5 Things You Can Take from the Battlefield to the Boardroom

U.S. Marines and sailors assigned to the 1st Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, 7th Platoon, jump out of their landing craft during a pre-dawn amphibious assault exercise (Petty Officer 1st class Terry W. Matlock, U.S. Navy. Released)
U.S. Marines and sailors assigned to the 1st Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, 7th Platoon, jump out of their landing craft during a pre-dawn amphibious assault exercise (Petty Officer 1st class Terry W. Matlock, U.S. Navy. Released)

In 2016, about 250,000 members of the U.S. military transitioned from military service to the civilian sector, adding to the more than 10 million veterans already in the workforce. The U.S. Armed Forces are one of the best “feeder programs” to companies as few organizations teach leadership, discipline, accountability, organization, and teamwork like the military. Evidence suggests military veterans are excelling in the workforce—especially as senior leaders and CEOs. Military veteran CEOs have longer tenures and deliver better results than their non-military peers. While military service can provide the foundational experience and education needed to excel as a business leader, military service is not required to apply military leadership practices in the workplace. Here are five things the military does well that every business leader can immediately apply to the workplace.

1. Be on time.

Tardiness is a problem that plagues companies and destroys productivity. In a recent survey, nearly 70 percent of employees admitted to being late to meetings; about 37 percent of all meetings started late, with an average delay of 15 minutes. The problem worsens with increased responsibility. For example, CEOs are late for 8 out of every 10 meetings. When CEOs and other senior leaders are late, the problem compounds within the organization as it sets a culture of tardiness-acceptability. We have all been on the conference calls or meetings where the leader or organizer joins late and then asks for a complete recap of what has happened. It’s more than frustrating—it’s very expensive, costing about $3 billion in lost productivity each year in the United States.

There is a saying in the military that goes, “If you are on time, then you are late.” There is an expectation that you arrive early and prepared. The precision of punctuality is a cornerstone of military efficiency; it is instilled in every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine from the first day of initial training. The military takes it so seriously, that in certain cases it’s against the Uniform Code of Military Justice (military law) to be late. Punctuality is not only an input to efficiency, but it’s also a sign of professionalism and respect.

2. Look sharp.

The adage about first impressions is true, and even small details can make a big impact. A study showed that after only three seconds of observation, a person wearing a tailored suit was rated as more confident, successful, flexible and a higher earner than the subject in the “off the rack” suit. If you are well dressed, people will presume you are in a position of authority and wield influence. In an experiment, psychologists found that pedestrians waiting to cross at a light were more inclined to jaywalk following a man in a business suit than a poorly dressed man. This phenomenon is generalizable to the workplace as well. As a well-dressed leader, you are more likely to be followed by your subordinates and supported by your colleagues.

Few organizations in the world take pride in their uniforms than the U.S. military. Countless hours are spent perfecting the fit and presentation of the military uniform. The attention to detail is impeccable. Make no mistake: a power suit is the business equivalent of a commanding military uniform. Take a lesson from FedEx CEO Frederick Smith, a former Marine Captain, who still shines his own shoes daily and ensures his belt buckle lines up with his shirt front and trouser fly of his blue pinstripe suit.

3. Be prepared.

The value of proper planning is undervalued in our “Ready, Fire, Aim” business culture. Lack of adequate preparation is a productivity-and-revenue-killer. In a recent survey of senior managers, 71% of respondents claimed their organization’s meetings are unproductive and inefficient. No agenda, goals, nor assigned roles are commonplace. Quite often, an ineffective meeting leads to a need for another meeting and the vicious cycle perpetuates. Time is a company’s most scarce resource, yet firms squander it away with little care by being unprepared. Externally, to customers and clients, 78 percent of sales managers do not adequately prepare for customer-facing meetings. Showing up having a presentation with another client’s name on the title slide, an unrehearsed pitch, and inoperative demonstration equipment are some of the more egregious mistakes resulting from unpreparedness.

Conversely, military meetings happen with more purpose and discipline, and have better outcomes. Decisions are made following the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP), a single, established, and proven analytical approach to problem-solving that facilitates collaborative planning and drives preparation. The military follows a one-third, two-thirds rule; about one-third of the total time is allotted to planning and two-thirds to execution. Meticulous rehearsals are conducted to standard before execution, and pre-checks and inspections are embedded into every mission’s plan. By making preparation a required component of all company action, firms will become more productive and efficient—and ultimately more profitable.

4. Develop leaders.

During the financial crisis during the previous decade, American corporations reduced their investment in leadership development programs and practices. For example, between 2007 and 2014, the number of companies providing full sponsorship toward executive MBA programs for their high-potential leaders dropped by 29 percent. Internal practices such as on-the-job leadership development and mentorship programs declined as well. As a result, most surveyed senior executives claim that leadership development is a top concern in their organization—about half characterizing their company’s leadership development as poor or ineffective. This is a troubling admission since 85 percent of CEOs in the U.S. were appointed from within. An extraordinary example is James Skinner, a U.S. Navy veteran, who started with McDonald's in 1971 in the manager-trainee program and decades later became the company’s CEO.

In the military, there is a core focus on leadership at all levels—from enlisted team-leaders to commanding officers. Training and education are purposeful and plentiful, with a focus on the fundamentals, such as ethics, problem-solving, critical thinking, and simply taking care of subordinates. The military’s decentralized authority and responsibility structure allow for progressive and sequential leadership experiences throughout a career. Companies should embrace the strategic and long-term value of leadership development and not be distracted by quarterly income statements. Firms that do so have stronger long-term performance, including high growth in customer satisfaction, market share, revenue, and profit.

5. Embrace teamwork.

In the bravado individualistic culture of the United States, there is often glorification of the “hero.” This perception is exacerbated by Hollywood dramatization. In reality, few high achievements are accomplished without the support of a cohesive team. Trust, shared values, open communication, a common goal, and cognitive diversity are often the determinants of success than a gaggle of high-performing individual contributors out for riches or extolment. In a recent survey of employers, teamwork was ranked the second most important quality for business leaders, only second to communication. Many business schools have listened to employers and have transitioned from a cut-throat, destructively competitive culture to one that focuses more on teamwork and collaboration.

The concept of the team and its importance in goal achievement is inculcated into every member of the military. Even at the lowest level, everything is done using a buddy system—a “battle buddy” or a “swim buddy,” working in small teams. Shared experiences, especially through challenging times, help strengthen military teams—no one understands this more than a combat veteran. Intense training can create a similar effect and can strengthen a team’s esprit de corps, improve effectiveness, and increase morale. Companies can experience similar team bonding outcomes with off-site retreats and team building events. Many corporate training programs even offer military-style obstacle and rope courses and group problem-solving scenarios. Research shows that building and nurturing cohesive, positive teams can lead to better business outcomes.

Aaron Sean Poynton served in the U.S. Army for seven years, attaining the rank of Captain. He has since transitioned into the civilian sector and has worked for Fortune 500, FTSE 100, and private companies in business leadership roles. He has an MBA from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and is a Senior Vice President at Federal Resources.

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