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Donkin on Work - Leadership

October 2005 – Army officer selection

For more than 60 years The Army’s Regular Commissions Board* has been recognised as one of the most rigorous recruiting systems in the UK. But has its reputation for thoroughness stood the test of time and do its selection methods have relevance for private sector recruitment where command and control in business has given way to the arts of gentle persuasion?

To find out I had the opportunity last week to revisit a selection process I first encountered at the sharp end as a teenage candidate. This time, however, I was watching from the sidelines.

On that first encounter thirty years ago I was 18 years old and fresh out of school. I had broken a holiday with a couple of friends who dropped me outside the gates before heading for St Ives in Cornwall. Wearing a denim shirt, jeans and a cracked pair of glasses with a crumpled suit in my rucksack I can see now that I might not have created the best of impressions from the off.

I was sharing a room with a viscount. I can’t recall his name but in speech and appearance we must have looked like the Odd Couple. He was wearing a sports jacket, striped tie and a slick parting plastered across his forehead. I had long hair and flared trousers. His accent was cut glass. Mine was beer glass.

But within minutes of our arrival we were issued with identical pairs of overalls with numbered bibs that removed most outward differences. Today candidates are also handed a light helmet for safety’s sake.

Helmet aside, what strikes me most about today’s board, is how little it appears to have changed from the system it employed more than a generation ago. Candidates still take psychometric tests looking at various abilities although these days the tests are taken at an earlier session when potential candidates are briefed on the processes and basic skills that will be helpful in the full board.

In addition to seeking leadership potential, the Army is looking for strong evidence of practical skills. This is why a substantial portion of the selection is based on outside exercises in which teams of candidates are asked to negotiate various obstacles using planks and pieces of rope.

A two-day pre-board briefing, introduced about 10 years ago, explains knots and lashings plus a few engineering principles such as the fulcrum and the cantilever, each of which come in handy during the team exercises. The briefings were introduced to remove a perceived advantage for those with cadet force experience, for example, who would be familiar with such techniques.

“The idea is that candidates are no longer coming to this cold. They know the kind of things they will be doing,” says Peter Ashton-Wickett, the retired Lt Colonel who acts as supervising officer for the board president, Brigadier Simon Allen.

“A big brain is not necessarily what we want. Sometimes it is possible to find a highly intelligent candidate who lacks any practical skills. It is also possible that someone might score highly on abstract reasoning and turn out to be bone idle, so the intelligence tests don’t tell us everything, “ says Mr Ashton-Wickett.

Beyond the psychometrics, candidates are also tested on their knowledge of current affairs, the armed services and general knowledge. Added to this are interviews, often based on their CV offerings. I recall being asked about my interest in sport. “What’s your handicap?” asked the interviewer. Unfortunately they didn’t play golf much where I lived. That didn’t seem fair at the time but I’m assured that it’s not the questions that matter so much as how you handle them and how you express yourself.

A popular misconception about the board is that it is looking for future generals. This is not the case. The selection board for the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, is looking for those who have the potential to be a second lieutenant leading a platoon or a troop. This is only the start of an officer career. A lot more selection is going to happen down the line and a percentage of candidates will drop out of Sandhurst.

Another mistaken belief is that the Army needs to fill quotas. In fact all candidates are assessed against a single standard. If they reach that standard, their qualification is valid for seven years should they wish to delay their entry. It is not uncommon these days for some students to sit the board in order to put their qualification on their CVs. While this may seem something of waste there is always a chance that a talented casual applicant might be won over by the experience.

Some of the exercises, particularly one that looks at a scenario in which candidates must form a plan to achieve various aims, are designed to put individuals under pressure so that assessors can witness their ability to perform under stress. These paper exercises have changed very little over the years. Typically the scenario puts you somewhere in the wilds when your friend breaks a leg just as some other crisis is also needing your attention, leaving you to work out the best way to prioritise and deal with competing emergencies.

I don’t know whether the viscount made it through or not. He deserved to do so on the evidence of his fitness, which was far superior to mine. I remember also that his short lecture on grouse shooting was somewhat stronger than my feeble description of swimming techniques. Last week’s candidates covered an impressive variety of interests from skiing and snowboarding to taekwondo and gold mining. But their ability to articulate counted much more than the subject matter.

Most of the group I watched had made the grade. I never did. Whether it was down to lack of potential or my lack of maturity at that age I have no idea. But I know that I learned a lot from the experience. The board did encourage me try again when I was a little older but I was in a hurry in those days and joined the local newspaper. Today young people seem to be doing all kinds of things before they settle down in a career. Not one of the group I was looking at was under 20 and some were approaching their mid twenties. I was married and thinking of children at that age.

Times have changed and so has the Army but, fundamentally, the qualities sought in an officer 30 years ago have changed very little. It is difficult to see how the selection system could be any fairer or any more scrupulous than it is now. But does it need to be so thorough? The process is expensive in time and manpower that ensures the performance of every single candidate is subjected to detailed scrutiny. “You have to consider the cost of getting it wrong,” says Mr Ashton-Wickett.

Whatever the cost, the board must be doing something right because companies continue to borrow its methods. “They visit us then go away and sometimes they try other things. But they always seem to come back to see what we’re doing,” he says.

* As of Autumn 2006, The RCB has been renamed to reflect it's use for the Territorial Army and other non-military parts of the Army such as nursing and legal work. It is now the Army Officer Selection Board -

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