Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF) James Cody, apparently in coordination with former CMSAFs but absent meaningful interaction on the subject with currently serving airmen, is working hard to overhaul the Enlisted Evaluation System (EES). The new program and process he’s championing are long overdue, and one of the most important policy adjustments to hit the Air Force in a generation.
Unfortunately, unless the rollout of this drastically altered system is improved, his good intentions will be little more than pavement on a road to ruin. The reasons are as predictable as they are frustrating: poor communication, a general lack of trust, too little faith in the chain of command, undue secrecy, and low expectations.
The key to success for the new EES is to get it out of the staff and into the hands of the NCOs who, as the spine of the Air Force, will shepherd its implementation. That’s not happening, and the result is a divergence of activity that has the new system stumbling out of the gate and threatening to collapse before it can gallop.
Cody and his Air Staff minions have steadfastly refused to share the details of the new EES openly. Airmen in the field are in the dark unless they’re lucky enough to attend one of the service’s roadshows, which typically accommodate 10-20% of a base population while leaving everyone else to hear the details verbally since no recordings, copies, photos, or other methods of sharing are allowed.
Despite the fact the EES is not only unclassified, but a foundational process at the heart of daily service life, even cellphones are inexplicably prohibited from roadshow briefings. Video streaming to geographically separated units has also been disallowed, leaving those airmen uninformed. Cody has promised that slides from the roadshows will be posted only after completion of the ongoing, multi-million-dollar travelganza two months from now.
Yes, you’re getting it accurately: the world’s most technologically advanced military service is forsaking electronic communication in rolling out the details of arguably its most basic human resource process, choosing instead to serially brief tiny cohorts of airmen face-to-face using — unbelievably — a script. This raises the question of whether something complex enough to need a script is simple enough to accurately and dependably capture the performance of a quarter million airmen.
Cody says this approach is so airmen can ask questions. But for the few airmen lucky enough to hear about a local brief and have the ability to attend, questions have been off-limits. Turns out, the scripted brief is rather lengthy and exhaustive. By the time briefers finish their authorized recitations, it’s time to roll up the circus and move on to the next stop.
Why choose this method, if not to genuinely invite questions?
Control. This approach is about controlling information to prevent critical input and to discourage questions. The Air Staff’s anointed elders, including several retired CMSAFs, have spoken. The task now is to feed their chosen policy to the field, giving no one any real chance to push back.
But as often happens when such illusory levels of information control are attempted, the tactic is failing. We’re in an age of information addiction. In the absence of official guidance, some will seek alternative sources while others will busily supply those sought alternatives. As the field waits for the EES to be explained, local managers at bases still left in the dark are concocting their own interpretations of the new system, and seeking – in some cases miguidedly – to get their airmen ahead of the curve.
Take, for instance, this handy careerist’s guide for thriving in the new EES, obtained from a source at Ramstein:
This monstrosity is riddled with all manner of problems.
It’s literally a square-checking system, and an engine for careerist preening and sycophancy. People subjected to it will instantly default to filling every square and earning the sought after prize rather than focusing on performance and letting the rewards come.
It considers historical years of performance in arriving at current performance ratings, going so far as to judge someone’s current and future organizational prospects according to the medals they did or didn’t receive in pervious assignments. Lost on the author is that there’s no rule entitling everyone is an end-of-tour medal, and the absence of a medal should not, standing alone, be considered a detractor
Fitness scores, awards, and off-duty professional memberships are given equal weight with performance. The key to an outstanding rating: inflated prior performance reports combined with tons of non-duty-related stuff that may or may not make someone more suited to senior enlisted duties. Oh, and if you received a referral report at any point in the past, it still counts against you.
But beyond the particulars lies the most distressing part of this form: the entire thought process that gives rise to it.
For decades, the Air Force cultivated a vibrant professional code that recognized and rewarded performance, giving supervisors and their subordinates distinct roles in the evaluation and development process. An individual’s role was to do his or her job as competently as possible, act on the mentorship and development cues provided by supervisors, and let the supervisory system take care of ratings. That and studying for promotion used to be enough for most people to maximize their potential.
Today’s Air Force is abandoning that tradition. Airmen are expected to self-manage their careers. Failed leadership is the root cause. Poor supervisors encourage careerist behaviors among troops and poor leaders, through neglect or ineptitude, fail to correct the situation. Airmen don’t get the right mentorship and development cues from their supervisors, so they resort to self-concern, which is contradictory to the placement of service before self and develops them into self-absorbed supervisors and leaders who got to where they are by looking out for Number One. Few things could be worse in a team-based organization.
Chief Cody seems to understand this. His rhetoric has been focused on making performance the coin of the Air Force realm again. But his inability or unwillingness to place the EES into the hands of NCOs, expecting them to effectively execute it, is a recipe for more self-imposed mediocrity. The less trust he places in his NCOs, the more they fill the resulting void with the harebrained ideas they’ve been raised to embrace under the current, deeply flawed system Cody is trying to replace.
Proof, once again, of a lesson as old as leadership itself. Raise the bar of expectations, and people will find a way to vault over it. Lower the bar, and they will find a way to squeeze underneath.