How to Reenlist and Retain More Soldiers

My goal in this post is to teach you how to retain and reenlist your good Soldiers.  Retention is very important. The Army spends hundreds of millions (maybe billions) each year training the force.  Their goal is to retain these Soldiers and develop future Army leaders.

During my time in the ARNG there was always a big push to retain Soldiers.  In many cases, we were told to retain everyone, regardless of their performance.  Personally, I’ve never subscribed to that mindset.  I’ve always believed the role of the leader is to retain the good Soldiers and get rid of the bad ones.  It makes no sense to retain a problem child, especially if you have tried to rehabilitate them without luck.

In the paragraphs below, I want to share some of my best tips on how to retain the good Soldiers. These are things I personally did during my career to get good Soldiers to reenlist.

Tip # 1: Find Out Their Goals and Dreams

One of the first and most simple things you can do to retain your good Soldiers is to find out their goals and dreams.  The only way to do this is to sit down with your Soldiers and counsel them.  Ask them questions and listen to their responses.  Find out if they know what they want to accomplish in the military and in life.  Some will know what they want and others won’t know what they want.

It’s hard to give anyone career advice until you take this step.  For example, if someone has a goal to start their own business, you might realize that staying in the military isn’t in THEIR best interest.  On the other hand, you might find out that someone wants to do 20 years and retire as a CSM.  If that is true, you can help them create a plan for success.  Until you know what someone wants with their life, you should not recommend what they do with their life.

If your Soldiers don’t know exactly what they want in life, you can teach them how to set goals.  You can show them how to write life long, five year, one year and monthly goals.  This might be the single greatest skill you can teach your Soldiers.  If you don’t know anything about goal setting, visit your local library and read a book or two.  The information you learn will also help your career!

Believe it or not, this simple little process of finding out what your Soldiers want and helping them achieve it can work wonders with retention too!

Tip # 2: Show an Interest in Your Soldier’s Personal Life

As a leader, you should show an interest in your Soldier’s personal life.  I’m not talking about becoming buddy-buddy and being on a first name basis.  Instead, I’m talking about getting to know your Soldiers as people, not just as Soldiers.  At a minimum, you should find out where the Soldier is from, what some of their hobbies are, whether or not they are married and have kids, what they like to do outside the military, etc.

You have to remember that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you careWhen you show a genuine interest in others, you earn their respect.  When people know you care and respect them, they will enjoy serving with you and enjoy having you as a boss. And when it comes time to reenlist, this one thing alone might be the deciding factor!

Tip # 3: Reward Good Behavior and Punish Poor Behavior

There’s nothing worse than seeing a slacker Soldier get over!  Ask any squared away Soldier what bothers them most and they will probably respond with the same statement.  In fact, there’s nothing I personally find more offensive than someone who continuously screws up, doesn’t do anything right, but still gets the same pay and opportunity as people who do the right thing.

As a leader, you need to do two things well.  First and foremost, you need to get good at rewarding Soldiers who go above and beyond and constantly meet and exceed the published standards.  This means you need to learn how to praise Soldiers, you need to learn how to submit Soldiers for awards and recognize their achievements.

The second skill you must master is your ability to punish poor behavior.  That means you need to counsel Soldiers, do negative counseling statements, FLAG Soldiers, do Bars to Re-enlistment, etc.  You need to hold everyone to the same standard and punish people who constantly fail to meet the standards.

Most Army leaders are good at one of these two things, but not at both of them.  Make sure you spend as much time (if not more) rewarding good behavior as you do rewarding bad behavior.  Don’t neglect these areas.  It will be difficult to convince a GOOD Soldier to reenlist when you let all the slackers slack, and never do anything about it.

Tip # 4: Explain the Benefits of a Military Career

One simple way to retain more Soldiers is to sit down with them and explain all the benefits of making the ARNG or USAR a career.  Let’s face it; there are many reasons to serve 20 years in the military reserves.  Several examples include a pension, life insurance, health insurance, free travel, etc.  As a leader, you should educate yourself about ALL of the retirement benefits (and benefits for current service members), so you know them yourself, and so you can educate your subordinates.

Most Soldiers DO NOT have a plan for their life.  If you can OBJECTIVELY sit down with them and show them ALL the BENEFITS of staying in and making a career out of the military, many of them will re-enlist.

Tip # 5: Provide Tough Realistic Training

No one joined the ARNG or USAR to sit around the armory and do nothing.  Your Soldiers joined because they wanted to blow things up, do fun and exciting things, and travel.  You need to make sure that EVERY training event is tough, challenging and effective.  You want your Soldiers excited to go home at the end of drill weekend and tell everyone they know about what they did.  You also want Soldiers to WANT to come to drill weekend every month.

The easiest way to do this is to sit down with your Officers and find creative ways to provide tough, realistic training.  Whenever possible, get out of the armory and go somewhere different.  Reduce the amount of “classroom time” and try to do all of your training in the field with “hands on” training.  Make the training memorable, tough and challenging.

This will be great for morale and retention.

