Friday, October 10, 2014 at 1pm

SEAL-Tested: Military MBAs

Navy Seal top business schools

Being an admissions consultant in San Diego, California, offers numerous  benefits, not the least of which are sun and surf. But another is the city's significant military profile, notably the Navy and Marines, which makes itself felt in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The city's Coronado Island, for example, is one of the headquarters for the Navy SEALs – the US Navy's legendary special operations force, famous most recently for abbreviating Osama Bin Laden's life.

What do the SEALs have to do with business school? Just this: knowing how much top business schools admire military applicants, I started wondering how many of this elite, highly trained and disciplined group had gone on to earn a military MBAs at elite businesstop business schools. After all, wouldn't survivors of the SEALs' punishing training process (said to weed out 90%) feel right at home in the grueling selective application process for elite businesstop business schools?

LinkedIn search reveals Navy SEALs attend top business schools

To find out I turned to LinkedIn, focusing only on members who stated erstwhile membership on a SEAL team (this is usually communicated very simply, typically like this "SEAL Team US: Navy SEAL Team One"). I excluded the many members who claimed to have held support or administrative roles with the SEALs but had not actually passed the SEALs' test. I also excluded Navy SEALs who have not pursued MBAs.

What I found does seem to suggest a correlation (quite unscientific, of course) between LinkedIn members who were once active SEAL team members and who later went on to earn elite MBAs. That is, of former SEALs on LinkedIn who have earned MBAs, elite MBAs are far more likely than not. Specifically, of the 24 MBA-credentialed former SEALs I identified on LinkedIn (there are doubtless more), roughly 16 earned or are earning MBAs from top 15 business schools: Stanford Graduate School of Business, Harvard Business School, Wharton, MIT Sloan, Duke Fuqua, Berkeley Haas, Columbia Business School, the University of Virginia Darden Business School, UCLA Anderson, Kellogg Business School and so on. HBS was the most common (4), followed by Stanford GSB (2), Wharton (2), and Kellogg (2). And even those MBA-credentialed SEALs who didn't study at top 15 schools managed to earn degrees from respected programs like Rice, USC, Texas McCombs, and Indiana. Only a very small handful earned a  military MBAs from lower- or non-ranked schools like Pepperdine, Heriot-Watt, Cal State San Marcos, and Saint Leo. And, unsurprisingly, of those former SEALs with a top 5 military MBAs, a significant number later assumed senior executive roles: CEO, CFO, COO, co-founder, partner,  director, managing director, etc.

Does this prove anything? Only perhaps that a more exhaustive and scientific study of the career fortunes of Navy SEALs would be interesting and more than likely not disappointing: those who are motivated and tough enough to earn selection to the SEALs probably continue to excel in other professional challenges.  

Navy SEALs talk about their military MBA

Take Currie Crookston, a former Navy SEAL Lieutenant Commander and Virginia Darden MBA. "I realized that when I got out of the teams I would need to make a living," he told me, "which meant making money which would be highly dependent on how good I was at business. Business school would give me a fast start on that knowledge… I thought [an MBA from a top b-school] would help, but did not really understand it until I saw it. B-school taught me the basic language of business – the grammar, spelling, punctuation. With this basis of knowledge I have been able to add greatly to my understanding of business and my value to companies, investors and the like." After working at A.T. Kearney, Crookston moved to a medical device manufacturer running a business unit, graduated to CEO of an MRI services provider for veterinary hospitals, and is now a principal at real outstate developer Allegheny Development Partners. With a militaryn MBA, Currie says, "You develop a confidence that you can make things happen, nothing is hopeless. This has been invaluable to me beyond just business school, in my own company. There have been many times when it has been the end, and we have figured something out, that made it a new beginning instead."

Or take Jeff Sabados, a former officer in charge of two Navy SEAL platoons. After earning an MIT Sloan MBA, Sabados has gone on to co-found C3Nano, N12 Technologies, and Resilience Therapeutics – all in the space of less than five years. "My biggest takeaway," he told me, "would be [that] an MBA provides a former Navy SEAL a transition period (two-year break) and a network and a network of opportunities. For me, it also provided $1B of research on a campus (I am now an entrepreneur leading an MIT spin-out company)." That said,  "MIT is a meritocracy," Jeff notes, "and the first semester core classes were intense and incredibly hard." But a Sloan MBA ultimately "gave me a foot in the door to technology-based venture capital."

Even Navy SEALs can't afford to rest on their laurels, however. When I asked Sabados whether being a SEAL was any benefit to him in business school or business, he was unambiguous: "None! No one cares...it does help you get interviews, but business is a terribly competitive environment and companies that don't have training tracks want immediate, relevant experience." 

About Paul Bodine

Paul Bodine is the founder and president of Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting and the author of Great Applications for Business School. A graduate of University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins, he has been helping applicants gain admission to elite business, medical and graduate schools since 1997.

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