Staff Skills

Cultural Reform in Middle Army – Melting Iron Colonels

By Mike Kalms April 8, 2020

It’s a common refrain: change stalls with the Iron Colonels in the Army. But what are you going to do? They can’t be ‘replaced’, other than by another officer brought through the exact same education and development process. To replace means no change, it’s pointless. This article argues that – for most of these O6/O7 roles – the Australian Army could drive more radical forms of change, using lateral transfers or even civilian executives with high-end leadership capabilities, selected on values and potential (not competency) to accelerate cultural reform and diversity within its iron middle. 

"Institutions like the Army are different"

We’ve mulled over this problem for a while. How do you quicken change in organisations that have a closed workforce and draw new hires entirely via ab initio entry? It’s a thorny one. Ideas are quickly dismissed by those in the system. Armies are different they say – by necessity. 

One cannot hire a Colonel off the street. Generals know its takes years of training and education, foundation warfighting skills need to be taught and embedded; only upon them can the institution of the Army then graft specialisations and expertise in the myriad of employment categories a complex effect generator like the Army requires.

To be fair, there are lateral entries in the Army. Those few trusted nations that grow officers and soldiers ‘like us’. For them, we apply a series of competencies, we check for skills match, we determine that they can operate our systems and equipment, and if they can (the few), they join. In 2020, only ~70 Army officers were offered lateral entry from other services and this is mainly restricted to areas of greatest need (O3/O4 and often accompanied with reduction in rank). It is rare for lateral entry to be offered to O5/O6 due to our succession model. Given O5 and below are Corps coded to specialisation and trade, an overlay of skills and competency could be argued as necessary.

Our O6/O7 have moved beyond roles of being the technical expert leading work and are now enterprise leaders sustaining the operating systems and network of the Army. These high-end leadership skills and capabilities are available within a number of Australian markets and industries that could be drawn on by the Army to refresh its middle ranks with few constraints or risks.

"Laterals don’t work out"

Industry would say that lateral hires are risky. They are a big cost (you have to lure to your business - that’s often a pay rise), you need to spend time selecting them, and figuring out whether they have the experience and competencies you need. Once in your business you have to train them, help them find their feet socially, understand your systems and process, and (most importantly) they need to fit culturally.

Lateral hires fail ~40% of the time, and often it’s because they didn’t fit with the culture of the new organisation. Of course, causation goes both ways. Sometimes the existing team doesn’t gel with the lateral’s style, behaviours and values, or the other way round. Either way, it’s a big investment in time and money lost. For that reason some organisations have started to focus more on values than on competency. 

Values Based Recruitment (VBR) is an approach to help attract and recruit prospective employees whose personal values and behaviours align with the hiring organisation. In contract Competency Based Recruitment (CBR) is a process of recruitment based on the ability of candidates to produce evidence of a professional experience matching a desired skillset or practical task. Overlayed on this approach could be a deliberate weighting of future potential over past performance.

Clearly both have elements of art and science in them - we’re dealing with people!  But the difference between these two ideas is profound for an institution like the the Army. Suddenly, by moving from a CBR to a VBR model your lateral talent pool expands significantly. Rather than a narrow group of similarly skilled foreign Army officers to recruit as laterals, you open up organisations with similar values.       

"Nowhere is like the Army – our values are unique"

Are the Army’s values really unique? I mean, yes every organisation is in some manner unique, so the Australian Army must be too. But the words we use to describe our Army values, the behaviours we expect, the stories we tell about how we make decisions, how we develop strategies, manage behaviour and execute choice, they really aren’t that different to many other institutions. There are other ancient, proud institutions all around us. There are new, more nimble players with just as much (or more?) values alignment to Australia’s defence mission. 

Courage, Initiative, Teamwork and Respect are words used by thousands of other organisations in Australia and globally to describe who they are. They do so in similar contexts too: they fight, they defend, they protect, they serve, they buy, they sustain, they deploy, they lead. If our values are similar to other organisations in society, and we can measure those values in people (and can understand their potential in the context of the Army), could some of those similarly-aligned, seasoned, experienced and capable leaders be selected to join the Army as a lateral O6/O7? 

As Defence and the three services review their missions and perhaps also align values across Defence, there could be an opportunity to leverage change with a transformational approach to accelerating change in Army’s middle.    

Voting Turkeys

Is the Army looking to exploit this opportunity? Clearly not – if it were that simple it would be happening now. So what’s the counter case? I’ll posit three reasons here - readers will have others - but the most important reason our Army is not looking at this option (in fact all bottom-entry institutions face this barrier one could argue) is the self-interest of insiders.

