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Leadership & Organisations - BLOG

Six Reasons to Hire Military Veterans

Antoine Tirard, (INSEAD MBA ‘97D), Founder, NexTalent and Claire Lyell, (INSEAD MBA ‘92J), Founder, Culture Pearl  |

Military experience builds the elusive character traits that companies sorely need in their leaders.

As long as reality falls short of our peace-loving ideals, there will be a pressing need to recruit bright talents into the military. When military leaders re-enter civilian life, however, they often find it difficult to convince employers that their experience applies to the business world. True, life on an army barracks bears little obvious resemblance to that of most corporate executives — but the differences may be more superficial than most realise.

In speaking to several flourishing officers-cum-execs, we discovered that they directly attributed their business success to qualities acquired and honed in the military. Their stories suggest that the rigours of military leadership can be ideal preparation for the corporate battlefield.

“Resilience is built into our thought process”

As one of three brothers in an Indian “army family”, you could say that Devendra Yadav, now CEO of a French multinational, was destined to go into the military. After graduating from the military academy with top honours, he began a thriving career encompassing both combat roles and UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. In 2004, as a young colonel, Devendra was asked to raise a new unit, which he now compares to a start-up business with venture capital funding.

Unlike most of his colleagues, who aimed to spend their entire careers in the army, Devendra started to crave a new challenge once he had served the obligatory 20 years. For him, the critical question was “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” When he realised it had been so long that memory failed him, he decided to reinvent himself as a business leader.

He eventually enrolled in a dual MBA programme from Tsinghua and INSEAD. Surrounded by students much younger than himself, he relished the opportunity to question himself on all fronts, after so many years of being in command. “The higher you go in the army, the lonelier you get, whereas I now have a magnificent network of supportive buddies just a phone call away”, Devendra says of the experience.

Devendra believes his rise to CEO owes much to the strengths he developed in the army, specifically a unique package of analysis, quick solutions, and implementation. He says this outlook allows him to anticipate problems without slowing his advance toward the finish line. The “everything can go wrong” attitude that prevails in the army fosters a helpful sense of proportion. It is “losing money versus losing lives and limbs, and resilience is built into our thought process.”

“Most people are afraid”

Prominent executive coach Ton de Graaf had a harder time making the transition to civilian life. Upon ending an illustrious military career that took him from platoon leader in the Royal Dutch Military Police, involved in NATO security issues, to Air Force captain, he found himself 0-for-150 on his job applications.

Through sheer persistence, he won an executive leadership position as “head of change” in a large construction company. He soon learned the real reason he had been hired; to oversee a major restructuring effort. He used his military experience to “keep his cool” and be first in, last out, on the work floor with “the men”. Things got tough, but he held his ground, as he had learnt, and gained a great deal of respect. His performance was rewarded with further and rapid promotions, as well as with the sense that the change he had led had been as painless as possible, thanks to his work.

Ton’s wisdom from the military carries over into his current role as a coach, including the notion that you must “walk your talk” and be a leader who can be trusted. He tries to inspire in his clients the same fearlessness the army instilled in him. “I’ve been an executive coach for over a decade now, and the one thing I notice time and again is that most people are afraid. Afraid to be judged, afraid to give or receive feedback, to ask for help, or to lose their job. Apparently this is the system we have built for ourselves”, Ton says.

6 Highly Desirable and Distinctive Transferable Skills From the Military

1. Fearlessness - "losing money vs. losing life and limbs"

2. Resilience - "you can never feel as bad as when you lose a comrade, so it is easy to get back up and recover from the failure of a project or initiative"

3. Character - "it is easy to train up business skills, but impossible to train up character"

4. Self-discipline - "I survived remote, isolating and exhausting postings, by reminding myself of the value for my nation of this hardship"

5. Cool - "I managed this situation by keeping my cool, just like I had in the midst of heavy combat"

6. Caring - "it is all ultimately about how you treat your people, and humility and empathy count above all"

 

“It all boils down to how you treat people”

Priya Panjikar’s career has, in a sense, come full circle. She is now being groomed for a General Manager role at Marriott, the company she joined as a fresh graduate, before discovering an opening in the lady officer’s special entry scheme that required a hotel management degree. Her five-year military stint kicked off with a posting to Leh, a remote station in the Himalayas. At age 21, she was not only the youngest person there by nearly 25 years but also the only female. She earned the respect of her colleagues by proving she could match them physically, while providing a mix of feminine empathy and supportiveness, to weave relationships of trust and confidence.

Her time in the mountains continues to inform her experience in the business world. In fact, she says HR in the hospitality sector shares several key characteristics with her army life: grass-roots activities, largely untrained staff, and hectic unpredictability. The strongest wisdom Priya has covers her whole career: “It all boils down to how you treat people. You mentor others, so that you are free to develop yourself. Success breeds success.”

She recommends that other exiting officers “leave their high horse behind” and focus on reading and building information. “The more you know, the more you can engage in interesting conversations, wherever you are.”

The importance of character

When we asked what they most valued about their military experience, Devendra, Tom, and Priya hardly mentioned concrete skills or expertise gained in a particular area. Rather, their comments imply that there is no place like the military for building the all-encompassing, intangible traits necessary to succeed (and lead others to success) at any difficult business task — which we have extrapolated as fearlessness, resilience, character, self-discipline, cool, and caring (see sidebar).

We believe companies should challenge their assumptions about the military, looking for the positive and constructive aspects of an individual’s experience. Business skills and knowledge can easily be taught, while character cannot, and that makes all the difference in the world.

