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 their 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