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New Zealand Chief of Army Writing Competition 22.1 Winner of the Civilian Category



By Mr C. Stokes


The New Zealand Army has a long and undeniably proud heritage as a world class army with mana. It is a tradition acknowledged by the imminent historian John Keegan when he described the New Zealand infantry as the finest in the world across the 20th Century. It is this very tradition that has formed the basis for the purpose and ethos of the New Zealand Army, encapsulated in the “Way of the NZ Warrior” and “Army25” amongst other publications. It not only forms the basis for recruiting but also the source of pride for those who remain enlisted.

Yet just as any other organization, societal changes will inevitably have an impact (Ferris, 2022a). Whereas once the call to adventure, the opportunity to travel the world and the inherent camaraderie provided an indisputable draw for so many, there are now various other opportunities available to young men and women who hear the siren’s call. Amongst other attractions, the growing opportunities to pursue a career in professional sports, to attain a grounding as a tradesman or to take up vocational education are all possibilities in the modern employment environment.

Nor is this a phenomenon that is only impacting NZ Army. There is a worldwide trend, commonly termed the Great Resignation, where individuals are leaving organizations that no longer meet their needs or aspirations (Ferris, 2022b). Organizations the world over are being challenged to consider how they confront this or risk continuing to lose their most valuable employees and to struggle to attract the highest potential talent in the face of escalating competition (O’Boyle, 2021). It is from this point that NZ Army should begin its quest to recruit and retain high performing talent to thrive as a modern army. A recent McKinsey survey identified ten main reasons why employees are leaving their organizations, several of which are worth considering, ensuring that they continue to provide a career path that stands out as unique amongst the clamour (De Smet, Dowling, Mugayar-Baldocchi and Schaninger, 2022).

The primary reason from the McKinsey report was uncaring leaders. It is important to emphasise here that it was the perception of the leaders as being unconcerned with the wellbeing and development of their personnel, rather than any objective demonstration. The NZDF invests heavily in the development of their leaders, aiming to ensure they are equipped to support their personnel to the utmost of the capability. Research by the Canadian Defence Force identifies four key pillars for leaders to establish trusting, caring relationships with their personnel. Of the four, they recognise that benevolence, or demonstrating that they have their personnel’s best interests at heart, is the most critical to getting the best from their personnel (Thompson & Gill, 2015).

However, they are potentially hamstrung by the current structure and system of postings and promotions, and such structural factors can be even more debilitating than any individual leadership flaws (Senge, 1990). The current posting cycle means that leaders are aware that they have limited time to introduce significant changes, which they will rarely be around to see resolved. Gaining the attention of senior leadership can be the difference between a move that sets them up for future progression and being left in a dead end where no further roles are on offer (Enos, Kehrhahn, & Bell, 2000). This incentivises the promise of positive outcomes over actual impact for personnel who far too often regard leaders as simply securing their own path rather than concerning themselves with how the change would impact their people (Yakovleva, Reilly & Werko, 2010). Even more frustratingly, the short turnaround of the posting cycle will often result in a further leader coming in, initiating their own high-profile change before their predecessor’s initiative has even established itself. Elongating or offering variance in the posting cycle would potentially allow leaders to be present for seeing through meaningful change that can enable improvements for their personnel.

The posting cycle also has ramifications for the enlisted personnel. As with leadership, they can be moved roles every 2-3 years which can have far reaching impacts. Within the work context, moving roles can interrupt their development, especially with the more technical areas (Ramsay, 1993). Given that as much as 70 % of learning can occur on the job, having a supportive and informed environment is critical to making progress (Enos et al, 2000). Within their personal environment, reposting may be made to distant regions, resulting in a move away from family and support networks. Whereas in former years, families may be prepared to follow as postings required, many partners have their own career aspirations that would be impacted by a move. All of this combined can create a significant discouragement to remain enlisted and an incentive to withdraw for continuity.

While many will always regard a career in the army as time limited (“stay in as long as your knees allow”), the NZ Army may need to consider means to allow greater consistency for personnel. This could include allowing for longer posting cycles, especially for those in more technical areas. Other potential considerations would be creating opportunities for secondments. This would allow individuals to spend time in specialist fields without compromising their membership in the NZ Army. Such secondments could be arranged with either of the other services or in one of the predominantly civilian branches across the Joint Defence Services. Equally, there is also the possibility of allowing the partners of personnel to be employed with NZDF in civilian roles with the option to relocate and to work remotely, meaning they can remain with them more readily without career interruptions.

