The United States Armed Forces produce some of the best leaders in the world – selfless, intelligent, decisive and dedicated. These virtues are absolutely critical in the military, but the business world values them highly as well. So highly that some Fortune 500 companies now seek out retiring officers to recruit into their own management training programs.
It’s difficult to find any military role that doesn’t confer some advantage in the civilian workplace. Even those that don’t seem like they’d translate well still teach discipline and teamwork, traits every company will recognize as important. But military leadership experience develops some attributes above all others, and those are the ones that can really pay off for a civilian organization.
Military officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) often lead servicemembers through extremely difficult and risky situations. Methods of motivation common to the civilian workforce – such as the promise of bonus pay or the threat of a demotion – are unreliable. Money doesn’t galvanize troops who may not survive to spend it, and the possibility of losing a fancy job title isn’t much of a menace to someone facing the prospect of injury or death.
Military leaders know a different approach is necessary. The people who follow them must be inspired.
To achieve such inspiration, good officers and NCOs seek to establish a bond of certainty and trust with those they lead. They demonstrate a commitment to duty and service, and a willingness to share the risks and sacrifices made by the men and women under their command. It creates loyal supporters prepared to go the extra mile instead of indifferent laborers concerned only with their next paycheck.
This insight – that subordinates are often far better motived by leaders they trust than those who merely offer rewards and punishments – is too often missing from civilian businesses. But managers with military leadership experience can bring this inspirational style to any organization willing to invest in them.
Many businesses are good at planning, but no one does it quite like the military. That’s because some of the situations they have to deal with – like combat operations and grand-scale logistics – require far more than a general procedure on how to get from A to B. Military leaders establish backup plans and perform mission rehearsal exercises to prepare for every foreseeable outcome of a given challenge.
This kind of planning experience can transform a civilian company. Employees who have been carefully instructed, and who have thoroughly rehearsed their roles, are far more likely to effectively execute a strategy. And preparing for multiple contingencies means there are few – if any – unexpected outcomes; even if a venture doesn’t produce the desired result, there are backup plans to mitigate any losses. Preparation at this level is second nature to managers and executives with military leadership experience.
In the military, leaders carefully evaluate the performance of individual servicemembers. Areas in which they excel are noted, as are those in which they struggle. Then a plan is established to help them capitalize on their strengths and remedy their weaknesses. It might mean one-on-one time with a classroom instructor, more field training exercises as part of a team or even extra duty shifts that provide an opportunity to practice specific skills in a real-world environment. In many cases, an NCO or junior officer is tasked with personally overseeing this additional guidance.
In the business world, training is often limited to a general orientation that takes place only during the first few weeks of employment. Mentorship may be nonexistent, or confined to informal arrangements made between the occasional supervisor and subordinate who happen to get along especially well. Comprehensive, ongoing training and advising are rarely seen as priorities.
Leaders who learn their skills in the military can help companies and other organizations improve how they handle professional development. They understand the benefits of evaluating subordinates and creating a plan to continually improve their performance. They also know personal involvement is required, whether it’s an employee spending more time learning from his direct supervisor or upper-level managers taking the time to foster mentor-mentee relationships across the company.
There are many ways to bring leaders with military experience into an organization. Some are so simple they barely need to be explained: Look for military service on resumes. Specifically ask about it on application forms. Have existing employees refer Veterans and servicemembers who will be transitioning out of the military soon.
Companies that want to take a more active approach can attend military and veteran job fairs as exhibitors. These events take place all across the country and are well-attended by Veterans and transitioning personnel looking for jobs. They’re a perfect opportunity to connect with enthusiastic new professionals who have military leadership experience.
Another method is to create a program to recruit and train Veterans – and then let everyone know about it. Some of the most successful companies in the world have done this and received a great return on their investment. It requires a lot of work on the employer’s part, but can really help attract top-notch talent.
There are other approaches than the few outlined above. Any organization looking to bring more Veterans into management positions should do extensive research on how to best achieve that goal. Ultimately, it’s worth the time; the leadership perspectives and skills they bring to the table can positively transform the way a business manages, prepares and develops its personnel.