It just makes sense that the rigorous training and leadership skills development that are part of serving in the military can be an excellent foundation for becoming a CEO. But how do they look back on their service as a training ground?
We searched our extensive database for American CEOs with a military background, and looked for insight on how their military service has impacted their approach to running the country’s largest corporations.
Neil Smit, President and CEO, Comcast Cable and EVP, Comcast Corporation, is a former Navy SEAL. He says he learned his most important leadership lessons in the military: "Build your team. Make decisions quickly. Move fast. Play to win - always. Invest in your troops."
The daughter of a career Army officer, Sandy Cochran was born at Fort Benning, Ga., and grew up on US Army bases across the US and Germany before enlisting in the Army herself. She rose rapidly through the ranks as a paratrooper and Missile Maintenance Officer. She applied the same military discipline to her career in finance, earning her MBA, then steadily rising through the ranks in banking and retail firms. In 2011, Cochran was named President and CEO of Cracker Barrel.
Ralph Lauren spent two years in the U.S. Army. He says the qualities of strength and heroism that the uniforms represented impressed and inspired him. After he left the Army in 1964, he began his career in fashion by opening a tie store in New York City.
Recruited to play football at West Point, Stephen M. Smith, President and CEO of Equinix, Inc., served eight years in the U.S. Army, where his roles included commanding two Artillery Units and serving as an Aide-de-Camp in the office of the Commander in Chief of the US Armed Forces in the Pacific. About his time in the Army, he told Institutional Investor, "I worked with a whole bunch of generals. It's a four-star post, and they run all the forces in the Pacific. I traveled all over Asia. I went to all these countries where the U.S. had forces. My job was to make sure that when the generals traveled, their schedule was ready, their interpreters were there. I worked every day for 18 months. It was 24/7."
Former Navy nuclear submarine officer Anthony Francis (Tony) Earley, Jr. is Chairman, President, and CEO of PG&E Corporation. Serving aboard a nuclear submarine during the Cold War, Earley “learned to keep a cool head whether his U.S. Navy vessel was monitoring a Soviet torpedo exercise or simply trailing one of the superpower's underwater craft,” according to a March 2016 profile in TheStreet. “Knowing how to stay focused and keep things in perspective is a skill that still stands him in good stead 40 years later, as the head of PG&E,” the article said. The military "gives you the ability to deal with complex and challenging situations in a very productive way," Earley, told TheStreet in a March 2016 interview. "Hardly a week goes by where I don't use some of the skills and experiences that I learned in the Navy to help me in my business career." The pressure he endured in the military helped him put the stresses of his post-Navy career in perspective, he said, recalling nuclear plant issues at a previous employer and navigating a widespread blackout in the northeastern U.S. in 2003. “It's relatively easy to teach technical skills,” he said. “But leadership skills take time and experience."
Fred Smith was a platoon leader and forward air controller in the Marines. During his tours in Vietnam, Smith saw tremendous waste in the military's supply logistics and imagined a more efficient distribution system. Smith’s wartime experiences crystallized into his creating FedEx.
A West Point grad, Alex Gorsky spent six years in the United States Army, where he learned the values of strong communication skills and diversity. He used those same skills when he joined Johnson & Johnson in 1989 as a sales rep. Gorsky is now CEO of Johnson & Johnson and continues to practice the mentoring he learned in the military.
John L. Garrison, Jr., President and CEO of Terex Corporation, served 10 years on active duty in the U.S. Army as an Airborne Ranger qualified artilleryman and taught in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. When he was asked about the main thing the Army did to prepare him for his current job, he said that it teaches you to become “a pretty good problem solver. The engineering undergraduate degree helps you think analytically and my 10 years on active duty really helped me to think through problems and be creative.”
Here are other enterprise CEOs who launched distinguished careers in the military:
President and CEO of Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings, Inc. served in the U.S. Army for eight years. She is a distinguished military graduate of the U.S. Army Aviation Officer School in Fort Rucker, Alabama, where she qualified as an Army Aviator in both helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. During her time in service, Drake was a Rotary Wing and Fixed Wing Aviator Captain, Commander of the Pentagon Army Helipad, Airspace Coordinator for C-12 Pilot Command in Washington, D.C., and Airfield Commander at Davidson Army Airfield in Virginia.
Chairman, President, and CEO of Hexion, Inc. served in the U.S. Marines for eight years, rising to the rank of Captain.
The President and CEO of Reynolds American Inc., served in the U.S. Army from 1993 to 1997, rising to the rank of captain and military intelligence officer.
Chairman and CEO of Verizon Communications Inc., spent six years in the U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps.
President and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co., is a former Army Captain. He joined after college, serving from 1979 to 1983.
A top graduate of West Point, Todd Bluedorn, Chairman and CEO of Lennox International Inc., served in the U.S. Army as a combat engineer officer and United States Army Ranger from 1985 to 1990. He was chosen as the top graduate out of 158 by his instructors and peers at Army Ranger School.
Chairman and CEO of Raytheon Company, served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force, where he earned an MS in Electrical Engineering from the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology. During his service, he had responsibility for managing satellite launch vehicle avionics development and production programs.
Chairman and CEO of Palo Alto Networks, served as an attack helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army and earned his Airborne Wings.
Chairman, President and CEO of Community Health Systems Inc., is a former Captain in the US Army Medical Services Corps.
CEO of RGIS, LLC, earned a BS in Physics from the US Naval Academy while a Division Officer in the U.S. Navy. During the five years following his graduation from the Naval Academy, he served as a US Navy officer aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier supervising its nuclear systems.
President and CEO of Asbury Automotive Group Inc. served four years in the U.S. Army.
CEO of Allstate Life Insurance Company and President of Allstate Corporation served 12 years of active duty with the U.S. Army.
CEO of AT&T Business Solutions and International, is a former Army Signal Corpsman.
Chairman and CEO of Valspar Corporation, served 11 years in the U.S. Navy, where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
Founder, Chairman and CEO of Universal Health Services Inc., is a former Army Captain.
President and CEO of Kalmar RT Center, spent over three decades with the U.S. Army and retired as a Lieutenant General.
Avara Pharmaceutical Services’ Chairman and CEO, Timothy Tyson, entered West Point with the Class of 1974, graduating after the withdrawal of ground forces from Vietnam and the implementation of the All-Volunteer Army. Tyson was commissioned in the Military Police Corps and assigned to the 111th Military Police Company, at Ft. McClellan, Alabama. He served in many positions, in the 111th, including Military Police Investigations and Executive Officer. Tyson resigned from full-time military service in 1979 but remained in the Army Reserves for the next 14 years, retiring as a major.
President and CEO of Cooper Companies Inc., served in the U.S. Army, where he achieved the rank of captain. He was awarded two Bronze Stars and the Army Commendation medal during his service in Vietnam.
President and CEO of Emcor Group Inc., served in the U.S. Army as a Light Infantry Captain.
President and CEO of Cubic Corporation, began his career in 1983 as an Officer and Program Manager in Europe with the U.S. Air Force.
President and CEO of JPK Consulting served as a Captain in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after graduating from West Point.
President and CEO of Energy Future Holding Corporation, served aboard the USS Ticonderoga in the Navy.
We extend our sincerest gratitude to all who have served in the United States Armed Forces.