Monday, September 9, 2013
From military to MBA
Looking to apply to an MBA program, Heidi Sandell faced a common problem among veterans.
"I had a hard time translating my skills into something the business world could use and appreciate," says Sandell, who served four years in the U.S. Navy.
When she told some business schools that she had served as navigator aboard ships deployed in the Pacific and the Persian Gulf, responses ran from blank stares to the verbal equivalent of a shrug.
Since the ship's navigator is responsible for all aspects of voyage planning and operations, those responses didn't bode well for the schools' comprehension of what military veterans have to offer.
But when Sandell checked out the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, she found a place where veterans seeking an MBA are welcomed with a package of financial, peer, and programmatic support. The Veterans Initiative helps qualified veterans navigate the transition to what is often a completely different world, but one where they can continue contributing to the nation and society.
In her two 8-month deployments, Sandell performed duties that required "meeting short deadlines with a high level of accuracy," she says. She was responsible for ensuring the success of amphibious landing training exercises in the Black Sea and Arabian Peninsula. She picked launching sites and balanced the requirements of the Marines going ashore with those of the ship, taking into account weather, time of day, tides—"the same factors as the D-Day planning, but on a small scale.
Cool under pressure
Philip Miller sums up the maturity of veterans in this anecdote from when he worked in the private sector and supervised a former Navy SEAL. "He was working on a team that had to present a corporate strategy to the CEO. I dropped in and asked how it was going. He said, 'I'm not cold or wet, I'm not bleeding, and I'll sleep in my own bed tonight. I'm okay.'"
"It was stressful because when we had an operation, I was the last point of failure, the last one responsible to the mission commander," says Sandell, now a first-year MBA student at the Carlson School. "At Carlson I've learned that I actually know a lot about project management and managing people."
The initiative has just begun serving the third class of entering MBA students. Since its inception, the number of veterans per year class has risen from two to 16. All four branches of military service, plus the National Guard and reserves, are represented. The school's Veterans Scholarship fund, which aims to help at least 15 veterans per year, has received more than $8 million toward its goal of $10 million.
"Our average veteran gets about 60 percent of the maximum support available under the GI Bill," says Philip Miller, the school's assistant dean for MBA programs. "We supplement that. Not all the veteran students receive financial support, but even without it I think we're an attractive program."
We want you
In April 2012 the Carlson School brought former Navy Commander Charles Altman aboard to recruit veterans to the MBA programs. Altman, who served three years in the Middle East, offers not only expertise in presenting the school to prospective students with military service, but a presence—someone who understands the veterans' experience and speaks their language.
"There's a translation issue," says Altman. "Say there's a commissioned officer who's been in the military 10 years, and [after leaving service] they kind of get lost. It's a difficult pill to swallow if you have to worry about tuition, rent, classes, your family, and so forth.
"But we tell them. 'If you can get in, you'll get tuition and stipend support.' I was at a meeting of commissioned officers, and this message really [got their attention]."
"I've personally had the experience of recruiting military [in the private sector] and here, and you can see the struggles," says Philip Miller, assistant dean for MBA programs. "They need programming as well as monetary support."
Beyond money, the school gives veteran MBA students a lockstep program that gets them into the business world. And its Carlson Enterprise programs give all students hands-on experience helping real-world clients manage their businesses.
Miller calls the Enterprises an example of the "much more experiential and intimate" atmosphere at Carlson, which enrolls 100-125 students per year in the Full-Time MBA program, compared to many others in the top 25, which admit 300 to 900.
Crucible for life
At the core of the Veterans Initiative is the recognition that the skills and experience of veterans will stand them in good stead in the often rough-and-tumble world of business. None who were interviewed for this article mentioned the most obvious stress—being shot at—but Altman said that at least three have had that experience, as has he.
Andrew Tsai, a former Army infantry team leader, describes himself as "more passive" when he entered the military. He served, among other missions, as a gunner patrolling for rockets, artillery fire, or roadside IEDs during Operation New Dawn, the pullout phase of U.S. involvement in Iraq.
Birth of an initiative
The Veterans Initiative was born when alums Bill Van Dyke, retired CEO of the Donaldson Co., and Bill Walter, an avid Gophers booster, decided to do something to help veterans who, like Van Dyke and Walter on their return from service in Vietnam, were having a tough time transitioning to new lives and new jobs. They approached Carlson School Dean Sri Zaheer and said they'd like to do something to help veterans and the school. They asked if programming and financial support for veterans could be put in a package, and the rest is history.
"There's a viewpoint that military people tend to be one type of another," he says. "But we have more common denominators with the rest of the student body than with each other. For example, the way I learned to manage my team in the infantry may be different from the way it's done in other branches of the Army, let alone other branches of the service."
There is a certain commonality of experience among veterans, says Ernie Lietzan, a former Navy pilot and president of the school's Military Veterans Club.
"We do have the courage of our convictions, and experience talking to large groups and putting across our point of view," Lietzan says. "But a lot of what we see now is for the first time. For example, I had no accounting or finance background, so that's very different."
Very different, indeed, from landing a plane on an aircraft carrier at night, as Lietzan did during deployments in the Pacific and Persian Gulf. He now focuses his leadership and other skills on strategy and business development and has interned with Polaris Defense.
"It's not a matter of skills, it's the lens through which your skills are viewed," Lietzan observes. "From day one we're taught teamwork, team management, crew resource management, flexibility, communications, and situational awareness."
Altman says veteran students have impressed the Carlson School faculty
"One says, 'I love veterans—they sit in the front row, raise their hand, and ask intelligent questions,'" Altman says. "Another prof says that whenever he needs somebody to run a group, he knows a veteran will volunteer."
First-year student Robert Paulus, a former Marine captain, was a platoon commander focused on counter-insurgency in Iraq. In Afghanistan, he was responsible for planning, coordinating and clearing planes, choppers, etc. for action.
"These were complex situations," he says. "I had responsibility for all this as a 24-year-old." After seven years, his last position was at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, where he taught newly commissioned Marine infantry officers the elements of officership and requirements of a provisional rifle platoon.
"The people at Carlson have been very understanding and willing to translate that experience into business," Paulus says. "They're very open to helping us define what our experience means."
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org