Sunday, March 22, 2015

Know your A, B+, B, B-, C, D: Career boosters & career killers in MINDEF/SAF

In the corporate rat race, simply doing the job you were hired for and doing it well won't get one far.

Ranking and banding sessions tend to lean towards showpiece projects which claim to underscore the versatility of the assessed candidate, their ability to multi-task and deliver under deadline pressure.

Those of us familiar with people management processes will recognise that no assessment process is perfect. So one has suck it up, roll with the blows and learn how to play the game by learning how to profile oneself to higher ups. It's all par for the course and isn't all bad.

In the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), competition for the limited number of top positions breeds keen competition among the rank-and-file during ranking season. This is no different from the private sector and could arguably be seen as less draconian than the hire-and-fire practices on civvie street.

Not for nothing has the term hentak kaki (a Malay footdrill command for march in place) permeated the lexicon of corporate Singapore. Unlike a profit-driven enterprise, weak performers in a military organisation can cruise from one work year to another by doing the bare minimum expected for their job grade with little fear of dismissal.

More career-oriented individuals, however, will spare no effort gunning for that elusive A grade (but will settle for a B+ once reality bites).

When playing this game, there are career enhancers and also career killers.

The appraisees readily recognise this, which leads some people to seek fair means or foul all ways and means to polish their career prospects. Some become pop psychologists, wielding concepts such as the "recency effect" to influence how they speak and behave in front of their superiors. This is done with a view to carefully calibrating how they are seen in the eyes of the higher-ups. The strategy is to cruise through the work year with minimal effort (and ergo, output), only to crank up the pace when ranking season is around the corner to maximise awareness of how the individual shines compared to his/her peer group.

In a way, some individuals in MINDEF/SAF - particularly the scholars - are set up for success. This is because there are projects and there are Projects. This brings us back to the topic of how showpiece projects or "CCAs" are routinely used to sort out the A, B+, B or B- material in each cohort.

Some deliverables will command a higher profile than others. Some projects, important though they may be to our nation's defence, cannot command the same whirl of publicity as, say for example, any of the National Day Parade sub committees. And projects executed to a set template are arguably less onerous or dicey than greenfield projects scripted from a blank sheet of paper.

As with projects that seek to deliver something tangible by a certain timeline, operational deployments are yet another benchmark for sifting the wheat from the chaff. Again, not all operational deployments are cut from the same piece of cloth.

There was this instance when a night out by Singapore Army officer buddies turned sour after the conversation drifted to a debate on which deployments were more challenging. Nothing conclusive was reached and the strength of friendships dating back to OCS days was tested that night. Truth is: there is no model answer as all deployments have their inherent challenges.

Such disagreements underscore the futility of adding an operational deployment to one's SAF resume as a career highlight. This is because simply ticking the box for having been there/done that in no way implies an officer/WOSPEC who has not had the opportunity for an overseas tasking is any less capable. It is vital that MINDEF/SAF ranking board members can tell the difference.

Trophies and high scores bagged by COs are another point of pride - justifiably so. But an astute ranking board will be tempered with the awareness that there is a not insignificant talent pool of officers and WOSPECS who will never win a Best Unit trophy nor can they brag about their ATEC scores not for lack of ability, but because these units don't officially exist....

Apart from "CCAs" and professional contributions, one cannot ignore the impact that the personal life of SAF officers play in the people management process.

There are ample anecdotal examples of individuals who were chucked by the wayside due to personal indiscretions which are viewed dimly by Level 5. Drink driving offences, office flings and other personal foibles have destroyed, shot down or sunk promising (?) careers in the Singapore Army, the Republic of Singapore Air Force and Republic of Singapore Navy. Cross the line and no amount of passive armour, chaff/flare dispensers, high G turns, active/passive ECM or EOD bomb suit will save one's military career. Yes, even without a shooting war, SAF careers can come to grief. So navigate with care.

Indeed, one has the impression that military professionals in MINDEF/SAF nursing hopes for a high CEP must tread a narrow path when it comes to life out of uniform.

This begs the question just what sort of individual qualifies as a high potential in MINDEF/SAF eyes? With Singapore's limited talent pool, is our justifiably (?) rigorous people management process executed at the price of killing off some careers prematurely? Will our moral high horse ultimately undermine MINDEF/SAF by culling the war horses based on yardsticks that may or may not have a direct bearing on success in combat?

To their credit, some of these fallen stars - if you pardon the expression - have pulled themselves together and contribute meaningfully in their new careers.

Real talents are never afraid of venturing outside and can look after themselves.

Indeed, many from the MINDEF/SAF alumni have proven this to be the case. Good for them.

No comments: