Easing the Military to MBA Transition

Setting Up Military Leaders for Success in the Executive MBA Classroom

Recently, the Raymond A. Mason School of Business hosted its first Executive MBA Military Leader Orientation. The inaugural event was designed to prepare incoming Executive MBA students, who are active-duty military leaders, to navigate the non-military space of the business classroom. “It can take students who have a military focus a little while to figure out how to balance their military knowledge and leadership with a much more ambiguous business environment, so we developed this program to help them succeed,” noted Kim Mallory, Director of MBA Programs for Working Professionals. “We want to be proactive with them so they can be successful from day one.” Many military leaders who go through executive MBA programs are close to retiring from the military and are preparing for a life and career outside of military service. Most hope for second careers in the business sector—or to start their own businesses—and need the strategic-level business knowledge that an MBA degree provides.

The Executive MBA Military Leader Orientation came out of an existing offering for recipients of the Major General James Wright Fellowship (a partnership between the Raymond A. Mason School of Business and the United States Army), led by Carlane Pittman, Director of MBA Programs, who took the existing program and customized it to work for the incoming Executive MBA students. “It can be a bit of a culture shock,” said Dr. Pittman, “and the Orientation is just another way we can support them on this journey.”

Throughout the day-long event, military students heard from Associate Dean of MBA and Executive Programs Ken White, incoming students who have already made the military-to-private sector transition, retired military leaders, faculty members, executive partners, alumni, and the Executive MBA professional team. In their address, retired Major General Larry Adair and retired Lieutenant General Jerry Bates encouraged new students that “this program is a great opportunity to educate those around you about your military service. Civilians who have never served just don’t know how your experience is relevant in an MBA program. You lead, you manage, you plan. Let that be the voice in the classroom – the leadership/manager voice, not the command and control military voice.” Adair and Bates also emphasized that “rules of engagement” still exist, but they are not the same. There is no hierarchy in the classroom—every student is on the same plane, and that can take some getting used to. “The language is also different,” Mallory explained. “Military speak may seem natural to a military leader but not resonate at all with their business executive classmates. Even the smallest thing, like calling a report-out to the faculty a “briefing” instead of a “presentation,” can create communication barriers that military students must overcome to be ultimately successful in the business world."

Attendees also heard from Larry Slade (retired military, EMBA Alumnus ’14, and business leader), who recommended that military students focus on not trying to find immediate parallels between their military experience and their experience at the Mason School. “John Strong’s finance class is not going to be relevant to your military experience, period. But it will be entirely relevant to you when you transition to the private sector.”

In the future, the Executive MBA professional team would like to add a career management component to the Military Leader initiative and create a multi-faceted program that starts with Orientation and continues to provide value throughout the entire student experience. “Simply put, we are so honored to have these men and women in our Executive MBA classroom,” added Mallory. “We want to do anything and everything we can to help them succeed while they are earning their MBA and beyond.”