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Improving How the Air Force Develops High-Potential Officers
Posted Friday, June 01, 2018


AFIT alumni Maj Steven T. Nolan Jr. (M.S. Operations Management, 2017) and Dr. Robert E. Overstreet (M.S. Logistics Management, 2002)  wrote an article titled “Improving How the Air Force Develops High-Potential Officers”  published in the Air & Space Power Journal, Volume 32 Issue 2, Summer 2018. The full article can be read on pages 34-51 here.  An excerpt of the article is below.

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Unlike industry where a company can bring in senior leaders at any time, USAF senior leaders are a product of more than 20 continuous years of deliberate career development. Therefore, young officers who are thought to have the potential for senior leadership must be identified early in their careers and vectored to the right opportunities. How these officers are identified, assessed, and developed is not well understood by most of the USAF.

Every officer’s performance is continually assessed and documented to provide a means of stratification within squadrons, groups, wings, and so forth. Officer Performance Reports (OPR) and Training Reports (TR) track these assessments, the verbiage used, and awards achieved, and stratification among peers serve as a “reliable, long-term, cumulative record of performance and promotion potential.” Once an officer accumulates the requisite years of service to compete for the rank of major and above, a Promotion Recommendation Form (PRF) summarizes the highlights of that officer’s career and communicates “performance-based potential.”1

The term potential is an important distinction because the word is not synonymous with performance. In fact, high performance is often mistaken for high potential.2 The difference between the two does not mean that performance and potential are mutually exclusive. While most high-potential (HiPo) employees are also high-performing, the opposite is not always true. Although it may seem an innocent mistake to confuse the two descriptions, Andre Lavoie, the chief executive officer of ClearCompany, stated that “not being able to distinguish between performance and potential will make it difficult for employers to identify, develop and retain talent.”3 Furthermore, Lavoie claims that there is a cost associated with not delineating between the two. According to the Korn-Ferry Institute, the cost of misidentifying a HiPo employee is three-fold.4 First, misidentification leads to pushing employees into roles that they are not qualified for or do not desire, which in the USAF may jeopardize the mission and damage an officer’s career. Second, misidentification leads to mediocre performance, which may lead to a decrease in organizational morale and an increase in employee turnover. Third, misidentification leads to employees losing faith in the human resources (HR) department (the Air Force Personnel Center for the USAF), which is the perceived owner of the organization’s talent.5

The implications of successfully identifying potential can have positive strategic military effects as outlined in the USAF Strategic Master Plan (SMP), Human Capital Annex (HCA). The HCA is one of four annexes to the SMP that translates goals and objectives required to achieve USAF strategy into initiatives and priorities. Under the “Talent Management” section, the HCA states “the detailed, personal management of the small subset of Airmen who possess those ever-shifting skills, special experiences, and high potential will enable the strategic agility the Air Force of the future demands.”6 Although the USAF references the word potential in numerous documents, no characteristics or attributes are explicitly stated to aid personnel directorates in synchronizing their efforts to achieve the strategic guidance outlined in the HCA.

Consequently, the problem faced by the USAF is that there is an incomplete understanding of how to differentiate HiPo company grade officers (CGO). Therefore, the purpose of this study is to improve the way the USAF identifies, assesses, and develops HiPo officers. To that end, we drew upon multiple data sources, such as scholarly journals, magazine articles, talent management case studies, webinars, and textbooks to fully immerse the researchers in the case. Once immersed, we conducted semistructured interviews to assess the perceived or realized differences between an officer’s performance and their future potential. What follows is a brief review of the literature, a discussion of our methodology, and our analysis, which leads to our seven recommendations for the USAF:

  1. Establish a formal definition of HiPo officers.
  2. Evaluate officers against institutional competencies.
  3. Adopt a simple, executable model to evaluate potential.
  4. Increase the roles and responsibilities given to CGOs.
  5. Development teams (DT) must have the power to utilize the assignment process as a means to deliberately develop officers.
  6. Replace below-the-zone (BPZ)/in-the-promotion zone (IPZ)/above-the-promotion zone (APZ) promotions with promotion windows.
  7. Allow DT notes, vectors, and Airman Development Plan (ADP) comments in the management-level review (MLR) and Central Selection Board (CSB) process.

Read the remainder of the article here.