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From the Battlefield to the Corner Office: Five Reasons Why Veterans Make Great Business Leaders

11/18/2013 10:48 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

With Veterans Day now behind us, we stop and recognize our veterans not only for their service to our country, but also for their continued service out of uniform. A veteran's service to her country doesn't end when she comes home. After mastering a range of leadership skills on the battlefield, many veterans are finding ways to build high-growth companies and lead in a different way: in the corner office.

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), veterans are 45 percent more likely than non-veterans to start their own businesses. This is probably because veterans embody many of the traits that make successful entrepreneurs.

At EY, we have several programs that provide veteran entrepreneurs with customized executive leadership training and the opportunity to join an elite business network to further their corporate goals. In fact, two members of our EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program, Dawn Halfaker and Lani Hay, are veterans turned business owners who deliberately channeled what they gained in the military to launch and grow thriving companies.

Halfaker, founder and CEO of Halfaker and Associates, served as a military police officer in the United States Army. Throughout her military career, Dawn held several leadership positions and deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. There she commanded a military police platoon with the 3rd Infantry Division. During a combat patrol in 2004, she was wounded near Baghdad, earning a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for her service.

"The hardest part of being injured was losing my career, my sense of purpose and my military community of support," says Halfaker. "Starting a business that continues to support the warfighter was the best avenue for getting those things back."

Lani Hay is a Naval intelligence officer turned CEO of LMT. During Lani's operational tour in the Navy, she was assigned to a P-3 Orion unit home based in Hawaii. With the changing mission of the P-3 Orion from hunting submarines to flying reconnaissance missions around the world, she was exposed to and assisted with the development of new cutting-edge technologies, one of which was transmitting live video feeds from the aircraft to intelligence centers on the ground. When she wasn't deployed, she went to night school to work on her MBA, which is where she started to lay the foundation for her company.

"Working with new technologies and helping to shape how they are used and how they are communicated so an end user sees value is very entrepreneurial - it's creating something someone else wants," says Hay. "During my military service, I had the opportunity to be exposed to several problems, and I was able to work with a team of professionals to help solve them."

As Halfaker and Hay embody, there are five key traits that veterans embody that make them successful entrepreneurs and business leaders:

1) Resilience - The military challenges service members both physically and mentally; veterans are comfortable with being uncomfortable. This quality is valuable given the challenges entrepreneurs face in the high-growth business world. Halfaker says her company specifically seeks out other veterans to hire, not only because this was part of the original construct of the company, but because of their unique skills. "Veterans are incredibly flexible and trustworthy, have the ability to make difficult decisions under pressure and exhibit strong organizational commitment," explains Halfaker.

2) Discipline and focus - Two of the most distinct qualities of service members are their discipline and sharp concentration. Veterans also have what they call mission focus. They are hard-working, accountable and accustomed to reporting back and figuring out how to make things better the next time. "The military literally requires you to trust your troops with your life. You need to rely on your troops and also uphold your duties and commitment so that they can rely on you," says Halfaker. "Trust and reliability are two characteristics required in teams in business as well."

3) Team orientation - Veterans are known for being great leaders, but they are also ready to follow. This ability to play different roles in different situations is an important quality in running a business. Whether in training courses or in overseas deployments, service members work together to execute high-level strategy and overcome physical obstacles. "Leading a platoon, I had experience working with individuals with extremely varied backgrounds and helping them come together as a team," remarks Halfaker. "The same is true in business and building a cohesive team is critical to a company's success."

"In the military I learned that sometimes you need to lead, follow or get out of the way. Just as a basketball team wouldn't recruit five superstar point guards, successful teams recruit the best people with varying skillsets that are ready, willing and able to answer the call of duty when the time arises. Therefore, everyone on the team is critical and has an important role," says Hay.

"LMT is a team and as CEO that makes me the coach," continues Hay. "That means making difficult choices and being critical of every member, including myself. It also means understanding that everyone has a vital role to play. While some play a more critical role at times, or with specific tasks, that's what makes a team: trust, communication and the understanding that our actions, both individually and collectively, contribute to the team's success or failure."

4) Motivation - Members of the military are instilled with a sense of pride in their country, themselves and their fellow veterans. This pride carries over into other aspects of their lives, specifically their post-military careers. "Every day, I strive to make our company's culture supportive, entrepreneurial and nurturing," says Hay. "A sense of community is as important in the military as it is at LMT. The extended military family has always been an important part of the operational readiness of our military and that carries through in LMT's culture."

"What is so special about being in the military?" asks Halfaker. "It's a group of people who come together for one purpose. So, in business, that's how we motivate and inspire our people. At Halfaker, our mission is Continuing to Serve. That resonates with a lot of employees, especially the veterans."

5) Strategy orientation- Veterans are programmed to think one step ahead and on their feet. Not only do they have to consider immediate consequences, but also, they need to consider the long term. "A plan is something that you put in place to adjust off of - it sets intent," explains Hay. "The ability to quickly and decisively react to market forces, whether they're on the battlefield or in the boardroom, is what determines victory or defeat."

"LMT has a 10-year track record of constantly improving and getting to the next level. Problem solving is where my team excels, so we welcome challenging times and see it as a learning opportunity to make necessary changes and become better. I was a high jumper when I did track and field, and I like the analogy of sometimes having to take a few steps back in order to create the space needed to gain the necessary momentum to get to the next level."

As of 2011, there were approximately 21.5 million veterans in the US, and that number is expected to increase as the conflicts overseas begin to wind down. Whether these veterans have served for four or 40 years, they have amassed the kind of skills and experiences skills that are evaluable for creating and running a successful business, all the while boosting the U.S. economy as a whole.

A veteran's contribution to his or her country is never finished. Whether defending one's fellow soldiers or launching a business that creates opportunities for others, the entrepreneurial veteran is definitely someone to be honored, celebrated and encouraged.