5-Key Skills Veterans Learn that Help You Find Success in Business

5-Key Skills Veterans Learn that Help You Find Success in Business

February 23, 2021

Many of you know I went to school for Business Management and Military Science. I wrote a thesis paper my senior year that researched what skills or traits made military veterans more successful in business and entrepreneurship than their peers. Depending on your source information, military veterans are up to 88 percent more likely to become entrepreneurs than those without military experience, and some sources believe military veterans are up to 50% more likely to find success than their civilian counterparts. 

Through a collection of interviews, research, and my personal experience here is a collection of the 5 skills I believe have had the most prevalent connection to entrepreneurial and general business success for veterans.

1) Communication. Perhaps the most consistent skill that is persistent through books, articles, testimonials, and real-world experience, is that the need for effective communication is paramount in both the military and in business operations. While in the military, service members are trained on using the active voice in writing, as well as clear and concise communication practices. Luckily the military isn't the only place to learn good communication practices. Honestly, it's not even the gold standard of learning good communication practices, but it is a point of emphasis in every service and in every service-member's training. Here are my simple recommendations for improving communication:

  • Establish 2-Way Communication. Talk with your peers, subordinates, mentors, and listen to their thoughts and feedback. Effective communication goes both ways to help paint a clear and honest picture of what information is trying to be shared.
  • Maintain Contact. Communication isn't a one time attempt. Once you have established 2-way communication with the sharing of thoughts and ideas, maintain the open line! If you're a manager, talk to your team regularly! Maintaining communication not only allows for the timely sharing of accurate information, but it makes employees and those around you feel valued! Valued employees or team members are better for you, better for your customers, and better for your organization.
  • Ask For a Back Brief. In the military, when you receive guidance or direction you are typically required to restate in plain English what your task is and how you are going to accomplish it. This provides an opportunity to resolve issues with misunderstandings, and clarify anything that may be an obstacle, as well as a chance to answer questions.

Pro-tip: Clarity and accuracy of information is of the utmost importance. Keep it short, keep it pertinent, and use the active voice.

2) Flexibility & Adaptability. "Adapt and overcome" is a term commonly used in the military to encourage someone to rise to the challenge and surpass or bypass an obstacle to accomplish a goal. No achievement comes without it's obstacles, and we live in a complex and changing world. An entrepreneur, manager, or any business leader must be flexible and adaptable so that they can work with or around the obstacles they encounter. No team or business has smooth sailing from their inception to retirement. If you are able to find new ways to excel and change with your environment you will find success. Don't get hung up on what used to be or what used to work, and focus on the path forward. If you can't change the cards you're dealt, change the way you play them. My tips for being more flexible are below:

  • Don't Worry About What You Can't Control. If you encounter an obstacle or problem, Quickly assess if it is within your power to change and if it isn't, don't waste more time on it, focus on how to work around the obstacle and how you can still achieve your desired end state.
  • Trust your team. Being flexible in a work environment requires a great deal of trust. Communicate with members of your organization what your goal is, and trust them to do their part to solve problems and navigate obstacles at their level so your organization adapts and moves fluidly.
  • Embrace Ambiguity. When your team or organization faces uncertainty view it as an opportunity to find a new way of accomplishing your goals and reaching your objective. If managers and leaders share this thought with their subordinates and employees it creates an enticing atmosphere where creativity and problem solving are valued.

Pro-tip: Communicate with your teams and employees when your organization reaches an obstacle or shifts it's focus to a different objective or end state. Most anxiety that people feel regarding flexibility or being adaptable is the uncertainty or lack of shared information.

3) Leadership. One could argue that all the skills and traits discussed could fall under a broad view of leadership talent or ability. For the purpose of distinguishing leadership as it's own skill, I have defined it as "one's ability to provide influence and inspiration to individuals to accomplish an organization's goals. Both in the military and in business, strong and decisive leadership is a crucial component to finding success. Leadership is more than telling people what to do. It is the skill of being able to influence and inspire people to accomplish the tasks required to get to your desired end state. Here are some suggestions on how to up your skill as a leader:

  • Know Your Team. To successfully inspire or influence someone who should know what causes, actions, or things motivate the individuals working for or with you. You need to know what motivates the people around you, and what they are passionate about. Just as a craftsman must know the tools he needs to complete a project, a leader must know the team they are working with to accomplish their objectives. If you don't know your people, you're not the one leading them.
  • Lead From the Front, or Where You're Most Effective. The term "lead from the front" means to take an active role in accomplishing your goal, and to set an example for your peers and subordinates. Typically, a military leader should be leading his element, and participate in any assaulting or offensive efforts to quickly make decisions and guide his men, however, in our complex environment it is not always possible or prudent to be at the tip of the spear. Assess your organization and talk to the people around you and position yourself where you can lead most effectively and with the greatest impact.
  • Be Confident. This is perhaps the true secret to becoming a successful leader. Leader's aren't perfect, but you need to firmly believe that you are capable of leading your group or organization and that your plans or the influence and inspiration that you are providing will be beneficial and effective. If you don't have faith in your own abilities or decisions, why would anyone else believe in you or follow you? I made a name for myself as a leader in the unit's that I was a part of because I simply believed in my self and others began to believe in me to. How do you become confident in yourself? I'm glad you asked! I believe that confidence comes from knowledge and experience. If you lack experience in an area, gain knowledge in it. If you lack knowledge in it, you should be asking questions, studying patterns and actions of those around you in that area , and reading all the useful information you can. You must be confident in yourself before others will have confidence in you.

