Need Innovative Employees? Hire a Vet

by Mick Simonelli

Need Innovative Employees? Hire a Vet

Military service members are some of the most innovative people you will find

As both an innovator within DoD and an innovator within corporate America, I was constantly impressed by the innovative spirit and ingenuity of service members. General Patton had a famous saying:

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what you need and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

Patton was, of course, correct; and this is still as true today as it was during Patton’s time.  Military members innovate because the art of war requires innovation. Innovation is paramount to both survival and comfort.

The military way of life necessitates learning agility in both training and combat

As a long-time Army officer and innovator, I constantly witnessed soldiers and units innovating; and as a corporate executive, I diligently hired military veterans to successfully launch change.

While I was in the military and serving in transformation roles, the US military began reimagining the future of warfare and drastically changing the nature of military operations. During those years of transforming the US Army, a significant organizational shift began which ultimately gave the US a strong competitive advantage. This dramatic shift was enabled because US service-members possessed the flexibility and agility to make innovation happen.

New technology, new doctrine, new ways of operating and training were all brought on by our military. I witnessed service-members being given untested armored vehicles called Strykers, and being asked to develop the details of how it should be used and deployed. In one case, the soldiers changed and adapted the way the new Stryker vehicle would be used in urban environments.

In what corporations would call business model and business process innovations, young soldiers quickly and effectively discovered a new way to secure buildings. In training experiments with the Stryker vehicle, they came up with a method that safely dismounted soldiers on the doorsteps of buildings we needed to secure. Where previously we had used a long, multi-step, protracted process to secure the building, the soldiers’ ability to innovate enabled us to rapidly secure the buildings in quick order with no loss of life.

That innovation was perfected and then used with considerable real-world success as Strykers were deployed to the war in Iraq. And the collective results of military ingenuity were remarkable–US soldiers organized, led and fought in new ways that kept the US military best-in-class throughout the world.

At the same time that soldiers were positively changing our military tactics and techniques, their senior leader was exhibiting and encouraging transformational leadership. The Army Chief of Staff, General Shinseki, was an innovator who put forth a vision for the organization, and then worked to convince his senior-most leaders that change was needed. He not only testified and argued vociferously for transformation, but sent each member of Congress a copy of the book “America’s First Battles” which showed how the nature of war changes and how the military needed to continue to adapt.  And while Shinseki fought for change, his vision of innovation and agility was being fulfilled by transformational leaders throughout the Army down to the youngest privates.

As a troop leader I marveled at the ability of young service members to continuously innovate and improve with relative ease

It’s routine for military units to make dynamic changes in the middle of training or combat. I was privileged to be part of units that would seize an objective, rally on the objective, share lessons through an after action review or hot wash, and then modify their approach to the next objective based on those lessons. They would then also task-organize their forces based on their learnings.

Service members are taught to routinely use process and business model innovation in the middle of combat because it is part and parcel of how they do business. This ability to innovate is one of the reasons the US military is best-in-class—they quickly change and adapt to change.

Innovation for the military is a survival necessity very similar to that found in farmers. Farmers will frequently have to make things work on their farms without the assistance of special made tools for their problems. Because they are out in the country, when they need something designed or fixed, they will often combine elements of other things to create the new capability they need. As an innovator, I’ve always loved farmers for their practical creativity and witnessed service members exhibit the same kind of creativity. Like most farmers, they are away from logistics when in the field.

One of the creature comfort and systems innovations I marveled at was a Military Police teams Hummer modifications that occurred in my company. While deployed in Bosnia and patrolling 16 hours a day, my soldiers would be forced to sit on a belt-like strap in the turret of the Hummer. The strap was safe and adequately supported them, but it was very uncomfortable after a few minutes of sitting. The strap also didn’t stay firm enough when they had to fire their machine guns from a sitting position.

However, some of them who were fishermen connected the dots and came up with a superior gunnery seat. They combined the swiveling fishing seat found on the front of bass boats with the need to spin solidly (and comfortably) in their Hummer. They coerced the supply sergeant to order a bass boat fishing seat with a support pole and then jerry-rigged it to the Hummer floor.

The resulting innovation was a vast improvement over the strap. Soldiers could sit and shoot while swiveling with ease. Soon my whole company was outfitted with bass boat seats in place of the straps. The innovation not only made for healthier soldiers but improved their gunning posture (and likely targeting). As their commander I forwarded their innovation to higher headquarters where it soon became a formal part of the Hummer’s components.

The combat environment creates situations and environments where innovation is essential

Similar to combat, the rapidly changing business environment also necessitates innovation. Innovation is embraced by military members because the innovative approach usually wins. The organization that possesses those innovative thinkers is the organization that comes out on top. Because of this fact, businesses that have an innovative culture or are trying to infuse an innovative culture should look for military veterans to join their teams. The innovative experience and abilities of veterans are key enablers for organizations trying to do things differently.

The military veteran is trained and experienced to innovate and help organizations make positive changes to move forward. Any organization looking for enablers to help their organization make positive change should immediately look towards hiring vets–they won’t be disappointed.

A note on our image: We are honored to showcase and celebrate Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour, the CBO, Chief Breakthrough Officer, of VAI Consulting and Training, LLC. As an author (Zero to Breakthrough, Penguin 2011) and inspirational leadership keynote speaker, she delivers battle-proven strategies to win on the battlefield of business and life.  After serving two tours in Iraq, Vernice became America’s First African American Female Combat Pilot and has been featured on Oprah, CNN and other media outlets for her work and inspiration to others.  visit:

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Mick Simonelli is an innovator with 20+ years of implementing change and positive disruption at USAA. As a military veteran, he held transformation roles in numerous military organizations; and as a business executive, he purposely hired vets to help launch numerous innovations as the Chief Innovation Officer for a Fortune 500 company. Mick currently serves as a innovation consultant and can be found at


  1. As a fellow veteran, of course I have to agree with you that companies would be well served to hire military veterans. And, the United States Government would be well served to take care of those that they send into harm’s way in the best way possible. Go Navy!


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