The military is a large and complex organisation, full of teams of people working towards a common goal. Sound familiar? The parallels between business and the military are many, and you can learn a lot by looking carefully at how the military organises itself, runs its operations and gets the best out of people.
Former military personal often go on to be highly successful in business. There are a number of examples of entrepreneurs and executives who have made the jump from the military to business, including Fred Smith, Ian Hannam, and even Sam Walton. Here are just five lessons you can learn from the military today.
How to Be a Leader
If the military can teach entrepreneurs just one single thing, it’s that leadership is a skill, and it can be learnt. Entrepreneurs are already ahead of the pack in this regard. Starting a business requires many core characteristics of a good leader, such as determination and decisiveness. All you need to do now is upskill.
Military personnel learn how to be leaders based on a set of clear priorities, which everyone can use. First amongst them is ‘lead by example’; don’t expect others to adhere to rules that you don’t stick to yourself. To quote the British Army: ‘You cannot lead people beyond where you can and are willing to go yourself.’
You need courage, vision, empathy, and listening and communication skills to be a leader – but most of all you need confidence. You can learn all of these things. The military takes leadership training deadly seriously – as you would expect. It’s estimated that at least 20 per cent of a military leaders’ career is spent learning how to be a better leader. This in itself tell you that you can never be perfect and it’s a lifelong learning experience.
The Importance of Teams
In warfare, the team is what counts. It’s what keeps you safe and what helps you all reach your objective. There are no individuals, just teams. Because of the danger involved, in the military teams are bonded on a very deep level. While it’s unlikely you’re ever going to find a whole team of people in your business who would literally die for each other, you can learn a few lessons from this culture.
To build a really successful team, everyone must feel equally valued and equally secure. You want your team to bond and put the group mission above personal career goals as far as is reasonable. This means you need to create an inclusive, cohesive culture that respects all opinions and encourages all ideas and feedback. A blame culture has absolutely no place in your business if you want to succeed.
The key to building great teams based on a military model is to ensure that every team member has very clearly defined roles and responsibilities. They must know exactly what their job is, and what it isn’t. They must also be empowered to get on with the job, no matter how junior their role.
Scope the Terrain
In the military no one is sent into battle before every aspect of the terrain has been fully scoped out. This does not just apply to the geography of the battlefield. It applies to people too. Before any battle plan is formed, the military makes sure that they know everything possible about the enemy, their behaviour patterns and the culture of the civilian populations.
No stone is left unturned in this process because lives on both sides depend upon the accuracy and extent of this intelligence. Everything from social structures and belief systems, economic practices and power structures are mapped and dissected.
Clearly, this has relevance for every entrepreneur. When we start a business, we need to know everything we can about our competitors and our target markets. But where I think we can learn from the military is their ability to accept that once mapped, things do not remain static – everything changes and evolves. That means the intelligence you have today may be largely out of date in six months’ time. Never rely on old data.
Focus on the Mission
Entrepreneurs can learn a lot from the military by looking at how battles are lost. One of the key reasons is over-extended lines of communication; troops stretched thin on an overlong route, possibly for hundreds of miles, joining two objectives or base camps. This increases both vulnerability and the chances of a successful attack by the enemy.
In business, as well as in the military, this over-extension doesn’t always apply to actual lines of communication or supply between people, and it’s not always caused by a lack of willingness to succeed. Instead it can stem from a gradual deterioration of focus on the core mission; or mission creep.
When an objective is set, at the start everyone is moving in the same direction towards it. But slowly, people naturally either drop out of that idea psychologically or physically, are reassigned by team leaders, veer off onto another project, or get left behind and forgotten as others streak ahead.
Once mission focus is lost, you’re left with a semi-completed project that not even you cares about any longer. At this point, your chances of reaching the business objective are dead. The lesson here is focus on and complete the mission in small chucks, before everyone moves on to the next stage together.
Choose Your Battles
Not all battles are winnable. Some entrepreneurs don’t believe this – but it is very true. In the military, tactical retreat or withdrawal is not a mad rush to get away from the enemy, it’s a careful, logical repositioning of troops to other areas where they have more chance of defending their position while they wait for reinforcements or regrouping to push forward to victory.
The military can teach entrepreneurs a great deal about pivoting away from unwinnable positions, and moving forward to gain a tactical advantage over your competitors. Rather than rushing madly into every battle, you must pick the ones where your intelligence tells you that you have the greatest chance of success.
If it turns out that this battle is unwinnable, maybe because you don’t yet have the resources to make a success of it, or there is no mileage in the idea, you need to withdraw in an organised way and pivot your teams towards another goal.