“We should not discount the common behavioural traits so often found in military personnel and the benefits they can bring to a commercial organisation.”
FROM THE ACADEMIES OF SANDHURST AND WEST POINT TO THE OFFICE OF THE COO
The transfer of military leadership experience into banking
It is not purely the loyalty and romanticism linked to being ex military myself that frames my thoughts on why ex-servicemen and -women make great COOs. However, having been a soldier certainly helps me understand why they do, and, combined with more than 20 years of executive search experience, this enables me to find those leaving the military a place in the banking sector well suited to their skills and interests.
Since leaving the army in 1995, I have worked almost exclusively within recruitment for the Financial Services sector, specifically within financial markets and investment banking. I have found career opportunities for perhaps more than a hundred soldiers, sailors and pilots in this time. These young men and women had been pre-selected, then trained at one of the leadership academies, further trained in their specialist disciplines and then tested on operational tours, mostly in the Middle East. They had left the military by their own choice, and while many hiring managers questioned why they would want to exchange the dynamic and challenging world of the military for a desk, a computer and a window overlooking Canary Wharf, they had made this decision in good faith and were set on using what they had learned in the forces to forge a worthwhile career in the civilian world.
Initially my searches were based on a generic appreciation of the inherent skill-set of all ex-officers, across all services: leadership, tenacity, integrity, articulateness and intellect. It was easy to find entry-level roles for such men and women, and I knew that if their line manager valued them and could see the potential that I saw, it would not be long before these new recruits into banking would catch up with – and possibly even pass – their peers on the career ladder. However, it soon became clear that I needed to fine-tune my approach. The general behavioural attributes I credit to ex servicemen and women are very important, but I realised that the technical skill-sets acquired in the military could be matched in banking with a greater level of understanding and accuracy.
Many banks now have their own military programmes, hiring directly from the services. In the U.S. there is a far more open corporate effort and commitment to this than there is in the U.K.(JPMorgan and Bank of America are two of the most active in this area). This is mainly because there is a greater sense of social responsibility towards veterans in the U.S., and this combines with a recognition that, if hired, trained and positioned correctly, this talent pool of lateral hires could add real value to the industry. However, programmes do exist in the U.K., too. Barclays is at the forefront of this effort, with a notably broad-based recruiting platform that draws from both officer and non officer ranks (most recruiting strategies for banking focus on graduates, thus confining themselves largely to officers).
Broadly speaking, hiring managers tend to see ex-military applicants as part of one large, equally qualified talent pool. In most cases it is the presentation, impact and personality of the individual that determines his or her success at interview. However, this overlooks the great diversity of skills members of this pool have to offer. Progress through the Sandhurst leadership pipeline suggests they are all on the same footing, but when they leave to follow their individual career in the military, what they do, how they are trained and the skill-sets they develop are very different from one another.
An engineering officer, for example, builds credibility in project management and addressing technical challenges, such as building a bridge, dismantling an airfield, dealing with IODs, and so on. Their leadership skills are built on managing similarly technically minded individuals in a project cycle of military demands. An Infantry officer are different. Their leadership skills are more traditional and motivational. Many would say the role of the infantry officer is physically more demanding than that of an engineering officer, drawing on and encouraging a can-do attitude, leading by example and developing strong relationship and even sales skills. Infantry officers might lack the eye for detail that engineering officers posses, but they offer instead a robust approach to getting things done. It is no surprise, therefore, to find many ex-engineering officers in consulting, project management or in an operations environment. Infantry officers have moved successfully into sales or business management and the roles of COO, CAO or CoS. However, it is often the case that these men and women have steered their career in these directions themselves, through self-management and hard work, rather than having been positioned on the right path at the beginning of their transition from the military to banking.
Such comments are, of course, generalisations, but they highlight an important lesson: when hiring from the military, it is important to really understand the individual, their talents and their experience. Despite this, we should not discount the common behavioural traits so often found in military personnel and the benefits they can bring to a commercial organisation. In my opinion, 202 one of the most valuable of these characteristics is a strong sense of purpose. The British writer Roderic Yapp investigates this in his article ‘The real reason the military works’:
“It is written into our doctrine – our standard way of doing things. Every mission is required to have what is called ‘a unifying purpose’. A mission statement must include the phrase ‘in order to’…
• It is our mission to recapture this vessel in order to secure the safe release of the hostages.
• It is our mission to conduct a patrol of the local area in order to reassure the local population.
• It is our mission to provide a block to the south of Musa-Qala in order to prevent enemy reinforcements from reaching the town.
