Copyright by John T. Reed
Fortune magazine had a cover story in its 3/22/10 issue on the subject of big corporations hiring recent young military officers. The subtitle was, “Why companies like Wal-Mart, Pepsico, and GE are recruiting the military’s elite.”
In a number of articles about the military like, “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point” and “Is the military as good at producing leaders as it says?” I have generally taken the position that although the raw material entering West Point is very good, the school adds relatively little value for its massive expenditure of money, time and effort. And the subject of leadership is no exception to that statement. Also, I mean that in comparison to the value added by comparable civilian colleges.
West Point and its supporters say or imply that West Point is a fabulous leadership school. The Fortune magazine article seems to support the notion that West Point and the military in general produce extraordinary leaders.
Apparently, either I overlooked something, or Fortune did.
For starters, I am a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, and have been out of West Point for 42 years. I also have hundreds of West Point classmates whose careers I am aware of to various degrees. And I am a Harvard MBA and have 40 years of education from the School of Hard Knocks. I have been a businessman for 42 years including being a rental property owner when I was in the Army and when I was at Harvard Business School.
In contrast, the Fortune author Brian O’Keefe, as far as I know, has never been in the military or in business. Rather, he appears to be about 34 years old and a career journalist. He has a BA in english from Alabama and a masters in journalism from NYU. It is a standard conceit of journalists that they can write accurately and completely about any subject by simply interviewing knowledgeable persons in the field. When they write about subjects that are in areas of expertise of mine, I find they come off like people speaking a language other than the one they spoke in childhood—at best. At worst, they sound like people who simple talked to a couple of semi-randomly selected people and know nothing more about the topic than what those people told them.
To me, the Fortune article sounds like its title and subtitle were predetermined by Fortune editors and that O’Keefe was seeking confirmation of that thesis rather than truly testing whether the thesis was correct. That is neither proper nor objective journalism. Journalists, of which I am one, are supposed to seek the truth, not confirmation of their editor’s preconceived notions.
Counting the front cover, the article covers 9.3 pages. 2/3 of one page contains a sidebar article by General Petraeus that does not address the thesis of the main article. The Petraeus sidebar seems to be a way of proving the main article thesis by innuendo: We know young military officers are great leaders because Petraeus is a great leader and he used to be a young military officer. I admire Petraeus’ willingness to gamble on new tactics in Iraq. Other than that, I have not seen any greatness in him and I have seen some problems which I wrote about. Search for his name within the search box at the top of any page of my web site. That will list all my articles that mention Petraeus.
Even if there was evidence Petraeus is a great leader rather than just a celebrity, which I think is all the hard evidence in fact shows, one such person in the Army hardly proves the rest are the same.
In that 9.3 pages of article, there are 5 full pages of dramatic photos—more than half of the article. Each is side-by-side pair showing a former officer all dressed up in his old battle uniform with a rifle on the left and the same person dressed for civilian success in a facing photo on the right.
In other words, the thesis of the article is proven more than 50% by merely showing that five former officers can put on their prior employer’s uniform and can wear professional civilian business clothes. One such photo pair would have been appropriate as a sort of title graphic like a book cover. Five seems like they lacked substantive proof of their thesis and tried to make up for it with redundant photo innuendo pairs. For what it’s worth, two of the five look foolish in military uniforms: both 30-year olds—Mumm a male West Pointer looks 17 and as if he’s wearing his father’s Army uniform; Sullivan a female Marine OCS graduate looks downright silly in her military uniform—like a sort of combat Mary Poppins. The other three are believable as central casting military officers. But looking the part is meaningless, I just thought it was interesting that Fortune’s photographer could not even make all five look credible as combat leaders.
The truth is the photos neither prove nor disprove Fortune’s thesis. That they devote most of the article to the photos is telling.
Within the military, the infantry is the star and the rest are supporting cast. I am a big fan of medics and helicopter crews that land at hot LZ’s too, but none of the five officers in this article were medics or chopper pilots. Two appear to be infantry—both marine recon. The other three are an engineer (construction), signal corps (communications—my branch when I was in), and logistics (the UPS of the Army and Marines—rear-area shipping and storage stuff—my uncle Jack’s branch in World War II).
So what, pray tell, are all five of them doing holding weapons? I had a weapon in Vietnam, although it was in my locker except when I was away from my home base. Even then, it was either a 45-cal. automatic pistol in my holster or an M-14 or M-16 rifle that I did not carry with me except for a patrol I led or if there was an alert like an enemy rocket attack which put us in a sort of fire-drill mode to use a civilian phrase. In other words, none of the three non-infantry guys would be likely to carry a weapon in the normal course of their duties even in a combat area like Iraq.
