There is only one way to learn how to lead in the military: follow. In most cases, future officers start at the bottom. Every service member must learn how to follow commands, particularly in high-stress situations. People are then recognized for their skills, provided training, and are moved up the ranks if they are effective subordinates.
That discipline and training helps our employee veterans be successful at WEX. Their ingrained understanding of leadership and followership is recognized and valued as part of each individual’s merit and as a collective brain trust for all WEX teams. This year, we celebrate Leadership in practice as demonstrated by veterans who work among us as part of the WEX commitment to hiring and supporting veterans at our company.
Veterans are often recognized as transformational leaders
“In the military, there is a recognition that logistics win wars. That knowledge of the whole, of the details, of the need to see that every soldier is properly shod, supplied and fed, is ingrained in every officer training,” says Matthew Williams, Global Program Manager, Legal, Finance, and Strategic Projects for WEX (shown at right). Matthew, a veteran of the U.S. Army, is the chair of WEXVets, our employee resource group dedicated to supporting and mentoring veterans working at WEX. “You can’t turn that off when you enter civilian life, and so vets in the workplace often exhibit the kinds of skills that transformational leaders are recognized for: enthusiasm, transparency, respectfulness, intelligence, and empowerment.”
A global Veterans Day conversation on leadership and overcoming obstacles
The value of great leadership in practice — and good followership skills — that veterans bring to WEX and the workforce is the theme of this year’s WEXVets annual celebration, timed around the US Veterans Day holiday on November 11. This year, the WEXVets group is hosting an internal virtual and global education event with a keynote address on leadership and overcoming obstacles by Dan Cnossen, a former Navy SEAL lieutenant commander who was wounded in Afghanistan and became a double amputee. Dan trained as a biathlete and cross-country skier and won a gold medal in the 2018 Winter Paralympics Biathlon, Men’s 7.5 kilometers in the sitting division.
“Through WEXVets, we recognize that veterans have a community at WEX, and that there are people with a common background who understand,” Matthew says. “While Dan’s story is incredibly inspiring and impressive, we are also looking forward to hearing his thoughts on practicing leadership every day, at every level. Each of us is both a leader and a follower, regardless of our title.”
Everyday leadership at WEX: Our veterans’ stories
The rigor of military training has great synergy for the dynamic and innovative environment of WEX, a pioneer and leader in the fintech industry. “WEX is a fast-paced, constantly growing, and changing work environment. Integrity and dependability to get the job done and get it done right are a must, as is the ability to make decisions on the fly and pivot on a moment’s notice,” says WEXVets member Abigail E. Herling Blais, analyst in Corporate Treasury (shown at left). A former sergeant, Abigail worked in Signals Intelligence collecting communications signals and deciphering morse code for the United States Marine Corps.
Veterans bring many leadership qualities to a civilian workplace, says WEXVets member Carrie L. Carney, Associate General Counsel for Risk & Compliance, a former captain in the JAG Corps of the United States Army. “Integrity to me is the most important. In both military and civilian worlds, you must do the right thing and be ready to own your decisions. This is how to form professional relationships based on trust and to build a reputation for yourself.”
“When vets say they will do something, they will do it,” adds WEXVets member Hubert Williams, VP, Technology who served in active duty in the Army for two tours (~six years), and another two years in the Inactive Ready Reserve, earning the rank of Sergeant. “I have observed that vets will make a decision when most will not. I would rather the team make a mistake with an informed decision than make no decision at all. “
Hubert uses the “40/70” rule often credited to General Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “If you have between 40% and 70% of the information needed to make a decision, you make the decision. Less than 40% is shooting from the hip. Over 70% means the opportunity to make a difference may have passed. This kind of mindset is a great example of how to think decisively,” Hubert explains.
Good followership supports good leadership
A popular maxim suggests that followers make the leader. Collaboration and mutual respect are what make a team or group successful, Hubert says. “I stress two ideas over and over with my staff, ‘push back’ and ‘save me from myself!’ I am okay being wrong, but I am not okay with you not telling me if you knew that I was wrong!
“It can take a while to earn the trust of the team in such a way that they freely, and without hesitation, save you from yourself. You will know
you have their trust when they are willing to push back,” he says.
Trust is a theme inherent in military protocol. “Followers do have a responsibility to help leaders be better leaders,” Carrie says (shown at right). Team members that support their leaders and their peers ask thoughtful questions, are curious, provide constructive feedback, and are proactive in finding out what is needed for success.
“Leadership behaviors are absolutely contagious so leading by example is very important. Behaviors, bad and good, spread throughout a team and trickle down from the attitude at the top,” Abigail says. “Veterans know what it is like in an environment where rules are literally life and death factors, and they know how to lead when the direction or decision is not popular.”
Veterans are adept at leading through change
Militaries around the world have trained leaders for thousands of years. The principles of discipline, accountability, initiative, and integrity are values important in the civilian sector, Hubert says (shown at left) “Veterans have the advantage of having experienced total immersion into that culture to the point that it becomes part of who they are.”
Abigail agrees. “The ability to hit the ground running has already been instilled in a veteran so less training is required. Veterans have already been drilled to adapt quickly. At a place like WEX where things change regularly and quickly, that is a great skill to have,” she says.
“Tenacity is also very important,” Carrie says. “Difficult situations arise everywhere. Successful people stay the course and see things through. Collaboration, sharing information, and offering support is how you accomplish your mission,” she says.
WEXVets welcomes and supports veterans
Despite all the shared sense of purpose and values between military success and corporate success, a transition from active service to the private sector can be challenging. A lot of the underlying foundational understandings that are shared by everyone in the military are not necessarily universally known or appreciated in corporate life. It’s Matthew’s vision that WEXVets mentor veterans as they’re coming into WEX and partner with them to help provide a smooth transition.
The mission of WEXVets is multi-faceted and aims to provide support for WEX veterans; create knowledge-sharing between veterans, their internal allies, and executive management; ensure the professional development of veterans, and create a safe place for people to gather with others.
“When you get veterans together it doesn’t take long for the military terms to come out and the story sharing to begin. We can relate to each other,” Abigail says.
To learn more about WEX, a growing and global organization that welcomes people of many backgrounds and experiences, please search our Careers section and find out about our various employee resource groups (ERGs).