When you are taught how to write orders, you are taught that soldiers and marines need a purpose – a reason to do what you ask of them.
They’re no different from anyone else in that respect, they need to know why they are doing something – they don’t just do it because someone tells them to. They don’t do it because they are just following orders. When people simply follow orders, it usually leads to bad things happening because they don’t stop to think if it is the right thing to do.
Having a purpose is vital, both at an individual and at a team level. The military make sure that they provide a purpose in every mission statement – it wouldn’t be a mission statement without an ‘in order to’. This approach has been standardised across NATO because it is universal – it crosses cultural boundaries addressing the need we all have for a purpose behind our actions.”
This sense of purpose is instilled in all those who enter military service and it informs everything they do, underpinning their actions and framing their attitude. This readily translates into responding to orders and getting things done, being objective and target driven. It often relies on effective management, but even here most ex-military can operate effectively in a leadership void – they are trained to step up a rank at any given time.
Purpose is married to service and integrity (relevant in the financial sector, which grapples with the conduct agenda). It also goes hand in hand with an ability to work within ambiguity and to carve out a route to delivery. These are also attributes demonstrated by the best COOs and business managers. However, my conclusion that the COO role is perfectly aligned to the skills, personality and experiences of those leaving the military needed to be tested. This led me to ask a series of questions to those formerly in the armed services and now in senior positions in the Financial Services sector. The answers make interesting reading.
What is it that makes the likelihood of success high when banks hire from the military?
“A willingness to learn and take direction – the military is a constant training laboratory to create generalists and generals. Loyalty – they have been in the mud when the chips were down and did not lose their nerve. [They] have absorbed some tough ‘debriefs’, willing to be a part of, and have, tough conversations – these are often the conversations that really matter.”
FORMER US MARINE CORPS FIGHTER PILOT AND TOP GUN INSTRUCTOR
“I believe that ex-officers have the skills required and have an attitude that is less ‘gen x’ – i.e., the world does not revolve around me – and that is extremely helpful dealing with senior folk. The skills that coming from the captain and above ranks are … the ability to challenge respectfully but firmly when in possession of facts. Challenge, and the ability to deal with rejected challenge, is a core skill required but not often appreciated in the roles of COO, etc. Additionally, drive and passion come from the military background. You know that Sandhurst has put someone through the stress tests and they have survived and will bring the same to bear to get the task done irrespective of the personal inconvenience.”
FORMER BRITISH ARMY CAPTAIN, NOW SENIOR EXECUTIVE WITHIN IB OPERATIONS
“A cliché, but there is a proven track record of delivery under (in some instances) incredibly testing circumstances. We react well to pressure. Ex-service officers have the ability to synthesise and simplify complex problems, break them into their constituent parts in order to find and execute solutions. They also come to the industry, any industry, with no historic baggage, no preconceptions and a questioning attitude. Finally, the majority of them have honed their practical leadership skills in a testing environment, not from a book. This clearly has a knock-on effect on the quality and use of our softer skills.”
FORMER INFANTRY OFFICER, BRITISH ARMY, WHO HAS MANAGED VARIOUS SENIOR BANKING OPERATIONS, CAO AND COO ROLES POST SERVICE
“The officer is somewhat of a known quantity. Officers join companies (financial institutions) with a large management tick by their name considering: equipment (systems and change), people (FTE, including offshoring, depth charting and flight risk), risk (intelligent preparation of the battle field), control/compliance (rules of engagement, orders, LOE, etc.) and regulation (laws of armed conflict, legitimacy versus legality). But perhaps most importantly, they understand and can depict tactical versus strategic planning and actions. This broad exposure marks each individual out from a pack.”
FORMER BRITISH ARMY CAPTAIN, WHO HAS SUBSEQUENTLY HELD POSITIONS IN INVESTMENT BANKING AND INSURANCE IN ASIA AND EUROPE
“There are so many variables depending on the circumstances of both the candidate and client. It is, therefore, impossible to prescribe a formula for success. However, if I had to boil it down to three factors, I’d suggest Fit (arguably the most critical factor):
• All parties need to understand how they can maximise the capacity, tap leadership potential and adjust communication styles where required.
• Prior to joining, possibly even before accepting the offer, there should be a one- to two-day period of familiarisation and role introduction; try before you buy.
• Understanding the power of a strong internal network; without this, success is unlikely and advancement will be very challenging. Full understanding of the hiring manager’s expectations:
• Specific initial deliverables. Of course there will be some ambiguity, but some early defined success can give a good initial boost to profile and confidence.
• Complete tasks. It sounds obvious but banking is built on numbers and closing issues. Understanding and driving performance metrics/ MI is part of the game. Be a finisher!
