Students and alumni bring their military skills from the war room to the boardroom.

By Andrea Orr

In many ways, Wade Knudson (GEMBA ’11) is a typical student in the Georgetown-ESADE Executive MBA Program. Like other students in the program, a partnership between Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, Walsh School of Foreign Service, and ESADE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, Knudson balances a demanding career with an intense academic program that will teach him international business by way of immersion in five major cities across four continents. But his day job makes him stand out among students. Knudson is on active duty in the United States Navy.

Since he graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1984, Knudson has worked as an operational pilot, a test pilot, and a squadron commanding officer. More recently, he has helped manage the Navy’s acquisition of fighter jets, missile defense systems, and other equipment; he oversees deals that would be off the charts by private-sector standards. As a program manager for the Navy’s $45 billion Joint Strike Fighter Program, Knudson ensured contracts were fulfilled on schedule, at cost, and according to performance specifications. Now, he is the executive assistant to the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, and acquisition, after having served 14 months as military assistant to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, one of the Department of Defense’s topranking civilian positions, who oversees a $400 billion budget.

Knudson sees several parallels between the armed forces and business. During his 26 years in the military, he has managed large teams and seen big, complex orders through to completion. He has become practiced at sensitive negotiations and at swiftly adapting to unforeseen circumstances. But in recent years, as Knudson started to contemplate retiring from the military, he realized he had a lot to learn about doing business in the private sector.

Take marketing, for example. “In the Navy, we don’t think about things like market strategies, because we already have a market,” he explains. Accounting in the military is different as well: “We can’t have a profit, and we can’t have a loss.”

Because the GEMBA program places a strong focus on networking, Knudson says it allows students to “engage broadly” with leaders in a wide range of businesses. He says its team-based — or “cohort” — structure, in which groups of students from diverse professional backgrounds work together to solve business problems, has helped him appreciate all the factors that come into play in various business situations. “The insights other students and faculty provided on things like marketing strategies, subsidies, and tariffs were all eye-opening to me,” Knudson says.

Active-duty and retired military personnel within the Georgetown community collectively have a strong track record in the business world for leading with creativity, empathy, and vision. Jason McCarthy (MBA ’11), a Green Beret who served as a combat adviser in Iraq before going to business school, recently started his own business (see “Military Grade, Consumer Ready”). And former Marine Lachelle Fryett (IEMBA ’10) already had established herself in the Internet publishing and advertising businesses, assuming various senior sales and marketing positions at AOL, even before she decided to pursue an MBA to augment her business skills.

Most of these Georgetown students and graduates say they also have encountered bumps in the road as they shifted from military to civilian life. They describe the military as a world unto itself that can be difficult for outsiders to understand and even harder for insiders to explain in a résumé or a job interview.

“Being in the armed services laid an incredible foundation for believing that there is very little you can’t do if you put your head and heart behind it. In the Marine Corps, you learn that often the only thing holding you back is yourself,” says Fryett, who has displayed an ability to adapt, persevere, and rapidly rise through the ranks in both her military and civilian careers. Fryett spent the majority of her service in the Marines performing public affairs duties. By the time she pursued an undergraduate degree in journalism and public relations at Creighton University, she already had extensive experience in the communications field.

“Those who serve in the military are charged with very high levels of responsibility,” she says. “One of the biggest challenges when you leave the military is to convey that level of responsibility and explain the kinds of duties you fulfilled in a way people will understand.”

From One World to Another
Work after life in the military is full of paradox. On one hand, many young veterans returning from deployment struggle to find work, let alone a fulfilling career. The unemployment rate among young veterans was 21.1 percent last year, significantly higher than for nonveterans.

The flipside is that America’s executive offices are full of senior managers with military experience. Merck CEO Richard Clark spent two years in the Army, Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer spent eight years in the Navy, and Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg served in Vietnam.

