by MSG MacArthur D. Ocampo, US Army
“Noncommissioned officers (NCO) are relied on to execute complex tactical operations, make intent-driven decisions and operate in joint, interagency, and multinational environments” (Department of the Army [DA], 2020b, p. vi). Regardless of the environment, NCOs are relied upon to accomplish the mission. The NCO guide provides the roles of sergeants (SGT) and staff sergeants (SSG) in detail, with one of the primary duties of training Soldiers (DA, 2020b). DA (2020b) states that SGTs and SSGs work with Soldiers daily and that training is essential to the unit’s mission success. To train Soldiers, one must first possess the relevant knowledge required as a leader in general and a leader in their military occupational specialty (MOS). Soldiers must be proficient enough to answer lingering questions from their Soldiers. Possessing knowledge and expertise will give leaders the expert power needed to influence those they lead (DA, 2020b). The Army leadership requirements model attribute of intellect requires leaders to be experts at their craft, tactically and technically, to effectively lead and grow into greater responsibilities (DA, 2019a).
Further, DA (2019a) specifies that formal leaders must remain knowledgeable on Army doctrine, regulations, and directives. Given the Army’s expectations of a knowledgeable NCO, the question becomes, how is knowledge measured in correlation to recommending Soldiers for promotion? Aside from time in grade and time in rank eligibility and other eligibility criteria later discussed in this paper, a recommendation from the Soldier’s commander authorizes Soldiers to appear before a promotion board (DA, 2019b). The problem is that the promotion board is subjective and does not truly test the knowledge of a future SGT or SSG. Therefore, to add objectivity to the promotion system, the Army must implement a standardized test that all eligible Soldiers will take to evaluate their general military knowledge and technical knowledge in their military occupational specialty and career management field. This test will ensure that Army NCOs have the knowledge, skills, and expertise required to lead Soldiers.
U.S. Army Pfc. Sean Jamison with Company D, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) provides security atop a mountain during Operation Sarak Basta II at Paktika province, Afghanistan, June 19, 2011. Source.
The Role of the NCO
NCOs run daily operations of the Army (DA, 2020b). The success of Army operations depends on the ability of NCOs to carry out complicated tactical operations, make judgments based on intent, and work with several organizations (DA, 2020b). More importantly, NCOs lead their Soldiers in conducting Army operations. NCOs carry out both the art and science of the military profession of arms due to their roles as technical specialists, specialized practitioners, and advisors who are well-versed in tactics, techniques, and procedures (Brownhill et al., 2014). Further, NCOs are responsible for teaching or disseminating information and knowledge. An NCO possesses the information and knowledge their subordinates need to succeed (Brownhill et al., 2014). NCOs assist Soldiers by instructing them on the fundamentals of being a Soldier, overseeing their health and safety, and serving as role models (DA, 2020b). An NCOs primary roles are those of a teacher, guide, and counselor (DA, 2020b). Therefore, NCOs must possess the appropriate knowledge to impart to those they lead. Having the knowledge gives them expert power that allows them to gain commitment rather than just compliance.
Expert power is the power one possesses through knowledge, skills, and expertise (Connor, 2020). Knowledge, skills, and expertise come over time through experience, formal and informal education, including training at the unit level, and on-the-job training. NCOs must possess expert power to gain commitment from those they lead. NCOs must seek commitment rather than compliance as it reaps better results and endures a harmonious relationship between the leader and the led.
Leaders’ influence grows in proportion to the breadth and depth of their expertise (DA, 2020b). Expert power gives leaders personal power through trust, admiration, and respect (DA, 2020b). Personal power, compared to positional power, or power possessed by virtue of a position, encourages commitment instead of just compliance (DA, 2020b). Farley (2019) states personal power is the leader’s capacity to persuade people to support the team’s goals. Hence, leaders knowledgeable on all facets of Army operations have more leverage in gaining commitment from their followers.
Committed followers are what the Army needs to accomplish missions. Committed followers will likely invest time and effort to satisfy their leaders out of respect. According to Farley (2019), commitment gained from a relationship of trust becomes the trigger that stimulates and inspires people to go above and beyond the minimum asked of them. However, before the Army can gain committed followers, it must first promote competent Soldiers into NCOs. The Army’s promotion process begins with identifying Soldiers eligible for appearance before the promotion board and then on a path to accumulating points and making a cut-off score particular to their MOS.
Promotion Board Appearance Eligibility
The Army’s intent is to promote Soldiers that can lead, train, educate, care for Soldiers and equipment, and maintain and enforce standards (DA, 2019b). Leaders recommend Soldiers who have the potential to excel in these four roles and continually assess their subordinates on performance in their current rank (DA, 2019b). Soldiers in the rank of specialist (SPC) and corporal (CPL) become eligible for appearance before a promotion board upon completion of distance learning course one, reach seventeen months in service and five months in grade, not flagged for suspension of favorable personnel action, and fully qualified in their career progression military occupational specialty (DA, 2019b).
