Skills for Seapower: Why the Navy Needs to Teach Soft and Hard Skills

By Mie Augier, Sean F. X. Barrett, and Nicholas Dew1

“Communication skills and the ability to work well with different types of people are very important too. A lot of people assume that creating software is purely a solitary activity where you sit in an office with the door closed all day and write lots of code. This isn’t true at all. Software innovation, like almost every other kind of innovation, requires the ability to collaborate and share ideas with other people, and to sit down and talk with customers and get their feedback and understand their needs. I also place a high value on having a passion for ongoing learning.” –Bill Gates2

“The cognitive skills and abilities of naval leaders must be viewed as a strategic national asset.”–Education for Seapower3

Introduction 

While the Department of the Navy’s recently published Education for Seapower (E4S) study is designed specifically to respond to the highly competitive security environment of today, it is no coincidence that it emphasizes the need for officer skills that are consistent with larger trends in education and employment. In this paper, we dig into the emphasis E4S puts on the development of both STEM skills and leadership skills among future naval officers. Based on our word count, leader is among the most frequently mentioned terms in the E4S study, implying a set of skills that is not purely technical. At the same time, the Navy and Marine Corps are calling for officers with strong STEM skills, with the implication being that both STEM and leadership skills are needed for success in the “Cognitive Age.” According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, there is abundant evidence suggesting that this combination of hard and soft skills is in high demand outside the Navy as well as within it.4

Given the centrality of a combination of hard and soft skills to the Navy and Marine Corps warfighting philosophy, it is worth asking how the Department might improve the way it develops these skills and makes them more abundant across the naval force. It is a particularly opportune time to think carefully about this question because the Navy is currently writing its very first Naval Education Strategy to deliver on the promise of E4S. This strategy will likely influence the path of naval education for many years to come. Hence, it is incredibly important that the strategy be based on sound education principles – rather than reflecting the flavor of the moment, or the Department’s needs of the moment, or the Department’s entrenched, parochial interests. This will not be an easy feat, yet E4S has already recognized that getting the Naval Education Strategy right is much more than just a little important: it may be one of the most consequential initiatives the Department will undertake in the foreseeable future. Its education plans therefore ought to be based on very well-researched and carefully thought out principles designed to serve it well over the long run.

We argue that it is vital to keep in mind this combination of hard and soft skills as the Department moves forward with its plans for investing in the education of its leaders of the future.5 The National Academies highlight a baseline skillset that includes communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving capability in complex, multidisciplinary situations. These skills are highly generalizable, leaders rely on them more heavily than their technical skills, they are more important to an individual’s success, and employers place the greatest value on them when making hiring decisions.6

Unfortunately, there is an unjustified tendency to either implicitly or explicitly assume soft skills are innate, or are only learned via job experience, or are simply some kind of mystery. Nothing is further from the truth. Instead, we should be educating future Navy leaders for a combination of both soft and hard skills that the empirical data suggests are needed together for high performance across a naval career. General David Berger, USMC, in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG), also captures the importance of this skill mix when he talks about identifying “those with a special aptitude as instructors, educators, commanders, staff officers, mentors, or with special technical skills,” which he reinforces by identifying the need to change how the Marine Corps attracts and retains the talent necessary to win on today’s new battlefield.7

Hard and Soft Evidence of Increasing Demand for Hard and Soft Skills

Both anecdotal and systematic data indicate that job growth and rewards are increasingly flowing to jobs that require high social skills. Anecdotally, the 2018 Financial Times Skills Gap survey reveals that top employers identify “soft skills” as the most important skills in MBA graduates.“Soft skills” include the ability to work on a team, to work with a wide variety of people, and to solve complex problems. However, this result is tempered by the observation that “unless [MBA graduates] have technical skill requirements, they are not even getting through the door.”9 This highlights that both soft skills and hard skills are important in today’s labor market. Similar results have been found for college graduates, for whom problem-solving skills and the ability to work on a team are the two most desired attributes employers are seeking.10

