I began my military career about nine years ago. After graduating from basic infantry training and Ranger School, I became an infantry officer in charge of more than 40 paratroopers in Italy. We are the guys you see on TV: jumping out of planes, hiking through the mountains, patrolling Baghdad, etc. I deployed with my unit to Afghanistan for a year, becoming the second in command of 140 soldiers in the process. Later, I deployed to Iraq as the commander of about 120 soldiers during the “surge.” I met a lot of management challenges as we fought the bad guys, organized militias, built schools and clinics, trained the Iraqi army, and generally stabilized the country.
After Iraq, I embedded with the Dutch Army for two years. This was a bit of slow down for me, which I really needed. At this point, I began to consider leaving the Army, but was not yet sure if “life on the outside” was OK. But, I did know that I wanted to take advantage of my (relatively) slow-paced staff role and G.I. Bill allowance to get an advanced degree, and that an MBA would be the most helpful either in or out of the Army (many mid-level and senior officers eventually gain MBAs). I also knew that I wanted an MBA from an international school, because I love working in Europe and I thought it would make me stand out from most of my American peers.
The Executive MBA at London Business School was the perfect program all around; it was a top European program whose schedule worked best for me logistically, and was located at a major center of commerce. It was the perfect way to “dip my toe in the water” and see what the real world had to offer. Through coursework and extracurricular activities, I learned about things like finance and organizational behaviour and about opportunities in the real world, like management consulting and entrepreneurship. My personal non-military network -- which a lot of veterans underestimate the importance of -- grew exponentially. At London Business School, this meant not just growing in number, but in geographic breadth as well. My small study group consisted of an English banker, an Indian from the shipping industry, a French engineer, and an Italian marketing manager!
Aside from the specific skills I learned (which I do use with Carbon Voyage on a daily basis), the most important part of the MBA was that it forced me to change my management style. It is very easy to be directive in the Army, especially in combat. However, collaborating with small groups of diverse personalities (like in a startup!) takes a different managerial style than directing soldiers with similar outlook and training. The MBA gave me the opportunity to test out different management and collaboration styles through my coursework. My peers at work said that over time, they noticed my own interaction with them maturing, and I think that had a lot to do with the MBA and from being around so many talented MBA peers.
On the flip side, my military experience allowed me to add value to group projects and class discussions in a unique way. Working under pressure, making plans to get things done, thinking systematically, and using strategic frameworks are all things that we in the military do habitually. While I certainly had a lot to learn about Excel spreadsheets, I like to think that marketing, strategy, and managing groups were fortes shaped by the military.
Working in the Netherlands and studying for my MBA in London was quite a challenge, but certainly not as stressful as some of the other work I’ve done. I rode the train a lot, which gave me time to do my homework, and my Dutch boss was extremely flexible with giving me time to travel on alternate weekends. Doing a top tier MBA while in the military is more of a matter of being in a job or role that will allow the flexibility to make it work, and probably the best time to do it is after a major key job (i.e. when I was finished being a company commander of 120 soldiers and was back to riding a desk). Even in Europe, there are enough jobs that allow this to happen, so I’d encourage anyone in such a position to think strongly about doing an executive or part-time MBA (especially at LBS!).
As I made the decision to leave the Army, I began researching entrepreneurial opportunities and management consulting positions. My peers at London Business School were great sounding boards to bounce ideas off of and learn about civilian life. London Business School exposed me to a lot of really cool entrepreneurs, who made me say “I want to be like them!”, but the idea of leaving the job security of the military was still scary.
I definitely found that the combination of a top-tier MBA and military experience looked great to major companies, though. Top-tier management consulting companies were extremely interested in my background as a military MBA, because combat leadership experience is a very rare attribute and impossible to replicate in the business world. As I researched established companies to work for, I usually reached out to some of their employers to learn more about them. Usually I looked for other veterans with MBAs, and by far the best help always came from people who were both London Business School alumni and veterans themselves.
The one thing I did find was that a lot of top companies really wanted me for operations roles, since operations are the bread and butter of what we do in the military. This can be a double-edged sword. They know that you can “make things happen” and that the MBA has given you a lot of tools to manage in the civilian world, but then you run the risk of being typecast into those roles even if you are seeking other opportunities.
