Startup Advisories

How military leadership training shaped us as entrepreneurs

To every male Singaporean citizens and second generation PRs, National Service is a rite of passage of boys becoming men. Singaporean males around the ages of 18 to 19 are generally conscripted for a two-year stint, and are deployed to various uniform services.

When asking a conscript on how the experience of National Service was, answers range from ‘an experiential learning’ to ‘it’s just a waste of time’, with a heavy inclination to the latter.

So how does National Service, in particular military leadership training in Officer Cadet School (OCS), aid an entrepreneur in his journey? And how could National Service, a key tenet of a Singaporean male’s life, be enhanced to support Singapore’s ideals of a Smart Nation of innovation and creativity? I asked six former officers in the Singapore Armed Forces, who are now entrepreneurs, for their insights.

Key lessons learnt that apply to entrepreneurship

Leading by example

For Daryl Chew, who was a former staff officer at the SAFTI MI, shares, “In NS, whenever we wanted something to be done well, we can’t just explain it once and expect our men to understand. We have to personally roll up our sleeves and show them how it’s done to set the standards and prove to them that it can be done.”

He applies this aspect to his startup, Nail Deck, where he is CEO and co-founder. His startup created a mobile shopping app that makes it easy and fun to find or create the perfect nail polish colour.

Daryl explains, “Leading by example is something I applied to the work ethics of my company. If I want my team to work on weekends, I have to work weekends too. If I want my team to report to work at 9am sharp everyday, I make sure I am at my desk at 9am sharp everyday.

Likewise, if I expect my team to adhere to assignment due dates, I will make sure that I will meet my own due dates. Because if I don’t, then why should they?”

Leadership is about being the one to take the first step and to always be there.

Gerald Tan, co-founder of Getfash, agrees. He was a platoon commander in a battalion that defends key installations in Singapore. He had to ensure fitness levels were good among his men. “The key thing for me was to always be there for my guys during training. Being there and leading by example raises morale and camaraderie.

This experience has taught me that leadership is about being the one to take the first step and to always be there. It’s not about being brave or sacrificial.”

Getfash is a shoppable fashion magazine which allows consumers to read and shop fashion easily. He shares how leading by example also applies to his startup. “To me, leading by example is about always thinking and expressing new ideas to grow our numbers, improve our product, and strengthen our team. I believe that if I keep expressing these ideas, it would influence my team to cultivate that habit and they would contribute too. Today, I feel fortunate to have talented team members who care about Getfash as much as I do. They are always suggesting ideas to overcome obstacles and solve problems.”

Gathering and attracting the top talent

Getty Goh was formerly an Operations Officer in the military and served over 10 years as a regular. Due to his extended time in the military, he developed a knack for gathering talents, which benefited his business, CoAssets.

He elaborates, “In the military, you learn to recognise that for a team to work, you need to have members with different skill sets. You also learn how to operate with each other even though you could be working with a diverse group of people.

A case in point is the management team that CoAssets currently has. For example, my CTO, Dr Seh Huan Kiat, is a PhD from MIT and had relevant experience from his days with Intel. My CIO is Mr Chew Siang Chee, and he won an industry award, recognising him as Asia’s Best Corporate Treasurer in 2015. My COO is COL (NS) Lawrence Lim, who retired as the Chief of Artillery and was the organising chairman of SEA Games 2015.

Looking at the quality of executives and board that CoAssets has, I believe it is from my military training that I learnt how to attract and work with those who are much better than me. Ultimately, I believe the secret is learning how to come up with “win-win” solutions, instead of a “winner takes all” mentality.”

The team has built CoAssets, which is now Southeast Asia’s only listed crowdfunding platform with a market cap of more than A$75mil on the National Stock Exchange of Australia.

Grooming talent by understanding their motivations

Kenneth Lou was a former instructor at OCS. He recalls, “As an officer in training and subsequently becoming one, the best skill to pick up is people management; how to gather the best people, what traits to look out for, and how to help them get better at what they are doing.

