Making a Killing

Military veterans are clamoring to teach the art of war to businesspeople.

It turns out some management consultants make good money bringing real military strategies and processes to the boardroom.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty Images & Thinkstock.

In the fusty grand ballroom of Philadelphia’s downtown Hyatt, Patrick “Lips” Houlahan—fighter pilot, consultant, and motivational speaker—strides across the stage in his olive green flight suit, doing his damnedest to rev up a crowd of sleepy-looking business executives. He’s already been introduced with a video of military jets zipping around to a speed-metal soundtrack, which blasts enough bass to make you worry about the structural integrity of the enormous chandelier dangling overhead. Now, Houlahan is quizzing an audience member about the flight scenes in Top Gun.

According to Houlahan, those scenes are BS. Fighter pilots don’t casually chat like Maverick and Iceman while flying jets that cost tens of millions of dollars. They try to keep focused on the task at hand while subjecting their bodies to the physical punishment of extreme G-forces. Another video clip shows pilots in air combat training, gasping through their oxygen tubes while craning to see each other out of their cockpits.

“He’s practically popping every vertebrae out of his neck—to keep track of what?” Houlahan asked. The crowd murmured a bit. “That’s right,” he finished, “the competition!” More murmurs, this time of recognition: If you’re in charge of, say, sales at a midsize medical supply company, keeping an eye on the competition might seem like a goal worth popping a vertebrae for.

Houlahan, who got the call sign “Lips” during flight school, had come to the day’s conference as an emissary from Afterburner, a quirky consulting firm made up largely of trained fighter pilots just like him. I had gotten in touch with the company to learn about the somewhat shticky but oddly intriguing cottage industry of military veterans who make their living teaching companies the modern art of war—or at least, the art of meticulously planning for it.

Comparing the corporate world to a battlefield is, of course, a tried and trite habit of business pros the world over. But it turns out some management consultants make good money bringing real military strategies and processes to the boardroom.

In its first issue back on stands, for instance, Newsweek profiled the McChrystal Group, the small firm co-founded in 2011 by ex-General Stanley McChrystal, who was fired from his job leading the war in Afghanistan after he and his staff were quoted in Rolling Stone mocking their civilian command. The company takes the lessons McChrystal and his compatriots learned hunting down al-Qaida and teaches them to businesses facing upheaval in their industry.

Afterburner, meanwhile, was founded in 1996 by Air Force veteran Jim “Murph” Murphy. Its team of 50 speakers and consultants includes a scattering of SEALs and special operations vets who preach the firm’s gospel of “flawless execution,” a process for planning and operations management, to clients that have included the New York Giants as well as Fortune 500 companies, such as PepsiCo and Shell.

Especially if you have an aversion to military- or corporate-speak, both companies can come off as a tad over the top. In the Newsweek piece, McChrystal Group co-founder and CEO David Silverman managed to compare the military’s fight against al-Qaida to the music industry’s struggle against Napster, seemingly with a straight face. Afterburner’s team-building seminars often start with jumpsuit-wearing pilots barging into a conference room and shouting into bullhorns that the client’s employees are now at war; the participants are then rounded up into a strategy session, during which they plan a mission for the company.

Beyond the overcooked analogies and war games, though, both companies offer something serious. The military is, of course, a hugely complex bureaucracy that specializes in training and logistics; its innovations laid the groundwork for some of what now gets taught in business schools today. The field of operations research—essentially, using scientific and mathematical methods to solve management problems—was pioneered by Britain’s Royal Navy during World War II, then spread to the U.S. military and beyond. Today, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business sends MBA students to the U.S. Marine Corps Base at Quantico twice a year for leadership training.

What veterans “are really great at is taking really complex systems and boiling them down to their key nodes or pathways, so they can execute extremely efficiently,” said Preston Cline, Wharton’s director for leadership venture in the Graduate Leadership Program. And the reason for that is, if they fail, their friends die.”

As a general, McChrystal was renowned largely for rehabbing the lumbering bureaucracy of the Joint Special Operations Command. By the time he was done overhauling it, JSOC had become a ruthlessly efficient counterterrorism organization. McChrystal’s consulting firm—which unfortunately declined to talk to me for this piece despite weeks of inquiries—might sell itself with battlefield gravitas, but it really just seems to be offering hard-earned expertise on organization design and management.

Afterburner is a similar case. As Murphy, its founder, tells it, the seeds of the idea came to him while he was sitting in the cockpit of an F-15 on Luke Air Force Base, getting ready to take his first solo flight. Before joining the Air Force, Murphy had worked for Toshiba, selling copiers in rural Kentucky. As he got ready for takeoff, it occurred to him that the military had perfected its training processes so carefully that he could learn to fly one of the world’s most sophisticated jets in 18 months flat.  

That same night, Murphy recalls thinking, “If I were to have had just one–one hundredth of this training when I was selling copiers for Toshiba, think about how much more of an effective salesperson I would have been. I made a vow at this point to study the human process that we had just went through, and one day, when I get out of the Air Force, when I’m no longer a fighter pilot, I’m going to teach companies what I learned.”

Those lessons, it turns out, can largely be summed up in a four-word formula: Plan. Brief. Execute. Debrief. Then repeat. Once military leaders have set out a larger strategy—say, for an air campaign—they break it down into discrete missions that can be accomplished one-by-one (i.e., we’re flying out Friday to bomb this particular target). Before each mission, a squadron briefs the objectives, how it could go wrong, and contingency plans. Then, they execute the mission using a series of checklists and crosschecks. Afterwards, during the debrief, they review what went right and wrong to glean lessons for next time.

Afterburner works with companies to incorporate all of those steps into their operations, both through its colorful seminars and straightforward consulting gigs. With oil companies, for instance, the firm will help convert rig safety procedures into basic checklists and crosscheck protocols that can be repeated again and again to prevent accidents. But perhaps the most interesting part of the equation is the debrief. When fighter pilots walk into the debriefing room after a mission to pore over what went right and wrong, they literally remove their Velcro name and rank patches from their flight suits—symbolically, it means everybody’s performance is open for criticism, including the commanding officer. Team members, including leaders, are expected to own up to their own missteps.

That kind of radical honesty might be startling to corporate types who aren’t used to admitting fault or calling out the boss. Among the method’s fans is New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who hired Afterburner to teach his team debriefing skills during the 2011 season—which ended in a Super Bowl victory. As Coughlin told the Wall Street Journal at the time, “I’ve always been a self-analysis guy.”

PepsiCo is another debriefing believer. The company has been working with Afterburner for about a year to teach the method to its employees in the U.S. and abroad. “While we might not be able to rip the rank off our shoulders, you leave your business card outside the door,” Brian Cornell, CEO of PepsiCo Americas Foods, told Slate. “And when you’re in that session, you’re a part of the team. You create an environment and tone about what worked.”

Though Afterburner’s Houlahan has the build and jawline of a G.I. Joe figurine, in conversation, the Citadel graduate sounds not unlike a typical MBA. Mostly, he says, the company’s bells and whistles—the bullhorns, the flight suits, the war-gaming—are just a way of grabbing attention from audiences who might not respond to a former veteran in a business suit. “It gets their blood pumping,” Houlahan said. “They have a lot of fun. …The bullhorns and the mission-planning exercise set up what I think is the most important thing we teach, which is how to have a debrief—how do you get in a room with everybody on your team, rip off the rank.”

In other words, the hard-core military guys want to teach you some soft skills. No popped vertebrae required.