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Why Veterans Make Great Diverse Corporate Board Members

With the national controversy raging across the corporate landscape in America regarding diversity and inclusion on corporate boards of directors, there is one diverse group of potential board of director members who are often overlooked — our nation’s veterans — and, particularly, service-disabled veterans.

To date, most of the veterans currently serving on corporate boards tend to be those known as “flag rank” officers. That is, those officers who have reached the general officer or admiral ranks.

But, it is important to note that officers of lower rank — and, even senior non-commissioned officers, who have substantial business experience — can be valuable as well, and serve to “diversify” boards with experience in strategy, team building, leadership and an unwavering commitment to mission focus that is unmatched in the civilian world. And, if that veteran also happens to be service-disabled, he or she can fulfill another important, but often overlooked, diversity criterion.

While there is no overall widely-recognized common definition of the skills and qualities that comprise an effective board member, I have selected several traits from published literature that are often used to evaluate potential candidates for board membership. Of course, strong business and governance experience is a must. Beyond that, the characteristics of an effective corporate director strongly parallel those honed by men and women who have excelled in the armed forces. In fact, I would argue the traits gained by serving in the military are unmatched in the civilian world, and are also areas where many traditional directors fall short.

  • Dedicated and Committed to the Organization — The military is extremely mission focused. The whole idea in the Armed Forces is to seize the objective — while, at the same time, ensuring the integrity and welfare of your troops. There is no alternative to accomplishing the mission, yet there is a sense of broader accountability. With the growing concept of companies increasingly looking at stakeholders beyond shareholders, that sense of a broader purpose has been at the heart of U.S. military service for centuries.

  • The Ability to Formulate Strategy and Ensure Its Execution — You need to form a strategy — a vision — yes, the “vision thing” — of what your battle plan is going to accomplish. But, just as important, you need to ensure that the resources are in place to execute that battle plan flawlessly. Failure is not an option. While corporate board directors might have strategy experience, many might have not had actual responsibility for successfully executing that strategy — and, even if they have, certainly not under the crucible of armed combat.

  • Understand the Complexity of a Situation, but Explain Simply — The military requires that its leaders immediately grasp the complexity of a battle plan, yet at the same time, give clear and understandable guidance on how that battle plan will be carried out by the troops under their command. Often corporations seek board members with defined experience in specific areas like finance, marketing or technology. But do those recruit board members understand the entire battlefield — identifying areas where there are key vulnerabilities, the ability to seize opportunities and who are the weaker and stronger soldiers?

  • Understanding that diversity leads to victory — The whole Armed Forces are built on the “buddy system.” Nobody accomplishes the mission alone. If you’re going to be successful in the military, you need to work with all types and kinds of people, from all races, creeds, genders, backgrounds and persuasions and weld all of these disparate interests into a fighting force that’s going to defeat the enemy.

Successful military leaders relied on diversity well before it the term “Diversity and Inclusion” was ever mentioned in boardroom.

  • Knowledgeable and An Insatiable Learner — Service in the Armed Forces of the United States forces you to become a life-long learner. You need to learn quickly from your mistakes, so that you don’t repeat them again. “After Action Reports”, where lessons learned from the actions taken on the battlefield are explored in great detail, are standard operating procedure in all of the military services.

  • Embrace Change and Transformation — When most people think about military service, they think that it’s all just about the rigidity of following orders. Well, that’s true — in part. Of course, you need to follow orders. But, what most people never see is that the military teaches you to think and act flexibly, so that if your battle plan isn’t working, you pivot immediately to a plan that does. Flexibility and immediate action are key to survival.

  • Duty Before Self and Taking Care of Your People — Finally, the best leadership training in the world is the training that is given to commissioned officers and senior non-commissioned officers in the U.S. Armed Forces. As young Army officers, we were taught to take care of our troops first, if you want them to follow you. An officer has to convince the people under his or her command that they have their best interests in mind, while they are accomplishing the mission. An officer doesn’t eat until all of his or her troops have eaten. An officer is the last to sleep, and walks the perimeter of the camp to ensure that their troops are safe and sound. Otherwise, the troops just aren’t going to follow you to places where they wouldn’t go by themselves. As a shareholder, I want a CEO who lives by that same creed.

There are many other traits and characteristics of those who have served as officers in the military that enable these men and women to excel at corporate board service, such as a high degree of integrity, discretion and confidentiality.

As a shareholder, it’s important to have directors who are domain experts and peer CEOs — but, in the increasingly complex environment for business, is that enough? Military leaders at all levels are trained as nimble strategists, values-based leaders, and have always valued diversity as a key to building effective organizations. They have led this country to greatness and can do the same for American business.

They just need a seat in the boardroom.

Paul A. Dillon is a Certified Management Consultant with more than 45 years of experience in the professional services industry. A U.S. Army Reserve veteran, he served in Vietnam as a 1st Lieutenant, and was awarded 2 Bronze Star Medals.

Paul is an Adjunct Instructor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, where he created and teaches a course entitled, "PubPol 590.04. Public Policy and Veterans".



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