Almost every other night, I would head over to the cadet bunks to speak with my cadets, to check in on their well-being, to get to know them better and understand the problems they were going though. It was 24/7, the job does not stop when you return back to base, but it’s the full cycle… how are they developing, and how can I help them shine by giving them opportunities in appointments or groom them to be sword of merits.”

Kenneth is now CEO and co-founder of Seedly, a personal finance assistant which aggregates all a person’s bank and credit card balances and categorises transactions automatically to give a bigger picture of one’s personal financial health.

He relates his military experience to his startup.

“In a startup, I applied what I learnt to finding talent to join the team, and understanding different motivations, and why we are slogging it out. On late nights building the product, we will remind ourselves that what we are going through now is way easier than what we went through during NS, but difficult on a different scale. But the idea is the same, like in any field movement, and fire attack, one step at a time, one objective at a time, while keeping the bigger action plan in mind.”

Build trust, be genuine, authentic and sincere

Lawrence Lim is perhaps the most senior and experienced one who comes with words of wisdom. The former colonel, whose last military posting was Chief Artillery Officer, shares that “as leaders, you must develop trust amongst those whom you lead. Trust is not something that should be taken as a given. It has to be earned, deliberately nurtured and closely guarded. No one will blindly follow your orders and put their skin and lives on the line for you just because you don a higher rank.

The only reason why your followers will rise up to the challenge, heed your call and give 200 percent is that they trust you, despite the odds and gravity of the situation.”

Trust has to be earned, deliberately nurtured and closely guarded.

Lawrence joined Getty in CoAssets as COO. He relates the lessons learnt in the military to CoAssets.

“In a startup, the staff look to you for directions and guidance. Every situation we encounter is new, and things are very dynamic and volatile. You thus must make order out of chaos, and within the chaos project some semblance of order.

When the situation is uncertain and ever changing, your staff need you to be that strong voice to provide that anchor and inspiration for them to go forward. When dealing with investors and business owners, they also need to see you eye to eye, to sense you and trust you. Everyone wants to do business with people they are comfortable with.”

He adds another lesson he learnt from OCS. “Be genuine, authentic and sincere in all dealings with other people. Once other people understand who you are and what you stand for, they can begin to trust you and do business with you.”

Be strategic yet tactful in daily operations

Raniel Lee, a former Platoon Commander in the Signals unit, talks about how “army has taught us to be strategic and tactful in the decision that we make on a day-to-day basis. By understanding the fundamental processes, it helps us understand all kinds of perspectives in order for us to plan ahead. We need to stipulate case scenarios and plan our actions carefully.”

He now runs Jobook, a career development platform that identifies a person’s skill sets and experiences, automating it into an online resume where the matching algorithm matches the best-fit candidates to the employer’s requirements.

He relates his experience, “Running a startup is like running your own section in the army. We need to learn the fundamentals of how day to day operations relate to other positions like IT, finance and sales.

As a leader, we need to know everything, but that doesn’t mean we need to be superbly good at everything. So long as we understand the processes and logic behind it, we get the best people to execute it, while we look at the overarching picture and plan for the growth of the business.”

How National Service can be further improved for a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship

Troops from both the Singapore and Thailand armies doing a cheer during their training at the Murai Urban Training Facility. Photo credit: MINDEF

It is known that the Israeli military produces entrepreneurs. So how can National Service be improved to incorporate innovation and creativity?

EQ development

To Raniel, he is of the opinion that “the army should focus on the EQ of soldiers and teach them how to think strategically from bottom ranks to the top, and not just technical hard skills. Everyone in the army needs to understand the higher intent.

As an innovator or entrepreneur, we need to think strategically and be creative. The Singapore Armed Forces have the best training scenarios for us to apply accordingly. Although we may plan for assaults, we can translate this mindset of strategic thinking into our civilian life. This will create a vibrant ecosystem in Singapore.”