Tip # 6: Send Your Soldiers to Schools

Another great way to retain good Soldiers is to send your Soldiers to schools.  Find out what military schools are available and find out what schools your Soldiers want and need to attend to advance their career.  Keep this information in your Leader’s Book.

Try to send ALL of your Soldiers to at least once military school each year, whether it is MOS Related, NCOES or simply a professional development school.  When your Soldiers go to schools, a few things happen.  First of all, they learn new skills.  They also get additional promotion points.   Both of these things will help them get promoted and advance their career.

As you can see, this obviously has a positive impact with retention too.  When your Soldiers get the schools they want, there’s a good chance they will want to continue their military service.

Tip # 7: Help Your Soldiers Get Promoted

As a leader, you need to help your soldiers get promoted, especially the deserving ones.  This means you help them calculate their promotion points, you show them how to get more promotion points, you teach them about career progression, and you do what you can to give them the cutting edge over their peers.

The true sign of a leader is their ability to develop their subordinates.  If you can help lots of your Soldiers get promoted, you will earn their respect.  Many of these Soldiers will reenlist, in hopes of advancing their military career even more.  Even if you risk losing a superstar Soldier to another unit because of a promotion, you should help them do it anyway.

Tip # 8: Make Your Soldiers Feel Appreciated

One of the greatest human needs is the need to be appreciated.  Many folks go through their whole life without ever feeling appreciated.  “Lack of appreciation” is a major cause of divorce and a major cause for “disgruntled employees.”

As a supervisor, you want your Soldiers to know that YOU appreciate them as Soldiers and as people.  To do this effectively, you should say thank you whenever possible.  You should write thank you notes.  You should put Soldiers in for awards and schools.  You should send your Soldiers a birthday card and holiday card.

You should do whatever it takes to make your Soldiers feel appreciated.  That’s part of being a leader.  If you can master this skill, you will ZIP through your career.  You will build a loyal following of people who know you, like you and trust you.

If your Soldiers feel appreciated, many of them will stay in because they DO NOT feel appreciated outside of the military.

Tip # 9: Have Realistic Expectations

My last tip in this post is to have realistic expectations.  You will NEVER reenlist ALL of your Soldiers (good or bad ones).  And that’s a good thing.  Your job is to retain the quality Soldiers that you can, but please know that some of your good Soldiers will choose to ETS anyway.  And that’s okay!

Even if you lose a good Soldier to ETS, don’t fret.  You did your job as the leader.  You helped them develop their potential and become a better person and leader.  More importantly, always keep the door open with people.  Never blackball or chastise ANYONE for leaving the military.  Instead, thank them for their military service and tell them the door is always open if they want to come back.

If you cause people to leave the military with a negative impression, they might never come back in.  Worst of all, they will share that negativity with everyone they talk with.  Instead, be positive and keep the door open.  Some of your Soldiers who get out today will be back in the ranks in a year or two because they miss it.

Final Thoughts

These are my best tips for retaining your good Soldiers.  You should never try to retain ALL of your Soldiers.  If your Soldier is a problem child now, the last thing you want is him or her to become a problem child NCO.  Your job is to weed out the bad ones, to develop whoever you can and retain the best ones!

Do you have any retention or reenlistment tips you will share? Do you have any questions? Just post below. Thanks.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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6 thoughts on “How to Reenlist and Retain More Soldiers”

  1. There may not be a lot that a leader can do about some turnover, because of a Soldier’s understandable fear of deployment and frequent relocation. But I believe that keeping your subordinates focused on the many benefits of service, not just the educational money, could help. Feeling appreciated and valued has been shown to be a major motivating factor in sticking with an employer (at least that is what my company always told me).

    I also believe that at least as much effort should go into retaining those already in service, as that put into recruiting new ones.

  2. Candace Ginestar

    I know a lot of Soldiers that get out because of the ‘institution’, and there’s nothing that their individual leaders can do about it. I even had a Soldier tell me that it was nice to have leadership for the first time who set a good example, did the right thing, and cared about their Soldiers…but it was ‘too late for them’…It’s hard to swallow that.

  3. Even in private industry, it cost more to break in someone or something new than it does to retain it. I like how you write first letter of Soldier in uppercase. This shows the importance you place on them. Those who leave the military in a negative way not only will talk badly about the military but people will listen to and spread bad news before they will the good. It is like a bad divorce. Too bad, but it’s true in every day life, the media and more.

  4. Neil O'Donnell

    Developing a genuine camaraderie with subordinates, listening and addressing their needs, definitely seems to me to be the best way to increase retention. The benefits are certainly a key factor that draws in recruits, but having a connection with superiors will help keep soldiers eager to serve. As for problem recruits, I agree it is necessary to weed them out. Problem recruits, left around, can decrease the morale of those who are working hard.

    1. Doing the little things makes the biggest different, Neil, especially in terms of retention. When Soldiers truly know that you care about them, they will want to stick around and reenlist. Everyone wants to be part of a team and something bigger than themselves.

  5. I think a large problem is that most are unaware of the multitude of benefits that come with being enlisted. So often the educational aspect is shown in advertisements, but not enough about insurance and travel benefits.

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