Business schools target the switch from military to business life
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Having served in the armed forces, Takiesha Waites-Thierry has a high tolerance for stress that has rarely been surpassed in her civilian job overseeing security and intelligence at Bank of America.
“My predecessor told me I looked much more calm in the job than he ever felt, but my threshold is very simple,” she says. “Did anyone die? If no one got killed, there’s no need to stress. When you’ve worked under that type of pressure in the military, you get into any environment and thrive.”
Five years of active duty in naval intelligence prepared her well for preventing and mitigating everything from robberies and street violence to cyber attacks at the bank.
“Serving on the USS Ronald Reagan, I spent my time looking at threats from foreign navies, considering anything that could harm our carriers,” she says. “I assessed the range of their missiles, how far their aircraft could travel without refuelling and briefed our pilots to prepare for anything.”
When she left the armed forces and a stint in government intelligence, she wanted to learn some basic accounting so she could open her own restaurant. Ultimately, she took an unusual tailored degree that gave her new skills, networks and an appetite for a far broader range of business careers.
Waites-Thierry enrolled in a 10-month Master of Business for Veterans (MBV) qualification first launched a decade ago by the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business, which takes about 50 military veterans, active duty and reserve personnel each year.
Many business schools offer slots on their regular courses for veterans, who receive generous financial aid: they range from Duke University’s Fuqua School — which is close to a military base in North Carolina — to Stanford in California and Tuck at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Mays Business School at Texas A&M University has its own veteran resource and support centre. But far rarer are the courses in the civilian world tailored specifically for military personnel to help them adapt.
James Bogle, USC Marshall’s MBV programme director, served 25 years in the US army and was himself a student on the programme. He says the degree was launched partly in response to requests by the California Department of Veterans Affairs, but also after observing that many former soldiers were taking Marshall’s general Executive MBA course to ease the transition to their new civilian lives.
“In crafting the programme, we took a deep dive into what background veterans already have, what would their needs be in coming to business school and how to make that shift successfully,” Bogle says.
Veterans already have distinctive skills of leadership, management and professional competence, he says. These include “a mission orientation, a focus on getting the job done, a very strong understanding of how to motivate people and get them to work together, to build a team to accomplish a task”.
The difference between an EMBA and MBV, Bogle notes, is that veterans are looking more for teamwork, collaboration and camaraderie. “The motto of our programme is: we’re all invested in each other’s success. There is a lot of trust, teamwork, nurturing and benefiting from the support of others.”
That view resonates with Ken Keen, who retired as a lieutenant general after 38 years in the US army. He is now programme lead at Goizueta Business School at Emory University in Atlanta for its own 11-month MBV, which will take in its first cohort of about 35 next May.
Keen says Emory — like many other US universities — lost a connection to the military when it shuttered its Reserve Officers’ Training Corps after campus protests against the Vietnam war half a century ago. The links have since been renewed, not least through him taking civilian MBA students on a one-day immersive course to Georgia’s Fort Moore army base for team building.
Keen sees important distinctions between civilian and military culture, to which his course will be adapted. “The way we orient our people with basic training and deleting the ego is different to business,” he says. “It’s not all yelling in the military but we are afforded a lot of crutches: a significant level of authority, the ability to punish, a degree of uniformity. There are some adjustments in leadership.”
Military personnel become used to a very structured organisation, he adds. “That’s not to say there is not a lot of give and take, but we pride ourselves in giving orders, making timely decisions and operating in a calm, collected way in a very chaotic environment. In the business world that structure is not always there.”
Eric Wong, a graduate of USC’s MBV, who served for over eight years in the air force and now works in the healthcare sector, says: “There is a relatively strict hierarchy. We wear our names on our chest, our ranks on our shoulders. It’s very clear what the pecking order is. If you join the military, you are committed to this organisation, don’t really have true agency on where you go, what you do, who you work with.”
He valued the brevity — and affordability — of the degree and used his time to explore and interview for a range of different jobs. He also networked with his professors and peers.
Wong is comfortable in his adaptation and career choices, but sees important distinctions from the military. “There’s a different way of thinking about money: in the squadron we were supposed to blow it all or we wouldn’t get the same amount next year. It’s quite difficult to fire someone. The civilian workforce is less secure and way more diverse, with older employees and co-workers with disabilities. You have to use your soft skills much more.”
The cultures may be different, but Waites-Thierry says that veterans’ backgrounds are still under-appreciated elsewhere. “Where we struggle is that some leaders who aren’t familiar with the military don’t give us enough work or trust our capabilities. I try to coach my peers to [recognise] what a veteran can do.”