Corporations Increasingly Turn To Veterans

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Fortune 500 companies are looking for the next generation of leaders — and increasingly they are turning to junior military officers. Companies from Amazon to Wal-Mart aren't just hiring them because they've flown helicopters or tracked down insurgents. Rather, the companies see young men and women who are savvy and mature, and understand responsibility and leadership.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Many troops who do make it home from war have trouble adjusting to a civilian life and that includes finding a good job. But at least one select group of veterans is being recruited by corporate America junior military officers.

NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN: Roughly a year and half ago, Katie Zadack(ph) was a captain in the U.S. Army assigned to an intelligence unit in Korea. Today, the former officer is on her way up the corporate ladder at Wal-Mart.

(Soundbite of meeting room)

Ms. KATIE ZADACK (Former U.S. Army Captain): What we're going to do is we're going to just roll into our regular safety meeting. For those of you that are actually on the safety team, raise your hand.

KAUFMAN: On a recent afternoon, Zadack was conducting an employee team meeting at the Wal-Mart store in St. Helens, Oregon. At 27, she's one of the company's youngest store managers. Ordinarily it takes years to become a manager, but Zadack did it in just six months, this in spite of the fact that she knew nothing about retail when she was hired.

Ms. ZADACK: No. I'm not even one who really shops very much. And honestly, I had never even set foot in a Wal-Mart.

KAUFMAN: But she had overseen training missions involving hundreds of soldiers, making sure transportation was in place, meals were hot and that everyone from cooks to intel officers learned what they needed to know. She kept tabs on millions of dollars of equipment spread across eight different sites and often had to show that she was in charge.

Ms. ZADACK: People assume that in the military you would just say jump and they'd say, how high? That's not the truth. You have to buy in, no matter what organization you're a part of. So it's different, of course, but it's not tremendously so because people are people.

KAUFMAN: Junior military officers learn to accomplish a variety of assignments quickly. In the process, they learn flexibility, responsibility and accountability.

Mr. GARY PROFIT (Former Brigadier General, U.S. Army): Each of these young men and women has benefitted from a large national investment in his or her leadership capabilities.

KAUFMAN: Former Brigadier General Gary Profit is in charge of military recruiting for Wal-Mart. He describes the junior officer corps made up primarily of captains and lieutenants as the largest, diverse, talent-rich pool in the world. And two years ago, the giant retailer launched an aggressive effort to recruit the young officers.

Mr. PROFIT: If you bring us a leader, we will teach them the retail business. And I think that growing leaders takes more time than it does to groom retailers.

Ms. BECKY CUKUS: She was new to Wal-Mart but yet she grasped it really fast.

KAUFMAN: That's Becky Cukus'(ph) assessment of her boss, Katie Zadack.

Ms. CUKUS: She knows what she wants. She lets you know. She's very forward, which is very nice.

KAUFMAN: From Amazon to Unilever, dozens of other Fortune 500 companies are also wooing these officers. Rene Brooks recruits military talent for many of them.

Ms. RENE BROOKS (Recruiter): They say there is no room for a failure. And they feel like these junior officers who have immense challenges under their belt, who understand accountability, mean you must get results, these are the kind of people that they prefer to hire.

KAUFMAN: In the military, young officers hone their decision-making skills by making lots of tough calls, sometimes with life or death consequences. Even Zadack, who wasn't in combat, made recommendations about who in her unit would be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Mike Useem who teaches leadership at the Wharton School says the young officers have their decisions scrutinized all the time through after-action reviews. They quickly learn what works, what doesn't and why. And says Useem, they have a strong sense of mission.

Professor MIKE USEEM (Leadership, Wharton School): And people do acquire this amazing ability to cut to the chase and say, look, here are the steps in this order we really have to take to make this happen.

KAUFMAN: The number of firms hiring young officers is growing. So, how do the officers fair? Recruiter Rene Brooks says that at least two of her large corporate clients report that as a group, the junior military officers are rising in management higher and faster than their non-military peers.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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