Students with Military Experience Find Good Fit in Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) Program
Military service personnel transitioning to the business world are finding great success at Northwood as they apply their well-honed strategic and tactical thinking to Northwood’s M.B.A. program and its capstone simulation.
“I’ve had some great leadership opportunities in the military, and I decided that a Northwood M.B.A. would round that out and give me the business and analytical experience I was lacking,” said R. Jason Bennett (’17 M.B.A.), currently a captain in the U.S. Army National Guard. “I had leadership skills, but the M.B.A. was a natural conduit for that additional experience.”
Bennett has been with the Guard for more than 10 years, including one 12-month deployment to Kuwait/ Iraq. When not on active duty, he trains one weekend a month and two weeks each year. Bennett lives in Midland, Michigan, and works as a local manufacturer’s representative for a paint company.
Bennett started the Northwood M.B.A. program in 2016, and he was one of seven students in the program with military ties when he took part in the program’s capstone experience, a week-long, full-time business simulation in which teams of students run virtual companies that compete against each other. “The simulation reminded me of deployment in certain aspects,” Bennett said. “You’ve got a group of people who are thrown together to accomplish an objective. Then add in the pressure of this (simulated) company being a part of your grade. Obviously, you’re not being shot at, so I probably didn’t exhibit the same amount of stress that some of the other people did, but life is all about perspective, and knowing that it impacts your grade made it very stressful for some people.” Military service personnel transitioning to the business world are finding great success at Northwood as they apply their well-honed strategic and tactical thinking to Northwood’s M.B.A. program and its capstone simulation.
(Read more about Bennett’s M.B.A. capstone experience, including helping a teammate overcome a late-night panic attack, in the online version of IDEA magazine.)
“Bennett’s combat experience proved beneficial to the success of his team, which is a common outcome for students with military experience,” said Michael Anguiano, who oversees Northwood’s outreach to active-duty members of the military, veterans, and family members.
“The military trains you to respond to situations like that. It’s a mindset that is well developed,” Anguiano said. “No question, having activeduty military and veterans take part in the M.B.A. capstone experience is a great benefit to all the students in the program. They bring a lot to the table.”
At the same time, the M.B.A. program has proven very successful in helping people transition from the military to the business world.
“We are a critical part of that bridge from the military environment to the professional environment,” Anguiano said.
Northwood has long been recognized as a military-friendly university. It offers generous course credits for military experience. It works closely with the federal government’s Veterans Administration to arrange tuition funds, and provides additional funding for costs that exceed Veteran’s Administration caps.
Northwood faculty and staff consistently work hard to accommodate scheduling and other restrictions that make it difficult, especially for active-duty personnel, to take part in classes. Sixteen active members of the military have been enrolled in Northwood’s graduate program at one time or another since 2016. Most are Reservists with civilian jobs, like Bennett, but some have been fulltime service members.
“When I got into the M.B.A. program, it was kind of seamless, after my time in the military,” said Johnathon Higgins (’17 M.B.A.), who left the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 2017 after eight years of service and now works as an operations consultant for H&R Block in Kansas City, Missouri. Higgins said his team in the capstone project experienced some serious setbacks, but he was able to help lead the way around them.
“We sank down really low, and we had to pull ourselves up,” Higgins said.
Putting the Team First Pays Off
Among the many things that Bennett has learned during his years as an officer in the U.S. Army National Guard is that the team is bigger than any one individual.
That lesson paid dividends – for everyone – when Bennett was assigned to the finance unit of a team in the Northwood M.B.A. capstone experience, in which students fill leadership roles in fictional companies that compete against each other in a week-long computer-based market simulation.
“In my group, our vice president of finance was super smart, but the president of our company wasn’t happy with his performance, and she told me, ‘You need to give the presentation (to faculty evaluators) tomorrow.’ She was worried that if the presentation didn’t go well, it would have a negative effect on our grades,” Bennett recalled recently. “You can get into that mindset during the simulation. It’s made to feel like real life, so you really feel like you’re managing millions of dollars and people are going to lose their jobs if you make bad decisions.”
Despite being fully prepared to step in, and knowing that it would boost his own prestige, Bennett advised the company president to let her vice president complete the task, offering a common-sense rationale.
“As an officer, I’ve had to brief generals, so yeah, I can go in tomorrow and make this presentation, but you would be taking away an educational opportunity from this other person,” he told her. “At the end of the day, we’re all selfish to a certain extent. We want to perform well in front of our peers. But if I do well at the expense of one of my teammates, that’s not good for the team.”
At another point during the simulation week, one of Bennett’s teammates suffered a late-night panic attack, which he helped to counteract.
“I said, ‘Look, we’re going to pass. You just need to take a step back here and realize that this is a learning opportunity.”
Bennett’s ability to handle pressure is, at least in part, a product of his military experience. As a first lieutenant, he commanded a platoon of 31 soldiers during a 10-month deployment to the Iraq-Kuwait border in support of American forces in 2010 and 2011. His unit guarded a border checkpoint and formed a quick reaction force that moved into Iraq when needed, often for recovery of broken-down vehicles.
Once, Bennett and his unit were out in the countryside when the worst sandstorm to hit the area in many years blew in. It looked like a computer-generated special effect from the motion picture “The Mummy,” he said. But this was very real. And there was nothing to do but hunker down and ride it out.
“I was blessed that our unit suffered no casualties during our deployment, and we didn’t have to engage hostile forces,” Bennett said. “The closest I came was when a semi-trailer truck driver thought maybe he would run me over so that he could get around a long line of trucks waiting to cross the border. But I was able to convince him to stop in a way that didn’t require me to fire my weapon.”
Bennett, now a captain, has spent the past two years as a National Guard battalion logistics officer. He serves one weekend a month and two weeks each year; the rest of the time, he’s a manufacturer’s representative for a paint company.
When he took part in the M.B.A. capstone simulation, Bennett was one of seven students with military ties, including one whose path had crossed his before.
“She was a retired lieutenant colonel who was in my group. On the first day of the simulation we were going around the table introducing ourselves, and she was talking about her experiences, and I found out that she and her team had worked on a contract that had had a direct impact on my team during our deployment,” Bennett said. “Over the course of the week, whenever we had a few minutes, she and I would talk. I wanted to absorb all the knowledge she had.”
By the end of the simulation week, Bennett’s team was a high-performance machine. The president of the company agreed to let the finance vice president make the key presentation, and it went well. The team finished the week with the top overall score. And the payoff extended well beyond the grade that resulted.
“Even though we were only together for those six days, I developed quite a few bonds in that time,” Bennett said. “It was a good experience.”