From battlefield to business
Ben Roberts-Smith VC: How an MBA can change your life
BBEN Roberts-Smith spent 18 years in the military, served in Afghanistan six times, was a member of the elite Special Air Service, risked his life often and has been awarded a string of honours including a Medal for Gallantry and a Victoria Cross. But this year, the 35-year-old retired soldier is dealing with a fresh challenge – studying at university.
With no formal qualifications, he is now studying for a master of business administration at the University of Queensland to transition from being one of Australia’s most distinguished soldiers to a career in business. “I wanted to get involved in business when I left the military,” he tells The Deal in an interview at the university, not far from the Brisbane CBD, with its green lawns and sandstone cloisters. “I decided the best way to do it was to start by re-educating myself. An MBA seemed the appropriate way to do it.” The decision has meant the man who has packed more into the past two decades than most people do in a lifetime is doing something he has never done – university essays and assignments.
“I don’t have a degree,” he says. “I have 18 years of experience in the military. I have written reports, I have done courses, I have studied everything from demolition to qualifications for being a paramedic, but I have never been involved with business. For me to come in here and do a 2500-word assignment, it’s not something that I find is difficult to do, it’s just that I have never done it before. Most people have been through this process before whereas for me it’s a whole new learning process.”
Roberts-Smith grew up in Perth where he joined the army. He has served around the world including Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor and Fiji, spending the past 10 years as a member of the SAS. But now he has retired from the military he has moved to Brisbane, his wife Emma’s hometown, and is studying at what he regards as one of the best universities in the country. He is juggling studies with work for almost 40 charities and consulting to some of the country’s largest companies on developing leadership and high-performance culture.
But as he sits at his desk at home at night wrestling with an assignment, he has to take himself back to the days when he joined the army. “I think would I ring out now? Would I withdraw myself from the course? I wouldn’t do it then.” The determination that served him so well in the military kicks in. “It’s bit of suck it
up. Clearly you said you are going to do it and you are going to do it. It’s that simple,” he says. “There are times when it is difficult but the bottom line is that, no matter what happens, you can just never give up. That is the same attitude that has enabled me to have a fantastic career in the military.”
Like so many high performing people, Roberts-Smith sees the MBA as part higher education and part pathway to senior levels of business. “My level of risk in stepping out of the army was huge. But if you never attempt something you are guaranteed to fail.” While he already consults to some of the country’s top companies, he is determined to do an MBA to qualify himself for business on his own merits. “I am here doing an MBA to prove that I can do it,” he says.
While his distinguished career has won him connections from many walks of life, from Seven Group Holdings executive chairman Kerry Stokes to former Opposition leader Brendan Nelson, to PwC Australia chief executive Luke Sayers, Roberts-Smith knows that the honours he has achieved so far are not enough to help him succeed in business. “Having a VC opens the door in business but that’s all it does. People in business don’t care unless you can provide the goods. If you don’t have what they need, if you can’t add value to their organisation, then it is just a handshake and a ‘thanks for coming’.”
Roberts-Smith is one of many well-trained people coming out of the military as Australia’s commitment to the Middle East and Afghanistan has phased down. He says some of his friends have set up their own businesses, from gyms to security consultancies, while others have high-level jobs with major international companies handling security or overseeing occupational health and safety issues. His decorations and his role in the SAS brought him in contact with Perth-based Seven founder Stokes who invited him in to take a look at his business, including Caterpillar dealer group WesTrac, something that has led to several other high-level consultancies.
He is passionate about pointing out to business people the skills that military-trained people offer. “They bring their personal ethos and values,” he says. “They are individuals who have an established set of values. They know what is required to function in a high-performing team. People take that as a given but, frankly, there are a lot of dysfunctional teams out there in many different industries. Soldiers have the ability to adapt to any organisation, understand its intent and conduct themselves in a way to add value to the team which is very different from adding value from an individual perspective,” he says. “They have good technical skills, good leadership skills and they are good at man management but they also have the ability to assimilate information and learn quickly and turn it into physical action a lot sooner than someone who hasn’t had that life experience.”
Roberts-Smith says he has talked enough about the details of the day in June 2010, in Afghanistan, where he deliberately exposed his own position to draw fire away from his patrol, which earned him the Victoria Cross. “I have been to Afghanistan six times,” he says. “That one day was no different to any other time I have been there, to be honest.”
Pressed, he says that the skills used by the SAS are “getting the one per cent right every time. The things that are considered to be mundane, we make sure that we can do the everyday tasks perfectly. While you have these jobs such as skydiving and dealing with explosives, it is actually the little things that you do before all of these events which makes you efficient and be able to succeed in those tasks.” The SAS, he says, also has a strong culture of teamwork where each member is committed to looking after each other.
While all sorts of offers are flooding in for him, RobertsSmith says his current goal, after he has graduated with his MBA, is to get a senior position in a large company. “I want to get the experience that only comes with a senior management role in a large organisation or a large business. I would like to get that sort of management experience under my belt and see how that plays out.”
He argues that at the top end of Australian business – or the companies he has consulted to – there is also a driven, high-performance culture similar to that he has been used to in the military. But he says performance in business can be boosted by breaking down silos, driving communication in companies and developing a strong culture where the values of the organisation are relevant from the boardroom to the shop floor. A true leader, he says, has to be prepared to make mistakes. “One of the key aspects of being a leader is that you don’t have a fear of failure. If you have a fear of failure you are never going to learn anything. You have to make mistakes to learn.”