March 09, 2010

Why Junior Military Officers Become Great Business Leaders

Fortune magazine’s cover story this week (March 22, 2010) features none other than Maura Sullivan, U.S. Marine Corps Captain, my former student at Harvard Business School and a George Leadership Fellow during her third year at Harvard.

Rather than leading its highly anticipated “World’s Most Admired Companies” issue with Apple Computer, which captured the #1 spot for the third year in a row, Fortune features Sullivan and other former young military officers entering the work place as “the new face of business leadership.”

In the past six years I have had many recent vets in my leadership classes at Harvard. They often turn out to be among the best leaders in the class and have the greatest impact in sharing their stories with classmates.

The irony here is that these military vets have not had any experience in business. This is in sharp contrast to their business school peers who have an average of four years experience before going to business school. How, then, can they be so effective in the early years of their business careers?

When you talk to them outside the classroom, as I do frequently, the answer becomes apparent. Typically, from age 22-26 they are leading 100-150 people through the most severe crises one can imagine in Iraq and Afghanistan where your life and the lives of your people is on the line every day. Meanwhile, most pre-MBA students qualify for business school admission by working in staff roles in financial services or consulting rather than plunging into line management.

The conclusion I reach from working directly with hundreds of MBAs, includes dozens of former military officers is that actual leadership experience, especially in crisis situations, is better preparation for business than business experience in staff, consultative, or analytical roles.

Sullivan’s story is especially relevant here.  As a twenty-two-year-old 2nd Lieutenant in the Marine Corps, she was shipped to Okinawa, Japan in 2002. There she was given immediate responsibility for training 23 Marines and created a comprehensive training plan for over 350 personnel.

As a 1st Lieutenant in 2004, Sullivan was sent to Fallujah at the height of the Iraq War. There she supervised 738 logistical support missions in hostile territory under exceedingly stressful conditions. For her efforts she was awarded the Navy Achievement Medal for “outstanding performance in combat zone.”

Promoted to Captain and deployed to Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, Sullivan planned and supervised one of the largest internal reorganizations in Marine Corps history. Through this process she reallocated eight battalions, 8,000 personnel, and $300M budget from functional organizations to a task-organized structure. Her efforts enabled rapid deployment of these personnel to combat operations, for which she was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal.

Sullivan’s experience is hardly unique, as I know many other junior military officers with analogous experiences. How many young business people get this kind of business experience by the time they are twenty-six?

Corporations could put them in line roles in manufacturing, retail store management, sales, or logistics, all of which would provide the experience of managing significant numbers of people with clear measurements. In my judgment, this would be far preferable to the growing tradition of putting high potential young people through training programs or analytical roles where power point charts rather than business results become their outputs.

Bottom line: business has a lot it can learn from the military’s approach to developing leaders.