From Battalions to Business Degrees: How a Military Background Prepares You for an MBA

EMLYON MBA interview

This article is sponsored by EMLYON Business School. Learn more about EMLYON’s course offerings.

If you happen to be one of the millions of veterans leaving the military for civilian life, you face a daunting challenge. You may have flown a gunship; you may have driven a tank; you may have commanded a unit…but how do you convince a corporate recruiter that  this counts as management experience

In 2012, Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, admitted to US military newspaper, Stars and Stripes that, “The civilian business community does not understand military service skills and how to translate them. But they want to.”

Business education can help those with a military background segue into the business world, by equipping them with the means to see how the skills from their previous career can be utilized in a different context. Simply put, an MBA teaches you to speak the language of business.

After years, or even decades in leadership positions, today’s veterans have considerable professional experience – which is very applicable to the business world. A military background, therefore, means that they are often well-prepared for management roles. Despite this, hiring executives are often skeptical and wonder how frontline experience translates to the front office.

To help uncover the challenges and advantages of an MBA education for a veteran, we spoke with Major Grégori Bassaud, who at the time of writing is pursuing an International MBA (IMBA) at EMLYON Business School in France.

Being a veteran can mean management experience

A married 43-year old father of two young children, Bassaud is a career officer. He spent 21 years in the French marine corps. His service was primarily spent in airborne units where he rose up the ranks as a platoon leader, a company commander and finally as a staff officer (deputy chief ops in his battalion). He’s been deployed abroad several times, including one-year tours in French Guyana and two-year tours in Réunion Island and Martinique. A skydive specialist, Bassuad has 600 freefall jumps to his name and has been awarded the National Order of Service Merit.

During his time at EMLYON, Bassaud has been impressed with the school’s lecturers, particularly with “their in-depth knowledge in their respective fields; their ability to make it simple whatever the difficulties may be.” He notes that he considered alternative graduate degrees which were less expensive than an MBA, but in the end was convinced that the return on investment would make it worthwhile. “The advantages include relevant events like the career forum, with more than 300 companies, regular testimonies from alumni through the IMBA mentoring program, which gives you access to people holding great positions. Being at EMLYON is already being in business, already being in a professional environment where you learn everyday through the context alone.”

1. What advantages do you think people with a military background have when they pursue an MBA?

Seniority and maturity, which offer two advantages. First real management experience: the average age of my cohort is barely 30. Only a few of my classmates have real management experience and even that is very limited – they only managed four to five people; I had to manage more than 200.

Secondly, both of your feet are on the ground. When you have gained professional experience in more than 15 countries, worked with a huge and various range of stakeholders – belligerents, allies from various countries, NGOs, diplomats, politicians, religious representatives – you have fewer certainties than your classmates. Your approach to case studies is more careful and exhaustive, you pay more attention to the details and your judgement is often rather softer than your colleagues’ – which might not be what people expect from those who’ve served in the military.

2. Why do you think people with a military background should consider earning an MBA?

A military background can be useful in terms of soft skills, but you also have to take into consideration your weaknesses when it comes to hard skills such as accounting, finance, marketing, and corporate strategy. Although an MBA does not provide deep insight into all of these fields, except strategy, the very broad range of topics covered gives you the sufficient tools to successfully take up your targeted position.

You should not ignore the benefit of spending a year with people younger than you when pursuing a full-time MBA. Despite their limited background, they have already gained interesting experiences and they are up-to-date, always aware of the latest technology, the latest apps, the latest online tools, etc. A year with them is an accelerated course of training in the latest trends.

3. How do you think networking is different for someone with a military background?

MBAs are not as widely acknowledged by employers in France as they might be elsewhere, on top of which companies can be hesitant when dealing with candidates with atypical profiles. Even companies that are aware of MBAs expect a classic career path – for instance, an engineering degree followed by an initial professional experience, then an MBA. When coming from the army, networking is much more complicated.You have to rely more on the network of former military personnel who made the switch than on the school’s alumni network. Due to this additional difficulty, having the intensive support of your career services office is useful.

4. After adhering to a regimented military timetable, how do you handle the challenges of attending study and social functions that happen in the late evening?

As a matter of fact, veterans are used to extended shifts. Being accustomed to early morning hours makes your life easier. You are always on time. Many of your classmates are not, despite regular warnings by the faculty. The main challenge is combining the workload with your family life, which is definitely a huge challenge. Only 10% of my classmates have children. The pace of the course is definitely set for monks, or at least for people with total freedom.

5. Studies suggest that people who are physically fit are also more successful in their careers. If this is true – do you think it’s another advantage for a military person?

The first thing to point out is not all military veterans remain physically fit. However, in my case, some of my classmates were surprised that I was so physically fit for my age. I also had a comparable feedback from a headhunter, telling me that it presented a good image. So I agree that it is a kind of presentation skill.

Bassaud is part of EMLYON’s class of 2015.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Written by John Bankston

Content writer John began his career as an investigative reporter and is a prolific educational writer alongside his work for us, authoring over 100 nonfiction books for children and young adults since 2000.

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