SGTs become eligible after the basic leader course, distance learning course two, forty-seven months in service, and six months in grade, not flagged for suspension of favorable personnel action, and fully qualified in their career progression military occupational specialty (DA, 2019b). Commanders recommend Soldiers for the promotion board to the promotion authority (DA, 2019b). Commanders are the sole decision-makers; however, the Soldier’s chain of command and NCO support channel’s advice weighs heavily on the commander’s decision. When a commander recommends “yes” for board appearance, the Soldier attends the promotion board.
The Promotion Board
The promotion board consists of a board president in the rank of sergeant major, commander sergeant major (CSM), or a commissioned or warrant officer (DA, 2019b). Typically, the battalion CSM serves as the board president. The board also consists of members senior in rank to the Soldiers appearing before the board (DA, 2019b). The board members are usually the company first sergeants in the battalion. In addition, a majority of voting members will be NCOs. One voting member must be the same gender as the Soldiers appearing before the board and a minority member if available (DA, 2019b). DA (2019b) provides these stipulations to provide a fair chance for Soldiers recommended for promotion. These rules align with the Army enlisted promotion system’s objective to recognize the best-qualified Soldiers for promotion to appeal and retain Soldiers of the highest caliber for continued service and select Soldiers without prejudice (DA, 2019b).
Additionally, DA (2019b) states that the promotion system provides an equitable system by precluding the advancement of those less productive and not the best qualified. The board uses a question-and-answer format with no hands-on tasks authorized. (DA, 2019b). DA (2019b) only states that board members ask questions focused on leadership, military programs, basic Soldiering knowledge, and awareness of world affairs. In addition, DA (2019b) states that board members should consider the Soldier’s appearance, bearing, confidence, oral expression, conversational skills, and attitude. While the latter are great ways to assess Soldiers and their potential to serve at the next rank, the former leaves much discretion to the board president. Further, the regulation leaves much ambiguity for interpretation.
The board president issues a memorandum of instruction outlining the board schedule, composition, and question topics. The board president does this to create structure and ensure Soldiers have the information to pass the board successfully. It is right to assume that the board president possesses the experience to identify what topics would benefit these Soldiers and will identify Soldiers ready for promotion. At least, that is a safe assumption.
A Soldier who passes the promotion board and attains promotable status then competes with all Soldiers across the Army to meet the month’s cut-off score for their military occupational specialty. Soldiers compete with a promotion score that is an accumulation of points based on their Army combat fitness test, weapons qualification, awards, airborne status, professional military education, resident military training, computer-based training, college education, technical certifications, language proficiency, and degree completion (DA, 2019b). Although points are based on an individual’s work, attaining promotable status still depends on the promotion board’s decision. While the promotion point system may seem fair and equitable as the individual must strive to attain points on their own individual effort, the flaw remains in the subjective board. No regulatory instruction measures knowledge and how a board member should vote. Therefore, the entire process remains subjective because board member decisions may include biases.
Promotion Board Subjectivity
Board members have free will to vote “yes” or “no” on a Soldier’s promotion recommendation. Board presidents will often provide general guidance to board members, but board members vote at their own discretion, or that is the case in a truly fair and impartial board. However, the author’s personal experience casts doubt on the promotion board’s objectivity due to the author’s past personal experiences where a board president automatically passed Soldiers from the board because they wore the new Army green service uniform soon after they became available. In another personal experience, Soldiers who perfectly recited the NCO creed or sang the division’s song also passed without further questioning. In the former example, Soldiers who could afford the Army’s newest uniform had an advantage over those who could not. In all cases, the board left the Soldiers’ knowledge, undermining regulatory guidance on the purpose of the promotion board and the instructions on conducting the promotion board.
Soldiers who completed the entire promotion board were at a disadvantage compared to those who skipped the questioning. The author also witnessed board members who did not ask questions and automatically voted “yes” because the board member was the Soldier’s first sergeant. Although the first sergeant may perceive that the Soldier deserves a “yes” based on prior performance in their unit, again, the first sergeant’s actions are not in keeping with the spirit and intent of the promotion board. There is no general rule on grading Soldiers who attend the promotion board. Therefore, it leaves a wide margin for subjectivity based on the board member’s own criteria and personal preferences. Board presidents have the inherent responsibility to ensure that the execution of promotion boards is standard, that all Soldiers receive a fair and equitable chance, and that proceedings are free of bias. However, this does not occur in all situations based on the author’s experiences.
Eliminating the Bias
In a memorandum dated June 26, 2020, the chief of staff and secretary of the Army stated that diversity is critical to talent management and that Soldiers must be confident that equal opportunity exists in their careers (McConville & McCarthy, 2020). To ensure impartiality in the selection board process, they suspended including the DA photo in centralized selection boards. The memorandum also directed the redaction of a Soldier’s race, ethnicity, and gender on the record briefs. The memorandum applied to Soldiers in the ranks of SSG and above because centralized selection boards do not evaluate junior NCOs.
