In recruiting, there are no good or bad experiences - just learning experiences!
Turning things around is often a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it holds the bright promise of success; on the other hand it holds the dark fear of failure. Turning things around all too often brings with it the very real risk that change and innovation will butt heads with tradition and ritual – and that tradition and ritual will win.
The key to winning after losing is all about change often at one of the most challenging times for an organization.
This was the unexpected situation I was presented in 2005 just after I returned from Iraq.
It all started with a phone call.
I had completed my assignment in Iraq and had come back to Washington D.C. where I was assigned as the Deputy Chief of Engineers. Over the next few months, we settled in. My wife Renee accepted a position as principal of an excellent school, just a few miles away in Arlington, Virginia. We bought a house. Our lives fell into a comfortable, settled, and contented routine.
Things can change in an instant
And then, one afternoon on my day off, as I was hitting golf balls at the driving range, my phone rang and in that instant, everything changed.
The call was from Chief of Engineers, Lieutenant General Carl Strock told me to call the General Officer Management Office, the GOMO, as they had been trying to reach me. That did not bode well. Something was up. And I just had a feeling it would be something I didn’t want to hear.
I left the driving range, packed up my clubs, and called the GOMO only to be told that I had just been reassigned. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I pointed out that I had just returned from Iraq to take up the position of Deputy of Engineers in Washington, D.C. so how could I possibly be reassigned after just a few short months?
What to do when you are ‘the guy’ selected for the job
The GOMO was understanding and sympathetic, but the reality was they had a much bigger agenda and a massive emergency mission. Unbeknownst to me. the army had just failed its 2005 recruiting mission. The quota of new recruits had not been met. And it didn’t seem to make any difference to the GOMO that I had no experience in recruiting – zero. The army had a problem and I had been selected to solve it.
In two months I was to take command of U.S. Army Recruiting Command (USAREC) in Fort Knox, Kentucky. I was to become the designated ‘turn around’ guy.
Becoming the ‘Turn Around Guy’
The ‘turn around guy’ always faces significant challenges.
How those challenges are met can mean the difference between growth or stagnation for an organization
GOMO did try to soften the blow by telling me that I would probably only be out there for eighteen months and that after this assignment the Army wanted me to command a division. Commanding one of the Army’s ten maneuver divisions was appealing, but that did not make the move any easier.
I set to work making plans.
Since I would only be at USAREC for eighteen months, it did not make sense for my wife to quit her job, or for us to sell the house we had just purchased. We decided that we would manage a long-distance life for the year and a half I would be assigned to the USAREC. So I packed up a few items and headed to Ft. Knox, Kentucky.
Was I going to be in for a major surprise.
The competition to fill the monthly recruitment quota was intense. The USAREC was a very competitive environment with soldiers competing with other soldiers to achieve their quota of new recruits each month.
The recruiters’ job was a lonely one. The traditional team culture for which the army is known was not in evidence. Even though in USAREC there are permanent recruiters who are then combined with “detail” recruiters. These detail recruiters were soldiers who left combat units to serve in USAREC for just a few years before returning the rest of the Army. What they experienced when they joined the USAREC was a very different type of teamwork that what they had experienced in the rest of the army, particularly in combat from where many of these soldiers were just returning. This was more solitary mission rather than team mission.
The Designated Change Agent
A designated change agent needs vision, confidence, compassion, and persistence
The work climate could be brutal. The workdays were long – ten-hour shifts were not unusual. Soldiers worked most weekends. Time off was a luxury. I recall visiting my first Recruiting Battalion and asking the Battalion Commander to show me his time-off policy. The Battalion Commander proudly pulled the policy from his notebook and showed it to me. What I read shocked me. The policy clearly stated that “No soldier will work past 10 p.m. without permission, and every soldier will have one weekend off per month.” Reading the policy in disbelief, I looked at the Battalion Commander and said, “You’re kidding me, right?” He said, “Sir, I’m the nice guy, the policy was working to midnight for the last commander.”
The competition was intense. The pressure was intense. Time off from recruiting was rare. Soldiers worked endlessly to accomplish their individual recruiting mission which was generally to sign up two new recruits per month. To all intents and purposes, all soldiers tasked with signing up new recruits were totally on their own. They sank or swam pretty much based on their own natural ability and skill set. And a soldier’s success or failure was tied directly to their ability to make their monthly quota.
Those were the key reasons Recruiting Command was not the first choice of many officers and noncommissioned officers (NCO). In fact, it was so unappealing, that many officers tried to avoid serving in Recruiting Command.
