Mission Critical

By Debra Cope

“Hire a veteran” wasn’t even on the checklist when Howard Bank set out to fill a board seat in 2020. Finding an accomplished professional who could bring fresh perspectives to the board table was the overarching goal.

But when the Baltimore-based bank elected Linda Singh as its newest director in November 2020, it was her distinguished career in the Maryland Army National Guard that emerged as one of her outstanding attributes.

“She is a retired major general, and that says it all about her ability to lead teams in periods of great change and pressure,” says Mary Ann Scully, founder, chair and CEO of the $2.5 billion-asset bank. The bank started by asking what skills it needed and what opinions and experiences were not necessarily represented at the board table.

Singh, who retired from military service after 38 years in 2019, was the first woman and the first African American to hold the command of adjutant general of Maryland. Singh was responsible for the daily operations of the Maryland Military Department, a 6,700-person organization with a $314 million annual budget.

The hiring of a high-level veteran for a board seat reflects a growing understanding in corporate America of the strengths that come from military service. Banks increasingly are looking to hire veterans and tap vendor-owned businesses as suppliers.

The armed forces are known for instilling leadership skills starting with a strong focus on mission, teamwork, and persistence. But there’s a tendency to see military candidates as rigid products of the command structure, and that’s a mistake, explains Paul Dillon, president and CEO of Dillon Consulting, which focuses on veterans in the workforce.

“What most people never see is that the military teaches you to think and act flexibly, so that if your battle plan isn’t working, you pivot immediately to a plan that does,” Dillon says.

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Logan Hickman has been a member of the board of directors of Peoples Bank of the South in LaFollette, Tennessee, since 2004. Banking ran in the family; his father and father-in-law were both prominent Tennessee bankers. Hickman retired from a 22-year career in the infantry in 2002 and went to work for his father-in-law at Peoples Bank, which now has $177 million in assets. He retired as EVP in 2019, but continues as a director.

Hickman had three degrees, one of them in finance, but he says it was his military experience above all that prepared him for banking leadership and board service. As an EVP, Hickman managed exams, led a charter conversion, oversaw two branch closings, and drove strategic planning and marketing.

“Military service makes you adaptable, because you are serving with and under different people all the time,” Hickman says. “You also learn how to manage projects and work toward a goal. And you understand the importance of top-down communication, why the junior loan officer needs to know what’s going on.”

Naomi Mercer, ABA’s SVP for diversity, equity and inclusion, is herself a military veteran, having retired from the U.S Army in 2019. She noted that there is a strong focus among banks on adding veterans as employees and contracting with veteran-owned businesses. While she hasn’t seen a strong push to recruit veterans to board seats, she believes there’s a strong fit.

“The qualities veterans develop make them really good board candidates,” Mercer says. “They’re good under pressure, they understand strategy, they know how to assess risk, and they don’t do things in lockstep. When you give soldiers a mission and autonomy about how to execute it, they will surprise you every time with their innovation.”

Howard Bank—which, at press time, was in the process of being acquired Pittsburgh-based F.N.B. Corporation in a deal set to close early in 2022—had already seen the advantages of hiring veterans when it picked a veteran for the board, Scully says. The bank’s chief deposit officer, Drew McKone, is a U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran. “Veterans are intuitively flexible and resilient. They know what it’s like to like and to get people behind them,” Scully adds.

Resources to Connect Veterans with Bank Leadership

This guide, while not comprehensive, suggests a number of paths for finding potential staff and leadership candidates who have served in the military.

  • American Corporate Partners. Mentoring programs to help veterans and spouses find their next career. acp-usa.org
  • Corporate Gray. Supports military-to-civilian career transition. corporategray.com
  • Dog Tag, Inc. Fellowship program help veterans and spouses learn how to run a business. Dogtaginc.org
  • Hiring Our Heroes. Veterans work as fellows for companies for a 12-week period; many are offered the job at the end of the fellowship. (ABA has partnered with Hiring our Heroes to connect veterans with bank roles.) hiringourheroes.org
  • National Association of Corporate Directors. The Battlefield to Boardroom program has trained 400 admirals and generals, 200 of whom went onto board seats. The 2021 program is temporarily on hold. nacdonline.org
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About Author

Debra Cope

Debra Cope is editor-in-chief of ABA Banking Journal Directors Briefing.