4 reasons veterans make excellent startup hires (and prove hard skills aren’t everything)

Three startup leaders with military experience explain how their time in the service informs their approach to business.

 

By all accounts, when Mike LeBlanc came out of the military he was more than qualified to take on any number of professional roles. After serving 13 years in the Marine Corps as an infantry officer and intelligence officer, he was looking to enter the corporate world. But more than 50 applications later, he still hadn’t landed a job.

 
“I think that what a lot of people were seeing at that point was that I had a lot of leadership skills,” LeBlanc says. “But I didn’t have a lot of the hard skills, like working with Excel, or any background in finance—whatever the particular job needed.”

So LeBlanc went back to school, earning his MBA from Harvard University and joining tech startup Cobalt Robotics, where he’s now president and chief operating officer. And though his Harvard education didn’t hurt, he doesn’t credit it with his success.

“As I’ve actually been in this role, it’s not any of the hard skills in finance, it’s not a discounted cash flow that helps me really make the hard decisions,” LeBlanc says. “It’s all of my background and experience from being a Marine.”

Veterans like LeBlanc recognize that a lot of their military experience can get lost in translation on a résumé: “When you look at a sheet of paper, looking at a military background can look like alphabet soup,” LeBlanc admits. But if startups can see beyond the literal to recognize the wealth of skills and experience veterans bring to the table, they may find these hires invaluable to their growth and success.

GRIT

Though the stakes are different, the uncertainty and shifting demands of military service are similar to those of working at a startup; both require high levels of grit and determination. Stephen Giattino, an Army veteran and current chief of staff at healthcare startup Easy Health, sees that whatever-it-takes attitude as one of his fellow veterans’ most valuable assets.

“In the startup world, there’s constant adversity, there’s constant ambiguity. And you just have to be willing to put your head down and keep on moving—adjust when you need to, but keep on moving forward through it,” he says. “A veteran is going to have that grit and resilience. You give them a problem to solve, they’re gonna get from point A to point B.”

 

ADAPTABILITY

Though veterans who are seeking positions in the civilian sector may lack hard skills in business, their readiness and ability to learn can be equally valuable to the companies that hire them.

LeBlanc recalls an experience early in his career at Cobalt when his colleagues were looking to assemble a team to handle a new robot installation. That meant having high-level conversations with C-suite executives, managing shipping and logistics to transport a robot long-distance, and actually setting up the robot in their client’s office.

“To them, that was a whole very expensive launch team that we were going to need,” LeBlanc says. “I saw that as a problem for one Marine.”

And indeed, LeBlanc hired a single colleague from his time in the Marines to get the job done—to massive success.

“I knew that he had briefed enough generals that he could have a C-suite conversation. I knew that he’d run enough combat operations that he could get the logistics figured out. And I knew that he knew that he needed to be technically and tactically proficient so that he’d be able to figure out whatever he needed to on the robot,” LeBlanc explains. “What had been a strategic problem for our company for months before I’d gotten there, we solved within a week.”

LEADERSHIP EXPERIENCE

Startups often attract young industry newcomers. That’s great, but it can leave employees fumbling to learn how to be effective leaders on the fly. Veterans break that demographic mold, says Ben Walker, a former Marine who’s now chief of staff at customer data platform Simon Data.

The article was written by Jude Cramer on November 11th, 2o22 for FastCompany.com

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