Last week, I read an insightful report by executive search firm Korn/Ferry on officers from the defence forces joining the corporate world. The study revealed that officers brought unique elements from the combat zone into business competition.
A vast majority of officers and men leave with at least two decades of productive careers still ahead of them. Most countries have learnt to exploit this incredible resource, and India is fast catching up. The Indian Army discharges approximately 1,500 officers every year. They range from short-service officers, with about seven years of experience, to those who have completed their pensionable service of around 20 years and are in their 40s.
Some years ago, the army ran an advertising campaign on the exciting life of a combat soldier. It showed an officer barely into his 20s, commanding a tank squadron (1,500 horsepower company car), parachuting from an aeroplane (company jet) and leading a raid into enemy territory (foreign travel). That is just the tip of the iceberg. There are few professions, which hold leaders responsible for the lives of the men under their command, or where they have to lead men into death without ESOPs (employee stock ownership plan), pay hikes or performance bonuses. Also, there is no other profession where men love (or hate) their leaders with such passionate fervour. Where one learns that there are no good units or bad units, just good or bad leaders. Where errors of judgement leave widows and orphans in their wake. This excellent grounding helps officers fit five basic role profiles.
The first is administration. During a typical career, an officer performs the role of managing resources and equipment worth several hundred crores. He is responsible for the well-being and training of his men, planning logistics, controlling deployment and coordinating exercises with other units and services. And he would be adept in process development with a keen sense of what could go wrong.
The second role flows from these experiences into HR and man management. During service, an officer is held accountable for the well-being of his men and their families. He is required to know what makes them tick, their individual strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Good units groom their officers to know each soldier by his name, learn the language of the troops he commands and motivate them in a manner that they best respond to. He literally has to get inside their heads and skins, and realize that every soldier is an individual, with individual problems and aspirations. Operations is another role where officers take like duck to water. They have spent years executing and making seemingly impossible plans happen. Their ability to multitask, high levels of energy and “can do” attitude makes them excellent operations and project managers. India’s telecom revolution owes a lot to hundreds of signals officers, who helped roll out the grid that connects our country.
Security is a natural extension, ranging from physical and electronic security to high-end specialized roles such as counter-intelligence, fraud investigation, close protection of high value assets, disaster and crisis management. Combat hones a sixth sense of perception and gives them an ability to be cool, calm and composed even in the face of extraordinary crisis.
The last role where many officers have proved their mettle is the holy grail of wealth creation. They have successfully founded and led companies in sectors ranging from consulting to retail. James McKinsey was an army officer and so was Sam Walton. Closer home, defence officers have headed business units, political ministries, and channels. They have been leading correspondents, authors, entrepreneurs, social activists, administrators and thought leaders. The largest real estate developer and the harbinger of affordable airlines in India have both been defence forces officers.
With a decade in the army and the corporate world, I identify with much of this. But the hypothesis remains incomplete without highlighting where defence officers struggle in making the switch—from a cocooned life in the services to the competitiveness of the corporate environment.
First, is finance. In the services, officers learn to optimize the resources for output—but seldom visit the basic rules of finance and worry about rates of return on investment, a skill that is essential to handling P&L (profit and loss account) responsibilities. Next, overbearing hierarchy is an operational requirement in the forces. In the corporate world, this can lead to a group of “yes men”—convenient but not optimal. In his able lieutenants, every senior corporate leader looks for courage that will allow them to speak their mind. Much of the effort has to be put in by reporting seniors—who will let the career service officer realize that challenging a superior is not tantamount to indiscipline.
Marketing and business development also strike me as gaps. But these have less critical implications for most businesses. The defence ministry and several business schools are working to overcome these skill gaps through programmes for officers.
All said and done, it is hard to replace men who have mettle and a winning attitude. I am reminded of an army officer, who was asked one of those favourite interview questions by a business tycoon, “So, what has been the greatest challenge of your life?” The officer reflected for a few moments and said matter-of-factly, “Well, people had been trying to kill me and my men, you know. I guess just surviving with my men, alive, was a challenge alright.” Here’s to old soldiers, who never die!
Raghu Raman is chief executive of corporate risk consulting firm Mahindra Special Services Group that advises companies and organizations on threat assessments and risk mitigation strategies. Respond to this fortnightly column at firstname.lastname@example.org