Establish an innovations team that does trials for mainstream adoption

Kenneth highlights more opportunities for innovation. “I understand that many Israeli entrepreneurs were from intelligence roles, where they found a problem internally within the military organisation and can apply it to the real world.

In SAF, there is something similar called the WITS scheme, where personnel would get monetary rewards for suggestions on improvements. But it ends there!

I think what the SAF can do better would be to sieve out the really entrepreneurial ones to a special unit under the Innovations team like the army developmental force (ADF) where they often test new equipment and innovations in trials. That would help the young NSFs learn about how an improvement gets pushed out into the ‘market’ for mainstream adoption. One example is when they do it in batches with new equipment, on the ground or field rations.”

Encourage creativity to solve problems

Daryl believes “that Israel has produced a generation of innovators and entrepreneurs because when you contrast business against war, the troubles and pain in business suddenly seems so much less trivial than the troubles and pain in war.” He believes that because of this, Israelis are hungrier than Singaporeans when it comes to entrepreneurship.

“To me, an entrepreneurial mindset could be defined by qualities such as creativity, problem-solving skills, dogged determination and commitment,” he said.

“Perhaps the military could train soldiers to think more creatively when it comes to battle procedures, as what we learn in OCS is generally still quite ‘by the book’. Allow cadets to come up with their own crazy ideas of how to win the war. And possibly even allow them to test it out in real life. No one plays ‘by the book’ in war anyway. Soldiers and officers alike have to be able to think on their feet very quickly, and I think that will help in building an entrepreneurial mindset too.

Perhaps the military could even create a committee to collate all the problems the military is facing today; and recruits can interview for positions that allow them to spend their two years of national service solving these problems instead of going through the typical military training. There has to be a regular and strict review of the work though, as I forsee many people will try to use this as a way to escape national service.”

Advice to enlistees

So what advice do our interviewees have for those entering National Service?

Keep asking why

Gerald understands that national service can get pretty mundane and regimental at times. “If you can’t figure out the reason why you are made to do certain things, politely ask the commanders why. You will be surprised at the reasons behind why certain things are done.

This helps to develop first principles thinking, which means boiling things down to its fundamentals and then reasoning up from there. This is something Elon Musk does well. He challenged the notion that ‘battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be…’ by analysing how battery packs were made, and eventually came up with a much cheaper one. Now, we have Tesla.”

Build leadership, a fighting spirit and people skills

Raniel finds that the National Service days are the best time to network and learn from others. He believes that it is also a time to reflect and find one’s true purpose in life.

“Make use of the time to focus on building up your people skill-sets, leadership and fighting spirit, and learning to handle different types of people tactfully,” he said. “As an entrepreneur, you will be placed in a harsh environment and will need to adapt accordingly. The army is the best place to be “forced” into it and discover yourself! You will know your breaking point and how you get up and continue to fight not for yourself, but for your comrades.”

A great training ground for skills

Getty encourages enlistees to have a positive attitude in picking up new skills. He received feedback that there are some who feel that there is no value in military/officer training in the corporate sector.

He begs to differ, “If you think about it, military operations can be considered to be quite complex. Think about the scale of training hundreds of thousands of personnel to be good in fighting, and subsequently moving those men and machines out to a particular location at a pre-determined time. The scale of the coordination, planning and sheer number of people involved is staggering.

Hence, military training equips officers and appointment holders with the right skill sets to overcome obstacles and get things done. What other form of training can be better than that?”

Learn teamwork and experiment, National Service provides safe environment and try new concepts

Lawrence ends off this article. “I would encourage all NSFs to learn more about the dynamics of team work, experiment with new ideas and engage in discussions with their peers and superiors.

The military has people from all walks of life, and some of our best and brightest in Singapore are also regulars in the SAF. What you take away will ultimately be determined by how much you have put in. Make the best use of your time to make a positive difference to the lives of others. These friendships will last you a lifetime!”

This is the twelfth article of the ‘Startup Advisory Clinic’ Series.

This article first appeared on Tech in Asia.