Combat Mary Poppins, the Marine logistics officer, is carrying not one, but two weapons: an M-4 carbine and a pistol. That is the female Iraq equivalent of John Kerry getting his photo taken in Vietnam wearing a helmet, flak jacket, and carrying an M-16 assault rifle and lots of ammo. Kerry was in the Navy. His dressing up like Army or Marine infantry was an affectation.
I do not know what Marine captain Sullivan’s motive was: maybe Jessica Lynch lookalike day. The two West Pointers—the engineer and the commo officer—would have carried a weapon to travel. Engineer Mumm is carrying his at the ready with his right hand on the pistol grip ready to fire. I would be surprised if he ever did that in Iraq. Commo officer Lloyd has hers slung over her back—more realistic but still probably only something she would do in Iraq while traveling outside a base or during an enemy attack that never required her to shoot her weapon.
These people are all also wearing bulletproof vests. In Vietnam, we only wore our flak jackets on patrol and while traveling outside the base. Also, during an enemy mortar or rocket attack, we would put our helmets and flak jackets on to go to battle stations. No one ever fired a shot during any of those battle stations events nor did we have occasion to fire on the patrol I led. I do not know what the rules were in Iraq, but my impression is that these five officers did not normally wear bulletproof vests except for the two Marine recon guys.
To me, the infantry platoon leaders of the civilian world are the entrepreneurs, of which I have been one since 1969.
But the five former officers in this story all went to work for Fortune 500 companies. They are all now corporate bureaucrats. That’s probably what at least three of them were in the military, too. So the idea that the military was good prep for corporate life may be somewhat correct, but for reasons that are the opposite of combat leadership experience, which is the emphasis of the article. They were hired to be private business bureaucrats because they had previously been government bureaucrats in the Army and Marines.
The companies are Wal-Mart, Pepsico, GE, Morgan Stanley, and Northrup Grumman. GE and Northrup Grumman are government contractors. Here are my comments on the relationship between the five former military officers and their current civilian jobs:
|Military job||Civilian job||Comment|
|battalion commo officer (a job I held twice)||supercenter manager of a Wal-Mart||bn commo officer manages a switchboard squad (10 guys), a squad of police-type radio operators, and a radio and telephone repair squad—essentially unrelated to managing a large retail store|
|recon platoon leader||Morgan Stanley investment banker||laughably unrelated|
|engineer platoon leader||project manager building a safety system for underwater drilling for GE||civilian responsibilities sound impressive—Army engineers build small buildings, one-lane temporary bridges, half-assed forts around U.S. bases, and dirt roads|
|recon platoon leader||financial analyst Northrup Grumman||laughably unrelated|
|logistics officer||franchise development manager at Pepsico||Got MBA/MPA at Harvard; I am Harvard MBA; job seems entirely related to her grad degree and totally unrelated to her Marine experience, military logistics and franchise (e.g. a KFC) development have little overlap|
I wonder if the hiring of some of these former officers were public relations ploys by the companies in question. One West Pointer was hired into Wal-Mart’s“ junior military officer program.” Her being manager of a superstore sounds like she did well after she got there, but the “program” sounds like a public relations stunt by a company that has been big on bragging about how many American Made products it sells. In other words, hiring former military so they can brag about it not because they think such people are the best is consistent with a company that has wrapped itself in the flag in the past to attract consumers. It is not consistent with the thesis that former military officers from combat zones are well prepared to manage civilian businesses.
The whole idea of a “junior military officer program” goes against the thesis of the Fortune article. Their thesis is more like “these companies hire the best and guess who they concluded were some of the best?” A specific “program” to hire military officers sounds like a corrective measure to prevent the company from looking bad public-relations-wise for not hiring enough former military previously. I would not be surprised to lear that some organization of former military puts pressure on big corporations to hire “its share” of former military or else get bad publicity for not doing so a la Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and ACORN
The other West Pointer was hired into GE’s “Junior Officer Leadership Program.” I guarandamntee you GE is a government contractor that sucks up to the federal government at every turn. Indeed, lately, GE CEO Jeff Immelt has been shamelessly sucking up to Obama including turning his subsidiaries NBC and MSNBC into shills for the Obama administration and its political agenda.
I have toured three big factories: Mack Trucks in Allentown, PA; General Motors in Framingham, MA; and a GE jet engine plant in MA. The GE plant instantly pissed me off. Maybe you had to be there to understand, but they had a humongous U.S. flag hung up on the wall of the airplane hangar size building. Neither Mack nor GM had any such thing. Are the GE union workers more patriotic than the Mack or GM union workers? Absolutely not.
