Veterans at MIT Sloan on How Their Service Prepared Them for Business School

veterans at MIT Sloan

This post has been republished in its entirety from original source

What does a Navy fast-attack submarine officer who spent months at a time at the bottom of the ocean have to contribute to class conversation at an elite business school? Plenty, it turns out.

Brian Kirk, 38, graduated from Penn State with a degree in mechanical engineering before attending Officer Training School in Rhode Island to earn his commission in the U.S. Navy. After a year and half in the Navy’s nuclear training pipeline, he served on board the USS Louisville as part of a western Pacific deployment and in its home port of Pearl Harbor. There was not a single GMAT prep course in his path. And yet, today, he is a member of the MBA Class of 2016 at MIT Sloan School of Management—where he fits right in.

Several factors led Kirk to service in the Navy. “It was something I felt compelled to do,” he says. “I felt like I needed to serve in some regard to support this country and the Constitution that I believed in so much.” But he also wanted to see the world, and there was a degree of sexiness and bravado that appealed to him, too.

So how did he get from there to MIT Sloan? The military life wasn’t right for his family for the long term, he says. “My wife is incredibly intelligent and definitely deserves a rewarding career of her own, which was not likely to happen if I were to stay in the military.” He knew he could lead—he’d been in charge of 150 people when he was driving the ship—but he needed to “bridge the gap to reality,” he says. “An MBA called to me as a way to learn the hard business skills I would need to go out and run an organization or be my own boss one day.”

veterans at MIT Sloan

Veterans Association Co-President Brian Kirk, MBA Class of 2016

He and his wife set to work applying to school—business schools for him and nursing schools for her—hoping to both get into top programs in the same city. It came down to a decision between Boston and Chicago and between MBA programs at Sloan and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

To hear him tell it, he settled on Sloan somewhat reluctantly. “It was at the bottom of my list and I chose it just for the convenience of being in the same town as my wife and being high in the rankings,” he confesses, with apologies to the admissions office. “Submariners are notoriously geeky, somewhat introverted, odd personalities,” he says. “We don’t see the sun very much,” he adds with a laugh.

For business school, he wanted something different. He wanted to be around outspoken, outgoing people and be forced to use the other side of his brain. Surely, Sloan wasn’t this place. Or so he thought.

“The first time I got here for admit weekend I could tell that everything I thought about MIT as being a tech house was wrong,” he says. Instead of a bunch of geeky introverts, he found a community of outgoing, extroverted high achievers that enjoys being around each other and learning from each other. “In the end it all just landed perfectly—I wound up in exactly the place I was supposed to be and that was just sheer good luck.”

Joseph McGovern’s journey to Sloan followed a different path. A West Point graduate, McGovern spent eight years as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army, including as a platoon leader and executive officer in the 82nd Airborne Division and as part of a deployment to Afghanistan to support Operation Enduring Freedom. He completed his Army career as a company commander in the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, collecting a long list of awards and decorations along the way, including the Bronze Star and the Meritorious Service Medal.

vets at MIT Sloan

Joe McGovern in uniform

But his call to service echoes classmate Kirk’s. “I always viewed military services as something I wanted to do,” the 31-year-old Buffalo native says. “I always felt my community gave a lot to me and I wanted to give back.” His father, grandfather and uncles also served. “I thought it was exciting and would be a really good thing for me, and the Army took me all over the place,” he says.

As for why business school, he needed a next step after systematically crossing off every item on his to-do list in the military. “Coming out of West Point, I had certain goals,” he says. Graduate from Ranger School, check. Lead a team in combat in Afghanistan, check. Be a company commander, check. “I’d accomplished those goals and decided I wanted a career and a new challenge,” he says. “I felt I needed to still build my business acumen in those hard business skills,” he says.

As for why Sloan, he decided after visiting lots of schools and reaching out to as many people as possible that its culture was the perfect fit for him. “Sloan’s culture is really very similar to the military—people are very collaborative, down to earth, humble and want to impact the world in a positive manner.”

Leadership in Spades
Kirk and McGovern are now co-presidents of the MIT Veterans Student Association. That they would quickly find themselves in a leadership role at the student-club level should come as no surprise. While they may lack some of the on-the-job experiences of their colleagues who came to business school from consulting firms or investment banks, they have leadership experience that dwarfs their classmates’.

“Over my eight-year military career I have pretty much always been in charge of large teams,” McGovern says. At 22, he was leading 45 people, and in his last job as a company commander he was in charge of 165. “Bringing that organizational knowledge of how things work to the classroom has separated me out to a degree,” he says.

Kirk concurs. “Many of my colleagues, if they have led anyone, it’s been groups of one or two,” he says. “It’s a little different when people lives, no kidding, are on the line—when the reactor shuts down and you are 700 feet below the surface.” As a result of these types of leadership experiences, Kirk finds that he often offers a slightly different way of looking at problems in the classroom. “I am more prone to think out of the box,” he says, which he thinks is often true of people who have been in charge in high-stress situations. “You are more prone to make decisions that are the right decisions independent of the artificial constraints that are put on you,” he says.