Systematic evidence shows that soft skills explain an important part of workplace performance.11 Recent research by Harvard economist David Deming finds that the workplace has particularly rewarded jobs requiring both high cognitive and high social skills:

“Between 1980 and 2012, jobs requiring high levels of social interaction grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of the U.S. labor force. Math-intensive but less social jobs – including many STEM occupations – shrank by 3.3 percentage points over the same period. Employment and wage growth were particularly strong for jobs requiring high levels of both math skill and social skills.”12

Figure 113

Another way of expressing these results is that social skills coupled with STEM skills are a much stronger predictor of employment for today’s young adults than they were a generation ago. It is especially important for senior naval leadership to recognize that workplace changes have altered the balance of skills needed for today’s rising leaders compared to a generation ago.

Why Soft – as Well as Hard – Skills are Important in Organizations

In today’s highly technical work environments, it is easy to understand why great engineering skills or computer programming skills are highly valuable to organizations such as the Navy. These skills clearly have an important role in making the Navy and Marine Corps competitive against our adversaries. But what do soft skills do for an organization? Why is it an advantage to have leaders that also have excellent soft skills?

One answer is that soft skills decrease the cost of coordinating work in organizations. As work gets more highly skilled, it becomes more specialized, thus putting more demands on skills and flexibility in organizing work. This is a reason why the ability to lead teams effectively has become so important in today’s workplace. As the complexity of the work increases, so do the demands on those who organize it. Hard skills may be prized among leaders for understanding complex technology, but the organizational demands of these complex workplaces can only be met by those who have elevated levels of soft skills as well.

A recent Harvard Business Review article emphasizes this point. Casciaro, Edmondson, and Jang asked companies around the world which relationships are most important to creating value for their customers. Their responses indicate, “Today the vast majority of innovation and business-development opportunities lie in the interfaces between functions, offices, or organizations.”14 Operating effectively at these interfaces requires “learning about people on the other side and relating to them.”15 Brokering those relationships requires strong interpersonal skills to bring together the knowledge needed to create valuable new solutions.16 Deming similarly notes the importance of these interpersonal skills.17

The importance of soft skills to our warfighting capabilities should come as no surprise to today’s naval forces, who embrace the maneuver warfare philosophy, which decentralizes control and decision making through the use of mission tactics, or “assigning a subordinate a mission without specifying how the mission must be accomplished . . . thereby allowing him the freedom—and establishing the duty—to take whatever steps he deems necessary based on the situation.”18 Soft skills that nurture familiarity and trust are central to the philosophy of command on which maneuver warfare is based: “We believe that implicit communication—to communicate through mutual understanding, using a minimum of key, well-understood phrases or even anticipating each other’s thoughts—is a faster, more effective way to communicate than through the use of detailed, explicit instructions. We develop this ability through familiarity and trust.”19

What Might the Navy Do?

“We should use money like a focused weapon, and aim it at the exact individual we need. Currently, we target people via a mass fires approach, instead of more selective targeting. While we hope this results in the retention of the most talented, our antiquated models may also retain poor performers.” –General David Berger, USMC20

“Over the next few months, I will share some thoughts on two of our highest priorities: the creation of the new Naval Community College for enlisted Sailors and Marines as well as the writing of the first Naval Education Strategy to guide our reform efforts.” –John Kroger, Chief Learning Officer, Department of the Navy21

Since the demands of an increasingly complex security environment are not likely to relent anytime soon, it is likely that more will be asked of individual sailors and Marines. Given scarce resources, the Department will have to make judgments about where to invest in education to get the best bang for its buck in order to obtain broader and deeper skillsets. In particular, the Department’s manpower system is intrinsically linked to its ability to deliver on its education strategy. The current DoD manpower system, however, is neither equipped to identify, incentivize, or develop specialized skills (hard or soft) nor accurately register the demand for such skills or match servicemembers that possess them with billets that require them. The development of these skills in the naval officer corps thus depends on fundamental changes to the manpower system in order to properly unleash the talent potential of the Navy and Marine Corps. In order to invest in developing soft (and hard) skills among our officer corps, we need to change our manpower management system to embrace the maneuver philosophy not just in how we fight our forces, but also in how we administer them. Doing so requires a fundamental change in how the DoN (and larger DoD) identifies, educates, trains, and unleashes its talent.22

