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.”

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