Leadership Mettle Forged in Battle

In 2008, facing a serious shortage of leadership-ready employees at the store management level, Walmart decided to recruit from the U.S. military. The company sent recruiters to military job fairs and hired 150 junior military officers, pairing them with store mentors to learn on the job. The result: Walmart claims that it’s been able to bring in world-class leaders who were ready to take over once they had learned the retail business that Walmart could easily teach them. Other organizations that have heavily recruited from the military in recent years include GE,

Home Depot, Lowe’s, State Farm Insurance, Merck, and Bank of America.

It’s not really surprising to see companies turn to the military for leadership potential. A long tradition of books and seminars advises leaders to think like military leaders ranging from Sun Tzu to Norman Schwarzkopf. And military veterans do have a variety of valuable skills learned through experience. General David Petraeus notes, “Tell me anywhere in the business world where a 22- or 23-year-old is responsible for 35 or 40 other individuals on missions that involve life and death . . . They’re under enormous scrutiny, on top of everything else. These are pretty formative experiences. It’s a bit of a crucible-like experience that they go through.” Military leaders are also used to having to make due in less than optimal conditions, negotiate across cultures, and operate under extreme stress.

However, they do have to relearn some lessons from the service. Some may not be used to leading someone like an eccentric computer programmer who works strange hours and dresses like a slob, but who brings more to the company’s bottom line than a conventional employee would. Indeed, in some companies like Google, there is nothing like the chain of command military leaders are used to. Still, most forecasts suggest there will be an ample supply of battle-tested military leaders ready to report for corporate duty in the near future, and many companies are eager to have them.

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