• House style (dos/don’ts). Potentially a minefield if one misunderstands or makes assumptions. The uniformed world is clearly badged and identified, hierarchies are easy to spot and navigate; in the commercial world, this needs careful consideration. It can be hard to break into and gain trust.
• Frequent feedback sessions for first three to four months. Need to be open, frank and honest. Personal support plan tailored to the level of the role. Could include but not limited to:
• Dedicated peer to help adjust to internal processes for first four to six months.
• Non-line manager mentor to provide guidance and a sounding board for ideas.
• Exposure to areas outside immediate role to broaden network, improve understanding and raise awareness.”
FORMER WING COMMANDER AND CHIEF OF STAFF TO THE HEAD OF THE RAF, WHO HAS SUBSEQUENTLY ESTABLISHED A SUCCESSFUL CAREER IN CONTROL, CONDUCT AND FRONT OFFICE BUSINESS MANAGEMENT WITHIN INVESTMENT BANKING
I then sought to validate my thoughts that skills are matched, but not well matched, and that some fine-tuning would benefit the individual and the employer. I returned to my network and gathered further opinions. Those below are drawn from the three services: navy, army and air force.
These anonymous quotes represent the opinions of those who left as lieutenants through to brigadiers, from infantry to signals officers, from submariners to pilots and men and women that served, all leaving to pursue careers in the Financial Services sector.
Do you feel the exact skills and experiences are well matched at the point of hiring, or are you more likely to find your niche, plough your own furrow, through trial and error once established?
“Both. The experiences and skills are relevant and matter. Yet you build your own reputation by demonstrating your ability to deliver. Remember – a reputation is a terrible thing to waste.”
“I do not think skills will be an exact match on hiring – different TLAs for a start. But intelligence and application allow the new joiner to thrive fast and different roles exist as they do in the military, so finding the furrow is likely to take time.”
“I think the latter. … Ex-service officers can turn their hand to just about anything. We all leverage the same skill-set – communication, organisation, leadership, structure – but we utilise them in different fields, e.g., project management, risk management or CoS/COO roles. Ultimately this proves the value of our versatility and the ability of the employer to parachute us into any difficult situation which requires resolution.”
“I strongly believe the skills are very well matched. I feel officers do, however, make a bad job of marketing themselves effectively. I have fallen into a common group where I have tried to market myself as a jack of all trades. I think employers have a grasp for the qualities synonymous with an officer, but this doesn’t mean that an officer can’t drill down to the minutiae in order to get that first role, to specialise and command a niche. This is where going for coffee, listening to good recruiters and applying some lateral thought come in.”
“I agree … that those from technical corps background are more likely to be suited to programme management or technical consulting roles. Age and seniority, though, can be significant factors in determining how well matched the candidate will be in the short term:
• For those who would have been considered top 10 per cent officers, the change of profile can be very difficult. However, slightly easier to manage in technical roles (programme management/IT, etc.) where transferable skills map more directly.
• For top third, it is easier to adjust subject to personal goals and circumstances; SO2 feels like an experience sweet spot here.
• For middle of the road, they are easier to manage, are less frustrated and, put simply, are just grateful to have a job that covers school fees.
• For junior officers, it’s a world of opportunity, and irrespective of experience, if they have the right fit, they can achieve almost anything. They have time on their side and can move laterally with little penalty or risk.
• Regrettably, more senior officers (SO1 and above) can often struggle to adjust to the relatively low levels of early responsibility and – dare I say it – status.
“Finding one’s ‘niche’ is probably more due to luck than proactive planning. Opportunities will emerge as one’s network grows and reputation builds. However, to paraphrase, ‘the more one practises, i.e. exposed to senior business leaders, the luckier one becomes…’ Consequently, if the initial entry role doesn’t quite fit, then cut your losses early; get out there, be seen and make your own luck… Trial and error can work, but only for so long. The window of opportunity probably closes with two to three years. A significant change of direction at this point is risky and needs to be considered very carefully.”
‘Finding one’s niche’, getting better advice, guidance and insight – all aspects that most ex-military personnel say would have helped them enter banking in a role well suited to their skills and experiences. I further investigated this with the following question.
If you could rewind to your own hiring process, what would you have done differently in managing your own entry into banking?
“My entry was odd, but I did have a degree in banking and finance so had a head start. I would also recommend before people retire that they read the FT and the Economist so they get a flavour of the lingo.”
