Military Veteran and Civil Servant Board Candidate Primer for Nomination and Governance Committee Chairs

Executive Summary

Board nominating committees frequently cull out board candidates with backgrounds in the military or civil service before fully considering their potential value. This may unfortunately lead to missed opportunities on both sides. This article explores the high value these candidates may represent, as well as many of the underlying issues that may prompt a selection committee to misfire.  A well-prepared selection committee can ask the right questions and bridge the gap.

Former military members and government civil servants bring valuable skills and perspectives to a board of directors. They uniquely understand leadership, decision-making under pressure, and strategic thinking. They have experience in crisis management and risk assessment and have a strong sense of accountability and responsibility. Their military and government service background can also give them a global perspective and an understanding of the importance of service beyond self, teamwork, diversity, inclusion, and cultural intelligence. Having a diverse group of individuals who have served in these capacities on a board, with different backgrounds and experiences, can lead to more effective decision-making and better outcomes for the organization.

What to Expect: Military Veterans

Leadership Skills

Most service members (at all ranks, but mainly as an officer or Senior Executive Service member) have extensive experience leading teams and making difficult decisions under immense pressure. As a result, they should demonstrate how their leadership skills will be valuable in a board setting, particularly in helping to provide strategic guidance and oversight.

Strategic Thinking

Service members are trained to think strategically and make long-term plans. Therefore, they should demonstrate how their strategic thinking skills and experiences can be valuable in a board setting, with specific examples from their career journey where they have been responsible for ensuring the organization's long-term success. 

Risk and Crisis Management

Former service members are accustomed to operating in environments with immense operational, financial, and political risks. Therefore, these candidates should be able to articulate their experiences and outcomes in planning, executing, and reporting risk mitigation and crisis management strategies and outcomes.

Global Perspective

Military veterans have a global perspective and understand the importance of diversity, inclusion, and cultural intelligence. They can discuss how their military background has prepared them to understand the importance of diversity and inclusion and how it can benefit the board.

Accountability and Governance

Military veterans have a strong sense of accountability and responsibility, which are critical in a board setting. They can discuss how their military background has prepared them for the governance responsibilities of a board member.

What to Expect: Civil Servants

Experience in Government Operations

Former civil servants have experience managing government operations, including budgeting, procurement, and policy implementation. They can bring this experience to the boardroom, helping the board to make more informed decisions about government contracts and regulatory issues.

Expertise in Policy Development

Civil servants often have extensive experience developing policies and programs that benefit society. This expertise can be valuable to a board of directors when developing corporate social responsibility initiatives or navigating complex regulatory frameworks and agencies.

Understanding of Government Relations

Civil servants have a deep understanding of government relations, including how to navigate the political landscape and build relationships with key stakeholders. This experience can be particularly valuable for companies that operate in heavily regulated industries or that rely on government contracts.

Commitment to Public Service

Former civil servants are often driven by a sense of public service and a desire to impact society positively. This commitment to public service can translate to a focus on corporate social responsibility and a dedication to ethical business practices.

Overall, former civil servants can bring a unique perspective to a board of directors, one that is grounded in experience with government operations, policy development, and public service. This perspective can help companies navigate complex regulatory environments, develop effective social responsibility initiatives, and make decisions that benefit the company and society.

Potential Questions to Ask Candidates

  • Can you tell us about your leadership experience in the military/government agency and how it prepared you to serve on a board of directors?
  • How will your service and background contribute to the board's diversity of thought and perspectives?
  • Can you discuss a specific situation where you had to make a difficult decision under pressure and how you handled it?
  • How do you approach risk and crisis management, and how do you think your service experience has prepared you for those responsibilities on a board?
  • How do you stay informed about industry trends, and how do you think your background has prepared you for staying informed about this organization's industry?
  • Can you discuss a situation where you had to work with a diverse group of individuals and how you approached working with individuals from different backgrounds and perspectives?
  • Can you discuss a situation where you had to think strategically about a problem or opportunity and how you approached it?
  • How do you approach accountability and Governance in your professional life? How has your service influenced that?

These questions can help the nomination and governance committee understand the potential candidate's perspectives and skills. They will also give insight into how their service background may bring unique value to the board.

Potential Biases to Consider and Watch for in Others

Here are a few potential biases to be mindful of when considering military veterans:

Lack of understanding of the civilian business environment: Some people may assume that military veterans do not have the experience or knowledge to navigate the complexities of the civilian business environment.

Military veterans have undergone rigorous leadership, strategic planning, and decision-making training, which can translate well into the civilian business environment. They also have experience working under pressure and adapting to changing circumstances, making them valuable assets in a dynamic business setting.