It was obvious that it was a cynical ploy by GE to impress government big shots when they visited the plant. It angered me because it was so shameless and crass it insulted your intelligence. And that was long before Immelt took over GE.
Mumm’s current job sounds impressive, but I am no expert. It also sounds like he is not qualified for it if his his military experience is his only training. The article also says he is “working on MBA from University of Texas.” What’s that mean? Correspondence school?
None of the other three folks were said to have been hired by some be-nice-to-former-military “program,” but one is at Northrup Grumman, a defense contractor. That sounds like another cynical ploy to maybe increase the probability of winning a bid by cronyism or “we’re true to your school” back scratching (The Northrup hire graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis which is part of the Navy which buys a lot of boats and planes).
As proof of the burgeoning discovery of former officer “world-class leadership talent,” Fortune cites the annual Military Friendly Employers list published by G.I. Jobs as “swelled from a Top 10, when it was first published in 2003, to a Top 50 in 2006, to a Top 10 this year”.
1. The fact there is a publication called G.I. Jobs tells me there is an organization pushing civilian employers to hire former military personnel because they are military and regardless of their objective qualifications for the job.
2. The fact that there is an annual Military Friendly Employers list tells me G.I. Jobs is trying to use publicity to pressure public-relations sensitive companies to hire former military so they can rank high on the list and to shame companies not doing so into doing so a la Jesse Jackson’s quasi-extortion operation Rainbow Coalition. (I just did a Google search for "Jesse Jackson"+extortion. It got 45,100 hits.)
3. G.I. Jobs is apparently attempting to profit from hiring of former military by civilian employees so they are biased in favor of finding such is happening and encouraging it to happen more.
4. The fact that G.I. Jobs increased its “Top” list from 10 to 50 to 100 means absolutely nothing other than G.I. Jobs decided to increase the size of the list. They could have published a Top 100 the first year, or a Top 1,000. The expansion of the list over time probably says more about their early lack of resources for collecting data than an increase in the interest in former military among private businesses.
A Wal-Mart recruiting manager said of their “junior officer program,”
The thinking was that we could bring in world-class leadership talent that was already trained and ready to go.
World class? That phrase is bandied about too much. I saw NAVY SEALs referred to as “world class athletes” on TV once. Really!? May I see their olympic medals? Super Bowl rings? National all-star team selection certificates?
What is world class leadership talent? Since these people were all 30 but one, I would say that world class leadership talent at age 30 is membership in the Young Presidents Organization, captain of a pro or olympic athletic team, a Who’s Who in America biographee which was one of the criteria used by Forbes magazine toname West Point the best college in America in 2009 (I made it into Who’s Who in America around age 33, but not 30), winner of a Most Outstanding Young Person Award from the Jaycees (although they have given that to some self-promoting sleaze bags). That is not a comprehensive list, but none of the five people in the Fortune article trigger any of it as far as I know.
The article subtitle says they are the “military’s elite.” I see no basis for that other than three of them are service academy grads. Mumm may be an Army ranger. Otherwise, I am at a loss to understand why these are the military’s elite.
I would not characterize any of the five as “world-class” or “elite” anything based on the article. They look like the usual, run-of-the-mill college grad former officers, four of whom got or are working on MBAs. They also appear not to have been stars in the military, although that’s hard to tell since they appear not to have stayed in the military long enough to be eligible for the first merit promotion (to major) or if they were in long enough, they did not get the promotion. In other words, they appear not to be world class leaders or even world class military officers. To me, they seem average—below average if you are impressed by combat experience. Apparently Fortune is impressed by combat experience as evidenced by the Rambo photos. But I saw no mention of bravery medals, Purple Hearts, casualties (under the command of the five who were photographed), or participation in any firefights. And the tone of the article is such that you would expect O’Keefe would have glommed onto any firefight experience if there was any. These five talk the combat talk by virtue of their photos with guns and combat gear, but the article makes no mention of their actually walking the combat walk. For example, the Marine recon guys are both described as “having led patrols near Fallujah.”
Fallujah was the site of two big battles in 2003 and 2004. But what’s with the word “near?” The battles of Fallujah were in Fallujah, not near it.
Leading a patrol can mean next to nothing. It is akin to walking through an urban neighborhood in the U.S. Sometimes, you can be assaulted or robbed, but usually not. If these guys were in firefights, say so. If they were not, the article is clearly written to mislead the reader into thinking these guys led men in firefights but retain deniability for the reporter if a knowledgeable person like me points out the word parsing in the article.
