28/07/2014

By James Petter, Senior Vice President and Managing Director UK&I, EMC


Some managers in business enjoy using martial language to talk business. Staff are 'troops', the company 'battles' its competitors and the market place is a 'dogfight'. However, the realities faced in battle within the business world and on the battlefield are very different. What valuable business lessons can be learnt from spending time in the army? How does honour, order and teamwork prepare you for life in business?

After fifteen years in the private sector and seven years in the British Army as a Captain of the Royal Green Jackets, I have noted a number of points of comparison between the two. Here I offer the lessons I have learnt from my experiences into the practicalities of business leadership:

1. Play people to their strengths
Military hierarchy serves a very specific function: to allocate resources in line with expertise. When anything that is of less than the highest standard or quality and puts lives at risk, there is no room for patronage or politics. The same can be said about business too.

2. Don’t give away your plan of attack… and keep your defences hidden
You can’t bet against the value of good communications. There’s a time to stun your competitors, and a time to keep them guessing. Loose lips can sink business plans, and propaganda can win market share, but there’s a time and a place for each.

3. Under a good general there are no bad soldiers
In large, hierarchical organisations, it can be that those at the bottom that get the blame when things go wrong. Failures are never solely the responsibility of the team but rather the leader that accepts the mantle. If the leader managed the team correctly and things still didn’t work, then it’s likely the wrong people were assigned to the job.

4. Never give an order you couldn’t follow yourself
In the army there are no private offices or ivory towers, as officers take on the same challenges as his men. This is why soldiers come to trust the decisions their leader makes and follow his orders. I regularly work alongside my team and even make cold-calls so they know I lead by example.

5. To lead is to serve
The leader in a business is responsible for everything within his or her organisation: for the development of the proposition; for the success and well-being of the staff; for every challenge, trial and tribulation. In order to keep up the respect and motivation of your staff, it’s important to maintain a mindset of responsibility and care for your team at all times.

6. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best
In the army, no-one wants to have to be a hero. In business, everyone wants perfect trading conditions. Just as both worlds are unpredictable, you must prepare for the worst-case scenario. Only then will you be prepared if it happens.

7. Never retreat but, occasionally, advance in another direction
Confidence in business is vital, but over-confidence can lead to your downfall. A change of tactics or shift in strategy is key to ensuring you stay competitive and keep abreast of change. This policy is always preferable to a total U-turn later on, or bone-headed persistence that your idea will work eventually.

8. Know when to use the stick… and the carrot
There’s no magic formula for balancing incentive and ultimatums. Often different personality types need alternative motivations. However, in any endeavour, a good structure for success should be sufficient to receive the best from your staff. If you build in good incentives to succeed, then you shouldn’t ever need the stick.

9. Protect your supply lines
An army marches on its stomach. A business marches on its supply chain, accounts department, customer service operation and IT infrastructure. In short, it’s not just the big decisions taken in the boardroom that ensure success, but the hard graft in the back office, and that’s worthy of just as much of your attention.

10. Today’s training wins tomorrow’s battle
Throughout history, the best armies in the world have always been those equipped with the best training. In business, training must encompass practical learnings and the bigger picture of the business’ strategy, ensuring your personnel is ready to embrace change as your business evolves


By James Petter, Senior Vice President and Managing Director UK&I, EMC