Generals Bring Battlefield Expertise to the Business World

By Vanessa Fuhrmans Features Dow Jones Newswires

At companies across America, generals are bringing battlefield lessons to business.

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Software maker Red Hat Inc. and computer-security firm Symantec Corp. are among the employers turning to generals for help on numerous fronts, from corporate governance to grappling with cyberwarfare. At not-for-profit Florida Hospital, a retired general is developing global partnerships and leadership talent, while Finland's Cargotec Oyj has one running its rough-terrain-equipment unit in Texas.

Military brass have gained clout in the White House, too. Often referring to them as "my generals," the president has tapped a trio of leaders to impose order and shape his national-security policy. Retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly swiftly brought a forceful management style to his job as the president's chief of staff, staffers say, while both Republicans and Democrats see Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster as calming forces in a turbulent presidency.

Discipline, though, is only one of the traits companies say military leaders bring to boards and management teams.

In the fog of war, and in peacetime, generals are trained to anticipate unknown risks, build high-functioning teams and make quick, strategic decisions in high-pressure situations. "They are the same traits necessary in the fog of business," says Henry Stoever, a captain in the Marine Corps who is now chief marketing officer of the National Association of Corporate Directors.

The group has put some 500 retired generals and admirals through a three-day course to prepare them for corporate board duty; half of them now sit on private and public boards, including those of Wells Fargo & Co., USA Truck Inc. and aerospace supplier Wesco Aircraft Holdings Inc.

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Companies, especially those in crisis, covet the reputational boost that comes from seeking the counsel of a former military leader, says Wendy Monsen, president of executive recruiter Korn/Ferry's federal-government practice. Whereas more than three-quarters of Americans trust the military to act in the public's interest, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, only 41% feel the same way about business leaders.

For companies seeking cybersecurity skills or geopolitical know-how, "general officers end up on our short list quite a bit for industry clients," says Ms. Monsen.

However, outside the defense industry, military brass remain rare in c-suites and boardrooms. The number of top executives who once served has shrunk over the decades as Vietnam War-era veterans have retired. Among S&P 500 firms, only 13 are led by former service members, and just under 5% of their combined board members are veterans, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data.

Rather than barking orders and enforcing hierarchy, military leaders who succeed in the corporate world know how to coax different groups into collaborating, says retired Army Maj. Gen. Michael J. Diamond, an organizational leadership consultant.

Before her retirement in 2013, Maj. Gen. Suzanne Vautrinot led the U.S. Air Force's cyber operations. She has parlayed that expertise into board seats at companies such as Wells Fargo and water treatment- and cleaning-products maker Ecolab Inc.

Like many senior officers in the private sector, Gen. Vautrinot urges others not to call her by her Air Force title, instead going by "Zan." Ecolab Chief Executive Doug Baker says her disarming style lets her push her points without ruffling feathers. "Think about that generation of women generals," he says. "You have to have pretty good [emotional intelligence] skills, and she does."

Gen. Vautrinot says she examines company strategies much like military leaders are trained to do: "You're looking at the future and connecting the dots, and you're looking at the risks," she said. "If the assumptions that went into the strategy change, how do you think about adjusting?" The approach "isn't unique to me as a military member," she says, "but it is inherent."

Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling brought disparate brigades and regiments into a cohesive force as commander of the U.S. Army Europe. Similar challenges awaited when he joined Florida Hospital in 2013. Hired to develop idea-exchanges and other partnerships abroad, he soon after was asked to devise a leadership course for doctors, in part to improve collaboration with administrators and get physicians more involved in broader decisions at the 32,000-employee hospital group.

Gen. Hertling's course culminates in several dozen doctors, nurses and administrators going to Gettysburg, Pa., each year. There, he assigns each to be a different figure in the pivotal Civil War battle; afterward the staff discuss how the lessons apply to health care. "They really dig into that person's personality and see how their achievements or dysfunctions contributed to the bigger disaster or accomplishment," he says.

Generals learn lessons, too. After retiring from the Army seven years ago, Lt. Gen. Stephen Speakes developed enterprise strategy at financial-services firm USAA for three years before he was let go. In hindsight, he says he failed to grasp the need to build consensus around his decisions and didn't recognize when colleagues weren't on board.

"In my old days, I was a decision-making machine. It was a quick look around the room and if no one had objections, it was go," he says. "In the corporate world, once you make a decision, you have to continue to sell its execution."

Now rounding his fourth year as CEO of Kalmar Rough Terrain Center LLC, a Texas unit of cargo-equipment maker Cargotec, Gen. Speakes says he has learned to encourage staff input and allow time for them to get behind ideas.

He keeps up other practices honed during his 35-year military career, such as making sure he knows the situation on the ground, frequently holding company meetings on the plant floor. "When manufacturing companies get too big, the leaders leave the manufacturing floor," he says. But "the people on the line will tell you in a heartbeat what's going on and why."

Write to Vanessa Fuhrmans at vanessa.fuhrmans@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 29, 2017 08:14 ET (12:14 GMT)