The combat infantryman tone of the photos and text seems to buy into combat mystique. That is the notion that being in a firefight transforms one into a superhuman. Like most Vietnam vets, I got shot at. That is slightly transformative. It makes you accept death in a concrete, right-now way rather than the abstract “I know I’m going to die some day in the future” abstraction that non-combat vets hold. I did not experience a fire fight where I or my men were shooting at the enemy. But I know a lot of classmates who did. It seems an exciting memory like playing in the big game in high school football, but not transformative. Those who lost men who got killed in combat seem affected by it but not much different from anyone who has seen a loved one or friend die. They may regret not having done more to prevent it. That can be transformative, but not in a positive way that makes you a great sales manager or plant manager. Does going through the trauma of a divorce or death of a child make any civilians a better business manager? I doubt it. As far as I know, the same is true of seeing one of your men get blown up by an IED or hit by a fatal sniper shot. Being in a fire fight is akin to being in an injury car accident as far as I can tell. It probably makes you a more careful platoon leader or driver in the future, but it does not elevate you to a higher plane in making or selling manufactured goods or services. Most big organizations probably have an Iraq or Afghanistan fire fight vet. Ask them if it made them Super Businessman. Or, better yet, observe whether it has.
Read my review of the book War by Sebastian Junger. If anything, that book seems to sugest that being a fire fight veteran causes many to turn into profoundly selfish assholes who feel entitled to be chronic drunks and/or engage in other anti-social behavior. Businesses should not hire drunks or anti-social people.
O’Keefe says Wal-Mart realized it had tapped in to a “gold mine of talent” when it started recruiting former military officers.
You gotta be kidding me! Former military officers have been available to U.S. civilian employers since the 1700s. Almost all civilian companies of any size have always had former military officers throughout the nation’s history including now. After World War II, about a million former officers went into civilian life. Now there are only about 100,000 active military officers so if they were ever a gold mine, it was in 1946. Nowadays, the number of former military officers is more the size of a nugget than a mine.
My main point is that the notion that no one knew about the wonderfulness of former military officers as low level managers until five corporations and Fortune discovered them is absurd. The number of former military officers working in civilian organizations today is probably currently greater than the total number of Fortune subscribers.
I’ll bet Fortune has less than its share of former military officers. Indeed, given that a non-vet wrote this article, one wonders if they have any. If they have none, why not?
Fortune cites Ross Perot (EDS Founder) and Fred Smith (FedEx fonder) as evidence of the military preparing guys to be big civilian successes. I wrote “because of or in spite of” [being in the military] after that in my magazine. I had supper with Ross Perot when the New Enterprise Club at Harvard Business School invited him to speak. I was co-president of the club. Never met Smith. But I would argue that there are probably more Ross Perots and Fred Smiths who would have had similar success had they not been in the military, and their time in the military was the impediment that kept them from that success. You can prove anything with anecdotes and overly small samples. If the question is does being a military officer increase your chances of business success, the needed data is how a large sample of military and never military guys did in business. Almost certainly, that would show that spending five or more years in the military in your early twenties was a rarely-overcome handicap to top business success. Naming two guys who overcame it is meaningless.
Compare the careers listed in the alumni directories of, say, the West Point and Princeton classes of 1970, and you’ll get a far more valid answer to the question does being a young military officer lead to greater civilian business success than never serving in the military. Better yet, compare the careers of those who accepted ROTC commissions at say, Arizona, then got out after five years, with those who also graduated from Arizona at the same time, but who never served in the military. I predict that those who avoided military service did better in civilian business than those who served in the military. I suspect that no such comparisons have ever been done and that the people who run West Point and Arizona ROTC are damned glad they have never been done and hope no one ever does them in the future.
Quoting unnamed and unnumbered “head hunters, human resources executives, and business school admissions officers,” O’Keefe says former military officers are “stars waiting to happen.”
And I say waiting five years to start a race your peers started five years ago is obviously not conducive to winning that race. And I submit my statement has more logic and persuasiveness than O’Keefe’s conclusory, anonymous “I hear tell” “quote.”
O’Keefe quotes Petraeus saying the old shibboleth,
Tell me anywhere in the business world where a 22- or 23-year-old is responsible for 35 or 40 other individuals on missions that involve life or death.
Dave, there are lots of business that involve life and death, like the Gulf oil rig that recently blew up killing 11 men, or Alaska King Crab fishermen. You are right that businesses do not put 22- or 23-year-olds in charge of 35 or 40 people in such situations. But you’re sidestepping the reason why business don’t do that but the military does.
