One of these leaders, Robert Neller, recognizes the need to compete for and retain talent, and understands the consequential relationship between organizational culture and retention of the company’s best and brightest performers. Whether he ultimately emplaces policies that exemplify this attitude is one thing, but his rhetoric stands on its own as an important signal and tone-setter with organizational actors at all levels.
The other, Mark Welsh, views talent through a commodity lens. Individuals are viewed as dispensable, replaceable, and interchangeable. Individual attitudes and aspirations are irrelevant in this perspective, since there is no requirement to undertake organizational change or adjust organizational conditions to accommodate individuals … given a limitless supply of replacement labor. Like Neller, Welsh is sending an important and tone-setting signal with his attitude: that he and his service won’t be held hostage by their own employees — least of all those who believe they’re more intelligent than higher-ranking officials at headquarters.
Welsh’s view is decidedly modernist. It’s what we’d expect in a typical industrial setting. The company provides “workers” with a good wage and expects obedience, loyalty, and compliance in return. There is no conversation about working conditions.
Neller embraces a more postmodern view, recognizing that in a competitive industry, it’s not enough to produce … an organization must constantly adapt. To do that, it must retain those capable of adapting, and therefore must be open to a perpetual negotiation with its workforce about the conditions and even the direction of the company.
The great irony here is that Neller represents a warfighting service as aged and hidebound as any institution in our country. The roots of the Marine Corps pre-date our nation’s formal birth, and the prospect of close combat makes faithfulness to certain martial traditions centrally important. By contrast, the Air Force is youthful, and born of a drive to innovate with cutting-edge technology in an effort to defy many of the timeless martial realities of war.
The contrast between these perspectives is striking … and ultimately revealing. The USMC understands itself, and it also understands that war is a competitive enterprise riven with complexity and unpredictability … things that place a premium on the ability of human teams to sense change and rapidly adapt. The Air Force seems confused across the board, believing it can sustain itself and its mission without accounting for the prevailing attitudes of its workforce.
Can the Air Force effectively execute, support, and sustain air, space, and cyber power without actively cultivating a talent base? Can it succeed in its mission with too many personnel policies actively driving airmen out of the service?
Unless Welsh’s successor adopts a different attitude, we may live to find out.
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