Playing to Win: The Value Proposition for Hiring Senior Military Leaders
Let's be honest. The reasons for hiring veterans has become . . . cliche. You've read the same article or listened to the same pitch before. The usual justifications typically involve some combination of the words leadership, teamwork, performance under pressure, integrity, accountability, adaptability . . . and the list goes on. We've exhausted those arguments to the point where they no longer resonate with potential employers. The job turnover and underemployment statistics suggest that we continue to mismatch the veteran's value offering with a role or function that yields the greatest return to both the veteran and the employer. The mere fact that so many recruiters and hiring professionals advise senior leaders to "manage expectations" and "take a step back" provides further evidence that we simply don't repurpose senior leaders for empowering opportunities in life beyond the military.
It's time to change the dynamics of post-military employment and veteran utilization across the corporate landscape. Veterans find jobs - just not the right ones. Existing protocols result in too many veterans - particularly senior leaders - working in jobs they don't really want or settling for positions well beneath their capabilities. Veterans aren't making an impact commensurate with their potential, and employers are losing out on the financial benefits of employing these leaders at the full measure of their value. Let's try something different. Let's match the unique capabilities of senior military leaders to some of the most urgent needs facing business leaders today. Let's examine veteran employability from the perspective of the value proposition for hiring senior military leaders.
A value proposition quantifies the unique differentiation and relevancy of a particular offering. It differs from simply listing the benefits of hiring veterans because it speaks directly to how military leaders deliver value to an employer. In this case, it describes how senior military leaders differ in a relevant way to their non-veteran counterparts. What makes the senior military unique in a relevant way concerns their Focus and Approach. Let's move past the cliches and examine in greater detail how this particular value proposition addresses some of the most urgent needs facing Corporate America.
The Focus: People are the Mission
One of the most recognizable and overused military cliches is mission first, people always. I've heard this phrase uttered from leaders at every echelon of command since my journey started as a second lieutenant. Focusing on the prescribed mission statement from the Modification Table of Organization and Equipment (MTOE) is far too myopic a standard for post-9/11 military leaders. The harsh reality is that the contemporary operating environment is far too dynamic for the leader to focus on a specific mission statement. Think about the things you've been asked to do over the course of your career: Are we trying to destroy an enemy or protect the people? How many times have you performed duties outside the scope of your operating specialty (or prescribed mission), and how often have you asked the members of your team to do the same? The truth is that we simply don't know what mission we will be asked to accomplish tomorrow.
The one constant through the uncertainty and complexity of the current and projected strategic environment has been (and will always be) the soldier - the person wearing the uniform. Given the downward pressure on costs and the size of our formations, leaders have become experts in the field of human performance. Leaders must improve both the capacity (wellness and resilience) and capability (skills, qualities, and attributes) of their workforce in order to achieve desired outcomes, and they do so while having to inspire men and women to continue volunteering during one of the most demanding periods of military service in our nation's history. Commanders excel in the uncomfortable space between personal growth and professional development because success on the next deployment means optimizing the potential of every soldier to perform at higher levels of responsibility.
With few exceptions, business entities don't share the military's focus on the people. In his book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek argues that management tends to focus on quantifiable performance measures such as revenue, profitability, and market share at the expense of the people expected to achieve those results. We've come to rely on human resources to provide numerical abstractions to quantify the very human act of leadership, and we treat employees like a commodity. The consequence has been a corporate culture where nearly half of Americans lack a sense of job satisfaction, and 71 percent of employees are actively looking for new jobs. How do you sustain or improve organizational outcomes with people coming and going through a revolving door of employment?
Inspire the people, and you achieve your results. Military leaders recognize and develop potential, but they also have to know how to optimize the talent they have. Given the complexity and ambiguity of the next mission, the most successful leaders invest their energy into the capacity and the capability of their people to accomplish any mission. An organization that seeks to leverage the competitive advantage of optimizing their workforce to excel against any challenge would benefit from the experience of leaders groomed in an environment where the people are the mission.
The Approach: Anticipate, Shape, and Dominate
Another recognizable phrase loosely affiliated with the military culture is the maxim to improvise, adapt, and overcome. I think this cliche was originally taken from a Clint Eastwood movie. Under this construct, the military leader faces a new problem, adjusts their actions based on what he or she learns, and applies fortitude and tenacity to achieve success. The issue is whether or not the leader retains the initiative throughout this process. For simple, linear problems, this reactive approach is effective. Unfortunately, military leaders in the post-9/11 environment don't have the luxury of time or resources to regain lost initiative from second and third order effects.
Post-9/11 leaders have to anticipate future outcomes and assess possible consequences as a result of those actions. They have to recognize their strengths, the capabilities of their team, and opportunities in the environment to shape conditions to create an advantage. Finally, they have to embrace the courage and decisiveness to take bold action in the most opportune moment to seize initiative, maintain momentum, and dominate the outcome. Anticipate, shape, and dominate is the mechanism for connecting the strategic vision with tactical execution in a proactive approach to achieve desired outcomes.
According to the CEO Genome Project - the world's most comprehensive leadership study - the behaviors that distinguish the most successful CEO's include delivering reliable results, adapting proactively (anticipate), engaging for impact (shape), and deciding with speed and conviction (dominate). Senior military leaders already have a resume of delivering results, or they never would have lasted for 20 or more years in the service. Additionally, the most successful c-suite leaders spend 50% of their time focused on the future - the desired end state. They anticipate. These leaders build alliances through "disciplined communication and influencing strategies." They shape. These leaders have no problem making decisions and acting "amid ambiguity, with incomplete information, and in unfamiliar domains." They seize initiative, maintain the momentum, and dominate the situation.
What do you suppose executive boards or senior leadership across the corporate sector would pay to put their emerging leaders through a deliberate program that nurtures the very qualities resident in the most successful CEO's in the world? Here's the good news - that program already exists. Any senior military leader with experience in post-9/11 operations against the backdrop of shrinking resources, shifting alliances, and evolving technology has had to develop their own ability to anticipate, shape, and dominate. Military leaders have done this to accomplish whatever difficult assignment or mission asked of them. They've done this to win because the idea of losing was never an option.
Applying the Value Proposition: Playing to Win
When wading into the uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity associated with current and projected business challenges, you can play scared. You can manage through fear. You can apply risk management strategies and lead by consensus. You can react. At the very least, you can showcase all the safe and comfortable tactics you employed to avert blame for failure, but you can't avert the reality of failure. In other words, you can cover your butt and argue how it wasn't your fault. You can place blame on someone else, but you can't change the inevitable outcome when you play scared.
You'll never hear the military leader say the outcome isn't his or her fault. That's not our style. We embrace that responsibility at the onset of the challenge which is one of the reasons why we always seem to find a way to win. We may not meet your standard of industry experience, but we can learn. We may not be familiar with your metrics of business performance, but anyone can get an MBA. You can teach us the standards and processes for business operations and marketing, but you can't teach the unique and distinctive value of what happens when one of us shows up in your organization.
The value of hiring senior military leaders is a two part proposition. First, military leaders treat the people as the mission. We create a climate that inspires higher performance outcomes. We know how to create a learning culture for workforce development and infuse the resilience necessary to excel through challenges. Second, we are conditioned to thrive through uncertainty with the highest stakes. Where you feel fear, we see opportunity. We anticipate, shape, and dominate to create those opportunities. In other words, we play to win.