How Veterans can leverage their military experience into post-MBA Careers

How Veterans can leverage their military experience into post-MBA Careers

After spending six years in the United States Air Force, Luke Ferrel (UNC Kenan-Flagler, ’17) decided to pursue an MBA at UNC, to strengthen his business acumen, and transition to a new career. Now as an Operations and Analytics Leader, Ferrel uses his leadership and business skills from his MBA each and every day. Ferrel spoke about what he looks for in hiring MBA talent, and his advice for how Veteran MBAs can translate their valuable military experience into post-MBA career opportunities.

MBASchooled: Looking back, how did your experience as a veteran help you in in your MBA experience?

Prior to business school, I worked in non-traditional environments. MBA is all about being able to get things done between classes, and on the road etc. So much of the military is not in a ‘clean’ environment. The MBA is the same.

MBASchooled: What part of you went under the most growth while you were in business school?

During business school, I felt like I gained more business understanding as a whole. I didn’t learn any complicated math or engineering. What I did learn was how accounting, supply chain, and marketing tie together. I wouldn’t say I learned any of those subjects – I learned the interplay, and how they were connected.

MBASchooled: What skills or experiences did you get from your MBA program that augmented your experience in the Air Force?

Compared to other graduate programs, an MBA is not extremely academically rigorous. The MBA is more about filling holes in your business acumen and experience. As I moved into the corporate world, I noticed that very few people had actual leadership training. While we sometimes get frustrated with the amount of leadership training given in the Air Force, it has been extremely helpful. The corporate world is dying for that type of leadership training. In the MBA we got a bit of that training. Because I had leadership training and experience from the Air Force I felt we were able to get to a deeper level in those classes


MBASchooled:As a hiring manager, what are the skills or qualities you look for in MBA-candidates? 

I look for someone who is a leader and will get things done. I don’t care if they have specific engineering experience. I want someone who can grow into a senior leader role. Like any interview, have experiences that demonstrate you have been a high riser your whole career. An interview is much more about trajectory than it is experience. Show them your stock is on the rise and they should buy.

MBASchooled:As a hiring manager and MBA grad, what are some of the challenges you see Veterans who are MBA students face, and how can they overcome them?

The largest challenge is that companies often don’t recognize their military experience as anything more than ‘military experience’. You could have been running a cyber-security squadron, or a fighter pilot and it is seen as the same. Another issue is not having client facing or profit making experience.

To overcome these challenges candidates need to do 2 things:

  1. Find a veteran mentor at the target company to talk you through what the interview looks like and what the company is looking for. I used to shy away from doing this at Qualtrics. As time has gone on I have seen that vets I don’t coach have a much lower chance of getting hired. In some ways I thought it was unfair to give someone an advantage. At the end of the day we get better hires, and there’s nothing wrong with studying for a test.
  2. Be prepared to explicitly translate your experience. If you know the target company/position is looking for client facing experience, make sure they don’t leave the interview wondering about yours. The best at this talk in terms of competencies instead of experience. For example, people want client facing experience because they want you to be able to influence senior executives. Many Air Force (military) officers have this competency through working as an exec or Aide de camp etc. It’s not about translating titles, rather applying the competency they are looking for in that title.

After you talk about influencing senior leaders as an exec/aide, don’t leave them guessing. Draw a clear line between the client influence competency they’re looking for and what you have done. You have to attack this head on. Don’t leave anyone guessing.

MBASchooled: What advice do you have for Veterans who are MBA students, and who are looking to identify the next step in their career after business school?

  1. Talk to a lot of veterans who are places you may want to be. From my experience, veterans are a very tight network, and always willing to help. I know I would never turn down an MBA vet who wants to chat.
  2. Also, don’t just think about your next step, consider 5 years down the road. One of the biggest mistakes I see MBAs, especially veteran MBAs, make is taking the highest paying job rather than the trajectory.
  3. Don’t be geographically constrained. I know a lot of military folks say “I went where I was told for X years, now it’s my turn to choose”. That’s an admirable sentiment, but it will limit you. In general I feel being geographically constrained will hurt your career quite a bit. If you are willing to go where the opportunity is for 3 years out of MBA, you’ll have your choice of locations after that. You are a much more risky commodity coming out of B-school than you are 3 years out.
By Luke Ferrel
Luke Ferrel