The Military and MBAs: Business on the Front Line

Military and the MBA- Business on the Front Line

Taking an MBA at a major business school has become a well-trodden route for armed services veterans looking for a move into the commercial world. What better way, after all, to get a crash course in the basics of corporate activity, such as marketing, finance and entrepreneurship, that are conspicuous by their absence on the battlefield? But is this just a one-way process? Or can graduates of an army, navy or air force training teach valuable lessons to their civilian counterparts?

Not surprisingly, most students from an armed forces background experience some degree of culture shock in their first few weeks on a business school campus. For example, Ger Zwartendijk, a former special forces commander who studied at Nyenrode in the Netherlands, was initially unsettled by the relative lack of structure to business life. Ed Robinson, a Long Range Reconnaissance and Surveillance Team Leader in the US army, with multiple combat tours in Iraq found himself instinctively leading study groups on the OneMBA Executive MBA Program because, “when you’re out in the field you can’t afford to hang around waiting or someone to give you direction”. And Adam Stanley-Smith, a US Marines officer, who took an MBA at HEC Paris, found himself longing for the days when he could get most things done simply by issuing an order.

Once settled in, however, many former services personnel stop being intimidated by the business world and begin to see shortcomings in it that their former employers could potentially address.

Although outsiders perceive the armed services as a micro-managed environment the opposite is actually closer to the truth and has been since the command system introduced by the German general Helmuth von Moltke as long ago as the 1860s. Von Moltke took the view that even the best laid plans start to unravel in the face of changing circumstances and that flexibility and adaptability are consequently vital for success. He consequently pioneered a system where front-line commanders were given very clear instructions on objectives but then allowed a generous amount of freedom as to how they achieved them in practice. Since the end of WW2 this approach has been adopted by all major armed forces around the world right down to the level of the smallest operating unit. As Ger Zwartendijk puts it the military is consequently way ahead of business in terms of effective, explicit delegation and exhaustive planning based on ‘what if’ scenarios that few companies would be willing to invest the time and effort to examine.

Another apparent myth about the military is that it relies on the order system and the sanctions that back it up to achieve its aims. However, OneMBA student Robinson, an ex-special operations team leader who faced the unforgiving realities of the front line, argues that command and control is only part of the picture. For him the most effective units are successful because their leaders also have a clear understanding of what really motivates individuals under their command. As he puts it, “The military is simply better than business at getting people to do what you want them to do,” and he brings this outlook to a diverse international class of senior executives, who in turn share their own business perspective.

It is this focus on effective leadership that is perhaps the essence of what the military MBA student could pass onto their civilian counterpart, if they are willing to listen. After all the military has had to address challenges in this area that make those found in the corporate environment look fairly tame. The French philosopher Montesquieu pointed out that a rational army would run away, so if military leaders can hold their subordinates on a battlefield when all then logical imperatives would suggest a rapid departure, getting a project team to complete on time and to budget should be the proverbial piece of cake.

Some of world’s top business schools now seem to have been won over by this argument. Academics from Kenan-Flagler who teach leadership on the five school OneMBA, for example, regularly spend time at West Point and on active service warships. And HEC Paris sends students on what can only be described as a challenging course run by French naval commandos, which involves such delights as unarmed combat, crawling through sewage pipes and sea-kayaking in the pitch dark.

Perhaps the day of press-ups in the classroom for defaulting on a case study may soon be upon us.

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