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
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
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 - www.army.mod.uk/aosb