Businesses do not put 22- or 23-year-olds in charge of 35 or 40 men in life-or-death situations because it would be stupid and homicidally negligent to do so. The military does so because it cannot be sued, or even criticized as a general rule, and because the American people regard military service as a shit job. The best American college grad young people, or most of them, do not want to do that job. They want to work for Goldman Sachs. Nor do the American people want to pay enough in taxes to recruit and retain the experienced older people they should to be those platoon leaders.
As a result, the U.S. military since the Korean War has had a horseshit record both of winning wars and of avoiding casualties dues to incompetence like friendly fire and excessive amounts of accidents and deaths caused by stupid tactics and strategies like clearing buildings, driving along known IED routes, overly restrictive rules of engagement, and patrolling meaninglessly in known sniper and ambush alleys. If the U.S. military had older, more experienced, adequately qualified platoon leaders, company commanders and higher officers, we would be winning our wars and losing fewer men in the process.
Here is my discussion of this “responsibility at a young age” line from my article Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?
What about the line that military officers get far more responsibility at young ages than civilians?
It’s true. Civilian organizations rarely put a 23-year old in charge of 40 men or a 24-year old in charge of 125—especially in life-or-death situations. When I was a company commander in the Army, I was bemused to hear my middle-aged sergeants telling people in my front office to “run that by the old man.” (The old man” is a traditional Army name for the commanding officer of a company or larger unit.) The “old man” was me. I was 25. But there are two reasons for that: military leaders have to be young because of the unique strength and stamina requirements of combat and because the American taxpayers are cheap.
The fact that they put such young people in charge of platoons and companies in the military does not mean that the leaders in question were ready for such responsibility. In fact, in my observation and experience, they were not. They were too young and inexperienced. It is a bit of a scandal that the military does that. Men die because of it. Battle are lost because of it. Probably, some wars have been lost because of it.
None of my men died in Vietnam, but that was because the enemy chose not to attack us, not because I, at age 23, was a great military leader. I am very grateful that we were not attacked. I do not think that if we had been attacked and some of my men died as a result of my youth and inexperience that I would be grateful to the Army for having put me in that position. Nor do I think such artificial aging and psychiatric trauma would have made me a hot commodity on the civilian job market.
I like the way Jack and Suzy Welch put it in their 8/25/08 Businessweek column on management. They were asked about the wisdom of “empowering” subordinate managers. The Welches said empowerment has to be earned. In other words, you do not give lots of responsibility to young subordinates across the board as a matter of policy like the military does. Rather, you give each young, rookie subordinate manager a little responsibility and see how they do with it. If an individual does well, you give him or her more. It’s common sense. But in bureaucracies like the military, common sense is an uncommon virtue.
During general mobilizations like World Wars I and II, the average age of the Army goes up because they draft older men than volunteer for the military during non-draft periods. The greater age and experience of military personnel during general mobilization wars probably had something to do with us winning those wars. (See my arguments in favor of a draft.)
The main reason you get more responsibility in the military at younger ages than in civilian life is that the American taxpayers are cheap. They don’t want young platoon leaders and company commanders. They want cheap ones. They accept young to get cheap. They want this even though their sons die as a result.
Also, politicians do not want to vote for a draft that would bring in the older, more experienced leaders who would produce better results on the battlefield.
So you are not getting more responsibility in the Army than in civilian life because the Army and only the Army recognizes your true greatness as a leader. You, Lt. Fuzz, have that position because the American people regard military leadership as a shit job that they neither want nor are willing to pay enough for to attract more appropriately-qualified people.
As a 36-year career Army officer, David Petraeus knows better than I do that what I just said was true. But you do not get to be a four-star general in the Army by speaking such truths. Although Petraeus never commanded draftees. I did.
I could go on dissecting the article, but you get the idea. Read it for yourself. The basic problem is it consists of nothing but anecdotes and quotes, no hard evidence like a survey comparing a statistically significant number of executives with military experience with same major. same college peers who had none.
The article also contains many absurd-on-their-face statements like saying military officers are good at dealing with ambiguity, that they are adaptable, that they embrace risk, etc.
Pardon me, but I thought it was pretty well known that the U.S. military is a subsidiary of the U.S. government, that it is a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, that everything in the military is black and white (former military are often criticized for seeing everything as black and white and inability to see the shades of gray in life), that military officers even as high as general have little authority to make any decisions (they cannot pick their subordinates or even a hairstyle), and that the military’s salient career attraction is the ability to retire with half pay and unlimited medical benefits after just twenty years—a feature that attracts gold-watch-seeking risk avoiders.
It ought to be searingly obvious that the best preparation for being a civilian business executive at age 30 is to have been one from ages 22 to 29 (perhaps including getting an MBA from a top-five business school). The notion that strolling or driving around Iraq in the U.S. military for a year or two watching your men get killed by unseen teenagers with cell phones or garage door openers to set off IEDs makes you better qualified to be, say, a retail store manager, than someone who has managing retail stores in that company for the last seven years is stupid on its face.
