Business Has Much to Learn from the Armed Forces
IT IS not one of London’s grander clubs. The furniture is dowdy, the carpet threadbare. But who needs grandeur when you have heroism? The Special Forces Club was founded in 1945 by former members of the Special Operations Executive, an organisation that wrought havoc behind enemy lines during the second world war. Today it draws its members from the special forces, the intelligence services and the anti-terrorism police. The walls are lined with photographs of former members. Black frames identify those who were killed in action.
The club is a reminder that some things are more important than money. But the world of money is hard to ignore. Harrods, a posh department store, is just around the corner. A Russian oligarch is noisily building a palace across the road. Many members have to think about making a living now that the army is shrinking. They wonder: are the skills that are celebrated inside the club useful in the world outside its windows?
Once upon a time business could not get enough of the smell of cordite. Tycoons referred to themselves as “captains of industry” and crafted “strategies” (from the Greek word for “general”) for their troops. They talked of waging “war” on their rivals. They relaxed by reading Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”. But more recently attitudes have changed. Businesspeople argue that military-style command-and-control systems are out of date in a world of knowledge workers and fluid alliances.
This argument provokes derision in the Special Forces Club. Sir Michael Rose, a retired general who spent part of his career with Britain’s SAS (Special Air Service), points out that the special forces have always embraced currently trendy management nostrums such as “empowerment” and “high-performance teams”. People who are dropped behind enemy lines have no choice but to rely on their own wits and make the most of limited resources. Sir Michael also points out that the regular forces have followed the special forces in introducing a “mission-command approach”—that is, a commander defines the overall mission but then leaves the officers on the ground to decide how to execute it.
Plenty of retired officers argue that businesspeople have much to learn from the armed services. For example, business theorists increasingly emphasise the importance of corporate culture, yet many new businesses do a dismal job of nurturing it. The military services, by contrast, have been adept at preserving their culture at a time of social turmoil. Granted, they have sometimes been slow to change. America only lifted the ban on openly gay troops in 2011, and on women in combat last month. But still, armies are much better than other institutions at building a lifelong esprit de corps. Military mottoes make strong men cry: (“The few, the proud”; “Who dares wins”). Most corporate mission statements make desk warriors cringe with embarrassment.
The armed forces are also good at cultivating soft skills. Andrew St George of Aberystwyth University points out that Britain’s Royal Navy prepares people well to spend long periods in cramped quarters. It urges seamen to be cheerful in all circumstances. It fills dead time with contests—known as Dogwatch Sports—such as passing a stick across an ever-widening divide. The navy’s emphasis on telling jokes and stories over long dinners probably makes no sense to a cost-obsessed management consultant. But it has helped sailors to deal with naval warfare’s awful combination of tedium and danger.
The army has done a fine job of training more generally. It has always grappled with one of the most difficult jobs imaginable: training people to kill and risk being killed. Today, in the West at least, it has to do this in a looking-glass world where teenagers know their “rights”, health-and-safety officials inspect shooting ranges and politicians are constantly squeezing resources. Yet still it turns out soldiers who can handle technology, who work well in teams and who never quit to join a competitor.
Damian McKinney, a former Royal Marine, argues that today’s armed services have more to teach the private sector than ever. For example, how to build a ladder of training rather than just prepare people for the next job: armies routinely think in terms of “two rungs up”. And how to learn from experience: armies routinely conduct post-mortems on their missions.
From foxhole to corner office
Some businesspeople are eager to learn from the men and women in uniform. Mr McKinney recently created a “leadership academy” for Walmart, a supermarket chain, modelled on a military staff-training college. He and Sir Michael Rose both pontificate for military-flavoured management consultancies (McKinney Rogers and Skarbek Associates, respectively). Michael Useem of Wharton Business School incorporates visits to battlefields and lectures from military leaders into his courses.
Coping with risks and making decisions quickly under pressure are useful skills for entrepreneurs, which is perhaps why the Israeli army sires so many high-tech start-ups. And the army trains good managers, too. An officer must never issue an order that will not be obeyed, so he must learn to gauge the mood of his men. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down, more veterans will be looking for second careers. Some have fought for longer than the generation that defeated Hitler. Many have international experience. Oil and mining firms that operate in the rough parts of Africa and the Middle East are eager to hire them. So are firms in other industries. Amazon brags about its military-friendliness. Walmart vowed last month to hire any veteran who applied for a job within a year of being honourably discharged. Companies that complain that they cannot find people with the right mixture of drive and experience have only themselves to blame if they miss this arsenal of talent.
The article can be found at http://www.economist.com/news/business/21571852-business-has-much-learn-armed-forces-how-make-killing