Having just returned from Iraq, I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”
After losing is often the right time to move in a new direction regardless of how challenging it may be.
Some context on army recruiting. In 1973, the draft ended, and the All-Volunteer Force began. However, most recruiters will say that we have an “all recruited force” because not many young men and women simply “volunteer.”
Clearly, this Command wasn’t working. We had a problem.
Something had to change. And that something that would fix the problem was very much up to me.
My opportunity to become that change agent came during one of my early meetings with the leadership of Recruiting Command. During that meeting one of the items on the agenda was a scheduled upcoming meeting at Headquarters, that Saturday with the bottom ten battalion commanders. These were the commanders whose battalions had failed to meet their quota of new recruits that month.
When I asked, “What is the purpose of this meeting?”
The Sergeant Major explained, “Sir, these low performing commanders ‘come to the mountain’ at the end of the month and explain to you, Sir, why they are doing so poorly.” He added, “We’ve been doing this for years.
“Cancel the meeting,” I said. I will visit the commanders at their sites, and it will not be on Saturday.”
The Sergeant Major looked at me and offered, “Sir, this is not a gentleman’s sport.”
I replied, “Sergeant Major, I appreciate your thoughts, but this meeting is over, and you and everyone else in my office can leave now.”
I had to send a message that I was changing the climate and the culture of Recruiting Command.
And that I had taken the first step to make that change happen. That ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mentality would have to go. I would have to replace it with a fresh vision.
My next act as the designated change agent was to move away from the solo recruiting model that had been in place for decades and clearly wasn’t working and replace it with a team model, based on the exiting army team culture.
I decided to set up a pilot.
We had six recruiting brigades across the country and forty-five recruiting battalions across the brigade. My first act was to call the 3rd Brigade Commander, Colonel Smith (placeholder name)
“We are going to start team recruiting,” “and one of your battalions will pilot the concept.”
His first question was, “What is team recruiting?”
I explained, “Currently if there are four recruiters in a recruiting station, each of those recruiters has a mission to bring in two new soldiers per month. Each soldier is solely responsible for figuring out a way to bring in those two recruits all on their own.
We’re changing that,” I went on. “We’re changing that mission from an individual mission where each soldier was responsible for recruiting two new soldiers per month, to a team mission where each station would be responsible for recruiting eight soldiers per month.”
My goal through the new team recruiting structure was designed to identify an individual recruiter’s actual talent and cast him in a role that would leverage that talent and add it to the pool of team talent. This would allow the team to succeed in its mission.
I remember once reading a quote by Buddha that said, “Change is never painful. Only the resistance to change is painful.” And I faced an enormous amount of resistance against the ‘team recruiting concept’ from all throughout USAREC.
But despite the stiff resistance, I pushed on to implement the new recruiting model and change the negative recruitment rate to a positive one.
We started team recruiting in the 3rd Brigade. This was our pilot lab. Our incubator. There was a lot riding on both the feasibility of the team model and on the 3rd Brigade – the guinea pigs. But we took small steps. We wanted to first test our new model.
Who did we select?
The first battalion that would test the change to team recruiting was our Milwaukee Recruiting Battalion led by Lt. Colonel Ted Behncke. Once that battalion had been set up to work under the new team model, we would add the entire 3rd Recruiting Brigade to the new team model.
My first pep talk goal
My first pep talk was designed to get the soldiers to buy into the new model. My goal was to get them onboard enough to give this new team concept a real try.
So I brought the entire 3rd Recruiting Brigade together and told them how important it was to work as a team. I reminded them that the team concept was what we had all experienced and that it was a highly successful model that had been responsible for the success of the army in many missions. I assured them that we could make this same tight team model work in Recruiting Command.
A team is successful if it is working toward an objective that is the objective for the entire team.
Many in that auditorium had their doubts, and they were beginning to make me doubt my own decision. I asked myself, was making this massive change the right thing to do, especially in light of our failure the meet our recruitment goals in 2005? Was the timing right to turn completely change the way things had been done for years? But, despite my misgiving and doubts, I knew deep in my heart that we had to change, and we had to change now.
At the end of my ‘pep talk’ to the 3rd Brigade, Lt. Colonel Ted Behncke approached me and said, “Sir, I think that I figured it out.”
“Figured what out?” I asked
“Team recruiting, Sir,” he responded. “I think I know how to do it.”
I remember thinking that finally, someone other than me believes this can work.
Ted went on to lay out his thoughts.
