Published on February 27th, 2017 | by admin0
Managing Our Greatest Asset
Human Resources Branch (D J1) is one of the largest sections in Defence Forces Headquarters,
sitting in the Support Division. It covers a wide array of functional areas. SIGNAL called into
Newbridge to meet the Director, Colonel Tony McKenna, and some of the key personnel of
the Branch and see how they manage the Defence Forces greatest asset, its people.
Personnel of the Branch are split between McKee Barracks in Dublin and the main Department of
Defence Building in Newbridge with the majority of personnel working in Kildare. The responsibilities of the branch span from recruitment through the full spectrum of human resource management of all
commissioned and enlisted personnel across the Defence Forces, to ceremonial and regulations and also includes the Personnel Support Service, the Chaplaincy and the Gender, Equality and Diversity Office.
As Director of Human Resources could you give us a brief synopsis of your career?
I am originally from Co Louth and joined the Army in 1981 as a Member of the 58th Cadet Class. I was commissioned as an infantry officer and have served in a number of operational and staff appointments in the 1st and 2nd Brigades culminating with my command of the 12th Infantry Battalion in Limerick from 2011-2013 and overseas command of the 108 Inf Bn UNIFIL. I have a B Comm primary degree, an MBS in in Human Resources and an MA in Leadership, Management and Defence Studies. I have also recently completed a Higher Diploma in Executive Coaching, graduating in December 2016.
My appointments in DFHQ have included Officer in Charge of Commissioned Officers Management Office (COMO), Staff Officer in the Overseas Section of the Directorate of Operations and Executive Officer of D J1. I have served overseas in Lebanon with UNIFIL, Somalia with UNOSOM, Afghanistan with ISAF, Chad with MINURCAT and the Middle East with UNTSO. On my promotion on 10 Mar this year, I was appointed as Director of the Branch.
What are the key challenges that your Branch faces?
Leon Trotsky famously once said that while you may no interest in the war, the war may still have an interest in you. In that regard Human Resources Branch may not be dissimilar given the wide spectrum of its responsibilities and capacity to impact on personnel in their service lives. I am very conscious of the connection between our day to day work and how it feeds into the operational outputs of the organisation. Most of the staff of the Branch are only one appointment away from an operational deployment at home or overseas and they bring that insight and concern into the work
that we do.
One of our most significant challenges and areas priority at the moment is recruitment. Recruitment and Competitions Section under the leadership of Comdt Martin Ryan are heavily engaged in a number of recruitment areas including general service recruits for the Army and Navy, Trainee Technicians for the Air Corps and Cadetships for all three services. The number of applications that are handled by Martin and his staff are significant.
This year we inducted one of the largest cadet intakes in the history of the state, with 71 Army Cadets, 15 Naval Cadets and 12 Air Corps Cadets inducted from over 4,700 applications. We are also on target to induct 600 PDF recruits for the Army and Navy – again from over 4,000 applications. We are conscious that the recruitment process can be frustrating for applicants at each entry level. In that regard we are constantly trying to innovate and refine our processes to attract applications from high quality candidates and to keep them positively engaged through the various stages – fitness testing, psychometric testing, medical exams and interviews.
I am confident that we are continuing to recruit personnel of high calibre. I am also critically aware that while the personnel we recruit today enable us in the short term to conduct our operations at home, overseas, in the air and at sea – such personnel are also the embodied future of the Defence Forces.
The other key challenge for the Branch is the actual staffing of the Defence Forces appointments at home and overseas. These challenges are well familiar to all RACO members and include among others, manning border units, overseas units and appointments, DFHQ appointments in Kildare and Dublin and DFTC appointments – all within the context of where Officers are living. This requirement to balance the needs of the organisation with the desires of the individual is a major consumer of J1 and COMO efforts.
Needless to say it is an imperfect science – where the price of individual happiness is set against organisational dissatisfaction when certain appointments are not filled and where personnel are simply not available to fill such appointments. This in itself is at the heart of the human resources challenge.
