I’ve never served our country in the military, but occasionally I have the honor of advising United States veterans who are looking for board seats.
CEOs and board members constantly ask me whether I could recommend a value-added director for their boards, yet the number of immensely qualified veterans unsuccessfully looking to serve on boards continues to grow every year. It’s a poignant disconnect that merits greater attention.
It would be one thing if the state of corporate governance were beyond reproach; i.e., why fix what’s not broken. I think we can all agree this isn’t the case.
Memo to CEOs, executive recruiters, and nominating/governance committee chairs: before you appoint yet another former CEO-turned-professional-director to your boards, consider for a moment that one of the reasons activist investors now manage upwards of $200 billion dollars is because this default method of director recruitment doesn’t always result in compelling governance.
When considering two otherwise qualified director prospects, here are 5 things that boards too often seem to overlook about U.S. veteran candidates in my experience.
They’re seasoned entrepreneurs.
Easily one of the biggest misconceptions about the military is that it’s predominantly comprised of bureaucrats. I spoke to a retired flag officer recently who was looking for a board seat. I asked him to describe his last couple of years in the military. He told me he was directed to relocate a temporary combat base from one location to another in a different country. The task involved multiple branches of government, thousands of personnel, and billions of dollars of military assets. The project was his responsibility, and there was no rule book to follow. The military is filled with scores of incredibly talented people of all ages who thrive and survive due to their ability to solve problems under the riskiest settings imaginable. Many are experts in technology, life sciences, energy, and logistics. Many are every bit the celebrated entrepreneurs in the private sector… and then some.
They’ve built huge, successful organizations.
Whether your company has 50 employees or 50,000 employees, there are myriad veterans available to help your boards today who have succeeded on a larger scale than you have under considerably more austere circumstances. Most veterans I’ve shared time with have forgotten more about leadership than is contained in the last several best-selling books on the subject combined.
They will teach you how to win as a team.
The regrettable “look at me” ethos that now pervades pop culture is anathema to veterans. In fact, I think part of the reason why there aren’t more veterans serving on boards of directors is precisely because talking about themselves, “self-promoting” if you will, is not part of their DNA. Men and women of the military are taught that teams succeed and fail as teams. Companies also succeed and fail as teams; unfortunately, selflessness isn’t a common virtue in the private sector. Veterans are hard-wired to win, but they’re all aware that at any given moment their team is only as good as their weakest link.
They will inspire you to be more courageous.
You can have all the right resumes around a boardroom table, but when directors lack the willingness to act (or the culture of the board dissuades the same) corporate governance will always underwhelm. I’ll never forget a veteran telling me the story of being placed by his commanding officer in a combat situation where he was responsible for more than a dozen soldiers’ lives – and he himself was only a teenager. “I was absolutely terrified,” he said matter-of-factly, “but, they needed me to step up, and failure was definitely not an option any of us considered.” You needn’t spend more than a few minutes with a veteran to appreciate what real courage is; just imagine what spending hours with them will do for you and your company.
Their presence will infuse your company with greater integrity.
At the root of most corporate malfeasance are cultures that lack integrity. Veterans know a thing or two about integrity; they know how to demonstrate it, and inspire it in others. Integrity is at the core of military service, and most public companies could benefit from a lot more of it.
Name one public company that couldn’t benefit from the foregoing. Just one.