Four Reasons Why Hiring Veterans Makes Good Business Sense
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Leadership Organizations Careers May 1, 2018

Four Rea­sons Why Hir­ing Vet­er­ans Makes Good Busi­ness Sense

They’re trained to be train­able and can take crit­i­cism. Is your com­pa­ny over­look­ing these tal­ent­ed candidates?

Military veteran chooses wardrobe.

Lisa Röper

Based on insights from

Dan Friend

With near­ly 1.3 mil­lion active-duty troops, and anoth­er 865,000 in armed forces reserves, the Unit­ed States boasts one the largest mil­i­tary forces on the plan­et. That fight­ing force, how­ev­er, makes up less than 0.5 per­cent of the Amer­i­can population. 

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Because of that, many Amer­i­cans out­side of the mil­i­tary have lit­tle expo­sure to the skills and expe­ri­ences vet­er­ans acquire dur­ing their years of ser­vice, says Col. Dan Friend, the cur­rent U.S. Army Chief of Staff Senior Fel­low at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment. And that lack of expo­sure can become a chal­lenge as vet­er­ans look to enter the work­force after their mil­i­tary ser­vice, and as prospec­tive employ­ers look to hire talent. 

The chal­lenge is aware­ness, since much of the pop­u­la­tion is not rou­tine­ly exposed to the mil­i­tary, Friend says. Because of this gap between the mil­i­tary and the cit­i­zens they serve, com­mon per­cep­tions of mil­i­tary ser­vice are often dis­tort­ed — espe­cial­ly when those per­cep­tions are often formed through por­tray­als of ser­vice mem­bers in movies or on the news. 

Friend wants to do his part to change such mis­con­cep­tions, because in his view, ser­vice mem­bers and vet­er­ans could ben­e­fit — but so could com­pa­nies that may be under­uti­liz­ing a skilled and loy­al tal­ent pool. Draw­ing from more than 26 years in the ser­vice, Friend spells out what com­pa­nies should know about hir­ing veterans. 

Vet­er­ans Are Trainable 

From the moment they join, ser­vice mem­bers are expect­ed to con­tin­u­ous­ly learn and devel­op. Ser­vice mem­bers must mas­ter the art of adapt­abil­i­ty — from learn­ing how to fol­low orders and com­plete spec­i­fied tasks to know­ing when to take ini­tia­tive and bear respon­si­bil­i­ty — all in an envi­ron­ment where impro­vi­sa­tion is key and indi­vid­ual roles may shift from day to day. 

The army is a learn­ing orga­ni­za­tion,” Friend says. You start with ini­tial train­ing and you con­stant­ly return to train­ing, whether it’s in your unit, through per­son­al devel­op­ment, or in a for­mal school as you progress through your career. So we end up with a group of peo­ple who, frankly, have a growth mindset.” 

Lots of train­ing occurs on the fly, as ser­vice mem­bers find them­selves charged with new respon­si­bil­i­ties in dif­fer­ent envi­ron­ments. Take, for exam­ple, young infantry sol­diers. When they go into the mil­i­tary, they’re trained in basic infantry tac­tics and tech­niques,” says Friend. How­ev­er, when they hit the ground, they may be respon­si­ble for doing human­i­tar­i­an relief. They may be respon­si­ble for peace-keep­ing oper­a­tions. They may be respon­si­ble for instruct­ing oth­er mil­i­tary orga­ni­za­tions on tac­tics and how to act pro­fes­sion­al­ly.” These roles require a broad set of skills, rang­ing from employ­ing weapons sys­tems to earn­ing trust and build­ing relationships. 

A com­pa­ny look­ing for both capa­ble and adapt­able employ­ees — espe­cial­ly a com­pa­ny that may lack the resources to pro­vide exten­sive train­ing or sim­u­la­tions to devel­op this flex­i­bil­i­ty — might do well to con­sid­er a veteran. 

We have our core ten­ants, we have our basic tasks that we have to be pro­fi­cient in, but we’re always expect­ed to do some­thing else,” Friend says. Undoubt­ed­ly, this sum­mer, we’re going to send peo­ple out to fight for­est fires and pro­vide dis­as­ter relief!” 

