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Veterans Day reflections: What HR can learn from the Army on leadership

Jason McKenna, Fujifilm
Jason McKenna
Jason McKenna is chief human resources officer and vice president of travel of FUJIFILM Holdings Americas Corp. Prior to joining Fujifilm in 2020, Jason held several roles in human resources, including with Philips and Highmark Inc.

We all have unique experiences or specific life chapters that help shape our character and influence the people we ultimately become. For some, it’s the college experience, moving to a new city or that first job. For me, it was my 10 years in the United States Army.

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When people think of the United States Armed Forces, it often conjures a variety of images of everything from boot camp to battlefields. But there is so much more to serving in the Army. Military personnel learn critical leadership skills and lessons that are transferable and valuable, including integrity, decisiveness, good judgment, a strong work ethic and the ability to form a vision and execute.

In my experience, serving in the Army did far more than prepare me to be a soldier; it prepared me to be a leader and, ultimately, for a successful and satisfying corporate career in human resources. In my various roles in the military, I was responsible for managing a team with precision and effectiveness, similar to how HR leadership is responsible for managing employees and an organization’s culture and environment.

Each year when Veterans Day rolls around, I often think about my gratitude to the U.S. Army for helping me “be all I can be”—both during my service and every day since. As I reflect on how the military helped prepare me for a successful career in corporate America, I want to encourage other veterans who are now seeking careers in the private sector to consider the HR field. And most importantly, I urge HR executives, especially those focused on talent acquisition for their own departments, to consider the unique strengths of former military personnel.

People-first mission

Each year, approximately 200,000 service members leave the military in search of a fulfilling post-military career that fits their life goals. Yet, once a veteran closes their “military chapter,” it can be unsettling to think, “What next?”

When you think about it, the Army and the HR function have much in common. For starters, both entities are driven by a “people-first” philosophy. As one Army chief of staff once put it, “Our people are the centerpiece of the Army.”

At its core, protecting and empowering its people is the Army’s most important mission. Without strong, motivated soldiers the Army would be unable to deliver on its vital purpose for the nation. In much the same way, the HR function is dedicated to protecting and empowering a company’s most important assets—its employees—so that they are prepared to best serve the company and its customers and keep the organization competitive.

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Both the Army and the HR function protect and empower their people by providing training, career development and benefits, and by addressing sensitive workforce issues as well as encouraging diversity and inclusion. Veterans steeped in the traditions of the Army, and its “people-first” philosophy, are apt to feel at home in the world of human resources.

Skills that carry over

Although no two military careers are exactly alike, there are many skills that veterans learn during their tenure that carry over to leadership roles in the HR field. These include:

Understanding the big picture

Veterans are uniquely positioned to understand the bigger picture within organizations. Some of the biggest challenges I have seen in the private sector are in the areas of effective leadership and communication. Both of those competencies are honed while in the military and translate amazingly well to the HR field.

Tackling the tough topics

Military leaders also learn how to not shy away from constructive conflict in order to ensure they develop and execute the best plans. They pride themselves on taking care of their soldiers and ensuring it is not just about the “what,” but also the “how.” The skills and qualities that shape a strong military leader also shape a strong business leader.

Strong sense of resilience

I believe there is no better talent pool than those who have served in the military to help employers create a more resilient and supportive place to work. Military service members are asked to not just learn very specific, highly technical skills, but to lead other young men and women through stressful situations. In the military, when you face such adversity, quitting isn’t an option. These individuals come equipped with a strong sense of resilience that can’t be taught in a classroom.

Making the switch

Moving from the military into HR—or any civilian career—can feel daunting to some. The transition process can be difficult, and one may be questioning what type of work will be as fulfilling as serving their country. It’s important that veterans take the time to reflect and think about the different roles they had in the military that felt gratifying.

In my case, I was an Apache Helicopter Pilot in the Army, but I primarily led organizations in the military. The various positions I held over the course of a decade include Platoon Leader, Executive Officer, Division Assistant Operations Officer (Air), Company Commander and Recruiting Operations Officer/Assistant Professor of Military Science at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), to name a few.

Through each of these roles, I developed the ability to assimilate a lot of information and make decisions quickly and confidently. The Army taught me to understand and formulate plans that link to a larger mission and vision. My various positions in the Army also pushed me to be flexible and manage change rapidly.

While in the military, I earned a master’s degree in industrial and labor relations, and in 2006 I took the leap and began my new journey in the private sector. I started in the area of learning and development, then quickly learned the HR function and held a variety of related roles at the corporate and subsidiary levels.

In 2020, I proudly took the reins as chief HR officer for FUJIFILM Holdings Americas Corp. Fujifilm is a multinational organization known for innovation in healthcare, graphic systems, optical devices, highly functional materials and other high-tech areas. The Fujifilm brand has 27 subsidiaries in the Americas and more than 73,900 employees worldwide, so naturally my role comes with diverse and exciting challenges. At the forefront of these challenges, my team works tirelessly to create a strong and consistent company culture that retains top talent and attracts candidates, all of which are essential in helping a business reach its goals and ROI.

Vision and leadership carry out the HR mission

Recent reports show that HR teams are stretched thin and are experiencing talent shortages. Tapping the veteran market can support businesses in filling organizational skills gaps, including in the HR function.

But the key is knowing where to find them—because they might not know how to find you. HR professionals can find and recruit military veterans through:

  • Student Veterans of America: Some colleges have chapters employers can work with in recent graduate hiring programs.
  • Diversity in Action and US Veterans Magazine offer veteran profiles and the types of roles they can fill.
  • Military Transition Centers: You can connect with prospective hires still on active duty today through this organization.
  • Leverage internal networks: HR professionals should lean on their current veterans to share their unique perspective on the company’s LinkedIn or their personal LinkedIn to unlock authenticity and infiltrate their networks

If you’re an HR executive wondering where you can find your next formidable hire, look to the individual who once wore the uniform. And for all the veterans out there wondering what career path to follow: HR wants you! A global, Fortune 500 company or a small start-up would greatly benefit from having an HR leader who has the skills you’ve obtained from the military. Thank you for your service.