Army Officers Seeking Preferred Assignments Must Leverage References and Reputation

By Matt Lensing, MTI Contributor

Some people have referred to the Army’s Talent Alignment Process (ATAP), specifically the mechanism officers use to prefer assignments as Tinder or speed dating between Soldiers and units. These analogies are not completely accurate because candidates in those markets start on equal ground with their peers, but in reality the courting process begins months, or even years, before a marketplace opens.

Officers must signal and communicate to potential organizations long before they can even view available assignments, or they may be left without any offers when they finally preference assignments in the Assignment Interactive Module (AIM 2.0). If an officer wants to make it to the unit interview phase they should do the following: 

  • Maintain a current resume and record brief
  • Select references that include general officers, previous superiors, and senior non-commissioned officers
  • Leverage mentors and previous leaders in the unit you want to serve
  • Ensure a positive reputation with peers and junior officers in the prospective unit
Keep Your Record Brief and Resume Current

Having a current resume greatly increases the chances an officer’s file makes it through initial screening. Commanders generally do not read all applicants’ packets, so any incomplete files are usually tossed aside and may never get a second look. When I saw an officer with missing or outdated information I initially dismissed it because it did not appear they were serious about the job.

The first areas I look at when reviewing files are: 

  • Recent positions
  • Military and civilian education
  • Experiences
  • References

Next I see if the resume is generic, or tailored to the job the candidate is seeking. Most Army experiences are not unique, so a resume should do more than just restate assignment history from a record brief. Candidates should illustrate what they learned from previous assignments, which will help them stand out. Knowing a language, or experience in a particular geographic region, is good to highlight if it aligns with the new unit’s area of operations. Having knowledge of the unit’s upcoming training calendar also helps.

Officers who knew about my unit’s upcoming training cycle or scheduled deployments stood out from those that had not done any research. The best candidates connected their recent experiences to demonstrate how they could contribute immediately to the organization if they were hired. Another recommendation is to get a copy of the current command philosophy and incorporate similar language in the resume and interview. Speaking about the commander’s priorities helps build a connection between the candidate and the person doing the hiring.

Select the Right References

The AIM 2.0 resume provides space for three to four references. Recommended references are: general officers, brigade commanders, and senior non-commissioned officers. 

General Officer – A general officer reference displays that an individual worked directly with the Army’s most senior leaders, which especially for junior officers demonstrates that they were selected above peers for a nominative position. This also supports the confirmation bias, which helps a candidate. If a senior leader supports the hire of an individual then others tend to believe they are great even before they have achieved anything.

Brigade Commander – The Brigade Commander, a full bird colonel, was likely to have been the senior rater for a captain or major if they are an officer’s reference. Their feedback will illustrate where the officer falls amongst their rank cohort since evaluations require quantifying their potential. The hiring organization technically shouldn’t know the specific rating an prospective candidate receiver on their officer evaluation reports, but one work around is to contact their previous senior rater to find where they fall amongst peers.

Senior Non-commissioned Officers – Truthfully, the senior non-commissioned officer reference is often overlooked on resumes, but they provide a different perspective than what other officers may see. While the command sergeant major does not fall in any rating scheme for a commissioned officer they likely hear from the enlisted Soldiers which junior leaders are looking for their own notoriety at the expense of their subordinates. Including this reference provides a more well rounded look at a candidate.

Lean on Mentors and Previous Leaders

A simple email or positive comment from someone you worked with previously will often be all it takes to get added to the list of candidates to interview. To help secure an interview with a prospective unit I went back through my previous assignments to see if I knew anyone currently working in that division. In some cases I may not have spoken to this individual in many years, but if we shared a connection through serving together in a previous organization I sent them an message. Usually that sparked an exchange over email, text message, or phone call, which served as an informal interview to assess my potential. In some cases it led to my name making it on a senior leader’s list to the commanding general as a priority hire.

Although at first it felt like I was cheating the system I later realized it was common practice for officers in a unit to review names of available candidates providing senior leaders a narrowed down interview list. As a field grade officer my commander asked me to review a list of other majors that were in the current talent marketplace. If I knew them, or knew their reputation, I let my boss know wether our unit should prioritize them for an interview. By reaching out to people I knew in a unit I got ahead of the pre-interview screening process.

Be Nice to Peers and Junior Officers

In addition to mentors and previous leaders the other group candidates need positive feedback from are peers and officers junior to them. As I had done for my bosses, peers will readily spill the dirt on someone they know applying for a position. Even if there is nothing negative said about a candidate sometimes what isn’t said can influence whether they are selected for an interview.

Be cautious of people described as “good dudes,’ because the phrase has different meanings depending on who you ask. Some use the moniker to describe officers who are competent and dependable while others use it to describe someone who is likable and easy going, but never around when there are difficult tasks. What others think of you matters, and even those junior to you can influence success in the marketplace.

The personnel officer (sometimes adjutant) responsible for organizing the packets and scheduling interviews can affect someone’s chances for hire. Candidates should be friendly and responsive to these officers without becoming a nuisance. The hiring process can be stressful, but constantly asking for status updates on your specific file can be a turnoff. The commander who actually hires people for a position may ask the personnel officer their opinion on a candidate, so if you have rubbed them the wrong way expect your chances to diminish.

Conclusion

An officer’s reputation matters more now than during the Army’s old, mostly anonymous, assignment process. Although it may feel disingenuous to rely on someone else for assistance the current talent alignment process rewards those with a strong social network, and are willing to use it. The key to understanding why some people get job offers and others do not is based on basic human nature.

Introduction to psychology courses cover the basic requirements for humans to thrive as Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs (https://www.masterclass.com/articles/a-guide-to-the-5-levels-of-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs). After humans have their psychological needs of food, shelter, and clothing taken care of they advance up the hierarchy to safety. The job marketplace holds many examples where emotional safety and stability influence an individual’s assignment preferences.

I saw peers take less desirable assignments based on their geographic location because those units took an interest in the applicant. Even historically lower sought after units can compete with more popular units by aggressively reaching out to applicants early in a marketplace. This is an opportunity for perceived lower tier units to acquire higher quality talent by making an individual feel desired which achieves Maslow’s need of belonging.

Similarly commanders hiring candidates what to know they are getting the best person for the job, so they may rate word of mouth over a candidates other attributes. The Army has many leaders that draw the same subordinates into their organization time after time. A sense of familiarity with another person provides the psychological need for comfort.

This is in a lot of respects a validation of the “by name request,” process that already existed in the Army but was not publically acknowledged. Although the current system does not guarantee an individual will perform better just because they matched with a unit hopefully being an active participant in the process will increase job satisfaction for the Army long term.

 

Matt Lensing is an active duty infantry officer who has served in the U.S. Army since 2007.


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