The current DoD manpower system is based on cutting edge management science—from the turn of the 20th century. In 1899, President McKinley appointed Elihu Root as Secretary of War “to bring ‘modern business practices’ to the ‘backward’ War Department.”23 Based on the Taylorism concept of breaking down complex production into simple, sequenced, standardized tasks, this system was created to maximize efficiencies in a stable, predictable environment. People were trained to be interchangeable parts in an organizational structure emphasizing hierarchical, centralized control. This system, firmly rooted in industrial-era thinking and practices, continues today, manifesting itself in cookie-cutter career paths; the devaluation of specialized skills; and information asymmetries between unit commanders, individual officers, and manpower managers that result in mismatches between officers and the billets they hold. Our manpower bureaucracy’s ability to accurately capture specialized skills is currently quite limited. It is challenging to capture individual experience, skills, and knowledge using combinations of designators in the Navy and primary military occupational specialty (MOS), additional MOS, free MOS, and necessary MOS codes in the Marine Corps. A given bureaucratic code may capture a baseline level of training or experience, but it does not enable differentiation therein.

One model for fixing these problems entails pushing manpower decisions down to the commanders and individual officers themselves, affording officers more opportunity to take responsibility for their own career decisions. Deming notes that workers with higher social skills tend to self-select into occupations where they might better employ them – and be monetarily rewarded for them.24 This self-selection process can be leveraged to create a “matching” system similar to ZipRecruiter and LinkedIn (or dating apps) that incentivize individuals to reveal (and “sell”) their skills to commanders who are empowered to select who joins their unit. The DoN may be able to learn from the U.S. Air Force’s development of a web-based “talent marketplace” for the assignment of its officers from the rank of lieutenant colonel and below.25 The Air Force will use its platform to “publish and manage the Vulnerable-to-Move List, submit and prioritize fill actions (requisitions) and submit assignment preferences.” This increases the transparency of the assignment process and enables officers and commanders to better communicate their preferences to each other. The Army also has ambitions to build a similar technological capability.26 The Navy’s own pilot project, however, continues to languish in bureaucracy, while the Marine Corps does not even have one yet.27

These pilots, however, still operate within the confines of the current manpower model and other established procedures. More radical proposals might include scrapping standardized tables of organization and equipment, mission essential task lists that reward achieving a bare minimum in lieu of contested force-on-force exercises designed to differentiate among commanders, and pay charts based on grade and time in service instead of actual talent and performance. Doing so would provide commanders more flexibility in how they organize their respective units and more opportunity to make tradeoff decisions that would signal to the Department the skills more readily valued and in which the Department should invest.28 Individuals would be similarly incentivized to invest in developing more valued skills, and they would have more opportunities to visibly distinguish themselves.

Significant changes are needed to develop a fundamentally better manpower system.29 Changes are also needed to the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) and Goldwater-Nichols in order to allow for more variance from the cookie-cutter career paths currently established in our naval services. Additionally, there is opportunity for a bigger dose of informal training. Leaders at the unit level can develop the soft skills of their teams by encouraging them to take on new challenges (while also eschewing the “zero defect” mentality), teaching them how to ask good questions, encouraging them to learn from the perspectives of others, and bringing together cross-functional teams that expose members to more diverse viewpoints and professional networks.30

The Naval Education Strategy needs to recognize that current manpower systems can limit the potential for progress and hold the Department’s educational investments hostage. It is very important for the strategy to be clear-eyed about this issue. Systems and processes rooted in the industrial age risk trapping the Department in industrial-era thinking while the rest of the world has moved well beyond that. Because these systems and processes will influence the implementation of E4S, the Naval Education Strategy must incorporate plans that address these critical complementary elements.

