Military-Experienced Executives Series: Ben Faw

Ben Faw is a tech leader in San Francisco. His background includes serving as the Marketing Solutions Account Executive at a leading tech company as well as earning a Harvard MBA. Now, Ben is part of a group of innovative investors who started BestReviews.

Ben is also a military-experienced graduate of West Point, Airborne Ranger and a member of the Top 40 Under 40 Military Class of 2013. So I was thrilled when he agreed to speak with me about military experience and the technology industry.

1.) What were the biggest leadership lessons you learned at West Point that you use in tech business today?

Leading by example, putting other people and their efforts first, prioritization and time management are lessons drilled-in at West Point through daily repetition. These have proven to be valuable life skills for success in every environment I have been in so far. West Point, and the other service academies, offer a unique environment for soft-skill development.

2.) How do those lessons compare or contrast with those learned at Harvard Business School?

HBS put a big focus on leadership that reinforced the lessons from West Point but also helped to refine them to a business setting. If an MBA went into the military, they would still need to learn the military’s way of execution. The same holds true in business. We have these great soft-skills but to scale a sustainable competitive advantage in the corporate side, you must be able to speak the language. HBS gave me the opportunity to ponder the idea of creating what I had in the military in the private sector.

Establishing a peer group of trusted advisors, an activity encouraged at West Point and HBS, has been a major pillar in my personal and professional business success. To this day, my network fields questions, provides feedback and allows me to learn vicariously through the experience of others.

3.) What do you think about military backgrounds fitting into technology companies?

I’ll start with the challenges and they are three fold. First there are few military-experienced leaders in technology compared to traditional business – the mid-level managers that I’m sure you’re familiar with – who have crossed the chasm and champion military-experienced hiring. Second there is a concern on technical skills, the military doesn’t produce software developers and that is the bulk of a tech company’s initial hiring. And third, since most of the initial growth excludes veterans it creates a negative feedback loop where the growing employee networks do not include veterans.

Fortunately, the other side of the coin is the growing number of military-experienced leaders in tech with some of the most established and branded tech companies leading the trend. There are great fits for military-experienced professionals in tech in the traditional roles of finance, marketing, sales and customer support. Areas where getting stuff done quickly, autonomy and leveraging the other soft-skills are where vets crush it. I also see a lot of potential on the product side for the same reasons.

4.) Why are military-experienced leaders a good fit for tech companies?

In addition to the previously discussed soft-skills, military-experienced leaders are loyal. This is a huge differentiator between them and the standard applicant pool. The current normal in tech is to have your people move across the street every couple of years where veterans tend to be in it for more than the money. If more technology companies opened their doors to veterans, I believe the veteran pool would reciprocate that loyalty.

Military-Experienced Executives Series5.) Did you believe your military background had anything to do with starting your company?

Sure. The culmination of experiences that made the timing right for me to step into this venture began in the military. Starting a business was the place where my development intersected with the right team. It was the logical next step to stretch my professional growth and an opportunity to join a positive group of smart and trustworthy entrepreneurs to make something exceptional.

6.) What would you most want to share with Corporate America’s CEOs about hiring military?

Digging deep, I believe there are two factors that are huge in business that most CEOs miss when it comes to hiring military. The first is innovation. The military-experienced leader is wrongfully stereotyped as a one dimensional play-follower who cannot think outside the box when the reality is, as you well know, most vets operate in an autonomous, austere environment where change frequently challenges the playbook. This is a lot like making money in tech. There is no established play book and innovation is critical to success. I recall in my previous role, coming in as an outsider and applying my innovation, I revamped priorities around business accounts and established best practices – military-leader 101 stuff – that in a couple months, made the company millions in revenue. This is a real example where my military innovation, applied to the business moved the needle forward in a tangible revenue generating action.

The second and possibly even more overlooked is resilience. In business the challenge in innovation is putting someone on a project that will fail 20 or more times before they succeed. But you don’t see this on position descriptions. Business leaders need to assess how much rigor is involved in a project and in cases where it is most required. I bet that if corporate America put more veterans in charge of their impossible projects, innovation would accelerate in their business.

Bobby Whitehouse

Images courtesy Ben Faw