From the Service to the Supply Chain

Tags: Education & Careers, Military Logistics

Can you really model best practices from the military? After all, they invented the acronym SNAFU. But companies are finding veterans' experience and skills help promote ship-shape supply chains.

The phrase, "Your best bet, hire a vet" still resonates with many hiring managers and human resources departments. Today, momentum is positive in the overall job market for military veterans.

Fifty-six percent of employers surveyed by Atlanta-based recruiter Lucas Group in early 2010 said they plan to hire new employees during the next six months. That is good news for the military veterans in Lucas' talent pool, who are increasingly in demand.

"March 2010 was the first month since September 2008 when we placed more military veterans than the same month in the previous year," says Bryan Zawikowski, vice president of Lucas' military transition division.

"When companies hire a veteran, they get one of the brightest minds in the country, someone who has received the best leadership training available and applied that knowledge in severe environments and stressful situations," says Mike Katzorke, principal of Phoenix-based Bryce Consulting Group, which has hired or placed a number of former military personnel in logistics and supply chain jobs.

The scope and scale of military operations provide its officers with logistics experiences not found anywhere else. For example, Mike McAllister, Indiana National Guard veteran and driver sales representative for Con-way Freight, has been deployed with infantry units setting up contingency operations bases. These military facilities comprise municipal solid waste operations and water systems, and maintain a police department. "It's like running a city of 7,500 people," McAllister says.

Through this type of intense and unique military experience, veterans gain leadership skills and knowledge that help them excel in their civilian roles. Here's a look at some of the military tactics veterans can bring to their private sector logistics jobs.

MILITARY TACTIC: ADAPTABILITY

In our grandfathers' day, the military famously put mechanics to work as cooks and cooks as mechanics. Adaptability and creativity are still essential traits for enlisted men and women serving as logisticians.

"Military logisticians accomplish the same five R's of supply chain management—getting the right product to the right place, at the right time, at the right price, and at the right cost—but in an environment where supply chain failure can literally cost lives," notes Stephen Gould of Gould and Associates Global Services, a Beachwood, Ohio-based project management group handling corporate and government contracts.

Military logisticians are often better at thinking outside the box than their civilian counterparts, who may be forced to adhere to accepted business methods, adds Gould, a former automotive logistics executive, Marine reservist, and Iraq War veteran. "If it accomplishes the mission, an unorthodox approach in the military is tolerated—and, in some cases, rewarded," he says.

Military logisticians are highly trained at doing whatever it takes to accumulate the data necessary to set an effective strategy for a specific assignment, then executing that plan—even in extreme settings and circumstances.

"Military logisticians need to be 'Semper Gumby'—always flexible," says Gould.

MILITARY TACTIC: UNITY OF PURPOSE

Best practices in military logistics aren't about warehouse management systems or load optimization processes, according to Roger Kallock, a private sector executive who was tapped to become the U.S. government's Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Logistics. The key to success in the military, he says, is "a passion for getting things done."

Kallock has witnessed military logistics in action—from the most senior and strategic levels down to serving individual soldiers in battle. Despite the differences between career active-duty military and junior officers, they all share a core value: a sense of mission.

Because a mission's success depends on joint effort, military leaders and individual service members are trained to work together, resulting in less parochialism by function, says Kallock. This is reflected in the private sector when strategic goals are clearly defined and widely communicated.

The private sector may have an advantage because it is an environment that carries less risk than the armed forces, but military officers are accustomed to a sense of urgency that drives action—and they are trained to act.

MILITARY TACTIC: CUSTOMER ORIENTATION

Focusing on the needs of the customer isn't a foreign concept to military logistics leaders. It comes not only from a sense of mission, but also a clear vision of strategic goals. Recent military missions have been in battle or disaster relief and, in both cases, the "customers"—individuals at the end of the supply chain—are at risk if the system fails.

"The penalty for failure in the civilian world is typically cost," says Gould. But cost is secondary when lives are at stake.

This attention to customer needs translates to a service orientation in the corporate world.

MILITARY TACTIC: TEAM BUILDING

There's a misconception that military leaders are strictly authoritarian, but, in fact, they are excellent at collaborative team building in the face of a future threat, says Katzorke. Both leadership and collaborative skills are needed, he explains, because service members will only follow a leader they respect.

"Good leadership is not about management style," says Katzorke. "It's about adapting that style to fit the current situation."

An authoritative style of leadership can be appropriate in a corporate environment where situations are constantly changing and quick action is needed. But a leader in the private sector also has to employ collaborative team building to keep the organization focused on reaching its long-term strategic and financial goals.

"Military-trained leaders can develop a vision for meeting big-picture goals, and help their subordinates learn to manage near-term issues," says Katzorke. "Once they are trained, these workers will adapt to solving immediate issues almost autonomously."

Veterans also excel at establishing a feedback loop to stay linked to and communicate with corporate management. By contrast, Katzorke says, managers who don't have the type of training military officers receive may rely too heavily on higher-ups to make decisions or, conversely, be too inclined to act without their superiors' approval.

Maintaining the big-picture focus helps former military officers lead effectively and get the organization to work together as a team.

"Leaders should be able to let shop floor employees know how their work affects customer concerns," Katzorke says.

Kallock helped engineer a similarly focused change management initiative at the Department of Defense, designed to get people thinking about how their work affects and supports individual soldiers.

MILITARY TACTIC: CORE VALUES

As a full-time active duty officer and career member of the National Guard, Mike McAllister, a driver sales representative for Con-way Freight, learned the discipline and leadership qualities involved in taking charge. He developed skills in various specialties over the years, but, in the end, he returns to the core Army values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.

It is these character traits that best equip veterans to succeed and inspire excellence in corporate supply chain management.