If you’re anything like me, you’re always looking for a way to gain an edge in your career. Some might call it looking for a silver bullet. Others might call it hacking the system. For veteran Bill Merck, it’s about using the skills drilled into him to become well, all that he can be — it’s about that military mindset.
Bill is the author of the memoir “So, You Want to Be a Leader: Secrets of a Lifetime of Success.” He literally wrote the book on using your military background to advance your career.
I sat down with Bill to talk about how to develop a military mindset to advance the trajectory of your career. If you are hoping to find a leg up in business too, his advice might help you achieve victory in your career path.
What is a military mindset?
Having a military mindset in your life, is about acquiring and building on the mental and behavioral characteristics that are generally developed in the military. These characteristics are what helps the members of the armed forces to perform their duties, and to achieve their objectives in both high-pressure as well as high-stakes environments.
What do these characteristics look like? They include, but aren’t limited to:
- Attention to detail
- Teamwork, and
When it comes to using a military mindset in your career, however, the definition goes a little deeper with one critical characteristic.
Bill said, “I think, if I had to use one word, it'd be clarity. In the military, there's clarity of purpose. There's a clarity in people's roles. There's clarity and communication. All of those things are emphasized, and then training.
“Whatever your specialty, or your role, is, you're trying to constantly keep training, training, training. Then, when you need to exercise or you need to perform, it's almost a muscle memory kind of thing.”
A brief background on Bill
Bill had a career that actually started when he was in high school doing various things, like a lot of us do. Fast forward to his college years and he had only saved up enough to complete his first year.
After that, in his sophomore year to avoid student loans he was first working in the dining hall and eventually moved to Georgia State and started working about six hours a day, then eight hours a day working at night.
He says he had some good experience working in the private sector, for retailers, etc. Later, he worked for the State Highway Department in a pre-audit section in Atlanta. While finishing his master's degree, the draft was underway. Bill got his draft notice to join the Army and decided he wanted to go the officer route.
Since he hadn’t gone through The Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) in high school or college, his learning curve was a little bit steeper. He had to go through basic training, then advanced individual training before he could be considered for OCS (Officer Candidate School).
Eventually he ended up graduating from the Army Officer Candidate School at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. As for his active duty work, he was a platoon leader in Germany.
Eventually, he ended up working back in the private sector again first as director of student housing for James Madison University (Madison College during his tenure) where he stayed for 14 years.
Then, he served for a decade as the VP of Administration and Finance for the College of William and Mary. Finally, he took the same role he’d held at William and Mary at the University of Central Florida where he worked for 22 years before retiring.
Below are just a few of the military mindset values he used to advance his own career:
Let’s explore the ideals of a military mindset
Bill says the time he spent in the military taught him many of the things he needed to know to be a great leader, and he believes that some of the aspects of a military mindset can be learned by civilians to help them advance their careers.
#1: The difference between have to and want to
From his background, it’s clear that Bill had a lot on his plate throughout high school all the way until he retired. I asked him to tell me what the difference is between a person who only works in civilian life versus one who goes the military route. Here’s an excerpt of what he told me during our interview:
“There's the difference between having to do things and wanting to do them. When you go into the military, they make a point of attempting to erase your individual little differences. Like, people come from all walks of life, every place. And, the first thing that they used to do, and I don't know if they still do this or not, but they cut all your hair off, because so many people would put their personalities in terms of a certain hairstyle or something like that.
“So that goes away. Then, you're given clothes so that you all dress alike. The point of all that, I think, is to have everybody understand that to succeed in the military, you have to work as a team. You're all together in this, individuals aren't going to really make it. They have to be part of a team and contribute to that team to be successful.”
#2: Teamwork makes the dreamwork
“If you're trying to succeed in business, and there are other people in the business, it's just imperative that you learn to work with those people in a productive and collaborative way. Teamwork helps you maximize what you're able to achieve.
“You want stars on your team, but you also want them to work together and support each other for the common good. That way you can really achieve some [collective] success.”
#3: Sometimes you have to dismiss people
“I was debating whether to bring it up, but I think it is important for morale. Sometimes you have to fire people. And that seems counterproductive. But when there's somebody on the quote-unquote team who's not pulling their share of the load, what happens is the other team members have to carry it for them. After a while that creates some real dissatisfaction. So if you're the leader, first of all, if you don't see that, you're not very good. You're not paying attention.
“Once you do see it, though, it's up to you to do something about it. So you [might] have to let somebody go. I mean, you go through the obvious things first such as discipline and trying to straighten them out. Do what you can, but if they're not salvageable, they have to go. That will help the [team] morale, because they'll know the leader cared about what was happening to them because one person wasn't carrying their share of the load.”