I am not saying being a young military officer is an impossible-to-overcome handicap. But it is an unnecessary, difficult-to-overcome one. I overcame it. I hope those in the Fortune article have success and expect some will. But if they do, as in my case, it will be in spite of years as a military officer, not because of them.
Reuters did a 10/29/11 story titled “Jobless US vets say military experience not valued.” Among other things, it said the unemployment rate among vets was 2.6% higher than among non-vets.
Here are excerpts from an email I got on 7/1/10 and excerpts from my answer to it:
I found your articles while preparing to teach honor lessons to our new class of cadets currently going through basic training at USAFA. Your experiences provide some powerful insights, and I wanted to say thanks for providing them. I have to say, for good or bad you also are making me appreciate the fact that I didn't join the Army.
I do have to say that in your initial statements about the Fortune Magazine article when you talk about the pictures, you're basing your comments on your experiences in Vietnam, and they don't reflect the reality of today's conflicts. In Iraq and Afghanistan, military members were consistently required to be in their body armor with their weapon. Moreover, in Afghanistan you were checked as you went through the chow line and if you did not have your equipment on you and servicable you did not eat. Regardless of the individuals picking Rambo poses for the pictures, you're stepping out of your realm of knowledge when you try to talk about the equipment requirements.
You should probably be a little cautious presenting the perception that the traditional base support jobs that you grew up with during Vietnam have the same missions today. Most of the traditional base support for Iraq and Afghanistan is contracted out, so if you're deploying in country and wearing a uniform it is generally to do jobs that support contractors aren't willing to do. This means that regardless of your MOS, these individuals could have held deployed jobs in some squirely situations (maybe or maybe not, neither of us really knows). I know your comments for the Fortune article are more opinions than fact, but none-the-less I have to imagine your desire is to be as accurate as possible in your remarks to maintain the highest levels of credibility.
Thank you for your service, for sticking to your integrity during your time in the Army, and the information you're presenting now,
I will add your email to the article, but I am still suspicious as to whether the non-Marines in the article ever fired their weapons. Also, the casualty rate in Iraq seems no higher than in Vietnam. If so, the Fortune folks did some facsimile of what we did in Vietnam, notwithstanding civilian help. Hell, we had plenty of Pacific Architects & Engineering contractors, Vietnamese civilian employees, Red Cross girls, and others.
At one base, we got scary good at ping pong. I read of a West Point Iraq vet saying they got extremely good at playing the board game Risk over there. So I am not accepting your thoughts completely.
We had some commanders in Vietnam who had the same rule about always wearing your flak jacket and helmet and carrying your gun. I believe that was the deal at Phuoc Vinh, home of the Big Red One. We all thought the DC there had watched too many war movies.
I have a question for you. You are the second guy to react somewhat sharply to my Fortune article. I would have thought the sharp reactions would come to articles like the one about medals or integrity or expertise. What’s the exposed nerve in the Fortune article? I thought it was rather innocuous. I would not even have written about it had it not seemed to contradict some of the points I made in my, “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?” article.
It does appear that the Army is the worst of the services with regard to honor, although not by a mile. The AF had its C-5A overruns and $700 hammers, the Marines their Osprey scandal, the Navy their Iowa scandal.
The fundamental problem is what I described in my Succeeding book. No one can be more honest than anyone above them in their chain of command with regard to workplace integrity that the chain of command perceives. And the top of the military chain of command is 536 politicians, a group that deservedly ranks near the bottom in the annual “Which professions do you trust?” survey. The best way to make an honest living is to do what I ultimately did: become self-employed.
Email I received from a ’94 West Point grad on 6/29/11:
I am addicted to your website. And the more I read, the more I have to say that you are "right on."
Enthralled by your article re: JMOs and their corporate success. Thought I'd regale you with what happened to me.
After 6 years as an investment banker, valedictorian of my MBA class, 1 year as an international consultant (all moving major $$$ around and fixing large, broken organizations), I found myself looking for a change. One of my classmates was Regional VP of a JMO recruiting agency, so I worked with them and ended up where I am now.
My "case manager" was a '91 Grad who for some reason had "departed" the Army after 15 years. After we negotiated my salary (which he said was "too high" and that I was "too aggressive"), he told me that it was "f-ing bullshit" that I had been hired over the prior candidate who had egregiously flopped his interview process. He said this guy was much more highly-qualified than me because:
He was Airborne
He was Air Assault
He was Ranger
He was Pathfinder
He was Special Forces qualified and had served 2 years on an A-team
He had worked for Lehman Brothers as an assistant to an assistant hedge fund manager for 2 years
I, in contrast, was only Airborne and Air Assault.
