For the past several years, I have been fortunate enough to serve as a director on private, public and non-profit boards. When I began this ‘second career’ I had some misgivings that I could make meaningful contributions to the board’s duties. After all, I would be joining individuals who were seasoned veterans from the private sector and had as much time and expertise in their fields as I had in mine. I questioned whether or not I been asked to join the board as an honorarium for long and faithful military service. Or, was I being asked because there was something in my résumé that could be of value by my presence in the boardroom? Truth be told, while I found an appreciation for my military service by others, it was clear early on that I was also expected to be a full participant and work as conscientious as everyone else in representing the company’s shareholders.
Consequently, I have learned that senior military officers can bring a complementary and diverse skill set to the board based upon their experiences. However, these directors need to complement their military experience with a focused understanding of corporate governance. What attributes are shared by most senior officers, what can they bring to the table and how can they make an effective transition from military to corporate life?
When I speak of a senior officer, I am referring to a retired general or admiral with an average of 26-38 years of service and who are 47-58 years old. Many have academic degrees across a myriad of career specialties…finance and accounting, legal, medical, logistics, contracting, etc. However, most senior officers have a broader background that includes experience in operational command involving thousands of personnel and expenditure of billions of taxpayer dollars. Virtually all have earned a master’s degree from civilian academic institutions and have attended senior professional military education courses. These officers have been advanced in rank over long careers due to demonstrated competence in successively more demanding and varied assignments and have endured the nomination and confirmation process required by the U.S. Constitution of our President and Senate. In my opinion, no single group of individuals undergoes a more thorough vetting and it relates to a key principle of the relationship between America’s citizens and their military….civilian control.
All senior officers will possess most of the following attributes in varying degrees:
Leadership credibility and judgment: based upon years of experience in an environment of organizational and individual accountability. Senior military officers posted in the Nation’s Capital or internationally require political savvy and maturity.
Decision making and problem solving: synthesizing complex issues into a coherent and actionable recommendation. At no time will you have 100 percent of the information available for a decision. Being accustomed to solving problems and making decisions with limited information are acquired skills most senior officers possess.
Strategy-to-task: the ability to link goals and risks into achievement. Most often this will be a longer-term process and addresses corporate strategy and risk concurrently. As an illustration, one of the most challenging assignments I had was as the commander of Patrick Air Force Base, Florida which included Cape Canaveral, home to America’s manned space flight program. Shortly before I arrived the Air Force had signed a multi-million dollar contract with Computer Sciences Corporation and Raytheon to convert the Eastern Range launch command and control system from a 1950s era analogue to a 1990s state of the art digital system. The system is designed to provide critical safety information and telemetry data from cameras and radars during launch. Each site’s equipment had to be modified. The 40-year old analogue system was costly and becoming increasingly more unreliable. It took days to reconfigure the system from one launch to another – Delta to Shuttle, Atlas to Titan, etc. Thousands of circuits had to be changed by people on roller skates similar to the old days of the telephone switch board operators! The new digital system would remedy these shortfalls. So, all set for the launch countdown…not so fast. When I asked for the “strat plan” to implement the technical plan the engineers had developed, we had fallen short. After reassessing the conversion from a strategic operational perspective, we were back on track. Each type of vehicle launched under the digital configuration would be backed up by the analogue system. Having the ability to execute an emergency cutover was critical. Also, key metrics were developed to ensure we made progress in launch crew training and certification, cost management, reliability and time to reconfigure. And, following each launch, we conducted a “hot wash” to review exactly how we performed. The success we had was a credit to the plan and the individuals, military, government civilians and contractors who oversaw the operations, understanding the risks and measuring results.
Crisis response: planning or reacting to unanticipated events. During the time we were converting the Range to the digital system at Cape Canaveral, an unanticipated event occurred, Hurricane Erin, which caused us to execute the Hurricane Response Plan. She could not have shown up at a worse time as we had a Delta, Atlas and Titan rockets on their pads. They successfully weathered the 90 mph winds and rain. We also had a Shuttle on the pad which NASA moved back to the Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) for safety. During the conversion from analogue we launched 19 rockets and 4 shuttles while always ready for the unanticipated crisis and keeping the public’s safety foremost in our minds!
Government relations: is very useful to a corporation involved in government contracts. Knowledge of future government requirements and an understanding of the Washington agency environment to include the key decision makers could be valuable. Few senior officers fail to have an assignment in Washington, particularly, the Pentagon. I was ‘fortunate’ to have three in Washington including two on Capitol Hill!
From my experiences as a senior officer and board member these are the attributes I believe may be most useful to a chairman and CEO. However, as I mentioned earlier, a learning curve is involved. In my case, I spent a week at the corporate headquarters visiting the C-suites and all the department heads. This face-to-face interaction was very insightful. Additionally, I attended a governance/compensation course at a prestigious graduate school. Finally, one corporation sponsored, and continues to sponsor, my membership In the National Association of Corporate Directors. Learning from top-flight directors and peer-to-peer exchanges has been most beneficial from to my transition from ‘general’ to ‘director.’
General Don Cook resides in San Antonio and currently serves as an Independent Director on four corporate boards: Crane Corporation, USAA Federal Savings Bank, Beechcraft and US Security Associates.
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