Saturday, March 15, 2008

Expanding on the Business Week Article: "From the Front Lines to the Bottom Line"

When Business Week Magazine asked me to write a companion piece to their article on the transition from the military to business school, they asked if I would tell the stories of several individuals I know who have made that transition. Space considerations allowed them only to include the story of Scott St. Germain, but I wanted to take advantage of this space in The White Rhino Report to share some of the other stories of transition - as a way of encouraging those leaving the military to consider business school as an option - and as a way to encourage employers to consider this pool of candidates as a strategic resource in building the next generation of leaders.

Here is the link the the abbreviated Business Week edition:

Al Chase Business Week Article

The expanded version appears below:

From the Front Lines to the Bottom Line – Transition from Military Leadership to Business Leadership by Way of Business School

Dr. Al Chase, Founder

White Rhino Partners, Executive Search


Business Week Magazine

My life as an executive recruiter changed forever in 2001 when the Chairman of the Board of a start-up software company engaged me to find them a CEO. Many of the finalists for this role turned out to be executives who had cut their leadership teeth in the military, and had then acquired additional tools in earning an MBA from one of the top-tier business schools. I began to realize that our military – while producing outstanding leaders for the battlefield – also serves as an incubator for business leadership. And a business school education provides the additional fine tuning that enables these men and women to make a major contribution in the private sector. The irony is that, I – with no military background of my own – have become an enthusiastic evangelist for the special value proposition that military veterans with MBA’s offer to the business world. As a result, over the past seven years, I have come to know hundreds of women and men who have made a successful transition from the military to the world of business by way of business school.

What makes these military veterans so successful in the business world? In a word: leadership. But, let me break down some of the components of leadership that I see exhibited in these impressive individuals I have come to know, and who have made successful transitions from the military to business school and then to leadership in business. Under the broad banner of leadership I see specific strengths: strategic vision, commitment to the mission, accountability, integrity, flexibility, interpersonal skills, communication skills, and a commitment to equip and empower their teams to achieve excellence. There is not space in this article to flesh out all of these components of leadership, but I am pleased to offer a few vignettes of individuals I know who personify these traits that are becoming highly valued in the business world.

Kate Kohler is a West Point graduate – a whirlwind of energy and activity who competes in triathlons in her spare time. Upon graduating from Harvard Business School, she was recruited to work in Private Wealth Management with Morgan Stanley. How does a young woman with striking brunette hair break into a world mostly inhabited by older men, patricians whose silvery tresses are their badge of honor and their pass key to gaining the trust of wealthy investors? Her time as an officer in a military police unit gave her broad exposure to a variety of high-pressure situations. Her role as a general’s aide taught her to be comfortable in the presence of powerful men with quite a few miles on their odometers and strong opinions about how to drive to the next destination. The folks at Morgan Stanley were wise enough to see that these experiences were perfect preparation for the challenges of Private Wealth Management. Kate sums up succinctly what her Army experience gave her to set her up for success in the business world: “relationships, teams, energy, hard jobs, hard places, sense of purpose.” I have seen Kate in action in the halls of the Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan, and she is as at home there as is Br’er Rabbit in the Briar Patch!

Wharton was the business school of choice for Mark Thaller when he decided it was time to acquire some more analytical tools. He had left the Navy after serving as an engineer aboard the nuclear attack submarine USS Skate. Mark is one of only six persons ever to have graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with two accredited engineering degrees. His experience as a submariner and as a top student at Wharton propelled him to a career in the private sector that has included stints in the worlds of venture capital, global business development and national security. I was pleased to be part of the process that led to Mr. Thaller joining Lucent Technologies as Director of Homeland Security Solutions. When asked to sum up those intangibles that have been consistent threads in his leadership roles in the military and in the business world, Thaller offered these highlights: “integrity, team work, stamina and experience are paramount values.” This is not a surprising list coming from a businessman who once competed in the original American Gladiators TV show!

