“Rank Ordering Your Future” – A Look at CSL Preferences

by Pete Norris

Every few years throughout your Army career, your HRC Assignment Officer will contact you to gather input about your next assignment. “Rank the following duty stations from 1 to 35.” Although you get a vote, sometimes it feels like that vote doesn’t count for much. That’s because the routine assignment process can be very subjective, based on the needs of the branch, timing, and many other factors. (read more about HRC here)

The process for selecting Lieutenant Colonels and Colonels for Centralized Selection List (CSL) command and key billets is not one of those routine times. Prior to the CSL board, each eligible officer has the opportunity to submit billet preferences and those preferences directly affect assignment outcomes more than any other time in your career. As such, it is important for officers to thoughtfully consider their preferences.

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Col. Wayne Tasler passes the 7th PSYOP Group’s guidon to Maj. Gen. David N. Blackledge, symbolizing the relinquishing of command during the change-of-command ceremony at Moffett Field in San Jose, California on June 25, 2011. Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Felix R. Fimbres.

The CSL Process

While promotion boards are governed by law, Battalion and Brigade command selection boards are governed by policy. The command selection process is within the purview of the Chief of Staff of the Army and can be amended, as the CSA sees fit, to place the most qualified officers in key billets or command. Understanding the entire process is important before submitting your preferences.

Not all officers are eligible to compete for CSL positions. Junior officers mapping out potential career paths should understand what opportunities exist for the different branches and functional areas they are considering. MILPER message 17-216 contains the eligibility requirements for the latest Lieutenant Colonel CSL boards. Different positions have come and gone from the CSL program, such as the Military Transition Team (MITT) team chief positions during the surge in Iraq. Mentors should assist their mentees in understanding the changing nature of the program, and inform them of what positions are more or less likely to change over time.

Know Yourself

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and being honest with yourself, is the first, and most important step when competing in the CSL board. Consider your career path, is your experience predominately in light or heavy units, tactical or strategic? Identify the types of assignments you performed well in, compared to those you may not have performed well in or did not fully enjoy, and where you want to be positioned at approximately the 20-year mark of your career. Additionally, your mentors and career manager can assist you in understanding where you sit relative to your peers, which will aid you in rank-ordering commands and command subcategories.

In addition to your strengths and weaknesses, consider all of the other factors that may be of importance to you. Your spouse’s preference for duty station, being the only commander changing out in the brigade vs. changing out with the entire team, change of command dates in the middle of your children’s school year, the type of unit, unit history, and the deployment cycle. These and many more considerations should factor into your preference selection.

Build a Decision Support Tool

Officers in some branches will be required to rank-order over 100 separate commands in the Command Preference Designation (CPD) system, spread across multiple command subcategories. A decision support tool can be useful in manipulating data, weighing certain factors, and in displaying draft preferences to mentors, peers, and family. The example spreadsheet below includes details such as identifying if a Combined Arms Battalions has two infantry or two tank companies, change of command dates, weighting for brigades where the brigade commander and all subordinate commanders change out versus one or only a few, and current commander names and branches (hidden on this version). Build the tool to support your unique decision.

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You can download this Excel support tool here.

Make a Decision

Manipulate the weight of the different factors to create multiple versions of rank-ordered commands within a subcategory. This process will help to tease out variables you may not have initially thought were as important, to decrease the value of some that had initially been very important, and to discover some you had not considered.

In the example, you can see Fort Carson is the #2 preference for duty station, but the change of command dates (discovered to be a more important factor) were not optimal, resulting in all units at Fort Carson being moved below the #6 duty station, Fort Hood.

The CPD system also requires an officer to rank-order the command subcategories, each having its own tab in the spreadsheet above, from A03P to Y01X. This is potentially a more important decision than rank-ordering commands, as the command subcategories contain very different types of commands, such as tactical, recruiting and training, and installation. Officers selected to command in different subcategories will have very diverse experiences in command, and widely varied career paths afterward. Work with your mentors to understand what doors may open or close by commanding in different subcategories.

Strategy

You cannot “game” the system. Your position on the selection board’s Order of Merit List (OML) is what will get you into a command subcategory. Your experience, the specific needs of your branch, and other factors (described in this article) will affect how you are slated to a specific command. A career’s worth of performance is the most important factor. What you can do is increase the chance of receiving a desired command by leading your rankings with command subcategories that may be less-desirable to many officers.

Consider two officers who rank-ordered their subcategories identically. In the CPD example below, the officers are eligible for nine different subcategories. Their #1 preference is Combined Arms Operations (A03P), which consists of tactical battalions and squadrons; this is arguably the most competitive subcategory for Armor and Infantry officers. Officer A receives a favorable score during the board, and is at the #1 position on the command board OML; he is going to receive a position within A03P, and is likely to be slated to a command high in his preferences. Officer B is much lower on the OML, just “above the line” for A03P; he is likely to be slated into what commands remain, versus what he wanted.

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Officer B, alternatively, received wise counsel from his mentors and career manager, informing him that he may not have among the strongest performing files in his year group and is not likely to fare well in the most competitive command subcategories. A proper self-assessment may lead this officer to explore the diverse options outside of tactical leadership, where opportunities for promotion and increased responsibility still exist. Thorough research of those commands will reveal pockets of the Army unheard of by many, where you can command an arsenal located on an island in the Mississippi River, or a recruiting battalion near family you haven’t seen enough of in decades.

It is impossible to conclusively state which command subcategories are less sought after without statistics from the Army Human Resources Command. However, most officers competing for command generally have a good idea what they are, based on speaking to peers and superiors, and by observing the process for many years. In this example, if Officer B puts A03P first in his subcategory ranking, he will get a command, but likely one that is low in his preferences. If he leads with a subcategory full of less-desireable commands, he may be much higher on the OML than other officers slated to that subcategory, which could result in being slated to a command high on his preferences within that command subcategory – a strategy worth considering.

Command is Command 

The Army selects officers for commands and key billets because these positions require effective leaders and are developmental for those leaders who will serve another 10-15 years. Behind every CSL position are soldiers and Army civilians that deserve the finest leaders, and it is a great privilege to lead them. Officers selected to command, even if selected for a command low in their preferences, are encouraged to dutifully serve in the position selected for.

Know yourself, know where you stand in comparison to your peers, and be open to the many opportunities available to you. The methodologies offered above are a way, but certainly not the way for all officers competing. The CSL process uniquely gives an officer the opportunity to specify their preferences, which are directly linked to an outcome, versus a cloud of assignment options, where all available options are never known. Consider what is important to you, and make yourself available to serve.

Pete Norris is an officer in the United States Army, currently serving as a Congressional Liaison. He tweets @officership. The views expressed here are his own, not those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Still want to know more about the CSL selection process? Read this article and reference the below infographic.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Eric Jnah

    Great article! I wish I had known these before my CSL selection board.