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Military Leadership in Action: A Q&A with Mercedes CEO Steve Cannon

by MTN Staff

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Article Sponsored by: CCSD/Troops to Teachers

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MTN: Mercedes-Benz has many programs and initiatives to hire veterans. Why do you want to hire military?

Steve Cannon: it’s an amazing resource. If you’re looking for the best and the brightest, if you believe talent is the great differentiator between good companies and great companies, then it’s about finding people that know how to get things done in ambiguous and ever-changing environments. Our business world is shifting all the time. I need people that I can intimately trust Ð people of character. I automatically respect and appreciate people who have taken their time to serve their country. To me that’s a pretty noble cause and not everybody does that. That already puts service members in a different category for me. The leadership they get; the discipline they get; the ability to make fast decisions, team decisions in fluid environments; that’s what businesses require these days. For me they are a great resource and we’re committed to finding ways here at our headquarters as well as out in our dealer network to hire these folks.


MTN: What advice for transitioning military would you give to help them as they prepare to transition out into the corporate world? What are some things that you think can prepare them for success?

Steve Cannon: So the first piece of advice is be confident. I know you’re coming out of this world and the military is its own world. it’s got its own language and its own rule sets. I know that a lot of folks, because I mentor quite a few, they feel very intimidated. They’re coming into a whole different situation. I will tell you, the business world respects, recognizes and wants the things that you have to offer. The uniform is different, the mission is different, but the ways to accomplish objectives, all the other things about getting people and teams aligned around an objective and then taking steps to achieve that objective, that’s what businesses do every single day. That’s what you’ve lived.


So my first piece of advice is to be confident. You are a great product. You are a great product that guys like me want. Don’t apologize for your background; find ways to articulate what your background means in non-military speak. People outside that community don’t fully understand, so it’s really on you to do your best to articulate the great experiences that you’ve had and translate them into civilian speak. People outside the military community will really grasp all the wonderful things you’ve done.


And, I’d say “buddy up.” It’s always about your range buddy - who is your partner to help you get through this? Our company has a pretty strong mentor program. When we hire new military folks, the first thing I do is pair them up with someone so they’ve got a sounding board, someone that they can articulate their fears or their questions to – “What does this term mean? Can you help me understand these things?” - you need a buddy. The better your network of folks that have either made the transition as well as maybe someone who is going through it as moral support - find that support network and ask for help. Every single transitioning military person that has asked me for help, I have given him or her help. That might just be answering the phone and taking time out, having a conversation. I’ll do that every single day of the week and I’ll find time for it, but you’ve got to ask. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; don’t be afraid to buddy up to ask somebody to be your mentor, to help you through the process. I think that will really make it easier on the transition.


MTN: As a CEO that’s also a veteran, how do you feel like your military background, your military experience, causes you to lead differently than some of your non-veteran peers?

Steve Cannon: I think military leaders understand maybe more than others that leadership is a people business. You cannot lead from the corner office. If you’re not out, if you’re not moving, if you’re not involved with your teams, with their lives - the military is a family - leaders know they go to the point on the battlefield or off the battlefield where they know their presence is most needed in order to influence things. You can’t separate.


I’ve had that military experience. it’s part of who I am. I love and embrace that part. I think it makes me a better leader, but for me it’s about getting out, getting involved, visible leadership, management by walking around. I try not to even use the word management, because in the end it really is about leadership. Every time I refer to our team, I refer to them as leaders, a leader of people. You get things done through other people and you can only achieve that if they understand what you want, if they’re aligned around them, if you keep them appreciated, motivated and/or course corrected if they stray off path. I think ultimately, for military leaders, the gap between the people who you lead and great leaders is small. I think sometimes in corporate America there are hierarchies and the distance between the guy in the CEO’s chair and the person working in whatever capacity on the main floor is enormous. Sometimes they don’t ever have contact with each other and that’s a problem. I believe firmly that the greater the distance between the leader and the led, the more risk builds up into a system. It’s on the leader. I’m going from here to a lunch session with some of our new hires and I sit down with 12 people and we sit together for an hour and we have questions and answers. To me it’s all about reducing that distance. Military leaders understand that. Sometimes civilians may not get that to the same degree.

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