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Today, the business world is strife with cut-throat competition and a “grow or perish” environment. Therefore in business too, WAR-like strategy, planning, and execution are pivotal. From the strategy for gaining customers and growing, to winning the war for talent, to retention of talent and keeping them engaged through various measures. Many lessons can be learned from the armed forces on the tenets of strategy implementation, people management and leadership.

While the armed services are often thought of as rigid and hierarchical organizations, there is much to learn about purpose, values, teamwork, empowerment and much more. Professionals in the corporate or business world can draw inspiration and learn about management and leadership from the experience of the armed forces. Especially in these times of tough competition and adversity.

In my years of serving in the Indian Navy, as a fighter pilot by specialization and a leader of people operating sophisticated machines, I was constantly learning and training for battle, while also managing processes, systems and operations. I have tried my best to connect the learnings from my military experience to the needs of business and my role in it, resulting in a challenging and rewarding leadership stint so far in the corporate world.

Creating a Sense of Purpose 

There is a lot of focus today, in the business world on People Management. At the beginning of the last century, some of these processes existed in the Armies that managed thousands of troops, though it was not studied as rigorously as today in the corporate sector. It is hence not a coincidence, that many of the leadership and behavioural assessment techniques of today took birth in the militaries of yore.

In the armed forces, HR is not a separate function, and you are involved in the people function management at every level. For instance, as a young navy pilot, I was given a group of 15 – 20 sailors for whom I had to take responsibility: for their careers, welfare, and other developmental aspects. You learn on the job. In my case, I was put in charge of a group of cooks and stewards, and I was responsible for taking care of their promotion, leave requirements, welfare, development and even counselling. One had to ensure that the dossiers were updated and available for the development of individuals. That was people management and engagement at the micro-level.

In the corporate world, nurturing a capable talent pool is key to the business. Competition is out there to poach your talent. What should managers do to keep their talent pool intact? One of the deeper drivers of engagement is a sense of purpose – creating a Purpose for employees and keeping them engaged.

With the great sense of purpose of protecting your country, in the defence services, you are willing to die for your country and make the ultimate sacrifice. You serve to protect without expecting anything in return. The corporate organization has to find and define the right (higher) purpose to create that sense of pride for employees to come to work every day and talk about what they do and why. As people managers, we must constantly innovate to find newer ways of energizing the team with passion and drive by constantly looking beyond the horizon. This will help elevate the team capabilities beyond the daily deliverables. 

Discipline and Focus in Execution

My initial career was my childhood dream come true of becoming a fighter pilot in the Indian Navy. The role of a fighter pilot is very challenging, and more so, in the Navy. The discipline and focus it takes to land a fighter aircraft on an Aircraft Carrier in the middle of the ocean demands the highest standards of discipline, skill, and focus. It is said that after returning from the Moon, when Neil Armstrong (a former Navy pilot) was asked as to what was the most exciting moment of his life, he said, “My first night landing on the deck of the aircraft carrier”! (And not his first step on the Moon!) Leading a unit in such an environment teaches even richer lessons in leadership, operations and development of people.

Leading & Believing

Leading a Squadron and also getting an opportunity to be the Captain of a ship presented me with leadership challenges, which involved taking ‘life or death’ decisions on several occasions. Out in the ocean, the options in a situation are sometimes few and there is very little time to make your choices and make your decision. Once, off the Philippines coast, a Typhoon warning was issued to us. As Captain of the ship, I had to give the decision – we had to choose between going into harbour and taking damage to the ship if the Typhoon hit there, or going out to sea and getting caught in it. We studied the weather data and took the best course of action we thought, and moved fast. We got away but still sustained some material damage and injuries to people. Situations like these, where life and material loss can be at stake, have had a deep impact on honing my leadership skills – how to arrive at the right decision in very little time, without having an opportunity to seek someone else’s counsel. Making the right choices also become the “make-or-break” points in business.

The armed forces have also imbibed in me the elemental role that risk-taking plays in leadership. Once, we were docked off the coast of Somalia, where a civil war was raging. When we ran out of supplies and water, it led me to visit a harbour on the strife-torn coast to get the supplies (we were running out of fresh water on board), alert yet fully vulnerable to danger. It is a unique feeling to walk in a war-zone where bullets may fly any moment. Unlike in the corporate world, “attrition” in the defence can mean your own life and the lives of those you lead.

As HR leaders, we also need to understand fundamentals of business and what growth and profitability mean. My experience in the defence services taught me people and human resource management and leadership in a very deep sense, while my B School program and experience on the job taught me about ‘Business.’ Understanding the fundamentals of a balance sheet and learning the nuances of the business domains like delivery, marketing and sales were of utmost importance. The B-school program and more importantly the learning I got on the job as part of growing organizations helped me to educate myself effectively on these aspects.

However, the Indian Navy taught me leadership and management and helped develop my traits like commitment, strategic thinking and execution, not without empathy, and most importantly – integrity, which needs to be the strongest trait of a People and HR leader.

To summarize, some of the key takeaways from the “cockpit to corporate” journey :

  1. Establish a higher purpose, to energize and motivate – which the leaders and employees can identify with – try and connect it with the customer’s need, if possible.
  2. Spend time on strategy creation and study all courses of possible action in detail before creating an execution plan.
  3. Discipline and focus on the end result will always bring success. Obstacles will always exist. Work patiently to overcome them. No pain, no gain!
  4. Learn to take clever risks. Fortune favours the brave, as they say. An old saying paraphrased goes something like: “He who does not fly will never crash, but will also go nowhere….”
  5. Making the right choice and acting quickly is vital. Use all available information and analyse the situation, but don’t be caught in the “analysis-paralysis” trap. Take the Best Course of Action. Move fast. Speed and agility are critical in business too.
  6. Understanding the “business of Business” is absolutely vital for any functional leader, no matter what function.
  7. Integrity – a non-negotiable element, always.

 ——- Watch this space for more! ——

Written by Niketh Sundar

on 26 Nov 2019

Chief People Officer, Quest Global. 
Niketh Sundar joined Quest in June 2013. He leads the HR imperatives of organizational growth and transformation, capability augmentation and sustainable leadership, creating an engaged workforce, and honing HR readiness to empower business success across geographies.