Dispelling 3 Myths about Hiring Senior Military Leaders

Military leaders gain their training in business functions and culture in the most unusual place.

Military leaders gain their training in business functions and culture in the most unusual place.

When it comes to the value of hiring senior military leaders, we've lost the narrative. Employers, hiring managers, and recruiters try to fit someone with 20 or more years of service into a 10 or less years of service box. When we consider these leaders for positions commensurate with the level of authority and responsibility they enjoyed through the military, we retreat to the usual excuses hidden in the civil-military cultural divide. Battalion commanders don't understand business functions. Senior staff officers lack an appreciation for culture and influence. Brigade level commanders are too set in their ways. Hiring managers and recruiters conclude that these leaders are over-qualified in some areas but under-qualified in others, but what if these assessments are wrong?

Have we allowed these myths about the capabilities of senior leaders limit their employability? Perhaps this is the reason why senior leaders stand in lines at career fairs intended to hire junior officers. Maybe this explains why senior leaders get credentials at the end of their career for standards they meet at the halfway point of their career. More importantly from the perspective of the ROI conscious executive, we've been denying civilian entities the true value of these leaders based on assumptions and interpretations that are simply not true. As senior leaders in retirement, it's time for us to change the narrative and dispel the myths about our business skills, our ability to leverage the power of culture, and our receptiveness to change.

The qualities and attributes of successful military leaders suggest that many of the “facts” presumed to be true about our capabilities are actually just “myths.”

Myth 1: Senior Military Leaders Don't Understand Business Functions

I know firsthand that the nature of contemporary military service requires competence in functions typically reserved for more business-like settings. One recognizable criticism of mid-senior level military leaders concerns their perceived lack of practical experience in the area of marketing. By definition, marketing is is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large. The global, collaborative nature of ongoing contingency operations demands that commanders exercise marketing at the graduate level on a daily basis.

The daily contingency operations (CONOPS) briefing is nothing more than a marketing pitch. On a routine basis, senior level leaders and staff officers craft a presentation and sell the benefits of every operation to multiple stakeholders that includes interagency partners, members of the coalition, the host nation, and the General Officer level approving authority for permission to execute. Furthermore, counterinsurgency is about connecting with the people in the same way that advertisers attempt to connect with potential buyers. We are both in the game of winning hearts and minds, but in the case of the military - the stakes are higher.

Also, the evolution of online graduate programs is making a top tier business education more accessible for senior leaders on active duty. I graduated from Kenan-Flagler's MBA@UNC while serving as a battalion commander. Of note, my marketing professor made a point of hosting a conference call with active duty members across all of his sections near the end of the term. He wasn't offering additional instruction due to our lack of practical experience in marketing. On the contrary, he recognized that military students had an intuitive grasp of the underlying psychology and principles of marketing, and he wanted to know why his military students outpaced their non-military peers. While they may not have industry specific experience, military leaders have plenty of exposure to and practice in the field of marketing.

Myth 2: Senior Military Leaders Lack Awareness of Culture and Influence

A leader who doesn't recognize the importance of culture and their leadership influence will not survive any command or executive level staff position in today's military. Never before in our nation's history have we endured conflicts of this duration and complexity with an all-volunteer force. Given the shrinking size of our military against the backdrop of sustained global demands, I would argue that the military leader's grasp of culture and influence is unmatched across any other industry in the world.

While these leaders may lack exposure to a specific corporate culture, their conditioned agility to assimilate with any culture and influence both internal and external stakeholders alike is exemplary. Internally, leaders have to account for evolving social concerns, comprehensive health issues, and family wellness in a way that most corporate leaders would dismiss as private matters. Externally, these leaders could expect to collaborate with people and politics in places like Afghanistan and Iraq during the first half an assignment and then nurture relationships with any number of European allies during the second half of the same tour of duty. Successful military leaders must demonstrate a mastery of culture and influence or risk failing their mission, their unit, or both.