Soldiers returning from deployment, senior managers, and career counselors all agree on the value of the skills acquired in the military, from time management and stress management to negotiation and a strong work ethic. Chad Storlie (MBA ’02), a Green Beret in Iraq turned marketing executive, says the biggest challenges in leaving the military and entering the business world are often cultural. Storlie recently published a book inspired to help others mitigate the military-to-business culture shock he encountered as a civilian businessperson, first at General Electric and then at Union Pacific Railroad. His book, From Combat Leader to Corporate Leader: 20 Lessons to Advance Your Civilian Career, offers soldiers and officers returning from deployment or ending their military service practical advice about recognizing the value of their military experience, identifying gaps in their résumés, and understanding the vast cultural differences between military and civilian work worlds.

Storlie, who attended Northwestern University on an ROTC scholarship, then served as an infantry officer in South Korea and later led a 15-person combat plans section for a large special-operations task force in Iraq, says the biggest mistake he made in his initial civilian jobs was to see some aspects of business as an extension of the military.

“I initially approached corporate decision making as a hierarchy, and that was a complete mistake,” says Storlie, who describes the military leadership structure as a rigid system in which it is clear who is in charge and what skills are required to earn a promotion or approve a plan. When he finished business school and went to work, he found that the comparative lack of structure in the private sector was difficult to navigate. If the military offers a career path like a ladder, the private sector, he says, is closer to a checkerboard — wide open and full of choices to move forward, sideways, or even backward. Although it was counterintuitive to his military training, Storlie said he came to see that in business, lateral moves often provide the experience that will lead to a big jump forward in the future. And, because the leadership structure is far more complex in the private sector, Storlie says some recently retired soldiers and officers make the mistake of assuming that, as a junior person in the office, they may feel compelled to hold back.

Storlie’s advice is direct: “Don’t hold back, get in there, be active, contribute, and be a valuable team member.” He also offers simple tips such as not “wearing your rank” to the office and turning the “war face” off. “You may still be thinking of yourself as a general, but in your new job you’re a mid-level manager,” he explains. And although a stoic presentation conveys seriousness and authority in the military, a somewhat relaxed demeanor usually works better in business, where people value collaboration and a willingness to listen, he says. Although many of his recommendations seem like common sense to someone who has never served in the military, he says many such mistakes are common, even among veterans with MBAs or other advanced degrees.

Although veterans such as Storlie acquired a wealth of leadership experience in the military — some heading units of 200 or more — when they set their sights on business, they often found they had a lot to learn, not just about corporate finance, but also about collaboration and corporate culture. Many, including McCarthy, saw Georgetown as a natural fit for making this transition because of its location in a region with a strong military presence, and the fact that it sits at the intersection of business and policy. “It is an environment where veterans thrive,” McCarthy says.

Other veterans were drawn to the school’s strong focus on global business and on learning through collaboration and immersion in projects such as the global residencies, during which they travel abroad and help real companies tackle business challenges. While the MBA coursework provides background in hard skills like accounting and marketing, students who came to Georgetown from the military say the school’s collaborative experiences outside of the classroom are just as valuable. Interacting with other students from a private-sector background and with a faculty with extensive business experience helped them learn a new code of behavior more fitting for leadership in the civilian work world.

Indeed, even those Georgetown McDonough School of Business graduates who said they knew better than to wear a uniform to a job interview or pack a résumé full of arcane military language confess there was a period of adjustment as they left one world and entered another.

“In the military, there is a set hierarchy, and you know who your boss is. Business is much more blurry,” says Beau Oliver (IEMBA ’10), who spent nine years as a Navy pilot before going to business school. “The hardest part of making the transition is translating all of the experience you’ve had in the military. Saying you were blank offi cer in blank division is hard to translate. A lot of people get stuck in the jargon.”

Oliver had studied economics as an undergraduate at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis and had had a lifelong interest in business. When he retired from the Navy, he said he felt he had acquired an abundance of leadership experience, but lacked knowledge of specific industries. Despite that perceived disadvantage, once he was in business school, Oliver quickly found value in many of the time management and organizational skills he had acquired during his first career. Because his work as a pilot had entailed long hours in the air as well as what he describes as “a second full-time job on the ground,” he had superb time-management skills that helped him keep up with his classmates, most of whom had more direct business experience.