Conclusion

Given the siren song of rapid developments in technology, there is a natural assumption that the Navy should emphasize STEM skills rather than soft skills. However, abundant evidence shows that it is the combination of soft and hard skills that is vital to giving us warfighting capabilities that create and maintain an edge over our adversaries. The job now at hand is to sharpen the Navy’s manpower bureaucracy into a tool that can deliver the right combinations of soft and hard skills that are needed across the service.31 In the spirit of the innovative and critical thinking the Naval Education Strategy hopes to foster, the strategy must not simply take certain constraints as a given, but rather challenge these constraints and all of the assumptions, systems, and processes on which the Department operates. Failure to do so will result in continuing to operate within the same industrial-era box and making only very marginal improvements, rather than fundamentally changing the manner in which the Department operates to prepare it for the challenges of today and of the future.

Dr. Mie Augier is a professor at the Graduate School of Defense Management at the Naval Postgraduate School. She is interested in strategy, organizations, innovation, leadership, and how to educate strategic and innovative thinkers.

Major Sean F. X. Barrett is an active duty Marine Corps intelligence officer. He is currently the operations officer for the Headquarters Marine Corps Directorate of Analytics & Performance Optimization.

Dr. Nick Dew is a professor at the Graduate School of Defense Management at the Naval Postgraduate School. His research is focused on entrepreneurial thinking and innovation in defense organizations.

Endnotes

[1] We are grateful to William Gates and Chris Nelson for comments on earlier drafts. Any remaining errors were produced without help.

[2] Bill Gates, “Bill Gates: The Skills You Need to Succeed,” BBC News, December 14, 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/7142073.stm.

[3] Department of the Navy, Education for Seapower (Washington, DC: 2019), 12.

[4] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2018).

[5] We focus on skills in the context of education and not concerning the related and equally important aspect of the need for interdisciplinary research in our institutions.

[6] National Academies, Integration. Epstein documents how even in highly technical fields, curious outsiders can merge seemingly disparate but widely available information to make cutting edge contributions. Narrow technical specialists can be blinded by their own expertise. David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019), 171-213.

[7] Commandant’s Planning Guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps, (Washington, DC: Headquarters Marine Corps, 2019), 7-8, https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/142/Docs/%2038th%20Commandant%27s%20Planning%20Guidance_2019.pdf?ver=2019-07-16-200152-700.

[8] Patricia Nilsson, “What Top Employers Want from MBA Graduates: The FT’s 2018 Skills Gap Survey Reveals What Lies Ahead in the Jobs Market,” Financial Times, September 3, 2018, https://www.ft.com/content/64b19e8e-aaa5-11e8-89a1-e5de165fa619.

[9] Nilsson, “What Top Employers Want.” Nilsson quotes Susan Sandler Brennan, assistant dean at the career development office of MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

[10] Kevin Gray and Andrea Koncz, “The Key Attributes Employers Seek on Students’ Resumes,” National Association of Colleges and Employers, November 30, 2017, https://www.naceweb.org/about-us/press/2017/the-key-attributes-employers-seek-on-students-resumes/. Gray and Koncz summarize the results of NACE’s Job Outlook 2018 survey.

[11] James J. Heckman and Tim Kautz, “Hard Evidence on Soft Skills,” Labour Economics 19, no. 4 (Aug. 2012): 451-464.

[12] David J. Deming, “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 132, no. 4 (2017): 1593-1640. Quote from the Abstract.

[13] Deming, 1627 (see Figure IV).

[14] Tiziana Casciaro, Amy C. Edmondson, and Sujin Jang, “Cross-Silo Leadership: How to Create More Value by Connecting Experts from Inside and Outside the Organization,” Harvard Business Review (May-June 2019): 132.

[15] Casciaro, Edmondson, and Jang, 132. Emphasis in original.

[16] “Cultural brokers” can serve as both bridges and adhesives. Bridges serve as a go-between for one-off projects, facilitating collaboration with minimal disruption to normal operations, whereas adhesives help build mutual understanding and more long-lasting relationships. Casciaro, Edmondson, and Jang, 133.

[17] Deming, “Growing Importance,” 1595.

[18] U.S. Marine Corps, FMFM1 Warfighting (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 1989), 70.

