Military-Experienced Executives Series: Bob Wilt

Bob Wilt, Executive Vice President for a Fortune 150 Company, is an executive leader who has led companies through good times and bad. He is also an Iraq combat veteran, graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and Harvard Business School. When Bob graciously agreed to share his time with for an installment of the Military-Experienced Executives Series, we discussed his insight on executive business leadership through the military-experienced lens.

Q: What is the biggest misconception about hiring West Point Graduates, or military officers, into industry?

“That military leaders are one-dimensional leaders. Sure, we need aspects of that in some situations, but most military leaders are mature personalities who escalate actions only when absolutely necessary. They typically operate by consensus-building rather than the command-and-control stereotype,” Bob said.

I mentioned that I also hear from prospective employers that military-experienced leaders are limited by procedures and are not free thinkers. Bob was quick to mention, “The officers leading in Iraq and Afghanistan are dealing with multifaceted and hugely complex issues with multiple stakeholders. There are no procedures for what to do – they are writing the procedures as they go.” We agreed that if a business needs someone to create the procedures, improve the procedures or direct the procedures, a military-experienced leader is uniquely qualified.

Q: What is the biggest leadership lesson you learned at West Point that you have applied to business decisions?

Bob said he learned to take care of his personnel with integrity. Bob recalled a situation where there was to be a restructuring of their business that unfortunately led to the layoff of thousands. “I had to make the tough call and let our people know what I knew when I knew it,” Bob said. He felt that his team needed to know the news that was coming as soon as possible so they could make life decisions with as much information as was known at a given time. Bob strives to build credibility through acting with integrity, a philosophy that he learned at West Point.

Q: What did Harvard Business School teach you that was contrary to West Point’s teachings?

Bob explained, “Most of what was taught complimented West Point when it came to moral leadership. There are differences between selfless service to Country versus the profit motive of business, but both stress that when you are put into a position of influence, it’s important to do something with it.” He also mentioned, “Harvard was the perfect finishing school to learn the language of business.”

Q: Did your West Point background help you plan and execute business strategy?

I especially liked Bob’s answer to this question – it concerned the efficiency of decision making: “At West Point, so much was expected of you and we quickly learned to manage our time. We had to make a decision with 80% or less of the information. In business you often need to move fast. Our rapid cadence depends on our ability to make a decision that is good enough and move on.” It’s clear there is no “analysis paralysis” here. That and a focus on prioritization have helped Bob keep his productivity and results at a high level.

Q: What military leadership lessons were echoed at Harvard Business School?

Bob said quickly “integrity and people” and that Harvard Business School was “the West Point of Capitalism.” He shared with me that 8% of his HBS class were military-experienced leaders. Also, Bob related that the military and HBS have had a working relationship since WWII.

This led me to ask if Bob thought that investing in hiring JMOs (Junior Military Officers) delivered a good return to which Bob replied, “Absolutely yes. I value diversity and I would not flood the organization with military-experienced leaders, although I am accused from time to time of recruiting Junior Bobs!” He said that there were none better prepared for making a decision without perfect information than JMOs, and that this candidate profile should definitely be included in any global recruiting strategy.

We then covered the importance of putting the right military-experienced candidate in the right position. Bob has experienced the impact of a business he inherited that had major challenges, partly because their military-experienced hires were put in the wrong positions. The way to combat this, Bob said, was to “make the communication two-way. The JMOs need to talk through their expectations as does the company.” We closed out this topic with Bob recounting the exceptional results his latest batch of JMO leaders are achieving in his business.

Bobby Whitehouse

Image courtesy of West Point – The U.S. Military Academy