The MBA takes you from the battlefield to the boardroom

NEXT month the government will announce a comprehensive spending review in which thousands of military personnel are expected to lose their jobs. Some estimates say that 16,000 will find themselves on civvie street. Many high-fliers will no doubt be attracted by the City, and the City is sure to be interested in disciplined, talented people who are cool under pressure. But how can military experience be translated into something that the City wants, needs or can understand?

One route for military personnel who want to make themselves attractive to the City is an MBA. These days, ex-forces people are a small but constant presence on MBA courses and in their search for a diverse cohort, MBA course directors are keen to include military or ex-military personnel on courses. This is especially true at Cranfield School of Management. It is allied to the military’s Shrivenham campus – where officer training is held – and there is a good understanding of the value of military experience; at any one time, up to 20 people on the executive MBA are in the military. Cranfield also offers an MBA specifically for those wanting to transition into the defence industry. Elsewhere, at London Business School nine of the 320 people on the current full-time MBA have a military background, while there is a similar proportion at Cass and Harvard.

The numbers may be small, but schools value the military experience and are keen to get former army, navy and RAF people signed up and a number of schools offer bursaries or discounts to ex-military officers. Henley School of Management offers a discount of 10-15 per cent for people in the forces, Manchester Business School has scholarships of £15,000 and £7,500 a year; London Business School has a £20,000 a year scholarship. We are way behind the US, though, where schemes such as the Yellow Ribbon programme organise for fees to be paid for army leavers who get onto MBA courses.

If you are imagining people in dirty boots and camouflage tramping about campus, think again. The modern military man or woman fits right into an MBA programme alongside bankers and consultants – perhaps better. Those who have reached the higher echelons of the military are well-used to a classroom environment – indeed, the officer training courses that they take as part of rising to a senior level in the army probably means that they have spent more time in formal educational settings than many others who are 10 or 12 years out of university. Learning is part of the job.

Mike Keighley is the MBA Programme Director at Henley School of Management, and a former army officer who served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq before working for asset manager Northern Trust after leaving the forces. He says that ex-officers are a catch for City firms: “Military training gives you a well-rounded approach to leadership and management skills, and financial awareness. You are used to working in a multinational environment, and working with fragmented teams. The elements of pressure and resourcing can be a lot tighter in the army, and it is all about delivering. You have to make things happen; it’s about being able to manipulate and work teams and resources.”

An MBA is a great way to “funnel the information and knowledge that people have gained in the army into a qualification”. He says that many of those leaving the army are over 30 and will want to move into leadership positions. An MBA proves that you have those skills. People who have risen to the rank of colonel or general are clearly capable, but they need a way to talk to the City in language it understands. The MBA teaches them how.

In the past, ex-military people who have moved into the City often wound up in private banking and other areas where trust and relationship building are key. These days, though, the military experience is far wider, and so are the jobs open to them. Lyle Andrews, EMEA Head of Graduate Recruiting at investment bank UBS, says: “A lot of them have relevant technical skills, such as people with an IT background or experience in operational management. But in addition there are a lot of the soft skills – for example communications and negotiation. Plus they tend to be disciplined and to get things done.”


He says that many have flourished in sales: “They have no product knowledge at first, but they know how to present an idea and talk to people in a way that helps them make a decision.” Other areas where they have done well are project management, business analysis, and the change management side of HR. In general, in a crisis it can help to have somebody about who has been in pressurised environments – being shot at tends to put everything else into perspective, one imagines. Andrews says that former military personnel have been so successful that UBS is now specifically looking to recruit them.

The MBA cohort is all about the mix, and learning from your peers. So what do the other members of an MBA course gain from having a former officer alongside them? Is there an element of culture shock? Sean Rickard, director of Cranfield School of Management’s MBA course, says: “What the military do is to bring an angle to the issues we discuss on the course. They tend to be good students all round and they have had no trouble fitting in. Plus our parties have certainly improved.”


Simon Tidd went to Warwick University to read philosophy straight after school, but dropped out after a year and decided to join the army, something that had always interested him. He joined the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, seeing two tours of Iraq and two tours of Afghanistan. He was Military Assistant to the Commander in Basra, and led the Air Transport Liaison Team in Helmand Province.

By March of 2009, seeing that there were no jobs immediately above his rank that appealed, he made the decision to leave. Given the state of the economy, he decided that an MBA was the best move, and soon found himself back at Warwick.

“I’m comfortable in a learning environment, but interacting with the cohort is a bit more challenging, you meet people who come from all over – only six of the 70 are from the UK and everybody has their own way of doing things,” he says. “In the army you learn about man management, project management, resource allocation, and often you are operating at the most extreme level. That’s the experience I bring to the course. Also my general communication skills and leadership.”

“In terms of what you get out of it, the main thing is that you are able to describe the experience and skills that you had before and interpret it into business speak.”
s to move into consultancy.


AFTER 12 years in the Parachute Regiment and then other regiments – ending with four years in Northern Ireland as Battalion Operations Officer on counter-terrorism operations, Mark Lindsay felt it was time for a change. He briefly worked for Prudential’s Private Financial Planning Services before being contracted by ArmorGroup as a Security Advisor to the board of BP in Colombia, and worked in various South American companies. He took an MBA at Henley in 1999.

He says he didn’t feel too daunted by the course. “These days in the army you do so much training, even junior officer training is quite intellectual – it’s not about bayoneting sandbags. Also a lot of the language that is used in business is quite military, a lot of the concepts, especially in strategy. On the implementation side my military training was helpful too. In the military everything is a project, everything is process based and I was able to lead my team in implementation. A lot of the project management technique, all of it had a military basis, I was able to think in an organised way and to implement it in a military way.”

After his MBA Lindsay worked for Pfizer’s anti counterfeiting operation in the Baltics. He is now Head of Security for the National Bank of Oman and founder of Political Risk Analysis, a political risk management consultancy.