Does military experience translate to leadership and business savvy?
A glance at today’s most successful corporations would suggest that it does. Many of the biggest names in the business world — Verizon’s Lowell McAdam, FedEx CEO Frederick Smith, former General Motors CEO Daniel Akerson — have military backgrounds.
In 2005, a comprehensive study of S&P 500 CEOs by Korn/Ferry International found that more than 8% of top execs were ex-military officers, which is nearly triple the 3% of U.S. men who serve as officers.
What does the military teach that helps these ex-officers climb to the top of major corporations? We combed through interviews with many of them to find out the biggest lessons about life, business, and leadership they learned from the service:
Always look sharp.
Years out of service, FedEx CEO Frederick Smith still keeps up the tidy appearance he learned in the Marines. “Even in a blue pin-striped suit, I still make sure that the right-hand edge of my belt buckle lines up with my shirt front and trouser fly,” he’s said. “I shine my own shoes, and I feel uncomfortable if they aren’t polished.”
Take good care of your people.
Former General Motors chairman and CEO Daniel Akerson says military service taught him to lead by example and “to take good care of your people.“
Assemble diverse teams to get a range of perspectives.
Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky, a former captain in the U.S. Army, says military training taught him the value of working with diverse teams. “I quickly discovered no one had a lock on the right answers,” he told DiversityInc.
Invest in relationships for the long term.
The relationships formed in the military are “lifelong” and “serve you well in a business career,” says Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam, who served in the U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps.
Be willing to listen to everyone.
Michael Morris, the former CEO of American Electric Power, has said that the military developed his “willingness to listen and formulate an opinion that incorporates as many people’s ideas as possible.”
Stay calm under pressure.
Morris also likes to compare a CEO to a pilot in bad weather — it’s up to him to keep his cool through a storm so his passengers (or shareholders and employees) stay calm. “The last thing you want is to appear to be rattled,” he says.
Act decisively even with limited information.
David Morken, CEO of Internet and phone services company Bandwidth, learned to “operate in the fog and to execute and decisively engage when you don’t have access to a complete data set” from his time in the Marine Corps.
Carefully plan out the logistics.
Robert Myers, CEO of Casey’s General Store, says his time in the Army made him a perfect choice later to run the company. The company’s founder figured no one was more qualified to head up a distribution chain than a former military logistics officer, CSPnet.com reports.
Lead with integrity.
“Veterans have special abilities and common traits, including discipline, maturity, adaptability, and dedication,” John Luke Jr., CEO of MeadWestvaco and a former Air Force pilot, has said. “They operate with integrity and high ethical standards in all that they do.”
Be, know, and do everything you ask of those below you.
“When I was attending the Drill Sergeant Academy, I was taught to always ‘Be, Know, Do,’ when dealing with subordinates,” former U.S. Army Drill Sergeant and Argo Marketing Group CEO Jason Levesque tells Business Insider. “Be the expert; know the job; do the difficult [tasks]. Your subordinates will follow you and, best of all, try to emulate you.”
Give 100% of your effort.
Robert McDonald, former CEO of Procter & Gamble, explains that his time in the infantry convinced him to always commit to something 100%. “If you’re going to be in the Army, go into the infantry,” he says. “If you’re going to be in marketing, work for P&G. You don’t do things halfway.”
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