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An Overlooked Board Opportunity: Retired Military Officers

Over 80% of Americans trust the military to act in the public’s interest, but only 45% trust business leaders. So why do less than 1%* of S&P 500 Companies have former military leadership (General and Flag Officers) on their Board of Directors?

Why GFOs are an Asset

As company boards look to diversify, General and Flag Officers (GFOs) must not be overlooked. These individuals — retired military leadership with ranks anywhere from a 1-star brigadier general to a 4-star general like the Joint Chief of Staff Chairman — can be incredible assets to any board because of their background in leadership, risk, and people management.

GFOs are trained to analyze and assess risk and make a command decision — most often with much greater consequences than their civilian counterparts. They are keen experts at challenging the status quo and asking the right questions. One does not attain military rank without having a bias to act.

“The country has invested in these people for 30 years. It is a huge disservice to not take advantage of that talent pool and resource and knowledge base,” one GFO board member told me.

Another current board member at a publicly traded company added, “The military was prioritizing and requiring diversity measures by and large long before the corporate world, and career development emphasizes the importance of risk management, decisive actions and leadership. Who better than to serve as the senior advisors?”

Why GFOs Are Not on More Boards Now

In talking with current board members who are prior GFOs, I found three key reasons why so few GFOs are on boards now.

  1. Disconnect between the military and corporate world: The bottom line is that there is a communication gap. After a career of receiving assignments and orders, GFOs do not often understand how they fit into the corporate sector and have trouble “selling” themselves during the recruiting process. Military language doesn’t translate easily to corporate speak, and the corporate world largely does not understand how the military works. Something as simple as writing a resume requires a shift in thinking from listing assignments and commands to identifying skills for corporate functions such as HR, leadership, management, operations, or supply chain. A company board wants the board member to be brilliant on day one and doesn’t want to train you, so you need to learn to adapt and advocate for yourself and your skills.
  2. No clear path for ex-military: Another major reason GFOs aren’t landing on corporate boards is because there isn’t a clear path or networking opportunity for former military members seeking to transition to the corporate world. Classes or training for the shift from the military to the corporate world don’t always produce results — or just as importantly, the right network to learn about board opportunities. One GFO currently serving on a board told me that his journey was serendipitous. Despite taking courses to support his transition to business, it was only when he was recommended for a position that he learned about the opportunity and ended up on his first board. Once on the board, he said the opportunities were easier to find. This is especially true the higher ranked the GFO is. GFOs need help getting their foot in the door — which is where executive search firms can help.
  3. Pigeonholing: Finally, former GFOs are largely found in aerospace and defense. The transition to A&D makes sense and the network is similar. But, that pigeonholing means that a limited number of board seats are available. If industries outside of A&D consider and appoint GFOs, more seats will open up, offering more opportunities for these qualified service members. In addition, A&D boards shouldn’t be limited to just one former GFO on the board, as each military branch offers different, valuable skill sets and experience that can benefit the company.

How to Improve the Presence of GFOs on Boards

This is where Raines International differentiates itself. We pride ourselves on being Difference Makers™, and for us, that starts with having the right people. We are a retained executive search firm where each member in the Aerospace & Defense practice has served in the military or a government agency. This unique connection and ability to relate and translate experience with clients and candidates is how we can bridge that 1% gap.

Kiel Towns is a veteran, having served as a U.S. Army aviation officer, and is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

*Recent BoardEx data