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Opinion People and Leadership

The Value of the Specialist

I once served with a Warrant Officer who worked as a technical supervisor within an operational military team. Highly qualified and self motivated he did his job ably, but unremarkably. He left the Army and, due to a reorganisation he was immediately re-employed as a civilian doing exactly the same job. Within weeks it was apparent something special was happening to him; in a very short period of time he had become much better at his job. He quickly established himself as a leading expert and soon the organisation became utterly reliant on him for all technical decision making. The reason was simple; he had been freed from all the additional and distracting responsibilities that come with being in the Army. He didn’t disappear on exercises, physical training or weapon ranges – he simply did his core job, and he got very good at it very quickly. Over time he stayed in that appointment far longer than would ever be possible if he were still in the Army and as a result the effect was multiplied several times over. He became utterly indispensible.

This tale highlights a flaw in the way the British military views the profession of soldiering. We are an organisation of generalists and as a result we rarely let our people become specialist, and if we do we immediately move them on to another job. Even pilots must give up flying at a relatively junior rank because practising their core skill quickly becomes detrimental to their career prospects.

Perhaps the clue is in the rank of our senior officers; in the Army it is ‘generalism’ that gets you promoted. I agree that there is merit in leaders having a breadth of experience but it should not be such an all-pervasive philosophy that it is ruthlessly applied to everyone. There are some aspects of any business where it is important to specialise, and those that choose to do so should be valued, respected and rewarded for making that choice.

The generalist versus specialist debate has never been as important as it is now in cyber operations. As we build the cyber force it is abundantly clear it is not a discipline that people can ‘dip in and out’ of. It takes years to accrue the requisite skills to plan and deliver cyber operations. Subsequent operational experience only adds to the richness of that skill set making our best surely indispensable. Yet it is exactly these skilled and experienced practitioners that we so frequently fail to reinvest into the cyber enterprise, preferring instead to broaden their profile rather than deepen it. If we are to truly excel in cyber operations we must keep our people in the business. We must learn to value the specialist and give them opportunities to advance within cyber. Doing so is practically achievable, but it will require a change in culture and mindset that will be hard to win.


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British Army

David has 18 years of military leadership experience. He has worked in Single Service and Joint appointments, specialising in Communication Information Systems and Cyber.

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