Vet­er­ans Are Leaders 

Thanks in part to this wide range of roles and respon­si­bil­i­ties, ser­vice mem­bers often achieve the kind of big-pic­ture per­spec­tive that is key to being an effec­tive leader — and they do so rel­a­tive­ly ear­ly in their careers. Junior lead­ers become cross-func­tion­al at a very ear­ly age,” says Friend. 

As a junior offi­cer, Friend was ini­tial­ly trained to fly scout and attack heli­copters. But he soon moved on to quite dif­fer­ent roles, in per­son­nel, logis­tics, and oper­a­tions. Mil­i­tary careers, he says, often expose you to a broad set of expe­ri­ences that you wouldn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have cho­sen.” For those climb­ing the cor­po­rate lad­der, such expe­ri­ences may not occur until much lat­er in careers — in some cir­cum­stances, not until even­tu­al­ly reach­ing the C-suite. 

In addi­tion, many ser­vice mem­bers have plen­ty of expe­ri­ence for­mal­ly over­see­ing and devel­op­ing oth­ers. By their ear­ly 20s, many of these ser­vice mem­bers are respon­si­ble for the train­ing and employ­ing of teams, as well as the well-being of sub­or­di­nates, and are account­able for mil­lions of dol­lars in equipment. 

Once you’ve wit­nessed what peo­ple and teams can achieve with trust, and you’ve been a part of an orga­ni­za­tion that puts self-inter­est aside and focus­es on achiev­ing an objec­tive, it stays with you.”

All the while they’re learn­ing how to make deci­sions, plan, orga­nize, exe­cute, and pro­vide clear guid­ance to their sub­or­di­nates at an age much ear­li­er than most of their peers on the out­side,” Friend says. 

The notion that these ear­ly expe­ri­ences can trans­late to lead­er­ship suc­cess in the cor­po­rate world is con­sis­tent with research by Kel­logg finance pro­fes­sors Efraim Ben­m­elech and Car­o­la Fry­d­man, who find that firms that are run by CEOs with mil­i­tary expe­ri­ence per­form bet­ter under pres­sure than those run by oth­er CEOs. 

Vet­er­ans Learn Selflessness 

In adapt­ing to the mil­i­tary life, ser­vice mem­bers learn ear­ly on to set aside their per­son­al inter­ests for the greater good of the team. Which is not to say that mil­i­tary per­son­nel are trained not to think. Rather, they are trained to think and act with a bias toward improv­ing the orga­ni­za­tion instead of only themselves. 

There’s a lev­el of trust that must be earned. You’re always look­ing out for your sol­diers and team­mates. Any­body who seems like they’re doing it for their own ben­e­fit, or if they’re putting them­selves above the team, los­es cred­i­bil­i­ty,” says Friend. 

And when vet­er­ans leave the mil­i­tary, they are not like­ly to leave this atti­tude behind. 

Once you’ve wit­nessed what peo­ple and teams can achieve with trust, and you’ve been a part of an orga­ni­za­tion that puts self-inter­est aside and focus­es on achiev­ing an objec­tive, it stays with you,” says Friend. That’s one of the key things vet­er­ans bring to any orga­ni­za­tion, because it’s hard to get out of the mind­set of work­ing with oth­ers to achieve goals.” 

This may be one rea­son why CEOs with a mil­i­tary back­ground are 70 per­cent less like­ly to engage in cor­po­rate fraud than CEOs with­out a mil­i­tary background. 

If enough vet­er­an tal­ent is brought onboard, such orga­ni­za­tion-first” think­ing could begin to per­me­ate the company’s cul­ture, as oth­er employ­ees see how it is received and what it can do for performance. 

Inter­est­ing­ly, how­ev­er, this self­less mind­set can actu­al­ly work against vet­er­ans in the ear­li­est stages of build­ing a career in the civil­ian world. That’s because, in Friend’s expe­ri­ence, vet­er­ans are often unaware of and reluc­tant to pro­mote their capabilities. 

With this con­cept of self­less ser­vice,’ there’s almost too much humil­i­ty because it’s ingrained in us ear­ly that it’s not about you, it’s about the orga­ni­za­tion,” Friend says. 

