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The noncomissioned officer evaluation report (NCOER) is the bane of our existence.  I’m sure Big Army magically gets it right, but it is not uncommon for our Guard unit to spend at least one or two drill weekends each year doing nothing but trying to get caught up on delinquencies.  I’m convinced there’s no good reason for it, although there are certainly contributing factors (like compelling soldiers to use their own computers with finicky Windows-only software to process them).

What follows is an example of how theory and practice diverge, how my own thinking on the matter has changed over time, and some thoroughly unoriginal thoughts on how I teach my NCOs to game the system (and incidentally become better NCOs at the same time).

Army evaluations: Theory and Practice

The theory:  You counsel an NCO throughout the year on what you expect and how he or she can achieve.  You rate them at the end of the year.  A senior rater and reviewer do their parts, everybody signs, and it goes into the system.  People with great ratings get promoted; people with mediocre ratings get better or get out.

The practice: Holy crap, your NCOER was due last month. We are “red” on the PowerPoint at Brigade, and no one can go home this weekend until we get these all done.  Give me some bullets.  More.  More.  I can’t do anything with this.  We need some generics: “showed up on time and in proper uniform always” and “demonstrated military bearing and professionalism daily.”  We need someone to be the senior rater; who’s here this month?  Hey sir, can you review this?  Sign it, let’s go.  It doesn’t matter; we just need something done so we can show we worked on all of these.  S1 will probably kick it back for starting a bullet with an adverb anyway.   We’ll fix it when we get it back.

There has to be a better way.

Lost purpose

Part of the problem is that while the theory of evaluations can be found in the relevant regs (AR 623-3, for one), the real purpose for doing evaluations has nothing to do with developing and retaining the best and brightest and everything to do with getting battalion and brigade off your back.  (I had a battalion command sergeant major at one point, a former 42A, who prioritized his energies as though the fundamental purpose of the United States Army was to evaluate itself.)

Actually evaluating people realistically is a secondary (at best) purpose.  Rating someone you have never even met, just to satisfy the needs of a PowerPoint slide, happens way more often than anyone will admit. We assign a rater from the pool of eligible people who happen to be there when it becomes a red light issue (whether that person is in their NCO support chain or not), and the rater and the rated NCO will wrack their brains to figure out what they can put on the form.  In theory, a “Success (meets std)” rating requires no bullets, but in practice you must have at least two bullets for each rated area or the personnel section will kick it back.  If you happen to find someone who is pretty good at it, they can make fluff bullets sound impressive, and your eval won’t be too awful (to eyes less demanding than mine, anyway).  If they aren’t as creative a writer, you could be damned by faint praise (e.g. the “on time and in proper uniform” bullet).

Who loves you, Baby?

Like all group work, my evaluations are far too important to be entrusted to the diligence of others.  I was fortunate enough to have a very sharp, very honest SSG as my instructor in WLC (the first leadership course for junior NCOs), who emphasized to us that no one else cared about or knew as much about our career as we did, so whoever our rater might have been, we were the best people to ensure our achievements were reflected in our evals.  “I’m not saying you should write your own eval, but…”

At first, I just offered some suggestions to my rater.  As time went on, I began taking a more activist role in my evals, and then in the evals of my subordinates, and I found a funny thing: you could actually use these things to help your people improve their performance.  Really.

Stage 0: Suggestions

I would offer suggestions to my rater.  Working on full-time orders for a different organization, I had a better idea of what I was doing day-to-day than he did, so I drafted some bullets which summed up my work.  He helped me get them into the proper format, and the preferred emphasis on meaningful verbs, quantitative achievement, and attributable outcome.

I can comfortably (and sadly) say that many NCOs of my acquaintance never get past this stage.

Stage 1: “Here, I saved you some time…”

Two components to this.  First, I kept a work journal noting my particular accomplishments over the course of the month, not just at drill weekends.  (This was, of course, also useful for general CYA purposes in an unpleasant and sometimes backstabby office environment.)

Second, I had an NCOER form handy and I would plug in the bullets (properly formatted and all) into the places where they made the most sense.  My rater and I would then adjust things as necessary.