He also went on to say that he and all his peers at the agency had found it nauseating to work with me because:
I had long hair (not true) in contrast to the required buzz-cut or Airborne "high and tight"
I did not wear spit-shined military low quarters
My ties were too flashy
I did not say "sir" or "ma'am" and my posture was decidedly less than "Attention"
I joked around and had a good time
I demanded a salary commensurate to my education and experience, instead of blindly entrusting my fate to a guy who, 3 months prior, had been a Major in a Tank Unit
I, USMA '94, did not show him the respect he was due as a USMA '91 grad
I will say that the people who ended up getting jobs mainly received these positions for, as far as I could tell, adopting the same sort of behavior with large corporations as they had in the military. These employers actually sought out JMOs because they expected and were enthralled by boot-licking behavior.
Which led me to wonder why they had gotten out of the military in the first place?
Several employers confided to me that they got their jollies out of hiring a JMO because:
They showed up to work early, if not on time, and stayed late
They, for the first year of their employment, still said "sir" and "ma'am," something the civilians had never enjoyed before
They did not argue, question, or talk back
They obeyed instantly, no matter how ridiculous or stupid the order might be--and this made the bosses giddy with delight, knowing that they has absolute control over a young, combat-trained powerhouse who, in any other circumstance, could "clean their clock"
They could count on these JMOs to do all of their work, their peers' work, and, in many cases, the boss' work, but still give all credit to the boss, thus making the boss look like they walked on water
They would take the biggest "shit" jobs around and smile and say "yes sir" and, somehow, succeed, again making the boss look great
They were moldable, meaning that however you told them to act, they would do it without question
I did notice over the years, however, that these JMOs eventually found themselves in sort of a career "holding pattern" and were not able to break into the next level without getting an MBA from a top-5 institution. The rest who wanted to "break the mold" only did so by going into business for themselves, with varying levels of success.
I also have found it interesting that my career has "stalled" at all of my previous employers, who were very disappointed that I, as a West Pointer, had the gall to raise the bullshit flag at any wrongdoing or at ridiculous process-orientations that I was forced to adopt. They to a person asked me, "didn't they teach you at West Point to just obey orders and not ask any questions?"
Interesting as well (and these were all "for-profit" companies, with 6 to 60,000 employees) that the ones who did end up "succeeding" were the ones who most quickly adopted the Army Officer bootlicking and process-orientation methodology. Regardless of how badly their Divisions performed in terms of sales, customer service, cash flow, or profit, they were rewarded, whilst my success was explained away as "particular geographic" or "market" conditions that were "not replicable" across the remainder of the business.
Just my 2 cents.
Thanks, and have a good one!
[Reed comment. My Succeeding book talks a fair amount about sucking up in corporations and other civilian organizations]
Here is a link to a very candid and knowledgeable YouTube animation about how officers get promoted in the real world of the U.S. military. It mentions getting out of the military and going to work for Wal-Mart.
Here is a fascinating email I got from a friend in response to another article on the military’s propensity to think their good intentions, occasional tiny progress, and talking a good game and looking the part are sufficient. I have redacted his name and company. The company is a large, household-name, publicly-traded corporation. He is talking about career U.S. military personnel who are convinced they are better than civilians, but who have never worked anywhere but the military since they were teenagers.
But then again, they have been living in an "alternate reality" since they were 18...so the tragedy is that "they don't know that they don't know", like a catholic priest giving marital advice.
At [redacted company name], I worked alongside a few smart qualifed Russian immigrant professionals who had grown-up in the Soviet system, and then emigrated here. They were good, smart, and tough workers, but occasionally they would say and do strange things, and come to absolutely bizarre conclusions about how to respond to a given interpersonal or organizational situation.
Everybody commented on it. They never made it to management. It was because their formative adult experiences were the "alternative reality" of the Soviet Union, and they could never get past their early imprinting...like ducklings.
And here is the kicker: I noticed the EXACT SAME PHENOMENA in the handful of 20-and-out retired lifers that worked at [redacted company name]. Nobody trusted them to operate autonomously because they operated (from our perspective) on their own bizarre, but internally consistent to them, "the-military-is-reality" mindset.
We had a few retired Lt Cols, a few retired Master Sergeants (these guys specialized in yelling and bluster when ever anybody called them on their bullshit...the Colonels were more subtle), and one retired Brigadier General who lasted only 18 months when the CEO finally figured out that the guy was all show and no go, and was completely and utterly helpless without a phalanx of flunkies (newly exited Captains that he hired) wiping his ass and filing his expense reports.
