Entrepreneur

5 lessons the military can teach you about running a business

Millitary
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Mike Coney has served as president and CEO of Unitrends since 2009.

In 1974, I commenced a six-year career with the U.S. Army Security Agency. Along the way, I learned a thing or two about perseverance, discipline, teamwork and vigilance. When I entered the business world in 1980, I quickly found that this knowledge could be applied to achieve personal and corporate success. More than 35 years later, I still draw upon five important lessons the military taught me – lessons that I believe executives at startups and SMEs can also employ to achieve success.

1) A small team of motivated individuals can beat a much larger, well-provisioned adversary.

Throughout my tenure with the Army, every single person I served with was cross-trained in more than one area of expertise. For example, a radio operator was also a practiced medic, a linguist was also a proficient sharpshooter, and so on. This method ensured that all bases were covered and all duties were fulfilled in the event a unit’s designated expert was unavailable. I quickly learned that having a small team of highly motivated, skilled individuals can overcome a much larger, well-provisioned adversary.

When I joined Unitrends as chief executive officer in 2009, the company was grossly underinvested and understaffed. To compensate, I made sure the leadership team, which consisted of three people, including myself, was cross-trained on several different areas of the business. I was a vice president of sales by day and CEO by night, while simultaneously managing human resources and our channel program. Our chief technology and strategy officer was also running product management, engineering, marketing and customer support. Our chief financial officer handled all things finance – from strategic planning and analysis to more mundane tasks, like billing and records keeping. And we were all knowledgeable about each other’s responsibilities to ensure we had all areas of the business covered at all times.

Being understaffed is not an unusual problem for a startup or SME – in fact, it’s to be expected. But, remember, quality beats quantity every time. Surround yourself with a team of superior operators, and the rest will take care of itself.

2) Value resourcefulness over resources.

I served in the Army during the post-Vietnam era – a time when we had half of the resources we really needed to execute. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, we still found a way to get the job done because there was no room for failure. We did so through creativity and innovation and found that our guerilla tactics often outsmarted even the most well-provisioned opponents.

The same holds true for the business world. Companies that employ inventive individuals that, despite limited resources, still find a way to reach their goals and advance the business will be most successful. No matter what your financial situation, create a culture that values resourcefulness over resources. A good idea is better than a bag full of cash any day.

3) There’s no “I” in team.

One of the first things you learn when joining the military is that it’s not about any one individual, but about your unit as a whole. Units are comprised of experts in a variety of fields to ensure the strongest team possible. In battle, you are only as good as your weakest link.

In much the same way, a diversified leadership team that works in unison is crucial to business success. If everyone has the same skill set, your business will be riddled with blind spots. Know your own strengths and weaknesses, and put people around you that complement them. Being a strong leader doesn’t mean doing everything yourself. It means building an adept team and then inspiring them to succeed. In the words of Ronald Reagan: “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”

4) After your ‘dream team’ is assembled, get out of their way.

In the military you do what you are told, and you do not disobey orders. There’s no variability. However, I’ve learned that the opposite philosophy is most effective in the business world. At Unitrends, I encourage my leadership team – and all employees – to take initiative and challenge one another. I’ve found that the best way to empower your “dream team” is to get out of their way and trust them to do their jobs. The worst thing you can do is make someone feel insecure about their performance, because then their focus will shift from worrying about the business to worrying about their own job security. With this variability will surely come mistakes. But, my philosophy is, if your employees aren’t making mistakes, they probably aren’t trying hard enough.

5) Listen to everyone, but trust your own judgment above all.

Whether through personal experience, on TV or in a movie, most of us have seen a military briefing in action. Leaders gather to discuss mission parameters, variables, strategies and tactics. And while everyone weighs in with their opinion, ultimately, the highest ranking leader makes the decision.

In business, one bad decision may not mean “life or death” as in the military, but it can have a detrimental impact on the fate of your company. Every leadership situation you encounter and every decision you make is different. There is no easy or single formula for success. The best leaders are those who listen to everyone, are receptive to advice and seek to learn from others – yet have an unwavering trust and confidence in themselves to always make the best decision possible. At the end of the day, you are accountable for your business, and, as such, trusting your own judgment is paramount.

Military photo via Shutterstock

Mike Coney has served as president and CEO of Unitrends since 2009. In this role, Coney has led Unitrends to achieve explosive growth, with 2012 marking the most profitable year in the company’s 24-year history. Prior to Unitrends, Coney was president and GM of Acronis Software, where he led the corporate strategy for North and South America.  Before that, he joined Veritas as SVP of the Americas and stayed with the company until its merger with Symantec. Coney also served as EVP of worldwide operations for Ingres Software Corporation and held senior management roles at Sun Microsystems and Monster.com.


We're studying conversion rate optimization. Take our quick survey and we'll share the results with you.