As a side note, this is about when I learned the value in rewriting for different emphases.  For example, consider the following bullets describing the same (partially mythical) achievement:

  • passed General-class amateur radio license exam
  • upgraded amateur radio license to General class, demonstrating increased knowledge of radio principles and operations
  • achieved 100% score on General-class amateur radio exam, demonstrating continued increased knowledge of radio principles and operations
  • upgraded amateur radio license through rigorous study, enabling him to train 15 soldiers in radio wave propagation theory during July training assembly

If I were trying to bore someone to death, the first was a good option.  If I were trying to emphasize my own competence or initiative, the second would work, though the third is even better.  If I were trying to emphasize my training performance (training others, that is), the last would be the best.  (I didn’t actually get around to putting together any training, but I easily could have done so.  My actual NCOER bullet was better than any of these, but I don’t have it handy.)

Stage 2: Saving myself some time

As I suddenly found myself an ad hoc rater for some junior NCOs, I discovered the pain in trying to rate someone who was really worthwhile but who lacked documentation.  I hounded the junior NCOs to take notes of their own achievements and not hope someone else was paying attention.  Invariably, I find that almost no one really gets this until their first NCOER.  Still, I try.  (And write myself up a bullet on counseling junior NCOs.)

I took notes in my journal for other people: not just “my” soldiers, but anyone whom I happened to see do something worthwhile.  I started to “think in bullets” and write things down as though they were NCOER bullets: not just NCOER-worthy things, but really anything that I saw people do, on the theory that some bullets develop from a pattern of behavior, not just a single event.

I also wrote up my notes for myself during the drill weekend, and looked things over ahead of my NCOER due dates. Hmm, I don’t have much to say for this weekend yet. There’s still time to think of something to do tomorrow and go do it.  Similarly, I started looking at the big picture:  If I had to write it today, I wouldn’t have hardly anything for the training section.  Maybe I can put on a class this summer…

Stage 3: Speculative Fiction

Here’s where I am now. I draft the NCOER I want to have, one full of interesting achievements in new areas, at the beginning of my rating period.  Then I figure out how to execute.

So basically, I recreated the original concept.

Nothing really revolutionary here.  For literally my entire career, NCOERs had just been something we all desperately needed but did not want to deal with and never had time to do properly.  By looking past the administrative headache and seeing them as a planning tool, they’re now a much simpler chore.

Perhaps more importantly, they are a tool for inspiring high performance, especially for M-Day NCOs who are just “one weekend a month.”  By getting them involved in their own write-ups, they can see their lives in terms of potential NCOER bullets, and the end result is a justifiably excellent NCOER for an NCO who has motivated himself or herself to do really good work.  I frequently joke that I don’t have time for any hobby which can’t generate at least two or three NCOER bullets, but there’s a kernel of truth to it.  Finding ways to apply my own interests (teaching, writing, editing, even amateur radio) to my career has resulted in a little more enthusiasm for each.

A caveat

Sure seems like I’m missing something here.  Well, yes.  We’ve only talked about how to inspire and document the awesomeness of good NCOs.   How do you improve mediocre ones?  Separate but related problem.  This sort of thing puts fuel to the fire for kids who want to be there and want to succeed but aren’t sure how, but I am uncertain whether it will do much for people who aren’t already self-motivating.  I have some ideas there, but no real record of success.

Game the system

It’s been a long time since I’ve had any kind of civilian evaluation, but I remember them in painful detail from the bad old days of working in IT support.  I wish I’d known then what I know now; I should have, because in reality the game is no different from grades in school.  You find out in advance what the standard is, you figure out where the low-hanging fruit is and don’t waste extra energy on it, and you make a plan of action to achieve the difficult things.

If you take control of the process, you won’t be surprised at the end of the year, and your rater won’t have much work to do.  If you help your subordinates take control of their own ratings, you will not only have much less work to do come ratings time, but you will also have tricked them into becoming awesome NCOs. Way to game the system.

Relevant Linkage

  • Army Times (Oct 2014) on the forthcoming new NCOER system, which will doubtless solve every problem in the current system
  • AR 623-3 Evaluation Reporting System (PDF)
  • DA Form 2166-8 NCO Evaluation Report (PDF)
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