Vet­er­ans Know How to Take Con­struc­tive Criticism 

The mil­i­tary relies heav­i­ly on after-action reviews (AAR): debrief­in­gs used to ana­lyze a mis­sion after­ward by assess­ing what hap­pened and deter­min­ing what can be done to improve future out­comes. These reviews can be bru­tal. But the rig­ors of the AAR also make vet­er­ans adept at tak­ing con­struc­tive criticism. 

You’re more open to ideas,” Friend says, which helps not only you as an indi­vid­ual, but the orga­ni­za­tion to devel­op and grow.” 

In fact, a sort of AAR has also become a use­ful tool for many com­pa­nies. Peri­od­i­cal­ly assess­ing whether a project or process was suc­cess­ful and how it could have been improved offers a good way for firms to stay at the top of their game. It also expos­es employ­ees ear­ly and often to oppor­tu­ni­ties to find blind spots, and to learn from their own mis­takes and the mis­takes of others. 

That’s a huge advan­tage that we have,” Friend says. We get to see good deci­sions and bad. I’ve learned some valu­able lessons from watch­ing bad lead­er­ship decisions.” 

And there is anoth­er, quite dif­fer­ent, ben­e­fit of con­struc­tive crit­i­cism: It helps to build trust in an orga­ni­za­tion,” says Friend, where we can have that can­did con­ver­sa­tion of, I had a short­com­ing. I did some­thing wrong. You’ve done some­thing wrong. Now let’s fig­ure how to fix it.’” 

If that can­did con­ver­sa­tion is han­dled well, there are no hurt feel­ings. If you can go ahead and real­ly get into their heads that this is all about us grow­ing as an orga­ni­za­tion, this isn’t gonna be puni­tive in nature, I think it’s well received,” says Friend. Nobody wants to come out there and say, Yeah I messed this up.’ But, it becomes con­ta­gious. Some­body will accept respon­si­bil­i­ty for some­thing, and then the next per­son would be like, No, no, no, that wasn’t you, that was me. I wasn’t where I need­ed to be.’” 

Trans­lat­ing What Ser­vice Mem­bers Can Do 

If ser­vice mem­bers tend to be high­ly train­able, per­son­al­ly respon­si­ble, self­less, and good at tak­ing crit­i­cism, why do many of them have trou­ble attract­ing the atten­tion of hir­ing managers? 

Friend iden­ti­fies two main rea­sons for this: First, many vet­er­ans don’t view their expe­ri­ence as being unique or impres­sive — mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to sell poten­tial employ­ers on that expe­ri­ence. Ser­vice mem­bers and vets look to the left and to the right and think: that’s what every­body around me in my last job expe­ri­enced,’” Friend says. 

Anoth­er hur­dle is that hir­ing man­agers unfa­mil­iar with the mil­i­tary often strug­gle to under­stand the var­i­ous roles and respon­si­bil­i­ties ser­vice mem­bers hold dur­ing their careers. When some­body sees pla­toon leader or sec­tion sergeant on a resume, it’s not intu­itive what that is, and what it ful­ly encom­pass­es,” says Friend. 

Friend sug­gests that vet­er­ans could ben­e­fit by becom­ing famil­iar with cor­po­rate terms and civil­ian­iz­ing” their work his­to­ry, as well becom­ing more pro­fi­cient and assertive sto­ry­tellers of their experiences. 

For their part, employ­ers can famil­iar­ize them­selves with the mil­i­tary so that con­ver­sa­tions with vet­er­ans result in a clear­er pic­ture of their abil­i­ties. One effec­tive way to do that is to bring vet­er­ans into the hir­ing process, Friend says, so when they hear that some­one was a first sergeant, they know what it took to become and means to be first sergeant. It avoids hav­ing to go back and talk about fif­teen years of a career” to understand. 

Ulti­mate­ly, Friend says, if employ­ers want to take advan­tage of the best of this tal­ent pool, they’re going to have to put in the extra effort and have these dis­cus­sions with vet­er­ans to find out what they bring to the table.” 

About the Writer

Glenn Jeffers is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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