Junior Officer Recruiting

With repeat deployments and extreme hardship on their families, there is an exodus of junior officers leaving all branches of the service that is unusually high. A junior officer falls into the ranks of second lieutenant to captain in the Army, Marines and Air Force, and ensign to lieutenant in the Navy and Coast Guard. They generally have less than eight years of service, sometimes a bit more. Most, though, are leaving at the five-year point. In many cases these young leaders are leaving with very mixed emotions. When you have private conversations with them and ask, “Do you miss the service?” you often get both a yes and a no. What they DO miss are their comrades. There is a level of intensity in their relationships with other officers–and their NCO’s and enlisted members–that is almost impossible to replicate in the private sector. What they DON’T miss are…well, the obvious things.
Many organizations have long valued the inherent talent in junior military officers and recruit them with enthusiasm. Others do not have a clue what they are missing. The ones that don’t, either don’t realize what junior officers can bring to their organizations, or have little or no understanding of what it takes to develop a junior officer and the types of responsibilities they have held. Others simply do not put a premium on young leaders who can think on their feet and operate effectively with a minimum of oversight. Still others think that there is no relevance what-so-ever between a military officer and a civilian manager. And there are those who have political leanings that are such that the military in general is viewed as an undesirable institution and that carries over to their hiring decisions.
What makes a junior officer attractive to a potential employer in the private sector? There are many examples. At the top of the list is that the majority of departing junior officers are very effective leaders as well as managers. They put a high premium on the welfare and effectiveness of those they lead, and take personal responsibility for what they do and fail to do. In the course of being effective leaders they are also ethical decision makers. They fully understand that in reality, there are few, if any, grey areas. There is right and wrong and they can be counted on not only to do things right, but to do the right things, which is (to paraphrase Warren Bennis) the difference between management and leadership. Both are, of course, essential. But there is little in the way of comparable leadership formation in the ranks of young business managers. From the outset in the military, leadership is driven home, and one’s peers will insist that another officer conforms to the highest standards, even if the system fails to see it for some reason.
From an officer’s earliest days as a cadet or midshipman, the point is drilled home that they are not special people, they just have a high obligation to serve responsibly, and they have many for whom they are responsible…totally responsible. The maxim in the military is that an officer’s first obligation is to the mission, followed very closely by being totally responsible for the health and welfare of those who work under his or her supervision. Those two values are complimentary not contradictory. There is a level of “selflessness” that is expected of a junior officer that is not the norm in the private sector. Let me illustrate with just a couple of examples. As a young cadet, I was acting as a platoon leader on a forced road march training exercise. It was cold and raining. We had about 20 miles to cover that day, with pack and weapon. We would stop every hour for five or ten minutes.
It is natural for people in such a situation to simply flop down and rest as much as possible. But there was a mission to perform. Every member of that march had to face and point their weapons outwardly from the edge of the road, in effect building a defensive perimeter. It was my job to see that they did that effectively while also getting a breather. Furthermore, it was also my responsibility to check on the welfare of my men, and in this case, welfare had a lot to do with the condition of their feet. I asked every man to tell me how his feet were holding out. I had a lot of cold, bare, blistering, smelly, wet feet to look at that day. At least once or twice along the march people would put on dry socks. While that may seem trivial, the point was this: I looked after the mission and the welfare of my men BEFORE I looked after my own welfare. In essence, my feet stayed wet most of that day. Yes, it is important for the leader to remain healthy, but it was more important for me to push on and check on my soldiers before looking after myself. It was a lesson that stuck.
Another example occurred when I entered the private sector in the early 80’s. I had the privilege of using the company’s executive dining room for lunch. I did not do so. It was anathema to me to see the men and women in my department going the main cafeteria while I would have ducked into the executive dining room. You see, as a junior officer, it was fully expected that I did not eat until all of my soldiers had been fed. It was my responsibility to not only see that they were fed first, but that the quality of the food was good (field rations aside). It was very difficult for me to fathom eating in better conditions, and eating better food, than the people for whom I was responsible. It still is.
So how does this relate to the private sector, to actively recruiting junior officers who are leaving the service of their country? Well, extrapolate those simple values to the complexities of accomplishing the mission in your organization. Would it not make sense to hire young leaders for whom it is ingrained that the right things get done? That the employees are well looked after along the way? Would it not be desirable to have your young managers leading from the front and subordinating their own needs until those they lead are well taken care of?
Yes, there are many fine young leaders in the private sector. Leaders who did not come from the junior officer ranks of the military. But with few exceptions, and irrespective of the branch of service, junior officers are collectively groomed from the start to do the right things while doing things right. If you have not incorporated junior officer recruiting into your hiring practices I would urge you to do so. There are several recruiting firms that specialize in placing junior officers. Talk to them and see for yourself the talent that is increasingly becoming available to you.
Michael K. Burroughs has been recruiting and coaching executives for over two decades. His clients include the Fortune 500, early stage companies, health care systems and hospitals, nonprofit organizations and universities. He is a former organization development executive for divisions of three Fortune 500 companies and a retired Army colonel. Michael serves as a Global Practice Group Leader for a “top five” retained executive recruiting firm. He has recruited executives from CEO to director level in the US, Asia and Europe, and coaches senior executives in the Fortune 500.
You can follow his career-oriented blog, Leading Edge Memo’s, at http://leadingedgememos.blogspot.com. You can reach Michael directly by accessing his website at http://www.michaelkburroughs.com.

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