Pro-Tip: The best leaders I have ever worked with where men and women who provided guidance and direction, but also listened to input from the people they were leading. Listening helps individuals know you care about them. If you're a leader, and you show people you care about them, and consider their input valuable, they will be the best followers and workers in the world for you.

4) Problem Solving. Building on the necessity of decisive leadership, an entrepreneur or business leader must be capable of solving problems. Separate from adaptability or flexibility, an entrepreneur must be able to assess situations and not only change with the times, but sometimes down right solve a problem or provide an answer to a question of uncertainty. Business leaders may find themselves in a position where they don't have the resources presently available to meet current demands, or support logistical needs, or any number of things. A successful business leader must be able to think critically and rationally and find solutions to issues as they arise. Potential solutions may entail outsourcing or hiring additional staff, but at the end of the day, a business leader must make prudent decisions to solve problems in a timely manner. Here's three ways I think most people can improve their problem solving:

  • Stay Positive and Focused on Solutions. Even just the word "problem" has a certain negativity to it. to be an effective problem solver, stay positive! The best way I've found to do this, is to focus on possible solutions and not focus on the problem.
  • Simplify by Asking "Why?" Problems can be complex. One of the best ways to find the root of the issue is to ask why you are having a problem, and continue to ask why until you reach the most fundamental issue. - Example Problem: I spend too much money on food.- Why do I spend too much money on food? A: I eat out too often. Why do I eat out so often? A: because I didn't meal prep. Why didn't I meal prep? A: I didn't buy groceries. Why didn't I buy groceries? A: I procrastinated grocery shopping to stay home and watch TV. - The root problem is that I mismanaged my time with less important things, and it can be simplified and fixed by prioritizing the things I needed and wanted to accomplish. So, Ask why until you find the root, simplified problems invite simplified solutions.
  • Ask For Help. It never hurts to get a second (or third, or fourth) opinion. Ask for suggestions. Unless this is a time sensitive problem that doesn't allow for you to seek assistance, someone in the world has the skill and expertise to help solve your problem. Maybe an employee has an idea, maybe you need to outsource a solution, either way, people can help and it doesn't hurt to ask for options.

Pro-Tip: The US Army's Warrior Ethos is ingrained in soldiers from day 1 of basic training. "I will always place the mission first, I will never accept defeat, I will never quit, I will never leave a fallen comrade." These tenets make problem solving easier for many veterans, including myself. simply because we refuse to be defeated by the problem and we refuse to stop searching for solutions. I encourage you to implement this determined mindset into your business operations.

5) Risk Management. The final skill that I found to be most prevalent in Veterans turned entrepreneurs or successful business leaders is Risk Management. Here risk management is how well a person can plan for and mitigate hazards and losses to their business, organization, or inventory. Military veterans become exposed to this at every step of their career with a 5-step risk management process. First one must identify potential hazards involved in their operation. Second, assess the actual risk posed by the hazard. What is the likelihood of experiencing that hazard, and what will be the severity if it is experienced? Third, develop controls to mitigate risks and make appropriate decisions about what level of risk to accept. Fourth, implement your controls and decisions. Fifth, supervise the operation and refine your controls and plan. When you've completed the cycle, repeat it and keep moving forward! If you can manage and mitigate risk effectively, you can make the experiences of your team and organization far more enjoyable and profitable! Here are my thoughts on simple ways to improve your risk management:

  • Clarify Responsibilities. When there are several moving parts in an organization or operation things often are presumed to be known or dealt with by individuals near them. Make sure each level of management or leadership knows what they are responsible for dealing with. The leaders who manage risk most effectively are the ones who eliminate gaps in responsibility and overlap checks and balances.
  • Manage Expectations. Don't have unrealistic expectations about eliminating all risk. Trust the experience of yourself and others and recognize what is possible and what isn't possible. Do your best to create realistic controls and realistic practices that are sustainable for as long as the risk is present.
  • Be Proactive. Identify risks as early as possible and get ahead of them. Risks that are identified and planned for are much less intimidating than the ones that surprise you. If you implement controls early, you gain more time to refine them and improve your situation.

Pro-tip: Keep your organization's goals in mind. To reach a goal, a certain level of risk is often required to be taken. Set your standards of appropriate risk to what is required to achieve your organizations goals.

I found these 5 skills to be the common themes while studying what made other veterans-turned-entrepreneurs successful. As I've implemented these skills and sought after self-improvement in these areas I have also watched my business grow and my all around quality of life increase. Luckily, you don't have to be a service-member to develop these skills. Try some of these tips and recognize opportunities to grow and develop in these areas. It will set you apart from your competition and help you stand out as a leader with potential to move to areas of higher responsibility.

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