5 Business Lessons I Learned Working With Military Veterans
A Note From The Editor
Think your company has what it takes to make our Top Company Cultures list? Apply now.Apply now »
In addition to being a reputation management and personal branding consultant, I have spent the past several years working with thousands of military veterans, active duty service members and military spouses with their transition into the civilian sector. Veterans who leave the military are often stymied by self-promotion, personal branding and networking, concepts that feel inauthentic and pretentious to someone who comes from a culture of service before self.
While working with these incredible servicemen and women on the civilian notions of impression management and reputation -- which can yield desired opportunities or deter them in the corporate world -- I have learned a great deal about business, my own values and how companies can increase their probability of success. Here are a few business lessons I learned.
1. Leadership is a mindset.
In every military operation or scenario, there's a clear leader. The leader knows his or her role, the rules of engagement and the risks involved under their command. Their team knows what's expected of them, and how their individual roles and contributions affect the mission's outcome.
In business, we often confuse leadership with management. Managers are responsible to make sure deadlines are met, projects are completed and budgets are upheld. But leaders, on the other hand, need to recognize their greater role -- to inspire, motivate, hold themselves accountable to a higher standard, lead by example, and create a team who will unequivocally follow them onto the corporate battlefield.
The United States military is often regarded as the "greatest leadership institution in the world." This title is earned, in part, not for the structure of its teachings and practices, but rather for the mindset of those who lead and are led. As Harry S. Truman stated, "A leader is the man who has the ability to get other people to do what they don't want to do, and like it."When I apply military-style leadership traits to my work as a business owner and entrepreneur, I:
- Hold myself fully accountable for any and all actions of my team
- Seek to motivate and uplift those around me, whether or not they are under my supervision
- Outline our mission so it is clear to the team what our goal is and how we are going to get there
- Look to surround myself with people who are better, smarter, faster or stronger in areas of business where I'm not as versed
- Delegate when a task doesn't fall under my core focus
2. Vulnerability can be an asset.
As business leaders, it's common to shy away from vulnerability. Business schools, mentors and executive coaches often teach us to project confidence, knowledge and vision as we move through our careers -- and to avoid showing weakness.
Military veterans understandably feel a similar hesitation to show vulnerability and ask for help. But, military service members and veterans will reach out to people they trust, typically those with similar backgrounds and experiences. They offer and receive support, encourage each other and coach their colleagues to greatness. And, when outsiders are vetted and cleared, they too are also sought after for guidance and fortitude.
In business, the perception of weakness can be an opportunity for competitors to swoop in and take something important away -- staff, company secrets, market positioning. Yet, in watching how military veterans learn to ask questions (facing possible disparagement), seek mentoring (sometimes from someone of a lower rank), and move through their civilian career with authenticity and vulnerability, I've seen many places to apply this to business, including opportunities to:
- Enlist competitors to help to solve shared issues and challenges
- Seek out mentoring to gain guidance and support; as a business owner, sometimes it's hard to ask for help when you appear to "have it all figured out"
3. Team isn't ancillary, it's a necessity.
In business, we know we need to surround ourselves with people who can perform aspects of the job we either aren't equipped to do or we don't like to do. But, do we surround ourselves we people who will go beyond to protect and defend us?
The military has a phrase "I got your six" refers to being protected from what can hurt you from behind. There is a safety and camaraderie that comes from knowing someone is looking out for you, will fight for you and would even die for you.
In business, this concept is hard to find. While most of us will go to bat for our colleagues, provide cover for a coworker who is falling short, or stay loyal to an employer who has done right by us, would we put our lives on the line to protect them? Not likely.What if, as business leaders, entrepreneurs and professionals, we developed bonds with the people around us that promised unconditional support and loyalty? What if there were no "dumb ideas" at the Monday morning meetings, no one felt abandoned when their business plan received criticism from the executive suite or felt lost in their career transition? How much more effective, productive and secure would we be in our business lives? Taking this concept into my own business, I strive to build teams that are:
- Inclusive and cohesive -- putting group mission above personal gain
- Able to offer candid and respectful feedback on process and goals
- Focused on growing themselves as we grow the organization
By surrounding myself with people who have "got my six," I am more confident, calm and intelligent about the risks and opportunities I pursue.
4. Mission matters.
In his now-famous TED Talk, "How great leaders inspire action," Simon Sinek encourages us to find our "why" -- our purpose and reason for what we do. "People don't buy what you do," he notes, "They buy why you do it."
The military is very clear on their why -- it's all about mission. The mission is to protect and defend the Constitution. Ask any service member, of any branch and rank why they fight, protect, or serve, and they will give you the same answer.
In business, we often jumble mission. We write pithy mission and vision statements that everyone gets a copy of on their new mousepad or coffee cup, but it's sometimes not known why we follow that mission or why we are passionate about solving a particular problem.
I see many opportunities for business to think about mission the way the military does -- with all roads leading to "why." If an effort, hire, initiative or goal supports the mission, we proceed. Otherwise, we abort.
In my business, I've spent years understanding and articulating my personal mission, or my "why." It's a personal and profound statement that clarifies my reason for being here, and it drives me to do the work that I do. Having a strong why allows me to focus on decisions and tasks that are crucial to my personal mission, so I can filter out all the noise I receive on a daily basis. Every decision I make is filtered through my mission, so that I:
- Choose clients whom I can best serve
- Hire the right team members who will allow me to concentrate on leading my mission
- Commit only to events and activities that support my goals
- Manage the deluge of distractions that don't serve me or my work
Absent a clear tie to mission, it doesn't make sense for me nor my business.
5. Commitment is crucial.
Committing to a marketing plan, vendor or core business unit is familiar to business leaders. We're used to making decisions by evaluating risk and reward, and opting for the path that creates the highest return with the least resistance and cost.
The military sees commitment differently. As we have no draft, when someone raises their hand to join or enlist, they are volunteering to serve their country. This person recognizes their vulnerability and the fragility of life in that moment, as do their spouse and loved ones. Commitment to military service is not for the faint at heart -- it involves months or years away from family, friends, and familiar surroundings. It means uncomfortable and foreign environments (literally, and figuratively), without the creature comforts of home, and living with tremendous risk, fear and uncertainty for long stretches at a time. Military service means doing something bigger than oneself.
Why would someone sign up for this level of obligation? In most cases, it's because they see a path forward to greater rewards than risk. There is a nobility to military service and commitment, a dignity that comes from having served, and there are benefits only afforded to those who put their lives on the line. Since working with military veterans, I look at commitment differently in my own work, so that I:
- Go all in and commit fully if I say yes
- Do not overcommit nor compromise quality because of convenience or public recognition
- Routinely review my schedule, activities and even daily to-dos to ensure my mission and commitment don't suffer
It can often seem like there's a distinct division between how the military and civilians operate. In the business world, most of our decisions are certainly not life or death. But, if we take a step back, and understand how the military evaluates and respects the hearts and minds of its people, and its concept of duty, service and self-sacrifice, we can implement many lessons into our businesses. We witness how values, commitment and integrity could and should be woven into mission statements and corporate mantras. We learn to focus on what will advance our teams to success and how seeking support and collaboration make us better leaders ourselves. We understand how we can benefit from a more disciplined approach, even though we have the luxury of not having to put our lives and families on the line. The more I work with transitioning military veterans into the corporate world, the more I appreciate how much they can teach us.
If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to spend time with a veteran or their family, as I know you will leave with many takeaways on how you can better serve your business, your family and yourself, each and every day.