Top 5 Army Retention Ideas for Company Commanders

It is pretty obvious that Army National Guard Company Commanders face different challenges than their Active Duty counterparts.  One of those is the area of Soldier retention.  Only in the National Guard are Company Commanders responsible for and rated on their ability to retain their Soldiers.

It sort of makes sense when you think about it…after all, commanders and NCOs have the biggest impact on whether a Soldier opts to stay in or get out.  In the Active Component, it is usually Colonels who make the call and determine which Soldiers have the most potential for success and meeting the Army standard.  In the National Guard, we rely on Company Commanders…

The biggest challenge in this lies in the fact that many of the forces at play that determine a Soldier’s decision to remain in boots are out of a commander’s control.  From civilian career pursuits, family concerns/pressures, continuing education endeavors or simply a disinterest in serving beyond what they originally contracted to do…it is extremely difficult to convince a Soldier to continue to be a part of your team…the Army team. Personally, I know the continuing trend of expectations of doing more and more with less and less time (due to failures in leadership) have forced out more than a few of my friends and peers.

While it may seem that retaining Soldiers is impossible, there are some things you can do as a Company Commander (or any Officer/NCO) to help your cause and ensure successful retention efforts.  Now, these are not simply “do these things and Soldiers will simply stay in” tips but rather strategies and command climate visions that will aid your efforts as part of your overall Retention Program.  For these strategies to have any affect, you have to have a solid Retention Program in place that addresses Soldiers well before their ETS date.  The following are My Top 5 Army Retention Ideas for Company Commanders.

One reason that many Soldiers leave the ARNG is because they are frustrated.  This frustration stems from things like disorganized units, toxic leaders, lack of advancement, full time leaders who lack an M-Day empathy or Soldiers who are just simply disenchanted.  For these types of Soldiers there are things that are within our control that we can influence to keep quality Soldiers in our units.

This brings me to my first tip…don’t assume high quality Soldiers will just “take one for the team”.  Part of keeping high quality Soldiers around is understanding what frustrates them and trying to find things to “un-frustrate” them.  Chances are, your best Soldiers are the ones who put in the extra hours between drills and work harder than other Soldiers.

As commanders, we have no control over compensation for these Soldiers (that’s the Army’s job).  After all, what incentive does a hardworking E-6 have for sticking around when there are E-7s and Officers slacking off and make more than they do?  Well, not much of one that’s for sure.  There are, however, other ways of recognizing hard working Soldiers and ensuring that they are getting the treatment they deserve.

One example of such strategy was my previous command.  When RMP funds were available they would throw Soldiers some extra cash for their work done between drills.  Sometimes they would even offer a few SUTAs.  These are simple gestures, but they are gestures that show your Soldiers that you recognize their hard work and may be the type of thing that keeps them around when their ETS date comes.

If you want to keep good Soldiers, their drill weekends need to provide them with meaning – a sense they are doing something important, that they are fulfilling their duties within the larger picture. As silly as that may sound, these psychological needs are likely to be as important, and perhaps more important, than the hundreds of benefits the NG offers them.

Nobody likes to come to drill and go through the same motions year after year.  Too many command philosophies and vision statements are published on day one and are never referred to again. Leadership is a process, just as creating a vision is a process that will continue to develop as long as you make your Soldiers feel a part of creating that vision.

It is important to offer special schools and training opportunities. Effective Commanders know that to retain Soldiers, sometimes they have develop their strengths and to become more of who they are (or want to be) and they have to challenge them. As they come to better understand who they are, they can see opportunities for growth in the NG, utilizing their strengths and talents.

As they move forward in their self-knowledge, they can look for places within the Company where their talents are a good fit.  Sometimes just offering a Soldier a high-speed school like Airborne or Pathfinder School is enough to motivate them to stick around.  Trust me, I have seen this work.

It has been said that no news is good news, but for commanders interested in keeping the best Soldiers, this is not true. For Soldiers, not getting any feedback is tantamount to being ignored…and it leads to complacency. Organizations that ignore performance will destroy the very Soldier spirit that makes the true difference in quality units.

