I am leaving the British Army after 16 years of service as an Infantry Officer, and will shortly be beginning an MBA at one of the top schools in the world. To aide me as I make this transition I have begun to expand my reading to include finance, economics, and business; from the business section of The Times and the Economist, to business books, Harvard Business Review collections, online articles published by MBB, the Big 4, and more.
What has become apparent are the similarities between principles, activities, and challenges that are faced in the military, and those that are faced in the private sector. Situations change; principles don’t. That’s why they are principles. Leaders in the private sector face similar challenges that leaders in the military do. When is there enough information to make a decision? How do I get the most from my subordinates and colleagues? How to I balance this risk?
When I read business books and articles describing how the pace of change in the world, the vast increase in competitors, the reduction in barriers to entry, and the exploitation of social media is impacting on traditional structures, incumbent firms, and global and local markets, I might as well be reading about how the pace of change in the world, the vast increase in violent and non-violent actors in a battlespace, the ease of access to arms (conventional and non-conventional), and the exploitation of social media is impacting on traditional rules of war, incumbent military superpowers, and global and local areas of operation.
When I read about how big data is increasingly available to support and enable decision-making for C-suites in FTSE 350 and S&P500 firms, but how some firms are struggling to obtain the talents, tools, and culture to exploit it in an accurate and timely manner, I might as well be reading about how big data is increasingly available to Generals on the battlefield, but how some units are struggling with balancing internal and external recruitment, cultural inertia, and data-overwhelm. The skill of turning this data into something useful to inform a merger or acquisition is the same skill that turns information about the enemy into intelligence on the enemy that can inform a strike operation or authorise an air-strike.
When I read about organisations with alternate funding-streams, a disregard for the traditional rules of the game, and who offer alternate products to customers I am reading the same criteria and qualities that mark an effective insurgency as I am a disruptive competitor, with the counter-insurgents facing the same challenges as large industry incumbents.
I have read a number of books by senior military officers, many of whom have served gallantly and professionally for several decades. However, too often they have included some example of leadership or decision-making or tactical action, and, as if to bring credibility (or increase their post-service employability), finish it with some version of the line: “And it’s exactly the same in business.” Although there will undoubtedly be parallels, after 40+ years of military service… how on earth would they know whether what they’ve just described is anything like business?
How am I different? I am open. I do not claim to know much about business – yet. I know that. And I’ve already begun to learn. At the moment I’m in the first quadrant of the Consciousness / Competence grid, but I’m moving surely.