Heather March Takle is every inch a Marine. I watched her and listened to her command voice as she led the color guard into the meeting room in Spangler Hall at Harvard Business School to kick off the celebration of the birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps. Those very visible strengths, honed in the “Sand Box” where her USMC unit served, must have convinced the decision makers at The Parthenon Group, a strategic consulting firm, to offer Heather a role as principal in their Boston office. A product of Boston University’s ROTC program, Heather manages to blend seamlessly the strength of a Marine with a calm and patient demeanor that allows her to listen carefully to the needs of her clients and, along with her teammates, to offer them solutions that will lead to greater productivity and profitability.

If I can look at the brief career of Darin Souza as a trip around the base paths of a baseball diamond, then first base would have to be his time spent as a cadet and as a batting standout for the West Point baseball team. Second base would be his time as Executive Officer and Air Operations Officer with the Army’s fabled 82nd Airborne Division. Third base would be the two years he spent in the woods of New Hampshire at Dartmouth’s Tuck Business School acquiring an MBA. And home plate – at least for this stage of his business career – is in the Investment Management Division at Lehman Brothers’ Boston office. As an Army officer, Darin acquired “lots of hands on leadership of people who where younger and much older than me - an environment where I came to appreciate the schooling (USMA/Ranger/Jumpmaster) and unit training (field problems/trips to the Joint Readiness Training Center) that I experienced.” The early maturity that comes from breadth of experience as a junior military officer has allowed Darin to step to the plate with confidence in playing what is often considered an older man’s game.

A good officer needs to be comfortable throwing on some camouflage paint to lead his enlisted troops on a mission to neutralize a group of bad guys hiding out in Fallujah. He needs to be equally comfortable standing before the commanding officer in the Tactical Operations Center - the TOC – to report on the results of that mission. That kind of flexibility is rare in the business world, and it is part of what makes military officers with MBA’s such a prized commodity. Scott St. Germain exemplifies this kind of flexibility. A West Point trained officer in the Army Corps of Engineers, “Saint,” as he is known to most of his friends, rolled up his sleeves and did an MBA summer internship with Gorton’s of Gloucester – the fish stick people. He was eventually recruited by biotech giant, Genentech, to join their front line sales. Early success led to a quick promotion, and then he was invited to come to the West Coast to work at the company’s headquarters. Leadership wanted Scott to help ensure that Genentech would continue to exercise best practices in preventing the development of the gap that often exists in large corporations between the sales team and the marketing team. Scott was comfortable in both worlds, and he has used the communication and diplomacy skills he acquired as an Army officer to help lead the company to even greater success.

I am out of time and space. Over coffee, I would love to tell you about my friend, Brit Smith, who, along with Kate Kohler, led Harvard Business School’s Triathlon Club. An Annapolis grad, Brit works now as a consultant for McKinsey. And John Byington, another USNA and HBS grad whose time as a Navy helicopter pilot was a perfect “pre-flight” preparation for his career at GE Medical Systems IT and then to the purchasing of his own company, Kirk Research/Metis Customer Intelligence, that specializes in “business research and customer intelligence.” And Chris Crane, a Senior Vice President at Bank of America. He has leveraged his experiences from West Point, the Army and Harvard Business School to “manage multi-layered operations in a dynamic, fast-paced environment.”

It is clear from my vantage point as an executive recruiter and as Founder of White Rhino Partners that the most visionary companies are the ones that have seen the unique value of military officers who have taken the initiative to earn their MBA’s. One positive byproduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom is that the nation is guaranteed a fresh infusion of battle-tested officers, many of whom will go to business school and take their place as an emerging generation of leaders in the world of commerce. Their time spent on the front lines will ensure that they will be able to help improve their companies’ bottom lines. And the best companies are setting their recruiting sights - and those of the search firms they retain – on finding and hiring these proven veterans as the corporation’s hope for the future and the next generation of leadership.


Anonymous said...

It is an honor to be included in your article and to know that such admirable folks such as yourself recognize and appreciate the work of us warriors-turned-executives.
You have served as an amazing voice for the strength of our backgrounds and character - both as a friend and as a successful and trusted executive recruiter.
Thank You.
Scott "Saint" St. Germain

Anonymous said...

Al, As an employer this article provides a great encouragement to reach out to highly talented individuals from the military.
keep up the good work!
Regards, RD