“I would definitely be more self-aware of the power of brand and self-publicity. The majority of ex-service officers are not good at self-promoting or talking about their time in uniform. We are usually too modest to talk about the tougher times that have defined who we are and how we do our business, and additionally do not want to be seen to be ‘swinging the lantern’ or becoming the ex-military bore.”
“Maybe ask for more money – it’s difficult to ask for more after you have started. I did make a mistake with Swiss Re. The hiring manager raised warning signs within me about his personality and management style but I chose to plough on. I didn’t smell the coffee!”
“I would have invested more time in understanding how the bank actually works:
• Products, processes, systems, VaR, cost of capital, RWA, balance sheet, trading/banking book, PnL, etc.
• Spend time with ops, IT systems, trade capture, reconciliations.
• Clients? Who are they and how do they operate. How does the bank service?
• More seriously considered if an internal support role (COO/BM) was actually what I wanted to do and if this played to my strengths. With hindsight, I think I would rather have sought a relationship manager position where I could exploit my communication and interpersonal skills.
• Decide whether managing a team is important. If so, how important? Often BM roles, especially more junior ones, have limited responsibilities here, and this may frustrate many who are more used to shaping a team and developing their staff.
• Learn Excel. I’m not joking. I defy anyone to succeed without a good understanding of this software and its functionality. If you can’t do it, then make sure you have a team member who is an Excel ninja; they will be your best asset when cutting through the data and analysing issues.”
Conversely, on the same subject one client commented:
“There needs to be an openness and discussion about the pitfalls of hiring from military – short term commissions verses longer servers. For instance, I have never seen anyone higher than an army captain be really successful in transition to the Financial Services, and I have seen some real disasters in hiring majors and colonels. … I am not saying it is impossible, but some real thought and guidance is needed on the more experienced hires.”
And what of the fit of being a future COO, CAO, CoS or business manager?
This led me to final question.
Having been a COO, CAO or business manager yourself, or having worked for or alongside one, why do you think ex military officers often thrive in such roles?
“Loyalty, dedication, willingness to take control of a situation, willingness to make a decision. They understand that even in the best plans, the final 20 per cent is the most challenging, and they retain the focus to see things through with gusto. More so, they have an ability to execute – knowing that you must simply keep putting one foot in front of the other on the path/plan towards completion, but then be willing to pivot when necessary.”
“Rigour in forward planning, organisation and execution. The ability to remain flexible and alter plans as needed – not being driven by dogma. We are happy to make decisions on the back of limited information and be accountable for taking them. We are willing to take risks. Finally, our loyalty and trust are ever in question.” “They are strategists who can roll their sleeves up. Soldiers (young and old) help develop an emotional intelligence, which is an important part of building an effective communication style for that company and also for influence above and below.”
“A capacity and ability to prioritise. It is, after all, a plate-spinning role, and maintaining enough focus across a range of tasks is a key skill which most military officers possess. Additionally:
• Operational judgement. Ability to spot an issue at the earliest opportunity and engage accordingly. We are usually good under pressure and able to maintain a focus on the bigger picture.
• Comfort with escalation. It surprised me how reluctant career banking personnel were to highlight shortcomings to senior managers versus those from the armed forces. Military officers are much less afraid of highlighting problems but usually try to mitigate this by developing potential solutions which can be proposed in concise terms in timely fashion.
• Generally, we are social creatures and are good at engaging across multiple areas, and are surprisingly well versed, trained and practised in managing diversity.”
Within this feedback, there was a consistent voice focused on delivery, loyalty, managing both upwards and downwards, and so on. All these attributes are well placed in the most demanding COO role. As one person noted, the more senior hires sometimes struggled to migrate successfully into banking. However, I have seen this work, and the success rate seems to be increasing as the demands on the COO’s office have grown.
Some suggested that those who had held an adjutant post would be an almost perfect fit for the COO role. At captain level, an adjutant supports a battalion commander – a lieutenant colonel managing upwards of a thousand men and women. They would be responsible for manning, discipline, conduct, budget, leadership, training and helping to execute the colonel’s vision. This summary of tasks and key responsibilities echoes many COO role specifications I have written. A step up from the adjutant are those who have passed Staff College – a course that helps staff become highly disciplined in the principles of management, project management and planning. These too are a good option if managed carefully and with consideration.
Regardless of the recruitment process and the available talent pool, selection will still come down to one key criterion:
“As ever, a well-balanced and honest assessment centred around probably the most important success criterion – fit. Cultural and competency are, in my opinion, the two main areas. If either element is misaligned, then progress will be slow and frustration will follow; if both are in sync, then potential can be reached and careers can flourish.”
FORMER INFANTRY CAPTAIN