Pushing the Execution Envelop
Another difference is being more prone toward action. “Something else I have noticed from my veteran classmates—we are far more likely to begin to just act,” Kirk says. “We’re more likely to get 90 percent of the way to a solution and execute on that, iterating until we get it just right.” This is in contrast to someone coming into business school from an analyst role, who is more likely to be looking to reach the 100 percent solution all the time. “I do think veterans tend to push the execution envelop a bit more,” says Kirk. “Our classmates choke us back, grab us by the scruff of the neck and keep us from moving too fast,” he says, adding that he has learned from his classmates when to go slowly. “There is a great synergy there between what vets can offer and have offered and what we, in turn, learn from our business school teams.”

veterans at MIT Sloan

McGovern, MIT Sloan Class of 2016 and Veterans Association Co-President

McGovern, for his part, confesses that he is a bit more preoccupied with promptness than his civilian classmates. In fact, it’s been something of a joke and his classmates have even voted him “Most Likely to Be on Time for an Event.” When a meeting or class is supposed to start, he’s there ten minutes beforehand, sitting in his seat, ready to go. “In business school, I’ve learned it is sometimes okay to be late,” he says. “In the military, people run late and bad things happen.” That is not to say that everything is late in business school, he is quick to clarify. “But it’s definitely a more relaxed atmosphere.”

A Challenging Transition
All jokes aside, the transition from military service to business school can be challenging for veterans. In a post to the MIT Student Voices blog, Kirk shared that he had lots of self-doubt at the start, writing that he felt grossly out of place and like he might have been an admissions mistake. “I remember sitting at orientation and they rattled off the statistics for the class—there are 400 of us, 40 percent are female, we came from 50 different countries and the average GMAT was 718,” he recalls. “I figure I am probably in the bottom five percent of GMAT scores,” he reveals. “I did not do so well on that test.” Of course, it could have something to do with the fact that he was working 120 hours a week while studying for it.

But it was more than that, he continues. “The social awkwardness of being trapped under water with 150 dudes for I don’t know how many months—when I got here it was almost like trying to be human again.” All the while echoing in the back of his head was the thought, “You are on the bottom floor of intelligence here.” As he settled in, though, he realized that probably wasn’t the case—that he was on an intellectual par with his classmates and had lots to offer.

McGovern faced his own struggles as well. For him, the biggest thing was getting up to speed on the hard business and technical skills. “I was sitting in a finance theory class and I had no idea what bonds were, what a balance sheet was,” he says. Many of his classmates had been exposed to that and more in their pre-MBA jobs. “I also thought I knew how to use PowerPoint and Excel,” he adds. “In the Army, Excel was a nice way to make lists and spreadsheets—nothing like being able to use that program to create a complete, dynamic model with equations,” he reveals. “I have had to work very hard to bring myself up to speed.”

Another challenge has been learning to toot his own horn a little. Asked for his advice to fellow veterans thinking of applying to business school: “Don’t be afraid to highlight your personal achievements and your impact on an organization—take credit for what you have done,” he says. “In the Army you are taught to be humble and give credit to the team—veterans can struggle with that in interviews, essays, even on their resumes.”

Giving Back through the MIT Sloan Veterans Association
Both Kirk and McGovern credit veterans’ student organizations at Sloan and elsewhere for providing insights about business school and the application process when they were considering where and whether to apply. “I made a point of reaching out to all the vets clubs at all of the schools I was applying to for an unbiased look at what the process was like for them,” says Kirk. “All those conversations were hugely insightful for me, solidified that I wanted to go to a top MBA program and helped rule out some of the cultures that I felt weren’t necessarily right for me.”@

They both immediately found their way to the MIT Sloan Veterans Association when they got to campus. Kirk became VP of admissions for the club, responsible for interacting with the admissions team and prospective veterans trying to make the decision he had just made. “It felt like I had something I could offer my fellow vets–this is vets helping vets–our job is to help other vets transition from the military into whatever business school is best for them and help them make the right choice,” he says.

This year, as co-presidents, Kirk and McGovern will leave the interactions with prospective applicants largely to first-years in the club and focus more of their efforts on helping other veterans make the transition to business school and the business world, including through a new mentor-buddy system pairing each first-year veteran with a second-year veteran who has made the transition and knows some of the challenges involved. Another focus is on improving alumni relations for veterans at MIT Sloan , including developing a database and integrating Sloan alumni veterans into the community through happy hours, alumni panels and the like.

A final key goal of the MIT Sloan Veterans Association is work to better connect the military vets with the rest of their MIT classmates. “I am passionate about bridging that gap between the military and my civilian counterparts,” Kirk says. “There seems to be a lot of ambiguity, and in some ways I think that gap may even be widening,” he continues. “People are curious about the military but don’t really understand our backgrounds or what we bring to the community.”

To share some of their unique backgrounds with and give back to their civilian counterparts, the group also last year launched a January course for classmates in which they helped impart some of the leadership lessons they learned in the military. There are plans to expand upon this offering this year.

But perhaps the greatest contribution veterans at Sloan make to their classmates is providing a sense of perspective and calm. “I think the veterans at least at Sloan are known to handle pressure very well,” says McGovern. “It’s hectic and busy and you’re always getting assignments, but we remain calm under pressure, which seems to have this calming effect.”

Kirk tells a similar tale. “The stress of going through the core semester at Sloan was not even comparable to the stress that I faced every day of being on a submarine,” Kirk says. “When my classmates began to freak out about too many assignments too many requirements, I could just sit back and be relaxed,” he says, which he thinks helped them relax a little. “Guys, no one is going to die here. We are going to get through it.”

Learn more about the MIT Sloan Veterans Association.


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