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Military Principles in the Corporate World

Corporate executive love to borrow military expressions in their line of work and seeing Sun Tzu’s quotes in book about the business world is pretty common. As I’ve shown in my previous post, there is a strong link between the business world and the military. In this post I will further show how principles acquired in the military are being applied in that world.

How strong is the connection between the military and corporations? A study done by Korn/Ferry International found that military officers are over-represented in the CEO rank. Out of all S&P 500 companies, 8.4% of the CEO’s are military officers, as opposed to only 3% of all US adult males who served as officers. The study also found that companies that are run by a CEO with a military background outperform their peers in the short & long run projections. To top it all off, the same CEO’s also tend to survive longer on the job, with a median tenure of 5 years and an average of 7.2 compared to 4 years median and 4.5 years average of those who didn’t serve in the military.

When asked, the S&P 500 CEO’s said that what makes them stand out compared to the competition is:

• Learning how to work as part of a team
• Organizational Skills, such as planning and effective use of resources
• Good communication skills
• Defining a goal and motivating others to follow it
• A highly developed since of ethics
• The ability to remain calm under pressure

Also noted was the ability to work under pressure and risk management. The military makes you more comfortable with taking risks, and in the business world those of play safe are often left behind.

Learning how to work as part of a team and communicate well can be achieved by letting everyone knows what the plan is. One CEO implanted the “Plan of the Day” each day so that all employees would know what the goals for the day were, with meetings occurring daily or weekly to keep everyone informed of changes in the assignments. And the military teaches you not only to verbally speak out what’s on your mind but also to listen and incorporate different opinions in order to reach the best available solution.

Clarity in defining a goal is also critical. In the military it’s very clear what the mission is, exactly what can and needs to be done to achieve it and the same for potential failure. Keeping things simple and specific help in the business world too, it aids in avoiding spending unnecessary resources on minor tasks and allocating them to where they matter most. Also, the high emphasis on ethics and values in the army is being carried over by the officers to their companies. It’s easier to gain the trust of your employees when you’re leading them by example, and also by being honest and not embellishing the truth. If you connect with your workers they will want to work harder for you, which in the business world translate to increase productivity.

But there are disadvantages as well and military experience doesn’t guarantee success. One issue, for example, is not knowing when to challenge authority. In the military, decisions are often a matter of life & death. Sometimes there is no time to question or debate them. All that is required is to follow & execute them. The same attitude in the civilian world may lead to tension in the boardroom. And it can go both ways too, sometimes authority needs to be questioned but it goes unchecked.

The bottom line is that military experience simply lets your handle a heavier load of responsibilities early on. Within one year you can get into a significant leadership position in the army while in the corporate world the same process might take 5-10 years. On the other hand, the heightened presence of military officers in the high levels of the corporate world can be explained by the nature of these people who are simply born more driven, goal oriented or simply are just natural born leaders. Be that as it may, it’s difficult to argue with the results.

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