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Military men have business in their sights

(published in The Independent, June 2010)

More and more members of the armed forces are studying business degrees to become soldiers of a different type of fortune.

The Americans have a long tradition of using the MBA to prepare members of the armed forces for a new life in the corporate world. Now business schools in Britain and Europe are seeing an increasing number of army, naval and air force officers rubbing shoulders with professionals from more traditional business backgrounds.

While most of these students from the military are using the MBA as a stepping stone to commerce, industry or banking, some are keen to apply their new-found business skills within the services. To this end, Cranfield School of Management has developed an MBA programme specifically designed for the military in partnership with the Defence Academy at Shrivenham. Participants spend the first year of the programme at Cranfield’s Bedfordshire campus learning traditional business-oriented subjects and return to the Academy, where they concentrate on management in the defence sector.

“The joint programme came about because people in the military wanted to be able to deal with the business world on an equal footing,” says Sean Rickard, Cranfield’s MBA director. “Some subjects are new to them but they tend to be very bright and learn fast so they fit in very well. In fact, the only way that you can tell them from the rest of the students is that they have the habit of walking around campus in file as if they were still in a rank-based environment.”

There is no doubt that soldiers, sailors and pilots can experience a degree of culture shock when they first enter a business school classroom. Adam Stanley-Smith was an officer in the US Marines before taking an MBA at one of France’s top schools, HEC Paris. “You need to apply softer skills in a way that’s simply not necessary in the armed services,” he says. “You can’t just give an order and expect it to be carried out. And you can’t treat your classmates as privates, no matter how tempting it might be!” However, he points out that the transition is cushioned to some extent because many of the differences between the military and civilian worlds are much smaller than they might have been in the past. “For example, the US military is hugely diverse these days, so working with people from a wide range of cultures, nationalities and backgrounds, as you do on an MBA, posed no problem for me.”

While former members of the armed services can certainly learn valuable lessons from accountants, marketers and consultants, the process can also be two-way. “Leadership in the military requires a degree of decisiveness and focus that you rarely see in business,” says Chris Carey, another former soldier, who studied for his MBA at Vlerick Leuven in Belgium. “We’re also trained to brief people in a very clear and concise way so that they can then be left to get on and sort out a problem in the way they see fit. I think I was able to pass on some of the tools and techniques I’d picked up in the Army to fellow students. I hoped this would help them cope better in a rapidly changing environment.”

At the Desautels Faculty of Management at Canada’s McGill University, Professor David Lank has taken this idea of the military educating commercial managers one step further by bringing a retired general into the classroom. Roméo Dallaire was the commander of the UN’s peacekeeping force in Rwanda in 1994 and, with just 200 effective troops, managed to save more than 30,000 civilians from being massacred by a vastly superior force of Hutu militia. According to Lank, Dallaire provides MBA students with an invaluable insight into what can be achieved with few resources and under almost intolerable stress and pressure. “Although he was technically a military commander, he actually had little real control over the various national contingencies. Everything he achieved was done by a combination of inspiration, negotiation and engagement, a collection of skills that would be just as vital in the workplace as on the battlefield.”

After the army

Sarah Goldsmith was a captain in the Royal Corps of Signals and had seen active service in Afghanistan and Kosovo before deciding to take an MBA at Warwick Business School. “The Army taught me a lot, but I’d begun to feel that the formal rank structure was restricting my creativity, so I was looking for a way to move over into the business world. I find that I can’t help but take charge of project groups because that’s what a military training teaches you. When you’re out in the field in somewhere like Afghanistan you simply can’t afford to hang about.”

Helicopters have always been a passion for Laurence Rigolini. It was only natural, then, that she built her career with Eurocopter, the civil and military helicopter subsidiary of Eads. As the head of corporate communications reporting to the CEO, she was looking for new career challenges, and applied for the Executive MBA at HEC Paris. “Suddenly areas of business such as finance make sense to me, and the course has brought a clear sense of what I have done, and what I want to do next.” During the programme, students spent one week on an aircraft carrier to observe leadership under pressure. “Everybody respects each other, because everyone has an important role to play. If there were more people like this in the commercial world we would all benefit.”


About symondsgsb

Matt is chief editor of MBA50.com, a website dedicated to the world's outstanding business schools. He is an internationally recognised business and graduate school expert, consulting to the world’s top business schools, and has written for many of the world’s leading publications including : Forbes, The Economist, BusinessWeek, BBC, Newsweek, CNBC, America Economia, Washington Post, The Independent, Boston Globe, Handelsblatt, 21st Century Herald, South China Morning Post, Vedomosti, San Francisco Chronicle, Expansion, Beijing Daily. Matt was Co-Founder of the QS World MBA Tour Matt is co-author of Getting the M.B.A. Admissions Edge, a B-school admissions bestseller sponsored by Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. His new individual school guides will be available in the fall.


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