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The Military: A Great Training Ground For Sales and Marketing Leaders

Sharon Gillenwater
by Sharon Gillenwater on Nov 6, 2017 2:24:54 PM

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Let’s face it, business can be a battlefield, especially when you carry a quota. So, as we near Veteran’s Day, we decided to look at the ways military training and service has led to the development of top sales and marketing leaders at some of the world’s biggest companies.

Required Skills For Success

Consider the skills and characteristics necessary for enterprise sales and marketing success in the modern era: Problem solving. Follow through. Teamwork. The ability to set and accomplish goals. Maturity. Responsibility. Strategic thinking and planning. Discipline. And, of course, leadership.

"I never realized how the strategic, problem solving, leadership, coaching, and quantitative data skills I honed in the Navy would translate to marketing, but they do quite well,” Mike Zuna, PIRCH’s Chief Marketing and Digital Officer told AdAge.  “That experience also strengthened my ability to serve as a member of a team and understand the role of each member and how that individual role is critical to the team’s overall accomplishment of the mission. That’s something our service members do each and every day, and that has translated very well to my current business role."

Strategic Thinking and Problem Solving

The mission-critical challenges service members on the front lines have to address can come quickly, ruthlessly, and with few resources at hand. In a high-stress sink-or-swim moment, they must be good improvisers, creative thinkers, and always keep the end goal in mind. Translate that into sales and marketing scenarios that may not be life or death but can feel that way when it comes to meeting goals. Having a veteran on your team—or running your team—who can utilize training and skills to be creative thinkers, improvise when necessary, and not be afraid of surprise challenges can only be a good thing.

Teamwork

Not even a four-star general can succeed without the troops. Military service requires teamwork—teamwork with people of all backgrounds, cultures, and levels of experience. What they have in common is the mandate to meet the goal. Service members are expected to collaborate, respect and work well with others, and motivate and inspire one another if they are going to succeed—and often, even survive. They will literally put their lives on the line for their military brothers and sisters. While putting yourself in the line of fire may not be necessary in an enterprise sales and marketing role, teams will only succeed if those same skills and qualities—and values—of teamwork are employed.

Skills acquisition

Whether a service member is in combat or developing new systems and technologies, there are skills specific to their roles that must be learned. Jackie Yeaney, CMO of Ellucian Company, earned a Bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Renssealaer Polytechnic Institute and took that education to the Air Force, where she served as a Captain developing and deploying intelligence systems during Operation Desert Storm. A self-professed geek, she planned to pursue a doctorate at MIT once she left the Air Force. Instead, she was encouraged to enroll in business school by her colonel, who pointed out that she was gifted in orchestrating complex activities. So, off she went to MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Eventually she landed at Delta Air Lines and asked to help lead consumer marketing. Numbers crunching couldn’t provide the solutions that were needed and she was faced with learning a new set of skills.

“Marketing definitely wasn't my thing, but I was willing to help however they needed me to,” she said. “But suddenly, my rulebook for achieving familiar results was turned upside down. That's when I learned—and quickly, because we had much work to do if we were going to pull Delta back up to where it deserved to be—that marketing can be as much a strategic, problem-oriented and user-centered function as engineering is, even if these two camps don't immediately recognize it."

Clearly, Yeaney picked up the marketing skills required and found a new career path that took her to HomeBanc Mortgage Corporation, EarthLink, Premiere Global Services, Red Hat, and now Ellucian Company as a marketing leader.

Personal Accountability

Passing the buck is clearly not a military value. Instead, it’s “service before self.” Troops are trained to accept full responsibility and accountability for their actions, whether they are low-ranking members or top officers. You want someone who will do everything they can to lay the groundwork for success—and assume responsibility when things go awry? A veteran will shoulder personal accountability.

We know that the military can develop superb leaders—and followers—who can serve well in civilian business life. Perhaps we assume that in such a structured environment there’s no room for the kind of creative or independent thinking so critical to sales and marketing. That assumption would be wrong.

The private workforce is well served by veterans, who not only come to the table with sharply honed skills from their time in the service, but also the intangibles that a career in the military have shaped and refined. Intangibles that are invaluable in a sales and marketing environment.

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Sharon Gillenwater
Written by Sharon Gillenwater
Sharon Gillenwater is the founder and editor-in-chief of Boardroom Insiders, which maintains an extensive database of the most in-depth executive profiles on the market, from Fortune 500 companies to independent non-profits, to help sales and marketing professionals build deeper relationships and close more deals with clients. Gillenwater is a long-time marketing consultant with expertise in marketing strategy, account-based marketing, and CXO engagement programs.
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