Thursday, June 22, 2006

Ex-military CEO Firms Outperform Market - An Executive Recruiter's Perspective

Some readers of the White Rhino Report are aware that one of my areas of specialization as an executive recruiter is placing senior executives who bring prior military leadership experience to their roles as business leaders. What most of you do not know is how that specialization has evolved over the past few years. It is a long story, but I will attempt to share an abbreviated version of the story in this morning’s posting.

I do not have a military background, so it is a bit ironic that I have become a specialist in placing military veterans and Service Academy graduates. My brother, Dave, had a distinguished career in the Navy as a Cryptologic Technician (CT), retiring as a Senior Chief Petty Officer, and my father served in India in WWII in the Army Air Corps as part of the Signal Corps, but I never served in the military. So, how I did I end up as a recruiter specializing in placing men and women who have served as leaders in the Army, Navy, Air Force Marines and Coast Guard?

The process began a few years ago when I was conducting a search for the CEO of a start-up software company. I found an unusually large pool of qualified candidates, and had to go through several rounds of cutting the slate of candidates down to a reasonable number. Each time I would add levels of assessments and additional screening criteria, emerging at the top of the heap were an inordinately large percentage of candidates who were former military officers, many of whom were West Point and Annapolis graduates. I wondered if this phenomenon was peculiar to this particular search, because of the technical requirements of the position, or was I discovering a universal principle that in the process of preparing military leaders, our armed forces and service academies were also serving as incubators for future business leaders.

Several of the finalists for this CEO role had listed as a reference retired Admiral Bill Owens, the former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So, as I conducted in-depth reference checks, I had ready access to Admiral Owens. I shared with him my observations about leadership incubation, and he was kind enough to share with me his perspective, and also to recommend reading for me to do, and others for me to speak with about these topics. With Admiral Owens’ help, I learned quickly and developed a strong respect for the value proposition of business leaders who had cut their teeth as officers in the military.

One day over lunch, I was sharing my thoughts with a friend, a graduate of West Point and Harvard Business School. As Benny listened to me articulate what I had been learning, he looked me squarely in the eye and said: “You are the first non-military person I have ever met who really gets it. You understand our value business leadership roles. And that means that you have a responsibility, as you grow your executive search practice, to become our ‘missionary to the business world.’”

I took Benny’s words to heart. I was reminded of those words yesterday when I received an e-mail from my friend, Dr. Scott Snook, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School. Scott retired as a Colonel from the U.S. Army. His last assignment before retiring from the military was to run the Leadership Development Center at West Point. Dr. Snook has spent a lifetime studying issues of leadership – in the military and in the business world. Scott has been very supportive of me, as I have worked to build an executive search practice that allows me to provide client companies with world-class leaders – many of whom are former military officers. Dr. Snook was writing to me yesterday to make sure that I was aware of a recent study that highlights the fact that companies that are run by CEO’s with military backgrounds significantly outperform the rest of the marketplace. The article, linked below, first appeared last week in CNN’s

Ex-military CEO firms outperform market - Jun. 16, 2006

This study provides empirical confirmation of what I have been observing experientially and anecdotally over the past several years. The winning combination of a solid ethical foundation, battle-tested decision-making capabilities, team-building skills, unimpeachable work ethic, commitment to a mission and a refusal to accept failure as an option make military veterans an excellent choice for many challenging business leadership roles. Over the past few years, I have had the privilege to build solid relationships of trust with hundreds of men and women whose backgrounds and skill sets include the list of traits I just listed.

Many companies have already discovered the wisdom of actively recruiting from among this pool of candidates; others have yet to make that discovery. If you are aware of a company that needs to hire the next generation of leaders, I would welcome an introduction and an opportunity to explore with the leaders of that firm how I can help them to gain access to the kind of outstanding leaders described in this CNN article - former military officers who have asked me to help guide them making their next career move and in finding the best company and best role where they can make the maximum contribution.

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