1.    In highly competitive, high reward, employment models players are not incentivised to create more competitors. As a result, reasoned recommendations for enhanced mid-career competition will not emerge from the Staff Group of Army.

2.    Competency is king in the Australian Army.  It drives pay, conditions, it promotes, it exits. If you aren’t competent you don’t play. But let’s ask ourselves – for the O6/O7 cohort in the Army navigating new government process, new crisis, new technology on a seemingly daily basis – do their competencies learned as a young officer navigate them through thier daily challenges, or do their values? In other words, do we dismiss VBR as a tool because it cannot support lateral (competency-trained) juniors, not realising its ideal for lateral (values-led) seniors?

3.    Some claim the Army is far too complex for any ‘outsider’ to understand and lead. Perhaps the CEO of BHP could take this question? I just don’t buy it. If true, then the Prime Minister should be selected at birth and trained secretly for 4O years before taking the reins. Yes the Army is complex, but it’s this sense that one must know it so intimately before it can be led that, in a counter-intuitive way, often stops Army leaders. The current CA is SF ‘so he’ll make decisions accordingly’ is the sort of organisational bias (hopefully untrue) that tilts entire staffs to sub-optimal modes of thinking. New lateral perspectives improve that.     

So What?

The nice thing about an idea like values-based lateral hires at the O6/O7 level is that you don’t need to reform the Army to try it. It could be as simple as CA defining a few organisations he feels have a level of values aligned with Army, then inviting applicants for an interview for a number of roles to pilot. There could be structure to the interview, there could be an induction process for the lateral hire, there could be hand-wringing side-bars about uniforms, ranks and status. Of course, CA could skip all that and appointment them, empower them and set them a mission. 

But on balance, a more structured trial might be best: select a set of laterals on their values, integrity and potential within the Army, give them a level of training in the Army (enough to wear the uniform and understand their rank), network them in a manner good commercial business does to mitigate transition risk, incentivise them, and performance manage them clearly and carefully (including removing them if they don’t work out). An ‘easy hire, easy fire’ approach.

But what if they do succeed? What if ~33% of the Army’s O6/O7 cohort was laterally acquired? What if that cohort were a more inclusive and diverse mix of gender and ethnicity that reflects our nation? What if we imported rare expertise in complex organisation management, technology acquisition and sustainment, transformation, data, cyber – all those areas Army knows it’s currently at a disadvantage? 

And what if the Army ‘thought differently’ compared to today? A controversial last point: what’s wrong with how the Army thinks? Well, the fact that a concept like Iron Colonel’s even exits should answer that (in part) for you. Besides, institutional thinking must always evolve: change is a constant, and ours is an Army in motion.


This article was co-authored with John Sayers



Mike Kalms

Mike is a 30-year member of the part-time ADF. In 2021 he commands the 8th Brigade where full and part time, women and men, come to train, learn and grow. Concurrently, he’s with KPMG.There he has supported the 2016 White Paper as a member of the Minister’s 6-person expert panel, worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Defence on industry policy and a revitalised approach to sovereignty, supported various state government’s defence industry strategy, and aided business and universities to build defence-relevant capabilities.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


Another way to broaden the diversity of experience in the O6/O7 level would be the establishment of a broad range of external postings / externships for O5/O6 SERCAT 7 personnel in business and the wider public sector. The Prime Minister's Veterans Employment Program established a 12 month posting within Westpac for an O6 as an example; BRIG Rupert Hoskin is currently seconded to the Business Council of Australia for 12 months as part of that organisation's initiative to rebuild after the 19/20 bushfires. Placing greater emphasis on ensuring O6/O7s have a broader experience base than just military expertise would of course enhance the opportunity to use the civilian experience of the SERCAT 5 cohort as well.

Thanks for this paper Mike. It raises some good questions. Of course, the closed workforce model was only embraced in the 1970's with a 'largish' 'professional' full-time military. The record of two AIFs would suggest that there was some merit in more open workforce models. The conundrum is which model best suits wartime and peacetime - or 'in-between' times? Hedging has resulted in us maintaining elements of both open and closed systems for the uniformed component of Defence. And of course, where a position is better filled by a civilian rather than a uniformed member the organisation has also blended those 'complementary workers' to seemingly reasonable effect.

Nice article Mike (and John). I think what you’re suggesting could definitely work. Maybe if we considered piloting it in an organisation like the Australian Defence College? Any method that enhances our cognitive diversity is key if we are to prepare our people for uncertain futures.

