There are very few leadership transitions like being a newly commissioned officer in the military.
Typically, on graduation day from a military academy, ROTC program or Officer Candidate School program, young men and women in their twenties pin on second lieutenant bars and immediately find themselves in charge of huge teams and millions of dollars of equipment in one of the harshest working environments imaginable.
These young leaders find themselves leading service members who are many years their senior and who have upwards of twenty years of military experience under their belts. Not to mention; many of these leaders do all of this while in combat zones, where the stakes are very real.
Ask Art Landro, CEO of Redwood City-based web app development company, Sencha. This former Air Force Lieutenant Colonel recalls his experience as a newly minted officer, having transitioned from his undergraduate program at UConn to the military via the two-year ROTC program.
As he stood at the bottom of a missile silo looking up at a Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and the blue sky above, he couldn’t help but wonder how just six months earlier his biggest decision had been which beer he’d be drinking the coming weekend. Now he was supervising airmen who had been in the service longer than he’d been alive, performing a mission that the President of the United States was relying on.
This is the type of “pinch me” moment that very few young leaders in the civilian world ever experience. “There are no words to describe the feeling of absolute responsibility and seriousness of the oath of office you’ve taken only months earlier,” Landro explains.
Landro developed several fundamental leadership philosophies over his tenure in the Air Force that he now carries with him as CEO at Sencha.
1. Focus on the mission. In the commercial world, we’re all paid to do our jobs. If for whatever reason, our job is unfulfilling, we can leave. In the military, however, you commit to serving a greater purpose and you commit it all.
2. Take care of your people. The military reinforces this concept in everything they do. It’s impossible to accomplish your mission if your people aren’t trained, equipped and given the freedom and autonomy to succeed in what you’re asking them to do. It’s also important to consider that sometimes, taking care of your people can mean removing someone from your organization. At the end of the day, it may be better for the team and better for the individual to help them move on to a better situation.
3. Have fun. Life can suck sometimes. Through the ups and downs (and life in the military can be full of both), a little positivity can go a long way. Being able to keep your sense of humor and have as much fun as possible in the moment can help get you through the rough patches.
4. Understand your customer or you’re sunk. “It’s not uncommon to see account managers or developers in my industry who claim to know better than the customer,” says Landro. “I don’t believe you can ever take your customers for granted and one way to respect them is to gain a deep understanding of what they need and want.”
5. Work-life balance is critical. “If you bring together twenty senior business leaders and ask them what’s most important to them, they will—by and large—tell you their families are. How do you reconcile that when their day-to-day activities require long periods of time away from what they hold dearest?” adds Landro.
6. The team is more important than any one individual. The Air Force acknowledges the importance of you as an individual, but in the context of a team—helping and supporting other individuals on that team. Military personnel have always “watched the six” of their squad-mates. Landro translates this into the business world by creating the “Sales Team” of an Account Manager and a Systems Engineer or a “Product Team” consisting of a Marketing Specialist, Product Manager, and Lead Engineer.
7. Informal networks are key. The development and maintenance of an informal network can be more important that the official chain of command sometimes.
8. The importance of mentorship. “I never had any ambition to be a CEO. I wanted to be the head of sales somewhere. Thankfully, I worked with some senior leaders who saw something in me and took the time to mentor me,” adds Landro. “I try to give that back to my key executives.”
Though less than one percent of the US population ever puts on a uniform in service to their country, there is much to be learned from the experiences of veteran leaders. Landro’s ability to translate his military experience into successful leadership of a growing company is admirable, to say the least. We can all apply these eight foundational lessons and become better leaders in the process.