I graduated from West Point and spent another five years in the US Army, serving in Bosnia, Brazil and Germany, as well as in different parts of the US, before I embarked on my present career as a financial advisor. I never regretted a minute of that time because, besides the satisfaction I gained from serving my country, I learned a lot of valuable life lessons that have helped me every day since then.
- I learned a different definition of “long hours” than most folks.
If someone works 12 hours/day, six days/week, that seems like a lot compared to the standard 40-hour work week. But it doesn’t seem very difficult at all when compared to 18 hours/day for all seven days each week, which is the usual schedule for most soldiers. When I hear friends say, “Gee, I had to stay at work till 7:30 last night!” I know they are comparing the need to stay late to getting home at five o’clock. I often think they’d be happier if they compared staying until 7:30PM to a military schedule.
- I also learned a different definition of “hard work.”
It’s not “hard” to spend my working hours sitting in a comfortable indoor environment in pleasant offices and homes, dealing most of the time with amiable people, as compared to spending my working hours engaged in often extreme physical exertion, out of doors in steaming heat or rainy/snowy cold, and coming into conflict with people who often were not amiable at all. We can all be delighted with what we are doing when we make the right comparison to something that is truly difficult.
- I learned to put the needs of my co-workers first. I learned not to ask my people to do what I wouldn’t do myself.
The Army ethos suggested that leaders eat last, which means the soldiers’ needs come before the needs of the leaders. When required, it was important for me to be right alongside my fellow soldiers, experiencing the same discomfort they were. Today this same mentality continues when I stay late at the office because a colleague needs help. It also means my Open Door Policy is sincere and constant, not just something that happens when I have a break in my schedule. If a colleague has a problem, or a team needs to work late to complete a project, I want to be there for them.
- I learned responsibility and accountability.
Military culture suggests that if the team succeeds, a leader gives credit to the soldiers. If the team fails, the leader takes responsibility. The “buck” always stops with the leaders. Or to put it another way, “the leader is responsible for all that the team fails to do. The troops are responsible for all the successes.” This goes against our natural instinct to find someone else to blame for any failures—especially when we have to account to higher-ups. When leaders are bigger than that—and we all can be–they win the loyalty of their troops and start to establish a winning culture for the unit. When a loss occurs, it’s important to remember who was responsible for giving the team the training and preparation they needed to succeed.
- I learned to set clear expectations and consequences ahead of time.
The troops respect a leader who lays out what is expected of them. That means it’s clear what rewards they can expect if they succeed and what consequences will occur if they fail. Then, if an individual does fail and damages the team effort, he or she will not be blindsided by unfair or unexpected consequences, and, conversely, each person on the team knows exactly what must be done to get a bonus or a promotion. Leaders cannot expect to be loved all the time, and the team cannot expect to be kept “happy” every minute of every day. They will be much more fulfilled in the long run when leaders focus on moving the team forward together to achieve common goals instead of trying to be everyone’s best friend.
- I learned I should never tolerate dishonesty of any kind–lying, cheating, stealing.
People can improve with the right guidance, but forgiving, excusing, or overlooking basic dishonesty lowers the standards for the entire operation and also affects your own reputation and effectiveness as a leader. If you tolerate internal corruption, what else will you tolerate?
- I found that diversity strengthens an organization.
The more different members of the team are, the more powerful the team can be. I really relish and enjoy a team with disparate views and experiences. I think uniformity can lead to stultifying ruts. We are always in need of new approaches and new ideas. I also believe a team does best when we work together in person and deal with each other and our clients face to face. Bonding virtually is not impossible, but, in my opinion, much more difficult.
- No one can be a star every day.
People who have been stars for the team may hit a bad patch, but, if they are supported, they will most likely be stars again in time.
- In the military it was important to share the vision and organize the team to support it.
Explain your vision to your team and organize everything in the workplace to support that vision. You know it’s working when, as the key performance milestones are achieved, the people involved in making that happen directly benefit. Sometimes companies have a clear vision, but they are not organized to achieve it. Let’s say the managing partner of a law firm wants to grow the firm’s revenue and number of clients. She gathers all the youngest lawyers together and urges them to network in the community and bring in new business. But then, when they succeed in closing a new deal, the new business is immediately assigned to a senior partner who runs it and reaps the economic rewards while the associate gets…a pat on the back? Why should any associate be motivated to work hard for the firm but then receive nothing for his or her efforts?
- Above all, I learned to set a good example.
If the troops had to be up at 5AM, so did the leaders. If the unit had to undergo a certain training to prepare for a deployment, the leaders got certified as well. Hours spent on the job matter and how those hours are utilized make a difference. Giving orders from behind a closed door with your feet up on the desk doesn’t engender loyalty or respect. It creates resentment just the same as if you indulge in late arrivals, long lunches and early departures. The small things matter when it comes to setting an example, which is why anyone can choose to set a great one.
We’d all like to go back in time and make different choices, but I’m convinced my time in the military was one of the most valuable learning experiences of my life. I believe what I gained has contributed immensely to the success of my team today. For professionals who haven’t had that experience, I’m glad to share this short list of ways that my military “education” has helped me as a business owner.
Written by Christopher (Chris) Manske.
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