#4: Employees need purpose and accountability
“Something in the military that I think was really important, and there's a good crossover here, and that was clarity. There's clarity of purpose. We know why you're there. Whatever, and there's clarity in the roles of everybody on the team. I know what my role was. I know what the role of the person next to me was. The people above me are very clear on their roles. The lines of communication, we're clear.
“That's something that sometimes is missing in business, I think. Employees kind of wonder why they're there. Sometimes they're not really given a real sense of purpose and made to feel a part of something, and understand their role in it. The military's really clear on that. You know what your role is, and you know what you're expected to do.
“There's a high degree of having each person understand their responsibility, what they're responsible for, and they're held accountable for their actions. That sometimes gets set aside in some of the civilian organizations. People don't necessarily want to take responsibility for things they do. If they make a mistake, they don't really like to be held accountable for that mistake. That's not helpful for someone to move forward in their career.”
#5: Commander of your team, commander of your career
“It's important to, and the military's good about this, is to recognize individual accomplishments, or team accomplishments. To be a good commander of your team and career, you must realize that people like to be recognized when they do something significant. They like to be recognized in a public way. Not somebody whispering in their ear, ‘good job.’ But to say it out loud. ‘That was a good job you did!’ Employees respect their superiors for that. Respect and acknowledgement of a job well done - those are important to build morale in a team.”
#6: Find your team’s strengths and weaknesses
I asked Bill what advice he would give to someone who just became supervisor of their team. How can they take the lessons you've gleaned, and get their team in shape? Here’s what he told me:
“Well, I think for me and my experience, the first thing that I always wanted to do was learn about the team members.
- Who are they?
- What are they good at?
- What are their specialties?
“It takes a little bit of time to learn that sometimes. Sometimes the stars in your team are introverts. They don't really come out right away. So, you need to really be careful and not make judgments too quickly about who your strong people are, or who the weaker ones are because it's not always evident right off the bat.
“Getting to know your team is the first thing you need to do. Then, treat them with respect as you would have them treat you with respect. But as a leader, you have to earn that respect.
“They don't just give it to you, because you got a title. They look at you and wonder, ‘Who are you? Are you going to take care of me? How is this going to work?’ Accept that it takes a little time to develop that in a team.”
#7: Purpose and clarity keep people around
Given that we’re in the age of “the great resignation” and “quiet quitting,” I asked Bill how to keep people on board in a tumultuous climate so they won’t quit when things get tough.
“There's a lot of things that you can do. Going back to the purpose. I think the clarity of purpose, if we're working together, and things are starting to get tough and in the organization, I want to know, I want to be informed, I want to know:
- Well, why is it tough?
- What's causing this?
- Why are we struggling right now?
“Then I want to know, well, what role can I play in fixing this and making things better? So that gets to the key — and that’s communication. The more important thing is to start by answering the question for yourself, ‘Why am I even here? What am I doing here?’ As the boss, the supervisor, whatever the title is - knowing your purpose in the organization too helps you understand what you can do to help your team, and how to communicate ways they can help you in return.”
Additional things to keep in mind about the military mindset
To close things out, I thought I would share a few additional military mindset ideas Bill says you should keep in mind as you move forward in your career. These ideas are critical components to being a well rounded leader.
Character and integrity
“Character and integrity are really important. People are going to start judging you right away as to what your character is like. Are you a person that has good intent that treats other people with respect? Do you respect yourself?”
Respect other people’s time
“Whether you’re the CEO, a manager, or lower in the hierarchy, it’s important to respect everyone’s time. If you've got somebody in a hierarchy, that’s above you in position and so forth, chances are, they've got a broader span of responsibility than you do. So during the workday especially, you want to respect their time.”
Be mindful of your words
“I knew someone who got a job as a brand-new vice president in an organization, and she went around to meet the people that were going to be reporting to her. She walked into this one office, and there was a guy sitting behind a desk. She introduced herself and asked him what he was up to. He said, ‘I'm just sitting here waiting for Friday.’ I don't think the guy lasted much after that.”
“Micromanaging anyone is a killer. It makes people give up. They don't want to do much if they know the boss is going to do it their way anyway.”
Give credit where it’s due
“Taking credit for the work of others is a big no-no! Never take credit for the stuff that other people do.”
This goes back to what we discussed earlier - you rely on people that want to be acknowledged. There’s nothing worse for an employee than feeling like they are invisible.
Never stop improving
“The biggest problems in most organizations come down to a lack of good leadership, lack of proper training, lack of good communication, and poor recruitment. Make sure you get the right people in the right jobs to start with, and never stop working to improve things and make them better. It really helps if you don't see all of the people that work for you as clones, but you see them for who they are as individuals with their own strengths, their own weaknesses.”