Positive recognition is often thought of as coming strictly from Senior Leadership, but I have found that Soldiers also value praise and recognition from their fellow peers. Soldiers know the particulars of their job and when they give good feedback it can be more meaningful.  What can a commander do to help foster this? Model the appropriate way to give frequent praise and recognition. Working to develop appropriate and effective feedback skills throughout the unit…such a  culture can have a positive impact on retention.

Last but not least, understand your Soldiers’ motivations – It’s really important to understand how each of your Soldiers who is looking to leave is motivated and what they want from the Army. For example, Soldiers might be working for different reasons such as personal fulfillment, love for what they do, to accomplish financial or educational goals and also for money (VA Home Loans, etc.).

If you understand the motivations for each Soldier, it will be easier for you to have a discussion with them according to their preferences. If you address them appropriately, they will be less likely to think that you simply view them as a number you must maintain for retention.

This is a technique that I have used personally with a couple of my Soldiers.  While I couldn’t retain them for 20 years, I was able to get them to extend for a few years as they worked towards their goal of securing a VA Loan and going back to school for their Master’s degree.  I understood what motivated them on a personal level…

FINAL THOUGHTS

There you have it.  These are my top 5 retention ideas for Company Commanders in the ARNG and USAR. Follow these five tips and you should see a big improvement in your retention rates.

What are some of your techniques and experiences with retention efforts?  Any out of the ordinary approaches that surprisingly worked?  Share with us!  I look forward to hearing from you.

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11 thoughts on “Top 5 Army Retention Ideas for Company Commanders”

  1. Pingback: Cool Army Platoon Names and Nicknames | Citizen Soldier Resource Center
  2. Retention is so important to keeping consistency, cohesion and strength. They say one bad apple will spoil the batch. There is truth to this. The bad apple isn’t necessarily the one who decides not to re-up. There is generally a good reason: poor leadership, no sense of opportunity, no accolades… As Justin mentions, there has to be meaning to get the motivation to stay.

  3. We do AARs every single drill, and we get the best feedback when the Soldiers are able to just go and do their job, that they signed up to do. They hate being bored, they hate when they can’t turn wrenches, or go drive trucks, or whatever it is they signed up for. I think every leaders book should have a section for pertinent information about each Soldier. If you don’t have a good memory, write down facts as you learn them, and remember to ask your Soldiers for updates.

  4. Great tip about engaging soldier on his family, Greg! When I go to a store, I make it a point to look at the name tag and address my cashier by name. Their whole demeanor changes, it shows I see them as more than just someone ringing up my groceries. Soldiers are no different. High turnover for a leader in any profession is disheartening, and doesn’t look very good. A big reason people leave a job or career, aside from pay, is lack of appreciation. I think all soldiers have the position to be great, with the right commander. Utilizing these tips can help a commander turn his squad around and increase his retention rate.

    1. Thank you both Ty and Chuck. I discovered a long time ago that sometimes material items and money are down the list when it comes to being in a job. Sometimes just knowing the people you spend hours with care and know you a little deeper than the job means a lot. I know that I have had jobs I detested, but because I liked the boss and the people I worked with, and because they cared about me, I endured the hated job. It does mean a lot to know others care.

  5. These all sound like great advice. To add just a bit, I would say to keep a small notepad and when you learn a little more about each soldier, jot it down. There is nothing like hearing from a superior “how is (spouse’s name)” or “is (child’s name) doing good in school”? Sometimes all that soldier needs is to know that his leader listens and retains what they have told them.

    I also agree with finding the main reason they joined the Guard. Use that reason to give them more reasons to stay.

    I also agree with making drill weekend just a bit more interesting and meaningful. Most soldiers joined to be a part of defending our great nation. Show them how they are doing just that!

    1. Great points, Greg. Knowing some personal information about the people you lead is always a wise idea. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

    2. I agree with these points. I believe that most people across all occupations work for satisfaction more than anything else. By that, I do not mean just material satisfaction, but the feeling of worth, purpose and accomplishment. Everyone wants to feel appreciated, and there is not much that makes people feel more appreciated than someone who cares enough to get to know them.

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