The Corporate Benefits of Understanding the Military

By John Bird


Trust Online Article Leadership Director Education

More than 1.3 million Americans serve in the military, including the Reserves or National Guard.

That is less than 1 percent of the total population. Our veterans are 18.2 million strong but amount to just seven percent of our population.

For that reason, many Americans have only limited knowledge of the armed forces. The same could be true of your board members, who may not know what specifically military life is like for service personnel and their families.

Our armed forces have rich cultures that can shed new light on strategy, execution, and commitment to running complex and diverse organizations. Their workplaces span the world, but military installations within the continental United States could offer unique opportunities for directors to broaden their views of leadership.

Fresh Thinking

At the United Services Automobile Association (USAA), executives and board members make a point to visit military installations to improve their knowledge of, and appreciation for, the challenges our members face. For example, to commemorate 9/11 in 2019, USAA executives and board members toured US Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater and came away with a better understanding of the Coast Guard’s roles as first responders, law enforcement, and military force during peacetime and conflicts. More significantly, the visit enabled the group attending to see USAA’s members in their day-to-day environment.

Military engagements like this one can benefit any organization—not just ones that work directly with the military community. These outings can provide fresh examples of leadership thinking and help board members to approach boardroom problems with a different mind-set, as well as help build relationships with the military community that can yield lasting benefits for your company, executives, and board members.

Several programs already exist that promote better relationships between the military and private sector:

  • Joint Civilian Orientation Conference (JCOC): The Department of Defense’s oldest public liaison program, the JCOC allows business and community leaders to better understand military life, training, and operations.

  • Business Executives for National Security: Senior business and industry executives volunteer their time to address the national security community’s most pressing challenges, from cybersecurity to talent management.

  • Employer Support of the Guard & Reserve (ESGR) “Boss Lifts”: ESGR promotes understanding between companies and their employees who serve in the National Guard and the Reserves.

Increased Trust

Building greater knowledge of the military has one more advantage: It builds trust in your brand, both with employees and with the public.

Employees want to work for companies that care. Community involvement transforms a workforce into engaged employees. In the same way, a genuine commitment to military families wins support. More than three-quarters of Americans have high confidence in those serving our country, according to a 2017 Gallup poll. When a company steps up every day for the men and women in uniform, people notice.

Serving as Allies

Most importantly, intentionally fostering a connection with the armed forces in your community leaves a legacy: a more resilient military.

Nearly half of military family members don’t feel a sense of belonging in their local civilian community, according to a 2018 survey by Blue Star Families, an organization that seeks to connect military families with their community neighbors. Furthermore, 55 percent of military spouses are underemployed, Blue Star Families has found. Unsurprisingly, increasing the availability of military spouse jobs was the survey participants’ leading recommendation for improving a feeling of community involvement.

Corporate awareness of military needs in the cities in which companies operate can help bridge that gap.

Engaging with the military is a win-win proposition. Making the time and effort to do so should be one of your top priorities as a board, considering the leadership lessons and improved corporate trust that may accompany such an endeavor. It’s good for your companies, the military, and the community—a great fit for inclusion in environmental, social, and governance, as well as talent conversations at your organization.

John Bird
Vice Adm. John Bird, USN (Ret.), is a senior vice president with USAA whose 35-year Navy career included assignments as commander of the US 7th Fleet and director of Navy staff.