by Brian P. Watson

Leadership bootcamp: Lessons from military veteran CIOs

Aug 14, 2017
IT Leadership

The U.S. Armed Forces takes leadership training seriously. Here, a trio of IT leaders reflect on the key leadership competencies they learned while serving in the military.

Most CIOs develop their leadership principles and perspectives through experience—by rising through the ranks of IT organizations or through various experiences in business units or third-party partners like consulting firms or technology vendors. But how many corporate leaders have actually been trained in leadership?

Christian Anschuetz, chief digital officer at UL, told in a recent discussion that the leadership lessons ingrained in him during his almost eight years in the Marines Corps, are the most important that he took with him after leaving as a Captain. And they have served him well in his private-sector career, which began in consulting, followed by starting his own firm, to rising to IT leadership roles with Publicis Groupe and UL.

“It goes back to being formally and very, very deliberately trained on the topic of leadership: What leadership is, how it works, what are the proper mechanisms for it, and being indoctrinated into a culture that absolutely expects it from you,” Anschuetz said.

Anschuetz, along with Earl Newsome of Praxair and Mark Settle of Okta, recently shared reflections on their military service and how those experiences influenced their careers. They experienced critical lessons in leadership, strategy, developing talent and building successful organizations—not to mention sacrifice—in very unique environments that few truly understand.

While civilian CIOs can’t turn back the clock and join the military, they can learn from those who served.   

Leaders at their core

Too often, executives lead by either command-and-control or by seeking consensus. But Anschuetz points out that there are a number of tools and techniques that fall in the middle. For him, leading boils down to creating an inspiring, compelling vision that teams can rally around and then determining what tools you have that can amplify the teams’ abilities to achieve that vision.

Anschuetz also points out that “leadership is a responsibility—it is not a position” adding that “you exist to serve the people who work for you. You do not stand above them.” 

A critical piece of the responsibility of leadership, Anschuetz says, is building an environment of trust. “The primary thing you can do for your people is to create an atmosphere where they fully understand that you trust them, and that they can trust their own judgment, and they can trust the judgment of those on their team.” (Anschuetz even created a nonprofit organization, Project Relo, that helps expose business leaders to veterans—and the grueling conditions in which the military trains and operates—but also puts those executives through different missions where trust is a key component to success.)

That culture of trust, he added, enables and empowers teams—and likely will result in higher levels of proficiency. At the same time, a strong level of trust allows teams to make well-intended mistakes from which everyone can learn and grow. “(Trust) is an accelerant,” Anschuetz said. “It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire.”

“Be All You Can Be”

In 1980, the U.S. Army introduced a slogan that helped it recover from a recruiting slump. “Be All You Can Be” became a rallying cry for empowerment and, in many ways, helped redefine the branch for the modern era.

Earl Newsome entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point that same year, graduating four years later with a concentration in computer science. He then spent five years as an officer in the Army’s Signal Corps, which develops and manages communications and information systems for command and control.  

“Be All You Can Be” resonated with Newsome then and does today, as he reflected on how his military service influenced his career and leadership perspectives. “People want to be challenged,” Newsome said. “That means challenging them in ways that they’re not used to being challenged.” 

Newsome’s military experience also taught him the concept of the “360-degree leader.” As an Army officer, he was trained to be strategically, tactically and technically competent. Newsome uses the example of taking a hill in combat. A strategic leader knows which hill to take. A tactical leader knows how to take it. And a technical leader knows how to help in many ways to complete the mission.

As a CIO, Newsome often thinks in similar ways. “Where do we go, from a strategic perspective, within our businesses?” he asks. “How do we take those hills safely?” And from the technical perspective, Newsome encourages his peers to immerse themselves in the details. “You can’t just be a remote leader. I know that from the military,” he said. “We need leaders who can roll up their sleeves and help along the way.”

Finally, Newsome emphasized the importance of taking care of your people. In the Army, he and his fellow officers were tasked with making sure soldiers were well equipped, well trained and well practiced.

The same thing happens in the corporate world, Newsome said. “When we engage people on projects, we have to make sure they have the tools, the right training, and the right practice,” he said. “Sometimes we learn on the job, but to the extent possible, we have to give people the space to make those mistakes while they’re learning on the job. We know that from the pain of practice, learning and failures that they’ll become better.”

Accelerating management skills

Many associate the military with the wars it fights, but the Armed Forces also boast a massive—though usually secretive—capability in research and development. That’s where seven-time CIO Mark Settle began on his path to the executive suite.

Settle entered the U.S. Air Force after earning a degree in geological science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he participated in the Air Force ROTC program. Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, he investigated whether the Soviet Union could be doing underground nuclear testing, and how U.S. intelligence could differentiate that activity from normal seismic and volcanic movements, which were common in the suspected testing area. He and his teams also experimented with hard silos for Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles and researched the effect of Earth’s gravitational field on inertial missile guidance systems.

Even though Settle did not participate directly in armed conflict, he gained many of the same critical competencies. For one, he was thrust into leadership roles from the minute he put on his uniform. Whether it was supervising staff, managing budgets or overseeing contracts, Settle’s military experience provided him with opportunities many must work years in the private sector to attain. 

“I feel like it accelerated the development of my management skills by five years, maybe 10,” he said. “I was extremely fortunate in that regard.”

Settle also built significant “soft skills” through his roles in R&D. For example, because he had to deliver project results to senior leaders, Settle developed strong public-speaking skills. When it came to funding for new projects, he would have to go to Washington, DC to pitch various agencies and organizations to explain why they needed new computing resources or access to highly-secure bases. “I learned how to sell,” Settle said.

Another bedrock attribute of the military is the chain-of-command structure. While Settle experienced it firsthand in the Air Force, he also felt its impact on an organization’s ability to move on decisions when he worked at NASA headquarters. At the time, Settle said, veterans made up a big percentage of NASA’s workforce, making it what felt like a quasi-military organization. They would have intense debates over budgets, funding requests and program priorities, but Settle was struck by how quickly they mobilized and coalesced around a decision—which does not happen so easily in the corporate world.

“We really did have some real knock-down, drag-out brawls within headquarters,” Settle said. “But because so many people had military backgrounds, once somebody at the top of the hierarchy dropped the hammer or blessed an outcome, there was a closing of the ranks that was really admirable.”