How Does Military Experience Help with Small Business?
All I can do is write to my own experience – limited – personal – growing – ever-changing. I understand myself better and differently each year. But I have this conversation pretty regularly, so I thought I would consolidate my thoughts to maybe help someone in the future – or maybe to understand my own story a bit better.
Everyone experiences the military differently (too obvious?). I know a lot of folks that had wonderful / horrible experiences in the military. It is silly to compare the experience of a Junior Airman Administrator with that of a Senior Marine Infantryman. Both could be phenomenal experiences with great leadership training and extraordinary people around them. Both could also be horrible experiences. But they are certainly very different experiences.
My personal experience and how it shaped my view
I was a Marine Officer. To be more specific, I was a Combat Engineer Officer in 1st Combat Engineer Battalion. I had a lot of jobs to include deploying to Iraq/Kuwait. 1st CEB supports infantry battalions – we trained for ground operations in remote locations. We specialized in building and breaking things. Much of the time it sucked. Much of the time it was incredible. Both? Yes, and often at the same time.
I have a lot of feelings and thoughts about the value of the military experience, but right now, I want to address the military and small business. How does it apply?
How has my military experience shaped my small business experience?
Here are a few thoughts, this is not meant to be all encompassing or profound – just some initial thoughts.
- Leadership matters – from the top to the bottom of the org chart. I worked under 4 battalion commanders. My interaction with these men was minimal (weekly or monthly – generally not daily). But their leadership mattered to my daily life. Who they were, what they cared about, their character, their policies, their responses to problems, all mattered to me and my life. I try to remember this as I build an organization, set policies, respond to problems, hire/empower people, etc.. I want to be like LtCol Haar. He challenged us to be the best. He wasn’t above getting dirty (he would literally wrestle anyone). He was proficient in the small stuff, then worried about the big stuff. He didn’t sweat small problems – he cared but he put them in their proper place. He worked to help us succeed instead of protecting his own reputation. And ironically, his reputation thrived because of it.
- What is serious? In the USMC, we dealt with serious injuries and death consistently. If it wasn’t happening, we were practicing it. We practiced prevention, we practiced response, we practiced attitude in crisis. Now, my small business problems don’t feel so scary. I catch myself saying, “No one died. No one is hurt. It is going to be ok.” My Marine experience has helped calibrate what is serious and what it not. We still have injuries. We still have serious issues (legal, damages, angry people, etc.), but I handle them far differently than if I hadn’t gone through the military experience. Mr. Customer yelling at me is not that big of a deal. I care, but I am not scared.
- Breadth of understanding for people. The Marine Corps exposed me to people from all walks of life – socioeconomically, racially, faith background, education, etc. I am so much more empathetic, understanding and gracious toward people than I was before.
- Logistics/operations. I can do it. When you practice moving millions of dollars of gear and hundreds of people in remote and hostile locations for years you get pretty good. Managing 10 crews for 10 hours is hard, but doable.
- Decision making. I am very comfortable making decisions and holding responsibility. Am I right all the time? Absolutely not. But I am comfortable. It is crazy how few people are willing to risk their necks on a decision. I love it. At 24 years old, I was responsible for over 100 Marines overseas. I told them when they could eat, sleep, use the restroom, and call their girlfriends. There are very few places in the world that I could have gotten that experience at 24 years old.
These things do not even begin to discuss the value to my faith and family – that’s another conversation.
Notice most of these points are soft skills. My proficiency with C4 and concertina wire is not all that valuable any more. I gained some hard skills, but most of what I apply today isn’t tangible. I would argue these soft skills are more valueable and harder to attain. I can teach someone how to plant a tree. It is very difficult to teach someone to keep calm in a crisis or lead or show empathy.
Some other common questions around the military and small business.
- Am I glad? Yes.
- Is it for everyone? No.
- Should more people consider it? Yes. Especially the affluent. The military population is becoming more and more reliant on the lower socioeconomic areas of our country. This creates cultural divides. When the folks with money don’t have kids, friends and neighbors in Afghanistan and Iraq, they care less. They vote differently. They show less empathy.
- GI Bill – I can still go get my MBA. Maybe I will. Probably not. I am learning a lot here every day. Maybe I will get good at it someday.
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