He explained that In any given station, there are soldiers who are great communicators. They know exactly how to speak to young men and women, parents, friends, and school administrators. Then there are the soldiers who understand that the Army has over 150 different military occupational specialties (MOS), and what that means in terms of a wide variety of opportunities that can be offered to new recruits. Then there are the soldiers who are computer savvy and who know how to close out all the paperwork necessary to bring someone into the Army. Other soldiers are great at fitness and the physical requirements necessary to prepare young men and women to enter the Army.
Know Your Team Strengths and Build Them Up
Know the importance and diversity of the different elements and the variety of skill sets.
Ted said he organized his recruiting stations first around the strengths of individual soldiers
where each soldier’s unique skill sets would enhance the performance of the entire team.
Transformation doesn’t happen right away
The transformation didn’t happen right away. As Ted explained, “It took some time.” And then he added, “Sir, team recruiting is now working in the Milwaukee Recruiting Battalion.”
My first thought when I heard this? Hallelujah, this will work!
My next thought? I called the 3rd Recruiting Brigade and we modeled team recruiting after the Milwaukee Recruiting Battalion concept.
Making education the goal
Once I had brought the entire 3rd Recruiting Brigade on board and expanded the test my first action was to bring all the leaders together. My goal here was education. As Harvard professor and acknowledged authority on leadership and change John P. Kotter points out, “One of the most common ways to overcome resistance to change is to educate people about it beforehand. Communication of ideas helps people see the need for and the logic of a change.”
It was at that meeting that I gave every leader in the room the book, “First Break All the Rules, What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman
Our ‘team recruiting’ concept was breaking all the rules. The 3rd Brigade Command Sergeant Major Tabor put the situation best when he observed, “This is three decades of conditioning that we’re trying to break.”
How did we do it? Did we pass our first test?
The 3rd Brigade did not do extremely well in terms of meeting their recruiting targets, but I had expected there would be challenges during the transition. Once again, I learned that change is hard. And as Colonel Tracy Cleaver, The 3rd Brigade Commander, correctly pointed out that the biggest challenge would be in moving away from the ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ attitude.
It took some time, but eventually, all brigades would change to team recruiting and for the next 10 years, the Army would not fail to achieve its recruiting mission.
Speaking with one voice is essential.
We may have solved the recruiting problem as far as enlisting soldiers were concerned, but we also uncovered a whole new problem.
The next problem was in our medical personnel recruitment.
Changing outdated models
We didn’t realize it at the time, but we also needed to change that outdated model as well, so in addition to building powerful teams with different skills but united through a common mission and quota, we had to push the envelope and take on the creation of a specialty-focused model – a medical recruitment model.
I first became aware of the problem when my Physician Assistant, Captain James Jones, asked to meet with me. James had enlisted in the Army, then entered the Officer Candidate School to become an officer. He got his Ph.D. In short James was brilliant. But on that specific day, James came to talk to me about creating a Medical Recruiting Brigade. He explained that each of the six Recruiting Brigades had one recruiting battalion and five or six enlisted recruiting battalions. Their mission was to focus on enlistment. He understood that the priority for the Army was the enlisted mission, but that meant that bringing medical personnel was not a high priority and so was allocated minimal resources. The result? The recruiting battalion consistently failed in its mission to bring in doctors, nurses, dentists, and other medical professionals. James’s solution was to create a dedicated Medical Recruiting Brigade.
I didn’t like the idea initially.
I had grown up serving in combat divisions where we utilized the concept of a task force which included all elements of the combined arms team (infantry, armor, artillery, engineer, medical, logistics, etc.). I had thought of the Enlisted Recruiting Brigade just like those combat divisions where a task force included everyone. I didn’t think that separating out the medical staff would serve any purpose, and might also undermine the army team model I was trying to emulate among all the Recruiting Brigades.
But as I examined the proposal further and dug a little deeper I began to appreciate the concern that we were not optimizing the recruitment of medical professionals.
Sometimes leaders stay with a bad decision for too long because they made the decision.
They believe that it had to be the right decision.
One of the reasons was simple. The problem was they simply didn’t get the attention they needed.
Each Quarter, we held Quarterly Training Briefings (QTBs) with the Brigades. However, the brigade commanders always had their medical battalions brief last. Unfortunately, we generally ran out of time for these medical battalion commanders to say much. They just didn’t have the time. Everyone was already scrambling to get to their next appointment.
There was also another issue.
I learned that the medical battalions received very few resources such as marketing dollars compared to other battalions because they were considered lower priority.
The combination of poor stats for recruiting medical professionals, little time for their commanders to even speak in our meetings, and minimal allocation of resources got me thinking that James was right.
Something had to change.