Interviewing as a combat veteran is quite interesting. Often you get questions like “tell me about a time you led a team to overcome a challenge” or “tell us about a difficult time in your career.” Usually, one or two stories (respectful and mindful of operational security!) is enough to separate you from other candidates. Stories that begin with “one time, when we were stuck in a minefield…” are hard to compare to the usual “when my boss went on maternity leave I had to…” That said, being able to translate your military experience so that others will understand it in civilian terms can be challenging sometimes. Also, no matter how interesting you may seem, you still have to crack the consulting case or answer the Google-type interview question or otherwise confidently apply the MBA knowledge that you have picked up.
Another thing that is undervalued about being a military MBA is “emotional intelligence.” Although I did not know what this term meant until I arrived to LBS, I learned it is highly valued in the civilian world (and thus stressed in MBA programs) but usually comes easy to anyone who takes pride in taking care of their Soldiers. Unfortunately, most employers do not readily associate combat veterans as being great people-oriented leaders- partly because of our directness and partly out of stereotyping. That’s why effectively selling emotional intelligence as a major military MBA asset takes a lot of deliberate effort (and probably some help from the school career center).
How I Began Working with Carbon Voyage
How I began working with Carbon Voyage is a great story. I met the owner through a course that required some friends and I to do a project on his business. After making a presentation to the class, another London Business School student, who was formerly in venture capital, said “this sounds like a really cool business…. how about you and I help it grow?” We approached the owner, himself an Australian veteran, and realized that the company was a great fit.
The mission of Carbon Voyage was also really important to me. One of my hang-ups with getting out of the military was that I wanted to work for a company that I felt impacted the world in accordance with the values I learned in the military. So, finding a company with a clear mission to change the world by making the transportation industry more efficient and thus reducing operating costs, congestion, and pollution was really awesome. Furthermore, the position of “COO” in a start-up was also a great fit. While I may not be in the entrepreneur’s chair, I am getting a great “second MBA” on how to start and grow a business. It’s kind of like being second in command of a military unit. Not only do I use the skills I’ve learned in my MBA regularly, but the environment is much like the small study groups that I worked with in business school (so, I’m glad I learned to collaborate effectively!).
We at Carbon Voyage are looking to expand to the US soon, and will be keen to hire a US veteran with an MBA to spearhead that effort. I say this to highlight the value that I believe combat experience and an MBA provide. Both the owner and I think that it is not only the right thing to do (we are firm believers in hiring veterans for moral reasons), but we want someone with proven leadership skills and the business tools to accompany them. We consider it a safe bet that such a candidate will be able to work independently, make and execute a clear strategic and operational plan, and lead others in a really ambiguous environment. If you can lead Soldiers in a counterinsurgency fight in Iraq or Afghanistan, you should be just fine developing business in New York!
My advice for future military MBAs
The three main values of the MBA are: the business tools, the exposure to non-military concepts and opportunities, and the network. So with this in mind, take the GMAT seriously and try to get into as “good” a school as logistics, personal situation, and cost will allow.
Secondly, consider your fit to the type of program as well. You are a great fit for an Executive MBA if you are a senior O-3 or higher, but you’re still ok for a traditional MBA program up until about O-4 level. For the folks that are retiring after 20 years, consider a one-year full-time management degree for senior executives, such as the Sloan programs at Stanford, MIT and LBS.
I also recommend going to a school in a large commercial city if you can (like London!). Usually the military sticks bases in some pretty bad locations, so the change of scenery is great and I believe the concentration of opportunities is a lot better. It’s easier for the CEO of a major company to visit LBS for a guest lecture (and stay afterwards for beers) en route to a meeting in London than it is for him to get to a school in a small town. These external opportunities or networks are as important as the coursework. And certainly don’t underestimate the value of your school’s alumni network in any post-military career.
Don’t underestimate yourself either. If you’ve been on deployments for most of the last five years, you probably have not had a lot of time to prepare for grad school. In both jobs and MBA interviews, your unique experience can often make up for low test scores or undergraduate grades, but you have to sell yourself well. That means saying what “I” did more than what “we” did. The humility that we promote in the military can often prevent us from clearly communicating the great accomplishments that we made possible. You are going to have to practice to get past that. Finally, don’t stress out if you don’t know “what you want to do when you grow up” or have a post-military job sorted out. I changed what industry I wanted to be in about six times in 18 months, and made the decision to get out of the Army at least three times. I also think that military professionals have a harder time than civilians when thinking about their own job security because it is something that we have not had to deal with for the last decade (although that is changing…). Even in this economy, hundreds of thousands of civilians are able to find jobs every week, so with your skills and potential MBA training, have some confidence that you will too. Just make sure that your resume sings well!
About Chris O'Brien
Chris O’Brien is/was a U.S. Army officer and a 2012 graduate of London Business School’s Executive MBA Program.