HR & Management

General Colin Powell: I used to run a small business, it was called an infantry platoon

4 min read

28 July 2015

Former editor

Having served as an army general, commander of the US Army Forces Command, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and secretary of state over a career spanning more than five decades, Colin Powell believes there are strong similarities between entrepreneurship and the armed services.

Speaking to a floor of 7,000 at the annual Sage Summit, this year held in New Orleans, Powell explained how he had moved though his career – first managing a small platoon before eventually being responsible for the entire US armed forces.

Powell was joined on stage by Deepak Chopra and Sage CEO Stephen Kelly, and touched upon how important it is for smaller businesses to place value in staff employed.

“People are your most important asset, and you have to invest in them. As a leader that is your responsibility,” he said.

Powell leveraged his more than half a decade’s leadership experience to create “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership”, a book bringing together 13 life rules for any future leader. The premise for the book came about after a reporter asked for some extra colour for a feature on the back of Powell becoming the first black man to achieve four star command in the US.

An aid of Powell’s suggested the reporter ask him about the simple statements he had beneath the glass on his desk, which served as little guides for his day-to-day decision making.

The book went on to become a New York Times bestseller, and has seen Powell become a personality to look up to for business leaders around the world.

Amongst his mantras for leadership success are: “It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning”; “Get mad, then get over it”; “Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision”; and “Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers”.

Going into further detail on the overlap between business and military personnel, he said: “Veterans are looking for work, and you can’t get a better employee – they say ‘yes sir’. They show up on time, know what a mission is and are trainable, so are a great investment for your company.”

He mentioned the fact that once a solider is recruited the next step is to keep them. “You recruit a solider, but need to keep a family. You must put in place resources such as healthcare or childcare, those things families need,” he added.

Harking back to the army days of old, and emphasising this was definitely not the case now, he revealed there used to be the thought: “If the army wanted you to have a wife we’d issue you one.”

He went on to tell the room: “When a small business is hiring, you’re not hiring an employee, you’re hiring a future customer. Invest in the human capital you have on hand.

“Work is noble and honorable but you have to do the work properly. Develop the skills and habits.”

Throughout the coming days we’ll be bringing you more insight from keynote speakers at Sage Summit, including YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley, football business woman Karren Brady and former professional skateboarder Tony Hawk.