5 Things the Military Taught Me About Running a Business

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My first job in the military was as an Information Manager in the Air Force, and my first duty location was Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota. My main job was processing and delivering mail and packages around base… a far cry from the “desk job” I thought I’d signed up for, but I can’t complain. Rapid City, though, was nowhere close to the coastal bases I’d put on my dream sheet! All told, it was an eye-opening first tour, and would lead to a very enlightening 21 year military career.

Now, in my post-retirement “civilian” life, I run a small copywriting business and network with clients around the world. On occasion I subcontract some work or research out to others, as my sort of virtual team of helpers. And though this online business certainly differs from running a physical company, nonetheless there are many shared guidelines for success that I try to adhere to. Most of them, I’m proud to say, were picked up during my Air Force career.

So here’s five things the military taught me about running a business!

1.) Be Someone Others Respect

My first lesson actually came during Basic Training. Of course no green recruit initially likes their training instructor. We’re not supposed to like them, and mine was no exception. The guy played his part very well, and seemed to relish in being a total jerk! But I quickly recognized the fact that he was there with us, late at night and first thing in the mornings, putting in those long hours to be with a bunch of knuckleheads and try to teach us something about military bearing.

I only had to do a few weeks at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. This man volunteered to spend years in that environment. Why? Because he was committed to helping the next generation of troops. I respected that, and naturally over the course of weeks we all got to see just how deeply he did care.

Now, whenever I am working with a new client I take the time to show that I care about the future of their project, their company and their success. And I put in the time and energy to prove it, so they’ll respect my business and work ethics.

2.) It Doesn’t Matter if You Feel Like It…

A lesson that followed me far beyond Basic Training was, it really doesn’t matter what you feel like doing, as long as you do it and do it well. Nobody (well, almost nobody) wants to rise at the crack of dawn to go on a formation run. And sometimes as business owners, we don’t want to face what we know our workday holds in store for us. Maybe there’s a problem, maybe there is some personnel issue you really don’t want to deal with, or some technical or logistical nightmare you can’t figure out.

So what? When you are in charge, nobody cares whether you feel like doing your job or not. That doesn’t mean you need to push until you burn out. You can’t afford to burn out! So, it does mean you have to find ways to decompress on your own time. Go for a jog or take a short combat nap during lunch. Things like that might help you unwind when you need to. Because when you are running a company, you’ve got to be fully present and in the zone.

3.) Get It Right the First Time

If you’ve ever had to work on an annual performance evaluation, you know the editorial pain of military form writing. This may not be the first thing you think of when considering how the military prepares you to run a business, but seriously—the sheer level of attention to detail on those reports can be mind-numbing. And if there’s one errant dot or misused abbreviation, that report will come flying back to your desk to do over.

Not only is that annoying and time-consuming, but if others in the chain of command already signed off on the report before the error was caught, they’ll have to sign again… giving you the evil eye as they do!

If you’re in charge of a business, then inefficiency costs you money. That’s why getting your admin work done correctly the first time can improve your bottom line. This goes for training any employees to be equally diligent. It might also mean some temporary resentment, since nobody likes to have their work scrutinized. But that comes with the terrain!

4.) Treat the Humans as Individuals

Speaking of employees, yes a successful business owner has to be good to their people. Everyone knows this. Yet so few bosses do it very well. Your business may manufacture a product or provide a service, but in the end you (and every other boss out there) are in the people business. People are doing the work and people are consuming the output product or service.

So what does this mean, to treat humans as individuals? I use the term “humans” jokingly, but it is important to remember that people are not machines and cannot be expected to perform as such. The military works closely with various types of equipment, sometimes very large and expensive equipment. But there’s always a person tasked to maintain that equipment, and if that person is overworked, ill-trained or not fit for duty, guess what? They’ll make a mistake which can lead to that equipment malfunctioning… sometimes with disastrous consequences.

A company faces the same risks. Every employee is different and must be engaged with as a unique individual, not as one out of a thousand pieces of identical gear.

5.) You’re the Ambassador

This is something I always heard during my time in service. You’re an ambassador of the armed forces 24/7, in uniform or out of uniform, no matter where you are in the world. No pressure, right? But it sticks with you, and it’s true.

In the military you’re essentially always on duty, whether you’re at work or not. And if you screw up badly enough, your actions could make headlines and make your branch of service or even the DoD look bad. If it happens abroad, it can even cause an international strain in relations.

That may sound like an exaggeration to a civilian, but military members know that inappropriate conduct by one individual can lead to a deterioration in public trust in the whole organization. And that applies to a business, too. Especially when you’re in charge of it!

As a leader of a company, your ethics and conduct must be above reproach at all times. You aren’t just setting the example for your team, but you’re the face of your brand. You are the ambassador. And the bigger your company gets, the more the spotlight shines on you. So if you’ve got plans to go big, then ensure everything about you reflects the values, integrity and dignity you want your brand to be known for.

In other words, behave like the proud veteran you are!


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