Military Board Recruitment: Is There Value in the Number of Stars?

Melissa Henderson May 2, 2018

As I consider the makeup of corporate boards and the value of the retired military flag officers in the corporate board room, I see a consistent theme and that is retired three and four–star generals making it to the board room table. What is the missing link and why are there not more one or two-star generals making the cut?  The answer for me is defining the real value to the board and its shareholders.

Open board seats represent potential opportunities for retired military leaders. I find for many military officers, they question their chances and whether it can be a reality for them at all.  I believe they do offer value to the board room and it is not a matter of how many stars they carry on their lapel.  Retired military officers should be encouraged to seek board seats, but only after defining their differentiating value to the board.  On the other end of the equation, boards should look beyond their usual processes and networks and discover the value of military officers for their next open board seat.

The Current Landscape

With baby boomers retiring, mandatory age limits, term limits and activist investors coming more to the forefront, there are greater opportunities for open board seats and they are on the rise. In addition, there are some corporate boards that are expanding because of their desire for expertise in a particular function, skill set, or industry domain.

Corporate boards in the aerospace & defense industry have already recognized the value of high-ranking military officers from all branches of the military. However, on the surface these have been high profiles individuals such as the past director of the CIA, former Chief of Staff for the Air Force, past Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, a Commandant of the Marine Corps, and so on. There is no wonder that lower ranking flag officers question their viability.  I assure you, the lower ranking flag officers are viable and do bring value.

Case in Point

Although a number of the previously profiled directors have achieved the highest rank possible before their retirement, I would think those that are next in command also make great leaders and have a lot to offer to boards. In my experience, the top three areas of value, beyond the number of stars, include –

  • Industry “Domaine” Expertise
  • Financial Expertise
  • Large-scale Leadership Experience

Other desired qualities include diversity, strategy, international experience, and the ability to identify and/or respond to risk. So, to the point of industry domain expertise, Summit experienced this first hand through a recent client engagement where we represented a Rear Admiral (one star) for his first corporate board seat.

Our client had served his country as a Naval Officer for 30 years after which he worked as a corporate executive for ten years. Even with his credentials, capturing the first board seat was an arduous road.  Ultimately his fit was about a very specific value proposition and not the number of stars.  The company, who was seeking a board member due to a member’s retirement, has half of its business in simulation training, including flight simulation training.  That fact that our client was a former TOPGUN instructor along with a decade of experience as an executive in the aerospace/defense industry was the exact value proposition. The case story can be accessed here –

I must express, however, that even though you may have the value proposition, it does not mean you are home free. Board candidates are aggressively tested throughout the interview process.  Candidates are grilled on their knowledge of board governance and board operations.   Boards may also test for a mindset that can ask the tough, potentially unpopular questions in the board room.  Of course, characteristics such as integrity, track record, intelligence, good moral character must be present can potentially trump other factors.

Making it a Reality

In one of my earlier blog posts, Three Steps to Executive-Level Placement — Navigating a Military Career Transition to the Private Sector, I discuss how I have worked with a number of military officers transitioning their careers to the private sector. I talk about how to “Get Clear” about the value proposition, understanding recruiting models and strategies for targeting the search. I think you will find valuable insights here – In my opinion, it is not about the number of stars, it is about value.




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