October 8, 2012 7:57 pm

Business lessons from the front line

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Which male executive hasn’t imagined he is a field commander

Jeff Bezos is on a mission to seek out and destroy military metaphors at work. “You ‘target’ your customers,” Amazon’s chief executive told an audience in New York last year. “I’m, like, what? Why would you do that? That doesn’t make any sense.”

Such jargon – attacks on markets, broadsides against competition, war chests for acquisitions – reflects business’s deep attachment to military parallels. In part, this is fantasy. Which male executive has not occasionally imagined he is a field commander planning an assault across enemy territory, rather than a middle manager performing a discounted cash flow calculation on a factory project, or preparing to pitch a dog food commercial? In part, however, it is good business.

Many companies like to hire military veterans (including Amazon, which boasts of being named the number one “military-friendly” employer), a growing number of consultancies and management trainers sell themselves as providers of expertise learnt on the literal frontline, and strategists from Sun Tzu to Carl von Clausewitz can still add an exciting whiff of cordite to sterile presentations.

To the civilian outsider, this looks like a paradox. Command-and-control leadership is increasingly old-fashioned. Management innovators advocate loosening or even inverting corporate structures. Modern managers seem to have less to learn from traditional parade-ground virtues of discipline, uniformity and hierarchy, and more from subversive barracks backchat.

But important elements of this management revolution have already come to the armed forces, which helps explain why many companies are investing in army surplus techniques and personnel.

When I mentioned the old command-and-control military stereotype to the urbane former British army general Sir Michael Rose, he gently reminded me that, since at least the 1980s, European armed forces had adopted a “mission command” approach – which lays out for officers in the field the why and the what of their mission, but leaves the how to them. The roots of the technique go even further back, to Auftragstaktik , developed in the 19th century by the Prussian army, an institution hardly known for its flexible, let-it-all-hang-out attitude.

The important lessons for business are very similar to those taught by management revolutionaries. Much of the time, leaders must trust juniors to take decisions without first reporting back up the chain to headquarters.

Celia Swanson, senior vice-president of talent development for Walmart in the US, says the “aha moment” for her came when she recognised the 21st-century military approach was “not about command and control [but] about how to develop others to be able to sustain the culture and community once the military leave”. When the retailer – another big recruiter of veterans – wanted to accelerate development of managers to match the growth of its store network, it built a “leadership academy”. It is modelled on a military staff training college, following advice from Royal Marine commando-turned-consultant Damian McKinney.

His group, McKinney Rogers, and Skarbek, a new advisory outfit advised by Gen Rose, stress the mission command approach. It fits well into the “execution” school of management. But that doesn’t mean business can learn nothing from military strategy. Officers and business leaders who have contributed to In Business and Battle , a new book on the parallels, point out that modern military alliances have to be, if anything, more complex, more collaborative and more adaptable than many business combinations. “In the old days, in war, [the mission] was black-and-white,” Gen Rose points out. “Now, in peacekeeping and nation-building, it’s a grey area.”

Old notions of military discipline and order are still a powerful selling point. Mr McKinney has just published The Commando Way, a manual for business execution, and his consultancy’s branding makes it look more like an international peacekeeping force. It is also clearly absurd to suggest the world’s armies, navies and air forces are now run like hippy collectives. But ex-military executives have a point when they say the tradition-steeped military institutions that trained them are less hidebound by hierarchy than many of the companies that now hire them.

andrew.hill@ft.com

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