Opinion

What I learned from the Army’s new Battalion Commander Assessment Program

Before I left Fort Benning en route to Fort Knox, I had all the information I needed to prepare for the Army’s new Battalion Commander Assessment Program (BCAP).

I knew the schedule of events, administrative requirements, and coordinating instructions. I was also reasonably confident in my ability to perform during all the planned assessments. Despite nursing a recent minor shoulder injury, I have always been physically fit, and never had to worry about performing well on an Army Physical Fitness Test.

I consider myself a fairly strong writer and a decent communicator, albeit sometimes long-winded. I’m usually aware of my strengths and weaknesses and how to leverage the former and mitigate the latter. My introversion has always made me a critical thinker who naturally analyzes the ends, ways, means, risks, and perspectives associated with any problem. I also try to stay informed on matters of national defense and Army priorities, so I felt ready to speak to strategic issues.

Overall, I felt I was ready to perform. What I didn’t realize is how much I would learn, or relearn, from the BCAP process.

The Army is serious about improving talent management. The BCAP is just one of many recent manifestations of that. Above all else, it’s designed to be objective and fair. No other considerations are more important than ensuring the standardization of the process and the objectivity of the assessment outcomes.

The biggest lesson I relearned from BCAP is the idea that assessments are only as good as they are fair and honest. Applying this fundamental principle to all Army assessment activities would be a huge step in the right direction. Indeed, the Army, in all its pursuits, would greatly benefit from a renewed seriousness in honestly and objectively assessing performance and effectiveness.

This test reinforced the effectiveness of assessments in focusing our efforts towards making serious progress, both individually and collectively. Without rigorous and periodic assessment, we are more likely to downplay or outright overlook shortcomings that need to be addressed. This type of accountability mechanism helps us highlight what we either already know but don’t urgently address, or what we don’t know and should address immediately to get things back on track.

The formality of the assessment process establishes the importance of the outcomes. Much in the same way a unit staff is more likely to fix a long-standing, well-known deficiency that is identified in a formal organizational inspection, individuals are more likely to grow from formal assessments that highlight well-known weaknesses that just haven't been prioritized.

The BCAP also reminded me of the power of clearly-communicated high standards for motivating performance without playing unnecessary games. It perfectly demonstrated the ability to evaluate proficiency without introducing needless artificial stressors during the assessment process. There were no tricks and no harsh attitudes. None of that was necessary to induce stress. The stakes were high, and the standards were clear enough to provide all the stress required to motivate performance and assess proficiency.

Too often, our idea of effective methods of individual or unit proficiency assessment come from field training exercises, unit-level boards and selection processes, which resort to artificial stressors and gimmicks to motivate and provoke leadership aspects to surface. Instead, we should leverage transparent high standards and expectations to increase performance and assess proficiency. We should strive to make our standards rigorous, clearly understood, and fair in order to achieve the outcomes we want.

It's human nature to assume we are better than we actually are, both relative to others and relative to a perceived "norm." Without assessments, both individuals and groups will lull themselves into a sense of complacency.

A healthy modus operandi would be to periodically confirm what we think we know to ensure we are not deluding ourselves and normalizing dysfunction. Complicit in such dysfunction is the practice of conducting "lazy" assessments that are neither rigorous nor objective, thus compromising the desired outcome of gaining honest insight about our weaknesses. It wouldn't make any sense to grade an APFT in which the graders don't consistently and assertively correct glaring issues with the execution of push-ups or sit-ups.

Similarly, it wouldn't make any sense to ask for peer or subordinate feedback on performance by only asking people we consider friends or in a manner that doesn't allow them to be completely candid. We should strive to throw out our comfortable notions about how good we are, and commit to testing ourselves through periodic assessments focused on things we know or think we may need to correct.

Future potential for leadership in the Army and effective communication skills are inextricably linked. The Army is committed to reinforcing this proposition. As evidence, the majority of BCAP assessments involve communications skills of some type: comprehension, writing, speaking, or collaborative problem-solving. Those who struggle with any form of communication have a responsibility to continuously and deliberately improve their shortcomings with effective communication.

This also requires a meta-analysis of our personality traits that either contribute to, or detract from, effective communication. As an introvert, I am more likely to obsess over the precision and comprehensiveness of ideas, which sometimes means I am more verbose than necessary. I am also not inclined to seek out interaction which makes me vulnerable to lack of communication in general. In this way, it is important that we not only understand our strengths and weaknesses for communication, but also the tendencies that underlie these conditions. There is no way to meaningfully grow our leadership potential without also continuing to improve our ability to communicate in all forms.

BCAP is incredibly valuable in improving the Army’s talent management and leader development approach. Ensuring the wide impact of this new Army “culture of assessment” is essential. Individually and collectively, we would all benefit from applying the same emphasis on assessments to everything we do, not just the things that personally benefit us and our careers, but everything that makes our units and teams better.

The first step is for those who have experienced BCAP firsthand to seriously reflect on their experience, think critically about those outcomes, and apply the lessons learned as widely as possible in their current organizations and duties.

Maj. Michael A. Hamilton is the Brigade Operations Officer for 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade at Fort Benning, GA. He is a 16-year active duty officer with five deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, and his previous assignments include the 82nd Airborne Division, 1st Armored Division, and 75th Ranger Regiment.

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