Antoine Tirard is a talent management advisor and the founder of NexTalent. He is the former head of talent management of Novartis and LVMH.  Claire Lyell is the founder of Culture Pearl and an expert in written communication across borders and languages.

For more on our in-depth interviews with former military personnel who transitioned to business, read the extended version of this post on NexTalent.

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Comments
Richard Head,

Not all veterans will be leaders. We hired one and he had the certifications to boot - A+, Network+, Security+, CAPM, CEH, now working on his CISSP. Unfortunately, this guy is lazy, doesn't know his IT stuff nor what to do, and he gets sensitive when questioned. We found out later that he took the certification classes and memorized the answers so he passed. Nothing really stuck with him. And now we're stuck with him. My advice, interview well with extensive technical questions; that was our mistake. This guy is giving us a bad experience with veterans. Like I said, not all veterans will be leaders. Some of them just want a job and do enough to stay in the payroll, sometimes not even enough.

Sean,

Great article and a must read for the 'talent acquirer' amongst us. It does seem that ex-military leadership is a talent pool that we are not tapping into properly - although my gut feel would be that the US is better at this than Europe. A BP I worked with a number of ex-army officers and would also say that your list of transferable skills reflects some of the outstanding behaviour I came across there.

Ted Daywalt,

The comment that "they often find it difficult to convince employers that their experience applies to the business world" is used by many at DOL and VA to justify the hundreds of millions of dollars they spend to "help" veterans. In reality, the overall veteran unemployment rate has ALWAYS been lower than the national unemployment rate. In November 2015 the overall veteran unemployment rate was 3.9% versus the national unemployment rate of 5.0%. While there are some veterans who have problems getting work (just like their civilian counterparts), the numbers prove that veterans have been finding jobs at a better rate than non-veterans. There are many reasons for their success.

Brian Rucker,

While I see the logic in your argument Ted, I fear your analysis of the statistics may be overly myopic. Evaluating the difficulty that transitioning veterans face convincing employers that their experience is relevant by analyzing the composite unemployment rate of all veterans - as you have done here - inappropriately attributes statistical data and entirely misses the key issue in question.

Focusing first on the topic of the veterans unemployment rate versus the national unemployment rate: your analysis ignores the details of those numbers. The most recent annual data from the DOL, and every annual report dating back to 2011 (and I suspect even further back than that) shows that while the composite unemployment rate for veterans is in fact lower, it's not until you reach veterans in the 45-54 demographic that the overall comparison aligns with the reality of the veterans. Veterans in every demographic under 45 years old see unemployment rates well above their non-veteran peers. Even after 45, the unemployment rate of veterans versus their non-veteran peers is roughly on par. So why is the composite unemployment rate of veterans lower than the national average? Because the smaller population of veterans, and the relative distribution of veterans in terms of age, means that the influence of older veterans is disproportionately stronger on overall unemployment rates of veterans than is the influence of older non-veterans on the national unemployment rate.

The empirical data factually supports the hypothesis that "[transitioning veterans] often find it difficult to convince employers that their experience applies to the business world." Consider the likely age demographic of the veterans referenced in this article, and in this particular quote; they are, by and large, mid-career veterans in the 25-34 and 35-44 age demographics. In other words, these veterans do factually experience unemployment rates higher than their non-veteran peers; a trend that manifests itself in longer, less rewarding employment searches and is appropriately articulated by the quote in question.

As a final point, focusing solely on the unemployment rate of veterans lends no consideration to the quality of that employment. Veterans, more so than their non-veteran peers, know what it means to have meaningful employment - something they look for in their post-military lives. The focus on helping veterans find jobs rather than meaningful careers, as is so often the case, is a key contributing factor to turnover rates of upwards of 70% for veterans (Officer and Enlisted) in the first two years of their post-military career. We agree that millions of tax dollars have been wasted on ineffective, and often disabling, veteran employment programs; but I sense we disagree on why those programs are failing.

Bill,

I've found that I have no problem finding a job as long as the job requires me to be overseas 100% of the time and working with the military. I retired from the army after 20 years so I could be home with my family. Unfortunately, after applying to hundreds of state side jobs that I met the qualifications for, I am still working 8 time zones away from my family. Getting a job may be easy for a vet but getting the job you want is difficult, especially for a mid level leader.

Dhiwaa,

Enjoyed reading this article.....the 6 reasons are solid and must for 'business leadership' or in 'enterprise governance' today. However, this will NOT work as a blanket model.....the talent from FORCE's need strong assessment & multiple distillation to get these 6 STARs as convertible qualities in different context. In various times/experiences, i have noticed they do not know how to UNLEARN few things which impacts these 6 itself....... 1) change in work environment {got done; do it yourself} 2) Inclusive decision making {co-creation} 3) Adaptability in managing diverse workforce {managing disorder....!!}....etc. Yes, there is potential with veterans, but careful assessment & match is the key.

sandeep,

Agree with your comments. However, would like to add that there are a group of veterans who have past experience of having served with defence civilian force. These personnel by and large have the experience of both co-creation and adaptability in managing disorder. Yes the problem of not knowing how to unlearn may be there in certain individuals, but with correct guidance it should not be very difficult. The onus to 'unlearn' and adapt is that of veteran ...

DBL07 http://www.DBL07.co/,

It is so hard to find quality people to build my company. I look for people who are disciplined, self motivated, with integrity and I always find those traits in vets. Oorah!
Cheers,
Matthew Rings
CEO DBL07

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