Opinion

Entrepreneurial lessons the military taught me

5 min read

25 March 2016

For Extrinsica Global founder and CEO, Simon Smith, a distinguished 20+ year career as an officer in the Air Force has been superb preparation for the daily challenges he faces as an entrepreneur and business owner.

If the “ultimate competition” is military action, here’s the lessons I applied to grow Extrinsica: 

(1) Leadership 

As an officer in the Armed Forces you get given a lot of responsibility at a young age. You constantly find yourself in new and often unexpected situations where you’re leading a team through challenging environments or circumstances. As you progress, you’re responsible for greater numbers of people, bigger elements of operations, and managing greater risks. It’s the same when you’re running a business – be it starting up, scaling up or sustaining growth. 

You’re hit by dips in sales, recruitment challenges, new competitors coming into the market, not to mention the macro risks beyond your control. The onus is on you to take control of how you react to these challenges, to continue guiding, leading by example and, ideally, inspiring, your team through these blips.

(2) Analytical skills 

As a military officer, having a capability to analyse complex situations – the threats, risks, opportunities – and formulate a strategy to deal with them effectively goes without saying. It’s what keeps you ahead in the game. I come across so many entrepreneurs who proudly declare they “don’t do detail” – it’s not impressive. It normally means that they haven’t taken the time to understand the market they are in or want to enter, what their offering to the market is, what their customers really want and how they can deliver it profitably. To succeed, you have to have understand these details- how else can you formulate a winning strategy?

Read more army-based articles:

(3) Adaptability 

A core attribute for any military officer – most people have heard the phrases “adapt or die” and “any plan will not survive first contact with the enemy”. In military operations, these really are true. They require fast, objective, smart decision-making and reactions; there’s no reason at all to treat business operations any differently. We continuously adapted our original plan for Extrinsica Global. 

Rather than doggedly sticking to our original idea, we adapted to the market environment – what competitors and market shapers were doing and what customers wanted – so that our offer was sustainably successful. Simply having an idea that you, personally, believe is great is not enough. It needs to create value by meeting a need and getting sold in the target market. 

(4) Resilience 

The discipline you learn in the Armed Forces, combined with the psychological toughness, physical fitness and ability to think innovatively become habits for life and set you in good stead for entrepreneurial life. Starting and growing a business is psychologically very tough; it requires grit to get through the dark days. Being disciplined and being physically fit helps you get through the long tiring hours that need to be put in to build a successful business. 

(5) Clarity 

This is a big one for me. As an officer in the Air Force I learnt that having a crystal clear vision and being able to communicate it at all levels was essential for a successful operation. It’s exactly the same in business. So many startups spend months endlessly refining the finer details of business plans. Focus instead on identifying the key elements of a logical plan that make it a compelling business case – and then critically analyse the resulting proposition. 

So, if you say you’re going to make X number of sales in the first year, is that genuinely credible? Being able to communicate your plan to potential investors and employees will demonstrate you understand where you want to take everyone and, crucially, the journey to get there.

Alternatively, Ignacio Gonzalez-Posada, author of “How to Win a War”, shares some lessons business leaders can take away from WW2.

Simon Smith is CEO of Extrinsica Global.