How would you characterise your relationship with RACO?
I like to think we have a very positive relationship with all our representative associations and RACO is no exception. We deal on a daily basis with Conciliation and Arbitration Branch (C & A), both military and civilian, on matters raised by the representative associations. Indeed, our offices here in Newbridge are physically located beside C & A. Our relationship with RACO is very positive. It’s true to say that we often disagree on matters but our relationship is always underpinned by mutual respect. I know from experience that Commandants Earnán Naughton and Derek Priestley are consummate professionals in representing and advocating on behalf of their members. However I also believe that they understand that military management can often have a different view or priority than RACO on certain issues.
Nonetheless our engagements at the various fora, be they DFHQ Forum or other meetings and briefs are always positive and reflect that mutual respect. I think that RACO and our other associations are crucial partners in the human resource management of the Defence Forces. The perspective they provide is an essential component of the often complex nature of human resource management. Both the Deputy Chief Of Staff (Support) Major General Kevin Cotter and the Assistant Chief of Staff (ACOS), General Peter O’Halloran also play a key role in our engagement with the representative associations and their strategic direction ensures that relationships are always professional and constructive.
Were the findings of the recent Climate Survey a surprise to you?
I suppose in a word, ‘No’. But we shouldn’t underestimate the significant changes that the organisation, and particularly the Army, underwent in the last number of years. The researchers spoke of placing the results in this context of change and I accept the findings as a seminal piece of research that will be particularly useful for us in the medium to long term, that’s why we undertook this independent research in the first place.
Whilst many of the findings cannot be remedied overnight, it’s important for us to see the perspective of the men and women of the Defence Forces and see this as an opportunity to try and address the legitimate concerns and perceptions that are highlighted. I know that both the General Staff and the Minister are committed to addressing many of the issues raised. Interestingly, already existing work streams, complimented by our implementation of the White Paper HR Projects should deliver positive change to address some of these concerns. The Report itself is available to read on IKON and Military.ie and I would recommend that people read it.
The ACOS has embarked on a roadshow tour of the Army, Air Corps and Navy to brief on the findings and to listen to the concerns of the members of the organisation. Whilst the Climate Survey has been important for us, as a quantitative piece of research it has told us the ‘what’, so we have now sought to conduct follow up focus group research across the Defence Forces as qualitative research that will tell us the ‘why’.
The original research team of Dr Sarah Mac Curtain and Dr Juliet Mac Mahon will conduct this research and give us an even greater insight into the challenges we face, and more importantly assist in plotting a way forward.
How difficult is it to satisfy the various demands for commissioned personnel to be deployed across the organisation?
This is really one of our greatest challenges, how we try and find an equitable balance between the needs of the organisation and the wishes of the individual member, be they commissioned or enlisted. There can be a lot of negativity surrounding the organisation but at certain rank levels, Comdt/Lt Cdr and above we are close to 100% of our establishment, notwithstanding the voluntary exits from the Defence Forces. Last year, a total of 15 promotion boards were convened to fill officer vacancies, we are looking at a similar number for this year and next year.
This puts a significant strain on the HR system as D COS (Sp), A COS, D J1 and the EO of J1 all sit on different boards across the DF. Similarly, a large administrative burden falls on Comdt Sean Holly and his staff in Commissioned Officers Management Office to ensure these promotion boards are trained and administered correctly. We make significant efforts to ensure that candidates for promotion are treated respectfully, with dignity and discretion throughout the various stages of the system.
We also assist candidates after boards have completed their deliberations to provide guidance and if necessary assist individual officers to address the areas for development that a board may have identified. We do have a demographic challenge at junior officer level across the DF in each service and that occupies significant time trying to mitigate this shortage and to resolve it in the medium term. As regards the day to day posting of officers, there is no conspiracy or mystery to the system.