I have never seen a bigger disconnect between appearances and personal capability than this guy in my life! He was the company joke...the other SVP's just rolled their eyes and smirked whenever his name came up.
The 1-star retired general (might have been a 2-star, don't remember) was very personable. His shtick was the OPPOSITE of the gravel-voiced, jaw-thrusting "damn fine officer...balderdash....I-am-a-very-important-and-serious-person-with-Gravitas" stage act. We called him "General Glad-Hand".
He was a proud West Point grad, and wore one of those gigantic rings....about the size that some black rapper have that are encrusted with diamonds and gold. He liked to display it too... I believe the term is ring-knocker ? I had never encountered a person who was proudly displaying their college ring TWENTY YEARS (!!) after earning it. Oh well, to each their own, was my attitude. [Reed note: I was the only one in my class not to buy a class ring. I may be the only one in the Long Gray Line who did not buy one. No big reason. It was expensive, ostentatious, I never wear a ring including a wedding ring although I have been married for 36 years. I have never owned a ring of any kind. I did not want to be a “ring knocker” as West Pointers are called in the military. And the company that made the rings can make one at any time if I had ever changed my mind, a service normally used by guys who lose their ring. A large percentage of West Point grad wives wear a minaiture version of their husband’s West Point class ring a their engagement ring. I asked my wife a few months ago if I was correct to think she would have vetoed that if I suggested it. After a thoughtful pause she said, “Maybe back then I would have considered it.” Not now.]
General Glad-Hand was an expert at all the prehistoric Mayflower WASP social graces...and his wife was "a perfect and gracious hostess from 1957". I went to a dinner party at their house once. I swear I thought I had been time-travelled back to the stage set and mannerisms of "My Three Sons"....or "Mad Men" without the edge. And this was 1990 !
General Glad-Hand had served at the U.S. embassy in Moscow during the Cold War, where his job (as he explained it) was literally to go to cocktail parties at other embassies 7-nights a week, standing around with drinks in his Formal Mess Uniform, chatting with the other Military Adjutants from other countries, hoping to pick up a little military intelligence.
He told me he was the 1st to break the news that the Soviets-and-the-Chinese were shooting at each on their border again, and that "scoop" got him his generalship. Later on, he was President Reagan's "football carrier". The guy with the briefcase with the nuclear launch codes. (Why you need a general to silently carry around a briefcase that is never opened, and to speak only when spoken to, is beyond me..)
He came to the attention of our "Steve Jobs" like founder CEO, who had no military experience, was big on actual leadership, and wanted to give a general a try. General Glad-Hand was a superb presenter and briefer...entertaining, clear, personable, likeable, and so on....provided he was handed his script and overheads. He was completely incapable of generating (or even comprehending) his material, but like a superb actor, just give him a script, wind him up, push him out on stage, and he will entertain and impress the audience ! (But NEVER let him answer the questions about the material after his pitch...have someone else do that...our CEO learned to his embarrassment.....also just like an actor.)
Our CEO gave him a real-job to start with, but after it became obvious what he was, he was just trotted out for Board Meetings as "Reagan's football carrier" so the Board Members could rub shoulders with "a hero" and be suitably impressed and feel good....so they would sign-off on the CEO's budget and initiatives with nary a question, which was General Glad-Hands true usefulness.
I encountered General Glad-Hand early one morning (before everybody else got there) staring in befuddlement at the filter-cofee maker. I took pity on him and showed him how to make filter coffee. It was obvious that this 45 year old man had not made himself a cup of coffee since percolators (remember those?) went away and were replaced by filter coffee makers in offices. General Glad-Hand also hired an extraordinary number of "personal assistant" staff. Even the CEO had 1 secretary and 1 personal assitant aide-de-camp. All other senior managers had 1 secretary. General Glad-Hand had 4 or 5 people (all ex-military) who had various titles, but their real job was to personally cater to him....very noticeable and out-of-step with the corporate culture.
Oh, and the good General was a HORRIBLE driver. Possibly from having been sitting in the back of staff cars and such his whole entire life.....like some sort of Chinese Dowager Empress, unable to walk because of her bound feet.
General Glad-Hand left of his own accord after a couple of years, and got himself appointed to the Boards of a variety of Firms doing mucho business with the Feds and the Pentagon. I believe the proper term is "cashing in his stars" ?
Our CEO never hired another General again. Been there, done that. If ya need an empty-suit presenter, you can find them in the civilian world that can actually do their own Q & A sessions.
Name redacted on my initiative