Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Harvard Business Review Explores How Branch of Service Affects Leadership Style

In their November 2010 issue, Harvard Business Review ran a series of four articles on “Leadership Lessons from the Military”. Recently, we summarized “Extreme Negotiations” and examined the way in which soldiers handle high-risk situations translates into a benefit in corporate negotiations. This week, From the Battlefield will focus on “Which of These People Is Your Future CEO?” by Boris Groysberg, Andrew Hill, and Toby Johnson.

In the article, Groysberg, Hill, and Johnson expound on the results of their analysis of the performance of 45 S&P 500 companies led by CEOs with military experience (CMEs). The authors were drawn to this research by a plethora of statistics that point to not only public confidence in the military as an institution, but also to veteran’s inherent leadership skills. Every year since 1973, the military has scored first or second in a Gallup poll of Americans when asked to rank their confidence in various public or private institutions. Additionally, a 2005 Korn/Ferry study showed that while former military officers make up only 3% of the U.S. adult male population, they make up about three times that of the population of CEOs of S&P 500 firms.

While delving into this issue, the authors of the article came across some interesting data that pointed to a veteran’s branch of service playing a role in the way in they succeed and lead in the civilian workforce. And while they point out that the differences they discuss are generalizations with many exceptions, they are able to link specific management approaches from each branch to their ultimate application in civilian companies.

They begin with the Navy and Air Force and conclude that CMEs from these branches often take a more process-driven approach to management. They follow standard procedures with little to no deviation. Because of this, leaders from these branches perform well in highly regulated industries, as well as companies with a process approach to innovation. Groysberg, Hill, and Johnson explain that both in the Navy and Air Force, service members operate enormously expensive and interdependent systems and any deviation from the procedure can result in an extremely costly mistake. In this environment, personnel are often highly specialized. Central coordination of all these moving parts is integral to success. Hence, the authors point out, the organization chart of a ship or submarine often resembles that of a corporation.

The Army and Marine Corps, on the other hand, tend to produce CMEs that embrace flexibility and delegation. (Although part of the Navy, the authors treat the Marine Corps as a separate entity for purposes of this article.) Former Army and Marine Corps officers were found to depend less on familiarity with the firm as they move into a leadership role, and to excel as CEO in smaller companies as opposed to larger ones. The authors relate this back to the fact that these two branches are far less reliant on procedure than the Air Force or Navy. This is illustrated by the “commander’s intent,” which is a general objective issued by a commander. Subordinates then have discretion as to how to achieve that ultimate intent.

These differences can also be seen in the branches’ required reading lists for Officers. The Air Force and Navy include management books on process and quality, while those of the Army and Marine Corps do not. The authors also point out that the Marine Corps leadership manual states, “[Adaptability] means a willingness to deviate from normal, accepted practices—even from doctrine—if that is what it takes.”

Ultimately, Groysberg, Hill, and Johnson come to the conclusion that veterans from different branches often demonstrate different strengths and that a “monolithic view” of the military should be avoided. However, whether future CMEs come from the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Navy, they have the experience and skills that make them a very valuable asset in any corporate leadership role. In fact, it is the “leadership crucible” through which they have gone that explains why veterans comprise an increasingly larger percentage of corporate leadership.

Click here to read the article. And don’t forget to check out next week's posting for a synopsis of the final article in Harvard Business Review’s Spotlight on Leadership Lessons from the Military series.

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