5 Great Team-Building Lessons From Military Veterans Who Became Successful Entrepreneurs

It shouldn’t surprise you that some of the top entrepreneurs in the U.S. are military veterans. As the daughter of an Air Force veteran, I heard about hard-earned leadership skills every day growing up. I’ve spoken to plenty of other veterans–many of whom have become CEOs. No matter the advice they give, it often has the same theme: Build strong teams.

A recent SBA study found that military service exhibits one of the largest marginal effects on self-employment, and veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than non-veterans.

Before I dive in to the best advice on building teams, I’d like to thank my Dad, our men and women in military service, and the military spouses who support them. For veterans and military spouses looking to start or grow a business, check out these resources from the National Association of Veteran-Serving Organizations, veteran entrepreneur network Bunker Labs, and the resources we keep within our company at  Alice.

For the rest of us civilians, in honor of Veterans Day, I’ve put together the top five tips that resonated with me the most about building strong teams:

1. Focus on the way you treat your employees.

“The way management treats associates is exactly how the associates will treat the customers.”–Sam Walton, founder, Walmart

The late great founder of Walmart and former Army intelligence officer Sam Walton had extreme focus on his frontline employees. We must learn from him and model kindness, leadership and accountability to both our customers and employees.

Think about what behavior motivates you and gives you a feeling of being fulfilled and use that same leadership with your own employees. I am most motivated by being around our customers. When I have been in the office too long, I very quickly go hang out and learn the needs of entrepreneurs and am inspired within minutes. 

2. Don’t request anything you wouldn’t be able to do yourself.

“Be part of your own team. My team has to tell me what they’ve done in the last 90 days that was impactful, and what value they hope to bring to the organization over the next 90 days. I then have to turn around and tell them the same thing.”–Phyllis Newhouse, CEO, Xtreme Solutions

Phyllis Newhouse, the CEO of Xtreme Solutions and retired Army non-commissioned officer (and service-disabled veteran) shared this about her team. She’s clear that she would not ask her team to do something she is not willing to do herself–nor should any of us as leaders.

When going through our first round of funding at HelloAlice.com, we celebrated the wins. I was also open about my disappointment through every “no.” It took the mystery out of our financing and showed a transparency and openness to failure. These days, we share our wins and failures as a team every Friday morning.

3. Take the time to explain objectives and the big picture. 

In the Navy I used to assume people would do what you say because of rank and hierarchy. I quickly learned that if you take the time to explain the bigger picture and purpose of an objective it helps motivate individuals to go above and beyond. Now even in the very fast pace world of technology, I believe you have to go slow to go fast.” –Mike Rosenbaum, EVP of Product, Salesforce 

Mike Rosenbaum is quick to be transparent about what he quickly learned as a Lieutenant in the Navy. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and having served in the Submarine USS Nevada Gold, he was clear that rank and leadership are two different things. He has carried over a management style to ensure everyone understands how they fit into the big picture.

In your business, even if you are moving at top speeds, take the time to sit with employees and answer questions of how they contribute to your large goals. I have made the mistake to assume individuals understand where we are heading. We now come together in all staff quarter reviews to ensure we are heading together towards a common vision. 

4. Showcase your motivation and passion.

“Businesses need good people, and that’s really the secret to FedEx. The virtues of good leadership trickle down, The Marine Corps teaches you how you motivate people, even to the point of giving their lives in battle.”–Fred Smith, founder, FedEx

Fred Smith shared this wisdom as the founder of FedEx and a Marine Corps officer that served two tours in Vietnam. It’s important that leadership provides passion for employees.

The older I get, the more I value loyalty as much as productivity. People generally aren’t loyal to companies–they’re loyal to their teammates. Like the Marines, you need to establish a culture of hard work from the beginning. Your team wants to help each other as much, if not more than, the boss.

5. Recruit a lot and always be hiring.

“Spend 30 percent of your time recruiting.  If you have the right people, he says, business model and product will follow.”–Adam Neumann, founder, WeWork

Born in Israel, Adam Neumann served as a Navy officer there for five years before moving to the U.S. and founding WeWork. Recruiting is notoriously one of the hardest parts of being a founder, and per Neumann’s suggestion, it should be one of your most critical focus areas. 

I’m always hiring, even when I have no positions open. If you see someone with talent you admire, start building a relationship with them–even before a job description becomes available.

I regularly see ex-military founders showcasing all of these skills–for example, I have my eye on the veteran entrepreneurs at startups like Jdog Junk Removal, Manifold Technology, Trumbull Unmanned, and re:3D. As for my dad, he believes in strong teams so much that he still works with some of the same employees who started with him in 1982.  He says that loyalty, kindness, and discipline are the keys. I’m so proud of him and the men and women who serve. Go team!

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Joan Guzman