And that change would start with my own perception. I had to change. I had to acknowledge that there was a difference between my understanding of a task force in a maneuver unit, and the ‘task force’ or a recruiting brigade. In a maneuver task force, the entire unit was focused on one objective. With the Recruiting Brigade, there were two objectives – the enlisted mission which was the focus of the Army, and the medical mission which was given low priority by the brigades.
Leaders often have to be the ones who change first.
I made that leap.
I modified my own change model to accommodate the special circumstances of medical recruitment. I realized that the team model that had been my primary change model was becoming highly effective, there had to be flexibility built into it to accommodate unusual scenarios.
I made a bold decision. I decided that USAREC would pull the medical battalions from each of the six brigades and form a seventh brigade, the Medical Recruiting Brigade.
Again, I faced stiff resistance to this change.
I even got resistance from the very recruiting brigades I had helped create. Case in point was Sergeant Major Telepa who was on the USAREC Staff. I called him into my office and told him that I had selected him to be the first Command Sergeant Major. I knew that moving to a dedicated Medical Recruiting Brigade was the right call when Sergeant Major Telepa’s first words were, “Sir, why are you selecting me for this job? We send the losers to medical recruiting.” I had final confirmation that James was right when he first brought to my attention the fact that medical recruiting was shunned and considered a low priority.
Having made the decision, I persisted despite the unfavorable odds. We created the Medical Recruiting Brigade, and not long thereafter, resistance faded as we demonstrated the success of the strategy by achieving the goal of the medical recruiting mission.
Now, more than a decade later, the Medical Recruiting Brigade is still making a difference for USAREC and the Army.
While the new team recruitment model was beginning to show solid success, we weren’t out of the woods yet. An unexpected new problem arose in a very dramatic fashion.
And at the root of this problem was a lack of message unity.
Things were moving fast.
And when things move too fast, sometimes things slip through the cracks. Mistakes can happen.
Consider, when I was first brought in as the head of Recruiting Command, the army had failed to achieve our 2005 recruitment goal. For the first time, the army had not fulfilled its stated mission. The years from 2005 through 2009 while I was revamping the entire recruitment model, were some of the most challenging times in recruiting. We were making system-wide changes. We were upending long-held traditions and methods. We were retraining over nine thousand recruiters. We were moving fast.
As if that wasn’t challenging enough we were also conducting the “surge” of troops into Iraq and Afghanistan. Young men and women who enlist in the Army today, may not report to basic training for eight to ten months. During my time in recruiting, they were reporting to basic training within two weeks after signing an enlistment contract. Again, speed and sheer numbers were the order of the day.
The speed and the vast numbers of both recruiters and recruits during this time created some communication challenges and spotlighted some significant gaps in recruiter education.
The severity of these communication challenges and training gaps was brought into sharp focus through a disturbing news program.
I recall watching the news one day, and the featured segment highlighted a secret recording. To say that it was damaging would be quite the understatement.
It seems that a young reporter walked into one of our recruiting stations in New York City armed with a hidden recording device. Pretending to be interested in joining the Army the reporter asked the recruiter on duty, “if I join will I have to go to Iraq?” Our recruiter replied reassuringly, “No, haven’t you heard, the war’s over, so you would not have to go to Iraq.”
Of course, that was a lie. The war was not over. Iraq was a strong deployment possibility.
The fallout was significant.
I was called to Congress to testify on this matter and we were directed to immediately place recording cameras in all the NYC Recruiting Battalion offices.
I felt strongly that the cameras were not the answer.
But I did feel that this communication issue had highlighted not only a gap in our recruiter education program but had also opened up an opportunity to strengthen the entire recruiting team and improve our recruitment outcomes even more.
Consistency in Communication Counts
An organization as well as its teams must have a consistent message
It was clear that our recruiters had to have a consistent message, no matter who they were talking to, or where across the country those discussions were taking place. We needed to make sure that everyone was on the same page.
Pocket Talking Points
This led to the creation of the “Pocket Talking Points” initiative. Each month USAREC published key talking points on an actual ‘same page’ – a single sheet of paper that was distributed to every single one of our 9000 recruiters. The page was portable. It could be easily folded and placed into a soldier’s uniform cargo pocket. The message across the board was the same. There were no deviations. There was no adlibbing or extemporaneous message. There was no excuse for going ‘off script.’ Those pocket talking points were policy.
From then on, every time I visited a recruiting station, I expected soldiers to have, understand, and utilize their pocket talking points.
The solution was successful.
We finally had over 9000 recruiters communicating the same message across the command.
This did not necessarily mean that recruiters did not occasionally stray from the talking points, or put their own spin on the message, but we had something that we could rely on as a standard with a common message throughout the command. Speaking with one voice is essential.