Over the past two decades, the military institution has recognized the urgency for a positive command climate and organizational culture. Today, the litany of 360-degree feedback metrics and climate surveys come with punitive implications. Commanders get fired for toxic behaviors or actions contrary to the values and accepted behaviors of military service. Even after 2, 4, or more than 6 deployments, commanders must harness the positive energy necessary to create a culture that inspires service members and their families to continue volunteering for the next assignment, the next deployment, or the next cataclysmic event that threatens our national security. If not for an acute awareness of culture and influence, our military formations would implode and our deployed elements would most certainly fail.

Myth 3: Military Leaders Are Too Set In Their Ways

Let's face it, the word "retirement" comes with some unfortunate connotations. To be honest, I have my own tendency to conjure images of an aloof curmudgeon who complains defiantly about the volume or style of music from a younger generation. Now I'm one of the curmudgeons, but I don't see myself that way. I don't believe most military leaders see themselves that way either. We may have given two or three decades of our lives to the military, but we still offer another two or three decades of service to society through a different employer.

Today’s commander has to be much younger than their age suggests. The new model of the military retiree is a highly adaptive, energetic, and resilient leader.

Before 9/11, one recognizable mantra in the military was to "improvise, adapt, and overcome." I can say confidently that such a reactive approach doesn't work in the current strategic operating environment. You simply don't have the resources or the time. What worked in the past - or even on the last deployment - won't necessarily work in the future - or on the next deployment to the same location. Commanders must have the vision to anticipate outcomes, the leadership acumen to shape conditions to their strengths, and the decisiveness to recognize and act at the most opportune moment. Innovation, continuous improvement, and a constant reevaluation of facts and assumptions must necessarily define the management approach of the successful military leader. We may be older, but we are most certainly not set in our ways.

Changing the Narrative

Too often I've heard different stakeholders across the career services industry make a comparison between hiring military leaders into an executive position with placing a civilian manager in command of a battalion about to lead soldiers in combat. First, any man or woman who has served as a leader in combat would tell you that it is irresponsible to compare circumstances of profit and loss with circumstances of life and death. That said, let's remember that since 1992 the CEO of our military (aka the President of the United States), has had no active duty military experience. Furthermore, about a third of the appointed Defense Secretaries - the second ranking member in the chain of command - never served in the active duty military. We give these chief executives the proverbial keys to the kingdom despite their lack of military experience. I don't want to argue the nuances, but my point is about how we frame the question of value: You can find excuses for why military leaders won't work as executive leaders in business, or you can choose to explore ways in which they can.

I am not suggesting that we replace business leaders with military retirees, nor am I asserting that all successful commanders will excel in leadership roles outside the military. I am questioning the validity of assumptions and heuristics about the employability of senior leaders. I am suggesting that instead of speaking on their behalf, we have a conversation with these post-9/11 military retirees to get an accurate assessment of their true capabilities, potential, and needs through transition. I am suggesting that we scrap these myths and communicate the true value of military retirees so we can align them with the right opportunities that serve both the retiree and the employer. Finally, I am suggesting that we have have a serious dialogue about how to bridge the civil-military cultural gap and repurpose these leaders into more meaningful roles beyond their retirement date. I think we all can agree that they've earned it.

If we want to truly appreciate the potential of battalion and brigade level commanders and senior staff officers in the military, allow their voices to shape their narrative. These myths about the competence, agility, and potential of battalion and brigade level leaders exist absent any meaningful input from the leaders who actually served in these positions. Expecting hiring managers to fully appreciate their value or potential without hearing from these leaders directly is like asking me to tell you what it feels like to be pregnant - something I would NOT recommend for any father out there. Let's take inventory of the voices speaking on their behalf. For those military leaders approaching retirement, know that your experience matters. Your story matters. It is time to seize control of YOUR narrative, separate fact from myth, and find solutions for meaningful employment in life beyond the military.