01 Jun 2015

The Military and the MBA

Alumni on the intersection of business and service
Re: Maura Sullivan (MBA 2009); Chris Howard (MBA 2003); Rich Kondo (MBA 1999); Everett Spain (DBA 2014); Scott Snook; James Cash


Edited by April White

A US military convoy was halted on a road north of Fallujah, among the most dangerous cities in Iraq. There was a possible IED in its path. They needed orders: Should they reroute? At the same moment, another Marine convoy discovered a possible land mine near Abu Ghraib prison. The convoy requested assistance to inspect and dismantle the threat, but there were no additional personnel to send. Dilemmas such as this happened hundreds of times a day throughout Iraq, recalls Maura Corby Sullivan (MBA/MPA 2009), then a 25-year-old Marine Corps lieutenant. “Every leader during that time had to quickly become confident with making life-and-death decisions in the absence of complete information,” she says. Each moment of hesitation or indecision could place Marines’ lives in danger. “The only wrong answer was not to make a decision at all.” That day, the first convoy was rerouted, another mission was scrubbed to assist near Abu Ghraib, and both convoys returned safely.

It wasn’t until Sullivan was sitting in an HBS classroom several years later that she fully recognized that the decision-making skills she learned as a young Marine officer were not all that different than those valued in a CEO. The stakes on the ground in Iraq were higher than in a boardroom, but in the military or in business, a leader must have the ability to make critical decisions in the absence of complete information.

Sullivan’s is just one of hundreds such stories HBS alumni tell about the intersection of business and the military. Alumni rolls include almost 2,000 self-identified military veterans or active-duty personnel from across all the School’s educational programs and from around the world. In any given year, about 5 percent of HBS MBA students are military—active duty, reservist, or veteran.

The relationship between the military and Harvard University is often viewed by the public as a fraught one—from the Vietnam War debates of 1969 until 2011, Harvard College banned ROTC—but Harvard Business School has long recognized the synergy between military experience and business education. In fact, the Executive Education Advanced Management Program was founded in 1945 as a war retraining program, and 25 percent of the first class was World War II veterans. Today, the MBA Admissions Outreach team hosts military-specific recruiting events, including a virtual seminar to reach military personnel stationed overseas.

Real-life decision-making experience is just one example of the many ways that students with military experience enrich the MBA classroom, says MBA Class of 1958 Senior Lecturer Scott Snook, a retired Army colonel and HBS graduate, who serves as an unofficial advisor to veteran and active-duty students. “The level of responsibility and opportunity to lead very early in their careers is what sets them apart from most of their peers,” he says.

For Army Colonel Everett Spain (DBA 2014), who served in Kosovo and Iraq, it’s equally clear why military veterans are attracted to business school: “In business, you can continue to be a leader of character in an investment bank or a Fortune 500 manufacturing corporation or a nonprofit. That’s a pretty powerful way to continue serving your fellow man.”

Next: Maura Corby Sullivan (MBA/MPA 2009) — Taking lessons learned in Iraq to HBS and Washington »
Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2009, Section I
follow @maurasullivan
Class of MBA 2003, Section K
follow @DrChrisHoward
Class of MBA 1973, Section J
Class of MBA 1993, Section H
Class of MBA 1999, Section C

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