Military leadership in the real world

Andrew Hill, Boris Groysberg, Toby Johnson, Harvard Business School

wfedstaff | June 3, 2015 4:21 pm

By Olivia Branco
Federal News Radio

After serving in the military, many people will turn to a corporate setting. It makes sense that those in a leadership position within the military will takeover a similar position in the private sector.

A Harvard Business School study explored the leadership skills soldiers get in the field and how they translate to a career.

The study involved an in-depth analysis of the performance of 45 S&P 500 companies led by members of that population. A dozen current and former CMEs were interviewed for the study.


In general, the study found that Navy and Air Force CMEs have a very process-driven approach to management. They often do not like to alter plans. Army and Marine Corps CMEs, on the other hand, embrace more flexibility.

The authors of the study, Andrew Hill, Professor Boris Groysberg and Toby Johnson joined Chris Dorobek on The Dorobek Insider to discuss the findings.

Hill, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Business School, explained why the study chose to look at different branches.

“Increasingly it was apparent that grouping military service into a monolithic entity probably wasn’t the only way to examine it. There are significant differences across the services and that these different experiences would actually translate into different skills that might or might not be more useful depending on the corporate environment.”

“We essentially said, let’s think about the operating environment that an officer faces in the Army, the Marine Corps, the Air Force or the Navy,” Hill said. “What are the skills that they are likely to acquire there, and how might that prepare them for the challenges of corporate environment in different industries.”

Toby Johnson was an aviator and former Captain in the US Army before taking her current executive position role at PepsiCo. She was a part of the study as well. Johnson explained how wartime leadership can affect later careers, and especially how age can play a factor.

“Some of the most impactful conversations I had,” Johnson said, “was really about the leadership experiences that some of these corporate leaders had at very young ages, where they were leading soldiers in combat, they suffered casualties and had to make decisions in those environments and then there were findings around the disciplines in process particularly from the other sides of the branches.”

“When you’re faced with situations at a very young age where there’s a microscope on making the right decision, and the impact that you have, that stays with you forever. And in the case of the CEOs, what struck me, were not only the stories but also the passion with which they talked about these experiences.”

Hill concluded saying the study was not about which branch was better.

“We didn’t want this to be a comparison across the services to the point that we were saying, you are better if you served in X service and worse if you served in Y, in fact really what we were doing was analyzing within the service background what types of firms were better matches for those types of veterans.”