Oliver, who now works for Deloitte Consulting, experienced the same kind of cultural adjustments that Storlie and others describe, but says his studies at Georgetown helped him see that the military and business are more similar than he expected. Both, he says, require the judgment to know when to be a team member and when to take a project under your own leadership and run with it. Even more fundamental, both are continuously challenging.

“The learning curve is steep and never levels off,” says Oliver, who views an MBA as a strong foundation but “not a turnkey solution.” In business, as in the military, you never stop learning.

A Leadership Lab
Sam King (MBA ’11), executive vice president of the McDonough Military Association, one of the school’s student clubs, attended Harvard on an ROTC scholarship and spent five years in active duty, heading large platoons in Korea and Hawaii before he was deployed to Iraq. He says his time in the military provided constant, intense leadership training where he supervised large groups of soldiers and also lived with them. As a 26-year-old officer with authority over some older sergeants who had many more years of experience, King was placed into some inherently difficult situations that forced him to manage with authority while still being respectful so everyone felt empowered.

“It was a leadership lab every day,” says King, who stresses that many of the skills he acquired were the sort of “soft” leadership skills, like negotiation, that can be difficult to teach in a classroom, but critical to realworld success. “It was the most rewarding thing I could have done. I can’t say enough about how much I got out of it.”

King tries to give back through his work with the McDonough Military Association, which works to improve understanding between military and civilian worlds, counsel current and former military personnel who are considering pursuing an MBA, and improve Georgetown’s outreach to members of the military.

Others echo King’s focus on leadership. Andrea Castillon (EML ’10) enlisted in the National Guard in 1996 and worked as an electrical engineer while attending college through the ROTC’s simultaneous membership program. She describes her early years in the military as a time of gaining valuable work experience, but being unsure of her long-term goals. That all changed shortly after she graduated from the University of Wyoming in 2001, when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center.

“From that point forward, I was fully engaged,” Castillon says. She went to flight school and learned to fly the Black Hawk helicopter. In 2003, she was assigned to fly medical evacuation flights in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom, an experience that defined her notion of leadership and the grave responsibility it involved. “I was responsible for an entire crew, and for the aircraft,” she recalls. “We would have to fly at night, in low visibility, and in all sorts of dangerous conditions, carrying live ammunition. I learned that it is very important to communicate and to understand what your commanders are asking of you. And it’s very important to remain calm under pressure.”

Castillon was stationed in Washington, D.C., when she applied to Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. Shortly after starting classes, she was transferred to Dothan, Ala., to serve as a senior National Guard liaison. She began a grueling commute back to Washington, D.C., every other weekend to complete the education. Although she entered the program confident that her work experience could open multiple doors in the private sector, she found attending business school expanded her notions of leadership and teamwork.

“What I took away from my Georgetown experience was that you can accomplish a lot if you collaborate. You have to earn respect, but that only goes so far.” In fact, she says that one of the best aspects of the program was her cohorts. Just attending class and working on projects with students from different backgrounds, she says, taught her a lot about ways of thinking in the private sector. “A couple of people in the class had a military background, but most were civilians. It was interesting to hear the questions they asked.” Today, Castillon is back in Washington, D.C., working as a congressional liaison, another role she says is not typically associated with military life, but speaks to the variety of experiences her career path has provided.

Although she is still on active duty and has not yet decided whether she will eventually retire from the military, she says the aspect of business that most appeals to her is entrepreneurship, which would give her an opportunity to tap into all of the diverse experiences she’s had in the military and in life.

“I could get a job on Capitol Hill, or I could go to work for a lobbying company,” Castillon says. “But I think that if I did retire, I would probably start my own business, take all of the leadership lessons I’ve acquired [in the military and in business school], and put it together to build something new.”

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