Thursday, January 20, 2011

Please Don't Focus on the Retention Rate

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of re-enlisting another valued member of our team. In this case, the venue was just as unique as the Sailor...we were on the roof of our building. As unique as the venue was, this Sailor's willingness to repeatedly ask "Why?" and live his life as if he is asking the world "Why Not?" ensured none of us were surprised in the least to find ourselves on the roof celebrating the still young career of this fine Sailor. Though the location was not a surprise, his decision to re-enlist was. Up until a month ago, we were sure this valued member of our team was going to take his talents elsewhere and for all of the right reasons.

During the ceremony I publicly admitted the pleasant surprise that many of us felt when he decided to pledge six more years of his life to our Navy. I also made it a point to remind the audience that as pleased as we are when a Sailor decides to re-enlist, 100% retention is not our goal and we should not make it a point to persuade anyone to "Stay Navy". As I canvassed the rooftop, I saw more than a few furled brows as the Sailors wondered if this was yet another case of the CO mis-transmitting his intended message. To address the confused look of many, I repeated myself. In doing so, I amplified that our goal continues to be one of giving every member of our team reason to want to stay. It's a subtle but important distinction...

Life is far too short to not spend it doing the things we love with people we enjoy. Though a decision to stay Navy is not necessarily the desired outcome in al cases, we tend to celebrate the retention rate as an important measure of command climate and the leadership team. By giving Sailors rewarding work, required training, and an enjoyable work environment, we will give all reason to want to stay. They may choose to leave, but we give them reason to consider staying. There has been much talk of retention of late (especially in our Officer Corps) and in my opinion, the conversation is misdirected. We want people to stay because they love and see value in what they do, not because they feel they have little to offer the private sector. We want people to leave because they are following their true passion or because they aren't meeting our high standards, not because they are frustrated with the Navy or, worse yet, our command.

Each day, we pridefully raise our "Golden Anchor" pennant. The pennant tells the world that we met retention excellence criteria over the last year. In the binary world in which many of us live, some assume it to be an important metric of how well or poorly the command is functioning. Flying the pennant doesn't provide insight into:

- The Sailor of the Year you lost only to retain as a civilian for an extended career
- The Sailor you asked to leave (directly or otherwise) because he is not meeting the high standards
- The Sailor you helped to leave so she could pursue her true passions or tend to an ill family member

Truth is a specified retention rate is a misguided goal. A command flying the "Golden Anchor" may not be as good as we assume; a command not flying one may have the best command climate ever witnessed while making extraordinary contributions to our Navy. I sincerely hope that each member of our team is given every reason to want to "Stay Navy" and that all know their chain of command is committed to helping them to achieve their career goals whether or not they include the Navy. It's not about a pennant and our goal is not 100% retention. Our goal is to help each other grow both personally and professionally, while maximizing job satisfaction, as we continue to contribute to our National defense. Whether or not we hoist a "Golden Anchor" come next year, we will continue to take great pride in our team, as we acknowledge the decisions our Shipmates are making are the right ones for both them and the Navy, just as the one our "On the Roof Gang" witnessed earlier this month.


  1. ((Deleted previous post to correct it.))
    Good point. In 1998 during a visit to U.S. Naval Security Group Activity Yokosuka, Japan (which won the silver and gold anchor) by Commander, Naval Security Group , we proudly announced to RADM Winsor Whiton that while we had not achieved 100% retention, the retention team had retained all the Sailors we wished to keep. He was satisfied with that. 'Every' Sailor is not suited for a full career, just as 'every' Sailor is not suited to be a leader. As leaders, we owe to all our people to guide them to that activity to which they are most suited.

  2. I never thought about this while serving for 24 years. I will throw out the thought anyway...does anyone other than the Navy make a big deal about retention awards? It seems to be a particularly "surface navy" thing..

  3. My brother works for Cisco and he tells me retention is huge as a performance objective amongst management, but that seems to be as far as it goes. The discussion elsewhere is about retaining top performers not all attendees.