MANAGEMENT & LEADERSHIP Fighting Fit – Military on parade

When Kelly Perdew pitched for the top spot in American television programme The Apprentice, he rightly predicted his military experience would help him beat the 17 other contestants. His experience at renowned US military academy West Point and time as military intelligence officer helped him bag what the programme makers termed “dream job” with The Trump Organization and hefty six-figure salary.
That time, military might won through. In the world beyond television, it’s increasingly being called into question. In the US, where an estimated 200,000 military personnel transition into the workforce every year, the website claims studies have shown at least 60 percent of military personnel who transition to the civilian sector are under-employed for up to four years after separation. The problem cuts both ways. Hiring companies don’t appreciate the capabilities of someone who has served in the military. And military personnel sometimes lack the nous to nail civilian job.
In New Zealand the situation is even more sticky. John Peebles, professional director at executive recruitment consultants John Peebles Associates, says bluntly that in his 30 years of executive search he can’t recall ever placing military person into role as public or private sector CEO or general manager and doesn’t know too many of his colleagues who have either. “I wouldn’t even think of looking in the military.”
While others are more flexible in their approach, it would be true to say that the allure of an army, navy or airforce background is waning little in the eyes of many of today’s non-military managers.
All of the former military people interviewed for this article agreed it would have been easier for them to have scored job outside New Zealand. Scott Arrell had 21 years’ experience in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, rising to the rank of commanding officer 40 Squadron, when he left the forces in January last year aged 39 to pursue civilian career. Now general manager for Australian company Hawker Pacific New Zealand and based at Ardmore Airport, he says local companies were more sceptical than Australian ones about his military background.
Beca Group Wellington regional manager Greg Lowe – man with 21 years in the Royal New Zealand Navy and who retired as commander 10 years ago – says that’s driven in part by the fact that there have been military incursions into mainland Australia within the lifetime of many Australians. “Japanese submarines in Sydney Harbour, the bombing of Darwin, the battle of the Coral Sea just off the Australian coast and the threat of the invasion of Japan were all things that were much more keenly felt in Australia than they were in New Zealand. Therefore it’s something that lives much more freshly in the minds of Australians and Australians are overtly patriotic and much more supportive of their military than we are.”
Add to that, what ex-military see as the continuing problem of stereotyping. Mike Wardlaw calls it the “Colonel Blimp” attitude. When he presented to recruitment agencies his 35 years’ experience in the Royal New Zealand Navy – during which time he had risen to the rank of deputy chief of the navy, managed “team” of 2000 people and budget of $130 million – he was told he would be difficult to place. He would “expect to be surrounded by PAs, secretaries and stewards, bark orders, sit at desk and wait for things to happen”.
Commander Sandy McVie, deputy director public relations of the Royal New Zealand Navy, recalls recent incident when senior officer left service to be the chief executive of retail firm. “A well-meaning soul suggested he might like to get himself corporate wardrobe,” she says. “His response was that he had several suits including the one he wore to Buckingham Palace to visit the Queen the year before – would that do? It was then suggested he might like to join some external [to Defence] organisations. He pointed out that he was Fellow of the NZ Institute of Management – was that good start? Next he might like to get some tuition on reading financial statements – the reality was that his service budget ran to many hundreds of millions and he had been trustee of several charitable and superannuation funds.
“I could go on. Suffice to say that many of us have good tertiary qualifications, have extensive networks outside Defence, have passed through prestigious institutions like the Institute for Strategic Leadership at Millbrook, and have life skills that few could contemplate. Most of us have great people skills, surely one of the key aspects of being good chief executive.”
It is fair to say, though, that where once the military provided the lexicon, structure and concepts of business, organisations are increasingly embracing new constructs that more readily match civilian, even anti-military, view of the world. Certainly corporate marketers have made an abrupt about turn over the past 10 years. Where customers were once targeted, products were positioned and brand warfare reigned supreme, marketers now strive to create “lovemarks” and entice customers to “experience” their brands. Managers measure the emotional intelligence of their successors. quick flick through manager’s booklist reads more like Mills & Boon catalogue than the military field manuals of before with their strategies and tactics, teams, units and divisions.
Arrell says that anyone who believes modern military management is still based on command and control techniques has been watching too much television. Lowe says that when he left the navy he was at first cautious about applying the management and leadership methodologies and techniques that he’d built up during his time there. “But I’ve since discovered that the values and principles of leadership that I developed in the navy are as good as any in the private sector,” he says.
“There’s mis-perception in the private sector that the military relies on dictatorial leadership styles. That’s very rare thing. You do see it from time to time in the military but you see it in business too. People demand more now. Young people who join the military are just like young people who join any other organisation. They want to be involved in the development of leadership decisions and they want to be consulted. Leadership is about deciding where you want to go with your team, working out how you’re going to get there and communicating that in such way that it inspires people to make the journey. That applies in any environment: the military, the public or the private sector.”
Martyn Dunne, comptroller/CEO of New Zealand Customs agrees that not everything the military does – nor every aspect of its leadership style – will suit the private sector. But after 33 years in the New Zealand Defence Force and stint as commander joint forces, he reckons the military is still good and relevant training ground for New Zealand managers and leaders.
“There’s great misunderstanding about leadership [in the private sector]. First of all, people want their leaders to be strong and sensitive to their concerns. They want their contributions valued but they also want the leader to make the decision and give the direction,” he says. “All too often that gets confused with management speak and reluctance to actually make decision on the ground. In the private sector the successful ones understand that implicitly and that’s why they’re successful. Leaders don’t become successful by giving clear rein. They do it by giving clear direction, making sure they trust their subordinates and making timely decisions.”
What could the military do to better work with public and private sector organisations? Arrell suggests the military partners more with commercial industry. “Fast growing new technologies are commercial reality.” Companies, for their part, should make an effort to find out more about military people: “avail themselves of open days, rub alongside military people on courses such as MBAs and pump them on w

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