Lack of meaningful work was also one of the reasons McKinsey identified. This corresponds to a dilemma recently experienced by the NZ Army through its commitment to OP PROTECT, the single largest deployment since Timor in 2005.  Some personnel ryely observed that this was an ‘Air Force Deployment’, with personnel billeted in comfortable accommodation with ready access to meals and WiFi. Yet for an organization that prides itself on being the only government agency equipped for combat, this represented a marked departure from their key purpose and what they train extensively for.  This would have created a conundrum for many personnel: what was their training for if it was only put to use babysitting civilians? This would seem to be the very definition of lacking meaning.

However, it is possible that it is in the definition of their purpose that there may be the opportunity to resolve this. There can be little denying that the very nature of combat has altered and that being a world class army now represents something very different now to what it did even ten years ago. Information has become the new bullets and achieving victory comes down to mastering the transmission and utilisation of digital resources. So as the NZ Army seems to engage the next generation of personnel, they would do well to consider how they can redefine that and ensure they have a wider comprehension of what it means to go into harm’s way for New Zealand.

A further factor identified is a perception of a lack of support for employee health & well-being. There can be little doubt that NZDF has invested considerable resources in providing resources that allow individuals to seek out support for their own mental health and well-being. In addition to more traditional resources, such as counselling, social workers and chaplaincy, the NZDF has also provided access to the Headspace app to promote mindfulness practices. However, all of these resources are distinguished by being resources that individuals need to seek out for themselves. There is little in the way of peer support or even leadership support, especially in the face of a persisting cultural stigma around owning up to struggles with mental health. These self-same wellness efforts can in fact reinforce the notion to individuals that there is something inherently wrong with them if they are not ‘cured’ by using the tools available and that they have been abandoned (Barton, Kahn, Maitlis & Sutcliffe, 2022). Unless leadership are prepared to change this, then personnel will continue to hide behind the aversion to the stigma associated with mental health.

Non-inclusive, unwelcoming and disconnected communities are also discouraging for many employees (Werder, 2019). In the past, this has been a particular issue for NZ Army, with perceptions of it being misogynistic, discriminatory and exclusive. This presents even more of a challenge as our society is becoming increasingly more diverse and pluralistic in its outlook. Such individuals will hardly want to bring their talents and efforts to an environment not suited to their own unique perspectives (Ferris, 2022a). So, if the NZ Army wishes to remain a viable employment, they need to ensure that they demonstrate a commitment to making a wider variety of people feel welcome and valued. Once again, NZ Army along with the wider NZDF, has made steps in this direction. Measures such as their commitment to OP RESPECT, Diversity and Inclusion initiatives and a greater acceptance of Rainbow individuals all point to an organization recognizing and taking steps to address its past record.

However, recent investigations have indicated that there is still some further work to be done in changing attitudes and making environments more accommodating. This then makes it even more incumbent on senior leadership to reinforce their ongoing commitment to these initiatives.  Giving a voice to those who represent these diverse perspectives will also help to ensure those feeling marginalised will recognise that they too have a valuable contribution to make. While overhauling traditional attitudes and cultural norms will take time, a sustained effort to see it through will reap dividends by a wider variety of individuals finding their place amidst the NZ Army ranks.

Changing patterns in employment are a worldwide phenomenon, one from which the NZ Army is by no means exempt. There are steps that NZ Army can undertake and through initiatives such as the Leadership Development System, OP RESPECT and various mental health and wellbeing support elements, they are well on their way. Further efforts could be made by looking into reviewing posting cycles, reconsidering how they portray the role of the NZ Army on the international and domestic stage, continuing to destigmatise seeking support for mental health and promoting diversity across all elements and into all environments. In doing so, NZ Army can maintain its position of making a genuine difference for New Zealand and attract those who are committed to excellence, demonstrate courage, show integrity and support their comrades. They can then ensure that they continue to operate as a world class army with absolute mana.



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