Although equal opportunity is the spirit behind the directive and not necessarily biases toward knowledge, the same may apply to junior enlisted promotion boards. Given the rationale behind removing photos and redaction of biographical data from records, why does the Army continue to require face-to-face promotion boards for SPCs and SGTs seeking a promotion? The continuation of promotion boards at the SPC and SGT levels does not support the Army’s goal of ensuring impartiality. Hence, removing and replacing the promotion board with a test would provide equal opportunity and test a Soldier’s knowledge, skills, and expertise as they prepare to become NCOs.
The Way Ahead: Subjective Knowledge Testing
Tests are not new to the military. Soldiers conduct the Army combat fitness test to measure physical fitness (DA, 2020a). Every Soldier must qualify on their weapon, an event that tests a Soldier’s ability to shoot targets and measure their marksmanship level (DA, 2017). Soldiers undergo testing in professional military education to measure the knowledge acquired and retained during instruction. Soldiers must undergo height and weight measuring twice a year (DA, 2019c). Additionally, Soldiers who do not meet the height and weight standards undergo further measuring for body fat percentage (DA, 2019c). Testing is already part of a Soldier’s career. Nevertheless, the testing mentioned, although all different in execution methods, are all quantifiable and objective, unlike the promotion board.
The Army must incorporate a test that quantifiably measures the Soldier’s knowledge to provide a fair and impartial means of selecting SPCs and SGTs for promotion. The test could focus on leadership, programs, and basic Soldier skills, just as the current regulation expects from a promotion board. In addition, the test should incorporate military occupational specialty-specific questions to measure a Soldier’s technical knowledge. Human resources command will be the proponent for the test, with input from enlisted proponent branches providing questions for the technical aspect of the test. Enlisted proponents establish each military occupational specialty’s knowledge, skills, and attributes by grade. Therefore, it is best to provide technical test questions. Training and doctrine command would serve as the proponent for the tactical questions and consistently update the questions based on doctrine.
Testing would require Soldiers to dive deep into regulations, policies, and doctrine, thus broadening a Soldier’s knowledge to train and educate those they lead. The standardized test will test each Soldier on the same questions. The only difference is the technical questions based on military occupational specialty. This standardized testing is a fair way to evaluate the knowledge of SPCs and SGTs and eliminates any biases currently practiced in promotion boards. The test results would equal a specific score with equivalent promotion points and a minimum passing grade to achieve promotable status. The test will identify those needing further training and allow leaders to identify Soldiers with expert power commensurate to their future rank and, ultimately, be the most knowledgeable NCOs to lead their Soldiers to success.
U.S. Army crew chief smiles in-flight during the 20th Annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop at MacKall Army Airfield, N.C., Dec. 4, 2017. Hosted by the U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), it is the largest combined airborne operation conducted worldwide. The event allows Soldiers the opportunity to train on their military occupational specialty, maintain their airborne readiness, and give back to the local community. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Darius Davis) Source.
The Army’s promotion board is subjective in nature and does not truly test the knowledge of a future SGT or SSG. Therefore, to add objectivity to the promotion system, the Army must implement a standardized test that all eligible Soldiers will take to evaluate their general military knowledge and technical knowledge in their military occupational specialty and career management field. The Army has many expectations of NCOs: to execute complex tactical operations, train Soldiers, be experts in their craft, and be teachers, guides, and counselors. NCOs with a high level of knowledge, skills, and expertise possess the personal and expert power to gain commitment from those they lead. Therefore, the Army must eliminate the promotion board and replace it with knowledge testing to identify the best Soldiers suitable quantifiably and objectively for promotion to SGT and SSG and those that require further training and education. The test will eliminate biases and promote a fair and impartial promotion process for junior enlisted Soldiers. A standardized test puts the sole responsibility on the individual Soldier seeking promotion. It provides a clearer picture of their knowledge and capacity to lead, train, and educate Soldiers.
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Farley, K. (2019). The value of influence. NCO Journal (May 2019). https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Portals/7/nco-journal/docs/2019/May/Influence-SGM-Farley.pdf
McConville, J. C., & McCarthy, R. D. (2020). Elimination of the Department of the Army (DA) photos, and race, ethnicity, and gender identification data for officer, warrant officer, and enlisted selection boards (Updated).https://www.army.mil/e2/downloads/rv7/SA-CSA-Memo-Eliminate-DA-photos.pdf
MSG MacArthur D. Ocampo joined the Army in 2003 as a Human Resources Specialist and 9 years later, reclassified as a Culinary Specialist. He has served in numerous duty positions throughout his career, most recently serving as First Sergeant of the 569th Quartermaster Company at Schofield Barracks, HI. MSG Ocampo holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science and is pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Leadership and Workforce Development. He is currently a student of Class 73 at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy.
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