces domestically regarding military recruitment and retention. Second, with the force structure changes captured within Force Design 2030 underpinned by a personnel system provided by Talent Management 2030, the Marine Corps is able to generate the required forces to face a defiant Russia and rising China, where military performance matters most. This moment will not last forever as Dr. Mara Karlin states, “The moment is ripe for the Marine Corps…it is the furthest ahead of any of the services thanks to General Berger and the commandant’s planning guidance, but its success remains to be seen.”

The Marine Corps must change, future operating concepts and capabilities depend upon it. The past fifty years reveal the current approach to human capital is excessively wasteful in cost and capability. Should the Marine Corps summon the courage to change, and find the new approaches to human capital faulty, the service can easily retreat to the status quo with fifty years of data and hindsight to start again. Whether it be the acquisition of a new weapon system, doctrine, operating concept, or personnel reform, maintaining the status quo, when the need for change is so recognizably evident, never has been, nor will be, a standard Marines have been known to keep.

  1. This article was written by someone with 2 years experience as a monitor. I have been involved in talent management since 1972, 20 years in Marine Corps Training and Education, and 30+ years as a professional development consultant to multinational companies. These companies recruit and hire expertise for many jobs. However, these experts all start at the bottom of their ladder and earn promotion through performance on the job. Any who fail to abide my the company standards of conduct are summarily fired. Everyone knows the rules.
    This article looks to me like a lot of hot air with no substance. All this bloviating about the need for change. OK. Now, will someone please tell me/us the specifics of what that change will look like, exactly how it it will be administered?
    I have read the official Talent Management 2030 document. It is a little better but not much and includes a lot of “woke” stuff.
    Questions. A 30-yr old master technician applies for an position, advertised at E7 or even an O4 pay. What happens next? Will this person be required to complete boot camp (E7) or OCS/Basic School (O4) to be “hired?” Do they then get to wear the stripes/leaves of the position, or must they earn that right? Will they have to demonstrate the “esprit” we expect of Marines? Do they have to re-qualify with their weapon every year?
    I maintain that the “esprit” is what carried us through everything else. If we need this master technician, there is the GS civilian system we could use to give the same pay.
    I have no problem with having civilian help. Hire them and pay them whatever you like, but please don’t just put them in uniform and call them “Marines.”