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Strengthening the Ranks: Strategies for Improving Retention

by Jakob Hutter

Amidst the backdrop of the United States flag, rows of uniformed soldiers stand at attention. The commanding officer addresses the formation as today is an opportunity filled with a time-honored tradition of reaffirmation, loyalty, and embracing a shared purpose. As the oath of reenlistment is administered, the pride of the assembled soldiers is clear with hands raised and voices steady. The significance of this moment is clear: serving as a testament to their unwavering commitment and to the central importance of retaining skilled and devoted individuals in the Army.

Addressing the demands of ever-evolving military operations requires retaining qualified, experienced, and dedicated personnel to ensure operational readiness. With an all-volunteer force potentially reaching its breaking point, the need to strengthen military retention strategies has come to the forefront. Retention is essential to sustain the effectiveness and morale of the organization, while also reducing the costs to recruit, train, and replace that workforce. It is therefore important to explore how organizations can improve their retention strategies, recognizing that effective retention strategies both honor the service of those who stand ready to defend the nation’s interest and ensure the organization can enhance its operational readiness.

Figure 1 encompasses the journey an individual takes in their military career, the key factors impacting each stage, and how the organization and its leaders can influence a soldier’s decision to continue their service. While recruiters work as ambassadors to attract and recruit people to join, retention begins the moment that soldier arrives at their unit. This includes being set up for success with the unit’s onboarding experience, the opportunities to improve themselves personally and professionally, and ensuring the organization can retain qualified soldiers. It concludes with the retirement or separation of the individual transitioning beyond the military and continued support and recognition of their contributions and military success. Examples may include initiatives such as an alumni network designed to help former soldiers maintain connections, mentorship programs, and the utilization of Army resources to facilitate their transition into civilian life.

Figure 1: The Soldier Service Lifecycle is adapted from the Employee Life Cycle Model (ELC), with each key stage of every Soldier’s journey used to visualize how a Soldier engages in throughout their military service.

Unlike civilian organizations, the military must grapple with distinct limitations in retaining people. These constraints encompass areas like compensation, limited autonomy based on rules and regulations, and juggling the rigorous demands of military service alongside personal and family life. While these challenges may be beyond the direct influence of battalion-level leadership and below, effective retention strategies can be implemented through command emphasis and fostering a climate that prioritizes both mission success and the overall well-being of personnel. 

The first strategy involves leadership at the battalion level. As the former Chief of Staff General James McConville told an audience in 2020, “The most consequential job in the United States Army is battalion command…that Lieutenant Colonel influences 500 to 600 people on whether they want to stay in the Army or get out of the Army.” Recognizing the battalion commander effect, having leaders who can build effective and cohesive teams through a culture of treating people with dignity and respect can reduce a soldier’s inclination to leave the military. Given their ability to shape a working environment, if that leader is counterproductive and fosters a poor command climate, people will look for other opportunities outside the organization where they can use their knowledge, skills, and abilities.

With this in mind, a commander must emphasize their vision on retention, what roles need to be fulfilled, and the responsibilities in which they can be empowered to execute the commander’s intent. This can be formalized in a unit’s Retention Standing Operating Procedures (SOP). A Retention SOP, used effectively, communicates the organization’s retention goals, task organization, training, sponsorship, attrition management, counseling and interviews, and reports on retention. This document can create a shared understanding with organizational leaders and soldiers on the tools, processes, and relationships necessary to sustain the readiness of the organization.

With the commander’s emphasis on the importance of retention, the sponsorship program should be implemented to ensure soldiers, and their families, have a smooth transition as they arrive and integrate with the organization. Effective sponsorship programs will ensure soldiers feel welcomed, valued, and comfortable to be contributing members of the team. They will build a relationship of trust and confidence alongside a shared understanding of their expectations to contribute to the team’s success. Sponsoring new soldiers is crucial as once they are acclimated and engaged with the organization, they are more likely to stick around.

In addition, conducting counseling and interviews periodically can expand throughout the service of a soldier. Regular counseling is an important tool that leaders should utilize that can create dialogue, manage expectations, and improve the organization. The following are a few counseling and retention interviews that can be conducted:

           Orientation Counseling

  • Part of the Sponsorship program that provides initial expectations while also providing important points of contact that the soldier can utilize as they integrate with the organization. In addition, this serves as an opportunity to listen to any issues and concerns and work to mitigate them. Lastly, this counseling should provide upcoming training dates so that the soldier is aware and can prepare effectively.

Career Development Counseling

  • The soldier’s First Line Leader should conduct quarterly professional development counseling to identify and overcome barriers that may be preventing soldiers from achieving their goals. This counseling can play a pivotal role in assessing a soldier’s interests, abilities, and values that can best serve the needs of the organization.

Expiration Term of Service (ETS) Counseling

  • The DA Form 4856 can be used as part of the retention interview process to communicate key benefits and incentives that are available to the soldier, while also developing a plan of action that communicates expectations between the unit, leader, and soldier. These can then be referred to as needed throughout the soldier’s retention window.

Retention Interview

  • Different from an ETS Counseling, a retention interview should be used as a simple discussion between a leader in the unit and the eligible soldier. The DA Form 4591 or another retention card can be used. This interview provides a system of record to process and annotate the soldier’s eligibility, plans, and goals, and discuss their benefits and options available to them.

To illustrate how an organization can conduct a retention interview for a soldier with a year left on their contract, Figure 2 displays how multiple people will make time to interview the soldier with a suggested list of discussion topics to guide their conversation and determine the intent of the soldier. This process creates multiple engagements throughout a soldier’s last year, taking care of both soldier and the organization if that soldier ultimately decides to end their military service.

Finally, a lasting strategy to retain quality soldiers is building effective teams and leaders that demonstrate authentic leadership to enable an organization’s success. Organizations rely on effective teams to work together to accomplish tasks, objectives, and missions. High-performing teams require that each person within the team can trust each other to simplify tasks consistently and be transparent in their communication to perform better when setbacks happen. This requires a leader that is willing to take the time to understand their team’s dynamics to utilize each person’s strengths. In this effort, leaders should practice leadership by walking around (LBWA). .

This method enhances teamwork by actively engaging with soldiers, particularly in the context of retention. LBWA enables leaders to forge a direct connection with their soldiers. Through these interactions, leaders can gain invaluable insights into the well-being, concerns, and aspirations of their soldiers. This requires that the leader genuinely cares and trust is established. Soldiers who feel heard and valued are more likely to remain committed to their military service. They’ll see that their leader is invested in their success and welfare, which can boost morale and, in turn, retention rates.

While these proposed strategies are tailored for the Army, they can serve as a blueprint for developing similar initiatives across other military services as well. Retention should be viewed as a collaborative effort between soldiers and their leaders. Soldiers should be proactive to reflect on and review their career and how it aligns with their goals. If that decision is to stay in, leaders should explore every option available to have that soldier be successful, even if that means that they are moving on beyond the organization. If the decision is made to separate, leaders should respect and understand that, and then be dedicated to helping them achieve their goals for the next chapter in their life.  

CPT Jakob Hutter is a Kansas Army National Guard logistics officer currently serving as a Plans Officer for the 169th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion in Leavenworth, Kansas. In addition, he also serves as the Kansas FLIPL Program Manager. He has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and received his commission from Kansas State University in 2016. He is passionate about the science of Army logistics, the art of military leadership, and combining both to provide effective sustainment.