Perceptions of inflexibility or rigidity: Some may assume that military veterans have a strict, top-down leadership style that is not well-suited for a board setting. Military veterans are trained to be adaptable and flexible, as they often must operate in diverse and challenging environments. They also have experience working collaboratively with individuals from different backgrounds and cultures, making them well-suited for board settings that require teamwork and cooperation.

Too aggressive or not collaborative: Some people may hold stereotypes about veterans that are only sometimes accurate and may assume that veterans cannot work well in a collaborative setting. However, military veterans have a strong sense of teamwork and camaraderie, which they have developed through service. They also have experience leading and working with diverse groups of people, making them well-suited for collaborative settings.

Lack of diversity and unconscious bias: Often, boards of directors tend to be homogeneous regarding background, gender, and ethnicity, which may make it harder for individuals with these backgrounds to be selected. Military veterans come from diverse backgrounds, and many have experience working with individuals from different cultures and communities. As a result, they can bring a unique perspective and expertise to board settings, including an ability and willingness to tactfully disagree or bring up opposing or unpopular thoughts, which can help mitigate groupthink and promote more diverse and inclusive decision-making.

Here are a few potential biases to be mindful of when considering civil servants:

Perception of bureaucracy: Some people may assume that civil servants are overly bureaucratic and may need help to adapt to the fast-paced environment of a civilian organization and boardroom. Civil servants are trained to navigate complex systems and regulations, making them well-equipped to handle the fast-paced environment of a boardroom. In addition, they have experience managing large budgets and coordinating with diverse stakeholders, which can be valuable skills in a civilian organization.

Stereotypes of government employees as unproductive or inefficient: Some people may hold stereotypes about government employees that may not necessarily reflect reality and may assume that they lack the necessary skills to contribute effectively to a board. Civil servants are often highly educated and have extensive experience in policy development, public service delivery, and project management. In addition, they are trained to operate with transparency, accountability, and efficiency, making them valuable contributors to a board.

Political biases: Civil servants may be perceived as politically biased or partisan, which could make it difficult for them to be selected for a board position. Civil servants are trained to remain impartial and neutral in their work, regardless of political affiliation. In addition, they have experience working within complex political and regulatory environments and can provide valuable insights into the impact of policy decisions on organizations and society. As such, their political biases should not be a concern when considering them for board appointments.

Overall, it's essential to be mindful of these potential biases and evaluate candidates for their skills, experiences, and qualifications rather than making assumptions based on stereotypes or generalizations. By doing so, boards can ensure they select the most qualified and diverse individuals to help guide their organizations to success.

Conclusion and Action

The potential value of military veterans and former civil servants as board members should be clear. Their diverse experiences, operating environments, and organizations position them exceptionally well to bring fresh, unique, values-based perspectives to board service. In addition, the guiding questions and other information can be of value to help fairly evaluate candidates with these backgrounds for board roles.


Bryan is a Board Director, CEO, Founder, healthcare executive, coach, mentor, keynote speaker, and former U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer. He has held executive leadership and board roles in various companies and other organizations. His professional experience spans leading global teams and businesses across multiple industry segments, products, and organization types, including privately held, private-equity-owned, and public companies. Bryan has invested significantly in his development as a professional and effective board member. He is certified in private company governance by the Private Directors Association (PDA), where he serves as the founding President of the Alabama chapter.



Simpson, J., Sariol, A.M. “Squared Away: Veterans on the Board of Directors.” J Bus Ethics 160, 1035–1045 (2019).

"The Value of Military Experience on Boards of Directors: A Review and Research Agenda" by David J. Ketchen Jr., Todd W. Moss, and Peter W. Hom. This article, published in the Journal of Management, examines the potential benefits of having military veterans on corporate boards, including their strategic thinking skills, decision-making abilities, and leadership experience.

"The Value of Military Experience for Corporate Leadership: A Review of the Research" by Daniel T. Holt and James M. Bloodgood. Published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, this article reviews the existing research on the value of military experience in the corporate world and highlights the unique strengths that military veterans can bring to boards of directors.

"Military Service and Corporate Leadership: The Effect of Military Rank and Branch of Service on the Appointment of Directors" by Simon C. Parker and David J. Van Fleet. This article, published in the Journal of Business Research, examines the relationship between military service and board appointments, finding that military rank and branch of service can impact the likelihood of being appointed to a board.

These articles and others in the literature suggest that military veterans and former civil servants can bring unique, highly relevant, and valuable skills and perspectives to corporate boards, including leadership experience, strategic thinking, and decision-making abilities.

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