Thought provoking article Mike. You have me asking why we wouldn't just try it, with an open mind, and go from there.

Very thought provoking. I was discussing this with my APS wife last month. She couldn't understand why the ADF didn't do lateral recruitment from the best in the private sector. I gave her many of the excuses which you highlighted and subsequently rebuked.

Australia’s greatest soldier was a reservist, engineer and lawyer (if you haven’t guessed Sir John Monash, our education system needs changing). I think our military and our industry can benefit greatly from an exchange of ideas and experience if we were able to facilitate exchanges. The current CDF had such an exchange (albeit to public service) so why not broaden this approach?

Great article. My experience (1968 -1988) suggest that there is a hestitancy to raise questions because of a 'do what you're told (or risk … )' culture. Questioning was not encouraged, in fact it was positively discouraged. An example is provided by the misfire drill for the Centurion tank. It was drilled into all crew that if the main armament didn't fire, a period of 20 mins had to elapse before the round could be removed from the breech (because of the possibility of a 'hang-fire'). Gunnery instructors who questioned this drill in a combat situation were told to just teach the drill as laid down. In an attack on an enemy defensive position in Vietnam, there was a misfire. The crew commander ordered the loader to unload the round. the loader refused … he knew the drill and the possibility that the round could explode. The crew commander knew that the situation was very dire indeed … he 'insisted'. The round was removed, thrown out and they got on with the battle. Years later when writing the story of tank operations in Vietnam, I looked into the basis of the drill as taught. It seems that it had been introduced to provided 100% safety. There was a 2% chance of a hangfire if the round was removed. Waiting 20mins reduced this to zero. Obviously this was information that the should have been made known to the crew, so that an informed decision could be made in action. I subsequently came to appreciate the difference if the private sector … where input from the bottom up is encouraged and supported.

A common refrain I admit I have been missing for sometime. Adaptation is critical to Army but so is a keen appreciation and understanding as to how the foundation was developed and proven through numerous commitments over decades. I contend that the Army is a unique organisation as nowhere else in society are the individual members within held to the same degree of scrutiny and accountability as should be the case where we truly believe ourselves members of a profession. Examples of where the 06/07 senior group is stalling change would be a useful reference here as my experience is in lost instances a group that challenges and drives for adaptation on a daily basis.

A challenging article, but it treats diversity as an arguable good – it does not link that set of ways and means to a clear endstate. I would argue we need to start with how does any of this support “lethality”. To quote Gen Mattis, ”…the need for lethality must be the measuring stick against which we evaluate the efficiency of our military”. If "rare expertise" is required, employ consultants. That is how civilian companies bridge skill gaps – hire at a level where skills can effectively integrate into an organization, not as a Senior Manager (unless it is to run a specialist division). Is an endstate of ~33% of the Army’s O6/O7 cohort laterally acquired with “a more inclusive and diverse mix of gender and ethnicity that reflects our nation” going to help us deter and win?. The article presents no evidence to support this assertion, however starting with the Sparten’s, history has examples of terribly non-inclusive. yet effective military organisations. There is a better opportunity for the ADF to debate if it is overeducated, officer heavy and distracted with public service notions of identity politics – are we becoming too woke to win?. Some examples of more fundamental topics that could be linked to the concept of winning wars are: -Will giving cadets a Bachelor of Arts at ADFA improve lethality? -Does every position with a university degree need an officer’s commission, or as with RAAF Electronic Analysts could they come in as direct entry SNCO's on a different pay scale? To quote from Gen Mattis, “our military exists to deter wars and to win when we fight. We are not a petri dish for social experiments”

A thought provoking article, along with some equally thought provoking responses in the comments. Neville Rutter makes an important argument for the need to ensure the end state is kept central. Something that so many corporate organisations get wrong, so often- one could argue something the corporate world needs to learn from the Army. An example to consider could be that of a retail organisation, that may get benefit from lateral talent, provided it helps the retail organisation to be a more effective retailer. It is no different in the case of the Army, lateral talent may help but it would need to be very clear for what purpose. The challenge is that the nature of our work is in many ways unlike anything else. With this problem I suggest we have an excellent solution right under our nose. We have many eminently qualified and experienced senior leaders that are SERCAT 5 members, who can bring their senior civilian organisational leadership experience and have an understanding of our culture and the nature of our work. Perhaps the biggest challenge here is that many SERCAT 5 members will be making significantly more income in their civilian careers. They are likely choosing to be SERCAT 5 for this very reason.

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