Sunday, September 23, 2012

Should I stay in for Company Command?

HBS Round 1 is due tomorrow, and Wharton/Stanford are due next week... so this is the busiest week of the year for applications. Applicants are busy pressing their recommenders to actually get their letters in, and then discovering new and unexpected questions in the administrative section of the application that they didn't count on finding. It's a stressful experience for some, but for others, the real stress begins after they hit "submit" and sit back waiting for a response.

I thought I would take a break from the application madness and address a question I have received several times lately: "Should I stay in for Company Command or apply to business school?"

To set expectations, I obviously cannot answer that question for you, but I can try to better frame the pros and cons, so that perhaps it will help in your own decision making process - if that is the boat you fall in. Keep in mind this also fits other branches, such as the Navy (Division Command):

  • You get to be a Company Commander
This is the most obvious pro and the number one reason to do it.  If being a Company Commander isn't something that you are not passionate about, then you can stop reading the rest of this article. The secondary order effects of being a Company Commander are much weaker than the first order.
  • You might learn more about leadership and further mature
This is different for everyone. Some people feel like their O-1/O-2 time didn't give them enough of a leadership opportunity, or perhaps you have had some great Company Commander mentors and you really want to go through the steps they went through so you can get there too. Then again, if you feel like you are only going to learn a little bit from the experience, then this is not a major selling point. It all depends on where you feel you are now in terms of maturity and experience.
  • You'll get more Post-9/11 GI Bill Benefits
This is really on the margin, since additional GI Benefits might just lower the financial aid you would have gotten anyway, and either way, the reduced salary over the next few years will not make for the GI Bill benefits (see cons below). However, to those that are extremely risk averse and have families worried about surviving in b-school, then this is indeed a positive... though I really hope nobody stays to lead troops primarily for GI Bill benefits.

While you may think that the added experience would actually make you more competitive, in reality, from a business perspective, you are already seen as a military leader and have checked that block. Eight years of experience is a very marginal difference over five years of experience for a potential employer, given that your experience is not specific to the industry you will be entering anyway.
  • You will be entering your new career older, and likely working for people younger than you
Some people won't really care about this, but it's something you need should know about. Traditional post-MBA jobs are the same whether you are 27 years old or 37 years old. A first year consultant at McKinsey or a banker at Goldman Sachs gets treated the same after b-school, and has the exact same job whether you have 2 years of military experience or 12 years (I've seen this exact scenario play out of HBS - these are not made up numbers). Keep in mind that the added maturity and military experience may actually make you more competitive for the position, and may certainly help you perform better in the job itself, but it's important to understand that it is in fact the same job after business school, and you will be working for the same person as you would have otherwise.
  • You will be giving up significant lifetime income opportunity
Financially, it's a big loss to stay any additional years in the military, if your alternative is to go to a top business school. This isn't to say you should get out... since good leaders are not serving for pay anyway. That said, some people may think that the extra GI Bill benefits will help, when in reality, they are losing lifetime earnings. This is because after business school, you could be making around $50-$100k more per year than you were before, so let's call it $75k. So that's $225k that you would be giving up by staying in an extra three years. Furthermore, you get promotions much faster in the private sector, and you will always be 3 years behind in earning potential for the rest of your life, which could easily add to well over a million dollars or more over the years.

The caveat to all this is of course is that if the added military experience, leadership, and maturity makes you into a better leader, then the numbers may not work, because you could argue that you would achieve more in the private sector with given added experience than you would have otherwise. The numbers only assume you would emerge from the military with similar leadership competencies... so only you can really make the determination of where this assessment fits you. Most are naturally somewhere in the middle.
  • You might learn a lot of bad habits from the military that won't help in the private sector
Certainly leadership experience in the military is generally superior to that of the private sector. However, depending on where one actually goes within the military bureaucracy, you may just pick up a bunch of bad habits; also known as becoming too "institutionalized." This is largely dependent, in my opinion, of how your time in military will actually play out, who your commander/mentors will be, and what kinds of opportunities you may have. If all your unit does is enforce haircuts and deal with "dental readiness" - then you may not get a tremendous boost from the experience. Also keep in mind that generally speaking, the longer one stays in, the more inertia he has to continue on the path. This is neither a pro or a con necessarily, but it is a reality.
  • Given the above point, keep in mind whether or not you will deploy as a Company Commander
If your experience as a Company Commander will be strictly garrison based, then you may or may prefer that, but most likely it will not add as much leadership value as when you deploy. This is a factor that may be out of your control and an unknown at the time of your decision, but it's something to consider as an important variable.


Being a Company Commander is one of the best jobs one can have in the military. It's an honor that shouldn't be taken lightly or taken for granted. If serving as a Company Commander is important to you, then you probably don't want to risk regretting the lost opportunity later in life. If on the other hand you are ambivalent about the experience, and think that it will somehow actually help your MBA and post-MBA career path, then hopefully you now you see that is not necessarily the case.

For more thoughts on staying in, getting out, and when, read my article on Military versus MBA and private sector careers.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

HBS Military Prospective Student Day (it's coming right up!)

HBS is hosting its third annual Military Prospective Students Day, and unlike the first two years where the event was held in the spring, this event will be held in just two weeks in the end of September. Here is some more details:

On Friday, September 28th, the Harvard Business School Admissions Office and current student veterans of the HBS Armed Forces Alumni Association (AFAA) are hosting the third annual Military Prospective Students Day. Please contact the school ASAP to try to get a slot for this great event.  

Military Prospective Students Day has been designed to give current military and veteran prospective candidates an opportunity to learn more about Harvard Business School and address any specific concerns held by military candidates for admission.  Some of our agenda items for the day include a class visit, current student panel discussion, and presentations by Admissions, Financial Aid, and Career & Professional Development.  

This is a small enough of an event where you will get a chance to engage and ask your questions, but not so small that your own background or story will be scrutinized by anyone. There is really very little downside to coming to this. Make sure to wear business attire if you go (at least that's my recommendation). It's always easier to take a coat and a tie off than it is to create them out of field expedient tree braches.