BrAIN Story:Chapter 3

‘The War for Talent: Engaging and Retaining Young Officers’ – Oct 2016

5 – 10 minute read (+ 10 min audio clip)

When bringing together junior officers for a day to discuss retention a lot of people would expect it to just be a ‘whinge fest’, there was some of that, but mostly the conversations were backed up by evidence and anecdotes that really brought the importance of the ‘lived experience’ to light.

I won’t put the entire paper up here (it’s about 6 pages) but below I have copied the intro for context and the key issues.


1.         On Tue 4 Oct 16 approximately 70 Young Officers (YOs), predominantly Lts and Capts, from a range of cap-badges came together in Robertson House for an engagement forum.  The aim was to discuss the current issues facing YOs and to find reasons why they may decide to remain in or leave the Army.  This report is designed to give an indication of the main themes and conclusions drawn from the discussion groups.  It is intended to present the current frustrations along with potential solutions for overcoming them.

Key Issues

2.         Based upon input to discussions in the forum, the three main benefits to an Army officer career were felt to be:

a.            Leading soldiers.  One of the greatest benefits to being an officer is the chance to lead soldiers.  It was felt that many join the Army because they want to be a platoon or troop commander.  However, not everyone gets the expected length of time in these assignments as YOs are used to fill command gaps higher up and therefore miss out on the chance to lead soldiers.

b.            Unique experiences.  The Army offers many unique experiences and opportunities that may not be found in other careers, particularly in comparison to other graduate jobs.  However, there is need for improved advertisement of the development opportunities available and for time to be protected to ensure YOs are able to make the most of the extra benefits of being in the Army. 

c.            The ‘package’.  The pay up to junior Captain puts people in a good position in comparison to their civilian counterparts.  However, the future pay versus the increased workload from junior Captain onwards is not as appealing.           

3.         The three main areas of frustration were felt to be:

a.            Forward planning.  Forward planning in barracks is poor in many units; taking away leave or weekends at the last minute is detrimental to the morale of a unit as people are forced to cancel plans with friends or family.

b.            Unclear communications. There is a lack of clarity in the information regarding career progression, future job prospects and financial rewards which means that YOs feel they are simply a chess piece being moved at the hands of the Army Personnel Centre rather than having a say in their own career.

c.            Career progression.  The common image of a career to the top of an organisation is that you climb on a ‘golden escalator’ at the bottom and work your way through a series of set jobs until you reach your full potential.  It was felt that there should be more flexibility and ability to divert from the ‘usual’ path for a period, while still being able to progress to one’s full potential at a later stage.  The preferred analogy was of a ‘Harry Potter staircase’ rather than a ‘golden escalator’, whereby there should be multiple staircases that ultimately will take you to the same destination.

BrAIN’s First Public Outing

On the day of the Forum I also presented the concept of BrAIN for the first time. I hadn’t run this by anyone and had only said to CHACR that I wished to have a 10 minute slot to present an idea. I was very lucky that they trusted me to do so.

Below is a link to a recording of what I said. I was having to project across the room and my phone was on the lecturn so it is a little bit loud/forceful. It’s a 10 minute audio clip.

BrAIN received mostly positive feedback as a concept, both on the day and afterwards, but there was overarching cynicism about whether senior officers would allow it to happen or whether it would be able to really impact decision making.

When we had completed the write up of the Forum, CHACR also recommended I include a proposal for BrAIN as an Annex. You can see this below:

The YO Forum Report received a lot of attention when it was sent out by the Assistant Head of CHACR. My own email inbox also became busy both from fellow YOs but also from Commanding Officers and staff who had read the report. I was very lucky to also get an email from General Sir Nick Carter, CGS at the time to say he had read the report and that it would be useful to him when planning his next General Staff Conference and he liked the idea of BrAIN.

I also got an email from a Major General at the time who had some comebacks to some of the points in the paper, but having had my telling off previously about emailing CHACR directly there was no way I was going to reply to a Maj Gen so I left it, only to later be told (by the same teller offer) that I should absolutely have responded but that I should send my response through him, to the MA who would then pass it back to the Maj Gen….

Although emails from Generals were nice as it showed they had at least read what YOs had to say, there were 2 types of email that meant the most.

First were the ones where senior officers had sent the report to their own YOs and said that they planned to do a discussion in unit about the points raised to see if anything could be done locally.

Second was what turned into a chain with Brig Bill Wright from Sandhurst who very kindly sought out responses to the report from the appropriate staff officers. He then wrote an email to address all of the attendees to acknowledge the report and give feedback on the ideas. Although it turned out that Army HQ was looking at most of the factors we raised in the report, getting the feedback meant a lot because I felt we had at least been heard.

It also meant that I have spent the years since (remember this was late 2016) keeping an eye out for these new policies that Army HQ promised were coming, and there have actually been promising steps to address some areas.

As a result of the YO Forum CHACR then asked me to present at their ‘Identifying, Developing and Managing Talent Workshop’ in November. There are some interesting side notes in the run up to that one and it also kicked off my career movements afterwards so I’ll save those for the next post.


“The War for Talent” was originally mentioned by McKinsey in about 1997 but this very short read/short video clip represents a different view on ensuring we are fighting the right war.

Let’s Fight the Right Talent War – Marcus Buckingham


  • Most people hate the sound of their own voice. It never sounds the same as you hear in your head. Recording yourself giving presentations or lessons is a good way to get used to it. It can also help you identify what words you overuse (I “um” a lot) or what you sound like when you’re nervous; all of which can help you to learn and improve.
  • Although this report was cross cap-badge it was great to see Commanding Officers wanting to tackle the issues in their own units and engage with their Young Officers. Pan-Army stuff is good but actually it’s the day-to-day changes that will probably impact people the most and the quickest – this will be a recurring theme in these chapters!
  • Giving someone feedback is really important, or at least acknowledging people’s work. We all know it, but we don’t always do it.
  • The traditional communication systems are interesting – here is a very rough drawing of my email to the General example, but even this is actually a short version of what often happens. What do your unit communication systems look like?

6 thoughts

  1. A great read. As an MA it’s worth explaining (not defending) part of your diagram. Senior officers are blizzarded with information, frankly they need their outer office to help them arrange it in a digestible form.

    MAs don’t (or shouldn’t) filter interaction but that’s not the same as being part of the chain.

    I would agree having your OC checking you homework is unnecessarily dull. Having them Cc should be enough. You might disagree but how would you feel if one of your soldiers talked to your OC about an issue they had and you had no inkling? As a minimum you would want to know so where appropriate you could help fix the issues being raised.


    1. Yeah don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. A couple of thoughts if I can-

      There are many people who do just want to see everything that’s said because they don’t trust their subordinates and worry that they will reflect badly on them. This is a common complaint from soldiers about their sergeants and above.

      Also I think what I didn’t make clear here is the difference when the initiator is the senior officer. They are able to email me directly, to my person email address about my specific views on something, yet I “shouldn’t” send my reply back to them directly but “should” pass it through my own CoC and then through their MA or equivalent. If you remove rank from it then in any normal situation that would be quite odd I think? But I totally understand that they are very busy and inundated with multiple other emails and comms.


    1. It was at the time when we had 2 email addresses on Dii- a role one and your ‘personal’ one. It was to my personal work one at the time.


    1. Glad you’re enjoying them. No plans at the moment. Once I get up to the present day with these story posts then I will reassess and see if there is appetite to get people together.


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