[19] Warfighting, 62-63.

[20] CPG, 2

[21] John Kroger, “Chief Learning Officer: Reporting Aboard,” Marine Corps Gazette (Oct. 2019), WE1-WE2, https://mca-marines.org/wp-content/uploads/Chief-Learning-Officer.pdf.

[22] We specifically refrain from using the now almost trite term “talent management” since this term is oftentimes confused with a need for more bureaucratic mechanisms to centrally plan and manage officers’ careers rather than the removal of obstacles preventing a more optimal matching of officer skillsets to billets requiring them.

[23] Don Vandergriff, Personnel Reform and Military Effectiveness (Washington, DC: Center for Defense Information, 2015), 7.

[24] Deming, “Growing Importance,” 1598.

[25] Kat Bailey, “Talent Marketplace Assignment System Expands to All Officer Specialty Codes,” Air Force’s Personnel Center, January 31, 2019, https://www.afpc.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1744891/talent-marketplace-assignment-system-expands-to-all-officer-specialty-codes/.

[26] Scott Maucione, “Army Begins Study to Change Its Talent Management System to Fit the Future,” Federal News Network, February 19, 2019, https://federalnewsnetwork.com/army/2019/02/army-begins-study-to-change-its-talent-management-system-to-fit-the-future/.

[27] Nicholas Stoner and Alex Campbell, “Promising Talent Management Initiatives,” U.S. Naval Institute Blog, August 20, 2019, https://blog.usni.org/posts/2019/08/20/the-navy-is-strangling-its-most-promising-talent-management-initiatives. In his CPG, Gen Berger introduces the possibility of developing one. See CPG, 7-8.

[28] See, for example, Tim Kane, Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[29] Some significant work has already been done in this regard. See, for example, Peter J. Coughlan and William R. Gates, “Auction Mechanisms for Force Management,” in Attitudes Aren’t Free: Thinking Deeply About Diversity in the US Armed Forces, ed. James E. Parco and David A. Levy (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press), 505-540, https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/AUPress/Books/B_0120_PARCO_LEVY_ATTITUDES_ARENT_FREE.PDF#page=516.

[30] Casciaro, Edmondson, and Jang, “Cross-Silo Leadership,” 134-139.

[31] A parallel argument supporting the cultivation of such skills in our students relates to the importance interdisciplinary research and institutions that facilitate it (e.g., RAND in the 1950s). We hope to elaborate on this, and how one could capture synergies between interdisciplinary research and education, in another paper.

Featured Image: NAVAL STATION EVERETT, Wash. (Sept. 13, 2012) Aviation Administrationman 3rd Class Travis Clay, assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68), takes the Navy-wide advancement exam at the Commons at Naval Station Everett, Wash. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Robert Winn/Released)

2 thoughts on “Skills for Seapower: Why the Navy Needs to Teach Soft and Hard Skills”

  1. One other trick from Bill Gates/Microsoft: Put the whiteboards in the halls, rather than the boardrooms. The chance encounters and random, informal meetings repeatedly provided better outcomes than formulaic meetings. The Navy could keep boardrooms for classified briefings, but otherwise convert the floor space to other uses.

  2. Two thoughts:

    1. A more flexible military assignment system, in which I have worked, is more prone to cliques, favoritism, and bias, and tends to select against diversity (“ducks pick ducks”). Additionally, a “talent marketplace” model emphasizes personal branding and the ability to sell oneself – and, again, inside connections – over actual workplace skillsets of any kind, hard or soft. Not to say these pitfalls cannot be avoided: but they must be recognized and proactively dealt with.

    2. To develop and benefit from soft skills, people have to physically interact with each other. So much human interaction in the military has been sidelined (often in the name of cost-saving) by technology. There still remains no better way to accomplish a challenging task – including pinning down the commitment of resources – than corralling human beings in a room until they hash it out. Likewise, there is no better way to build trust and camaraderie (and to weed out bad apples) than through face-to-face human interaction. For all that the militaries want to solve HR processes, there is substantial benefit lurking on the sidelines by simply encouraging real human-to-human contact.

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