The problems solved
We had solved a number of problems. We had solved the issues with recruitment by creating a cohesive team model. We had solved the problem of medical staff being underrepresented by creating a dedicated recruitment model just for healthcare professionals. We had solved the problem of recruiters using their own words during the recruitment process and risking misrepresenting information by creating pocket talking points that would be sent to every single recruiter to ensure the message was consistent across the command.
But we weren’t done yet.
There was one more problem that had to be solved.
While there were many changes that we implemented at USAREC, one that brought our communities into the recruiting fight was the concept of the Community Advisory Board.
I had attended a meeting in upstate New York as part of my routine to visit recruitment centers. A young major from the recruiting battalion sat at the head of the table. Around the table were seated, key community leaders. There was the mayor, mayor, the head of the bank, the principal of the area high school, representatives from the local television and radio stations, and many more. The focus of the meeting was the upcoming 4th of July Parade and the plan to recognize veterans.
Since it was such a community-centric meeting I was curious and asked the mayor why the major was running the meeting. The mayor replied, “The major is a great leader and the recruiting battalion is a good rallying point for the community.”
But that was unique.
That major and that community had taken it upon themselves to create a conduit for communication and support.
We needed something across the board. Something that would make it easier for communities to get involved and provide support.
The creation of the Community Advisory Board
This gave me the idea that ultimately led to the creation of the Community Advisory Board.
During my travels across the country, many community leaders asked how they could help the Army. At the time, there was no organized method or channel that allowed these leaders to support our recruiters and the Army.
After my visit to upstate New York, and watching that major run a community meeting, we started the Community Advisory Board as a way to foster interaction and support.
The first two pilot programs were launched in Dallas and Los Angeles.
The first Community Advisory Board was held on June 13, 2007, in the Dallas Cowboys football stadium. Jason Witten, the Cowboys superstar tight end, was our guest speaker. Seated around the large table were high school principals, university presidents, leaders from radio and television, civilian aides to the Secretary of the Army (CASAs) and many more. Retired Colonel Marc Hildenbrand represented Ross Perot Jr. and Coty Rodriquez-Anderson attended as the Director of the North Texas Chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. Dr. Mike Moses, a leader in North Texas education was also there as was Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief.
In Los Angeles, Tommy Lasorda from the Dodgers hosted our meeting with similar community leaders. My deputy at the time, Brigadier General Joe Anderson (and later, Lt. Gen. Joe Anderson) was the speaker at these initial events. And two of my very good personal friends, Eric Nishizawa and David Iwata were involved with the Los Angeles Community Advisory Board from the beginning.
It wasn’t long before we had Community Advisory Boards for every battalion.
And the communities we created are still “in the fight” helping with the local recruiting mission and they continue to support U.S. Army Recruiting today.
Another problem solved. Another positive solution. And another success for the U. S. Army Recruiting Command.
Closely related to the Community Advisory Boards was the move to include spouses of troops in suggesting new strategies and solutions.
We are very aware that our mission is to not only recruit a soldier but also to retain a family.
Having learned that troops closest to the action often have the best view of the changes that might make a difference, on November 2 through November 4, 2006, we held the Commanding General’s All-Star Advisory Council. Of the nearly 9000 recruiters, we brought together the 125 most successful along with their spouses. These spouses of our very best are also serving their country. During the advisory council meeting, recruiters and their spouses provided more than two dozen recommendations for me to consider. Some of these recommendations would help lead USAREC to success in the future.
But all good things must come to an end.
My “18-month assignment to turn things around” turned into nearly four years as the head of recruiting. But during those four years, we made positive changes that are still making a difference in USAREC today.
Not every idea works
But, it is important to also acknowledge that not every idea works. And that was also true in the recruiting command.
However, since I remained at Recruiting Command for this long, it also provided me with the opportunity to realize that some of my changes did not work. I had a front-row seat not only for the success but for the misses.
I had asked BG Joe Anderson to take a hard look at some of the changes that we made during the last four years. And his analysis shed a light on some of the problems that our changes created rather than solved.
For example, in order to maximize the efficiency of our resources, we centralized all the human resources (HR) at the headquarters in Ft. Knox and reduce the overall number of HR personnel. This change of centralizing HR personnel was particularly challenging for the brigades. We subsequently learned that HR is a resource that was more effective if it remained at the local level where local commanders and personnel specialists had a better understanding of the people. So, we moved HR assets back to the local brigades.
During my tenure, we solved a lot of problems. And in the process we learned a lot of valuable lessons.