We are very much guided by the requirements identified by GOCs/FOCNS through their Brigade/Formations Adjutants or Personnel Officers as they are best placed to recommend acceptable staffing solutions for their units, ships, headquarters or training institutes. DFHQ and the Military College can be more problematic to staff but it’s important that officers realise there are milestone times in their careers when a change in posting is likely, be that promotion, on completion of career courses or return from an overseas posting.
There are a lot of checks and balances in the system where postings are not at the officer’s request
or the GOC or FOCNS raise their own legitimate concerns. Ultimately following staff recommendations from myself or my staff, a decision will be made generally by ACOS or D COS (Sp).
Are you satisfied with the level of career management possible for officers?
Our role is to try and ensure that officers at all ranks are given the opportunity to reach their potential. There is an individual responsibility part here too, officers should make themselves aware of what is required of them whatever their stream or service may be and seek to fulfil those criteria as best they can. After the reorganisation we have a set of appointments in different ranks across the three services and overseas, it’s my responsibility to ensure that they are filled as effectively and equitably as possible.
From the Army’s perspective there is a tilt towards the east of the country but we make every effort to ensure that postings away from home are limited in duration and distributed as equitably as possible.
There is also a link between promotion and further service overseas and officers should not be surprised if they are required to serve overseas again on promotion. For junior officers it can sometimes become necessary to rebalance numbers between the Brigades/the DFTC to ensure that the burden of vacancies is shared in the best interests of the Defence Forces. Similarly, as regards our operational units we are currently implementing a policy that unit commanders should ideally spend two years in their appointments, this allows for an acceptable throughput of commanders whilst not compromising the integrity and operational capability of units.
Is there a specific culture within Human Resource Management Branch?
While the environment can be typified as challenging, requiring hard work and often long hours, the culture remains one where fairness to the individual but also to the component parts of the Defence Forces is the primary consideration. This is not some doctrinaire response but is based on the reality that all who work in J1 will return to operational appointments in units and Formations after their service in J1.
This knowledge informs the manner in which J1 staff conduct themselves when dealing with their counterparts and colleagues in other parts of the organisation. I think that in this regard we try to get the best solution for the organisation and the individual. I also think that being honest and upfront is important for us. Most personnel have something they want to get out of their service in the DF, if that’s not possible for the individual it behoves us to let people know. It can sometimes come across as blunt but in the long run it is important for us to have those conversations with people.
This can often happen through their headquarters or in the context of post interview career management and guidance, they can be the most difficult conversations we have but in fairness to the individual they are really important. Whilst the DF no doubt has many HR challenges, there are many opportunities
too, the average age of officers promoted on the last Army Line Comdt to Lt Col board was 46 years of age, officers are now reaching the rank of Comdt/Lt Cdr in their early thirties.
There are significant opportunities for overseas service for junior officers with 18 Lts scheduled to be serving overseas by years end and the Infantry School may need to run two Junior Command and Staff Courses in 2017 to qualify personnel for promotion in 2018. We are making even greater progress in female recruitment with 13 female cadets in a class of 98. This is not to say things cannot be further improved, the Personnel Support Service and the Liaison Office to the Ombudsman are also part of J1 and I am acutely aware of the problems in the wider DF and the daily challenges that individual officers take on to sustain our operations in each service.
Finally, what are the priorities for Human Resource Management going forward?
It’s very difficult to highlight any specific priority as such as our scope of responsibility is so wide. The Branch has already delivered significant outputs this year from the Ceremonial Programme for the Centenary of 1916 under Lt Col Johnny Whittaker and Comdt Dave McNamara to the recent launch of our Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual Allies Network by COS Rear Admiral Mellett DSM with great credit due to the Gender, Equality and Diversity Officer, Comdt Eoghan Mc Dermott.
There are a number of additional positive developments in our area and we continue to move forward with our colleagues in the Department in implementing the various HR Projects that have come from the 2015 White Paper. These projects have huge potential to drive the organisation forward and whilst they demand significant resources and time from this Branch working as part of the joint project teams, I think the emphasis placed on HR projects is indicative of the importance of our people in delivering capability and that is what we will remain focussed on going forward.