We recently spoke to U.S. Army veteran Lisa Pruett about how she uses her military experience to transform cultures, chaos and bottom lines in the business world.

Pruett attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from 1986 to 1990, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics. Upon graduation, she went into ordnance, specializing in maintenance. Also right after graduation, Pruett served in Operation Desert Storm, which took place in early 1991 with the aim of liberating and defending Kuwait following an invasion by Iraq.

Following Desert Storm, Pruett was stationed in Germany and Italy, serving a total of four years in the army.

Entering the Packaging Industry

Pruett told Packaging Strategies how she eventually joined a packaging firm named Federal Paperboard, which had a division, Imperial Bondware, which focused on plates and cups. Pruett said the company actively recruited military officers – and she can see why.

“The junior military officers bring great leadership skills, great resilience, great discipline, a great ability to build teams, a deep sense of honor and ethics, so they’re outstanding people to hire,” Pruett said. “They may not speak the civilian lingo, but leading people is leading people regardless of what the mission is – whether you’re leading a set of soldier mechanics or you’re leading the finishing crew running a line in a folding carton plant.

“I definitely learned that at West Point. You could argue that West Point is the greatest leadership institution in the world.”

At the same time, Pruett said some people have misconceptions about how leadership works in the military.

“There’s a misconception that leading in the army is purely command and control – ‘I’m going to tell you what to do, and you’re going to do it.’ – but it’s no different from leading in the civilian world and winning hearts and minds. You’re not going to be able to transform culture until you get into people’s hearts and minds and everyone is driving towards the same result,” Pruett said.

Transforming Chaos and Bottom Lines

In addition to transforming cultures, Pruett focuses on transforming chaos and bottom lines.

“When you think about what people in the military might be potentially going through – especially if they’re on the battlefield – that skill of being able to lead through that is also transferable to the civilian world,” Pruett said.

The role of a platoon leader in an operation might be to explain to the soldiers that the objective is to get from Point A to Point B. Of course, it’s not uncommon for unexpected circumstances to complicate the completion of a mission.

“The plan changed, but I still know where we need to go. That’s really applicable in the civilian world, too,” Pruett said. “That eliminates the chaos because when stuff starts to go wrong, we still all know this is where we want to go.”

Pruett added that transforming the bottom line via a results-oriented mindset has broader applications than people might think.

“That results-oriented mindset isn’t always about financial results. That results-oriented mindset can apply to culture, and this was a big learning for me in my leadership journey. You can be very intentional and disciplined about building culture. It doesn’t have to be nebulous,” Pruett said.

For example: “One of the things we do on my team is we build a culture plan every year, and that culture plan might be: Each facility needs to do two community outreaches a year. We know that when we do community outreach it makes us an employer of choice in our community, but it also builds a bond among the team members.

“Or we might say we need four teams a year led by a manufacturing employee. It empowers them, helps them get leadership experience. That also builds into our culture that we want to give people opportunities to lead.”

Discipline, Drive and Decisiveness

Pruett also shared her thoughts on the discipline, drive and decisiveness that military veterans can bring to the work environment.

“When I think about discipline, I think about getting up every day and doing the things that you don’t want to do. It could be personal, too – exercise, eating healthy, whatever those things are. And at work – get the presentation done, answer the emails, or even have that engagement with a person that you might not want to engage with that day. Having that resilience and strength to do the things every day that you don’t want to do.”

Pruett has an explanation for why military leaders are great civilian leaders: It’s their adherence to processes.

“In my mind, there are no bad teams, only bad leaders,” Pruett said. “And when you think about those teams and when things go wrong, it isn’t that the people are not caring, driven, invested in their work. It always goes back to a process that wasn’t followed for various reasons. That idea of adherence to the process – especially in a manufacturing environment – is a key tenet of discipline that we work on daily to get right.”

Pruett added that it’s important for drive to be coupled with discipline and to constantly ask: Am I better today than I was yesterday?

As for decisiveness, Pruett stressed the importance of “making fast decisions – gathering information, making fast decisions, and giving everybody grades when those decisions are bad, and then making the next decision.

“It’s OK that we make bad decisions as long as we’re moving forward: We’ve learned about that decision, and we’re making the next iteration. I’d much rather have that happen than this analysis by paralysis and we’re waiting and waiting to move. Let’s move after we’ve gathered enough and then course-correct along the way.”