Improving How the Air Force Develops High-Potential Officers

By Nolan, Maj Steven T., Jr.; Overstreet, Dr Robert E. | Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

Improving How the Air Force Develops High-Potential Officers


Nolan, Maj Steven T., Jr., Overstreet, Dr Robert E., Air & Space Power Journal


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed or implied in the Journal are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government. This article may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission. If it is reproduced, the Air and Space Power Journal requests a courtesy line.

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. …

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