Recruiting From the Military

Michelle Terry enjoys a challenge. It’s what led her to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. After graduating in 2003, Terry served in the U.S. Army as a member of the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, and by the age of 21, she was responsible for the training and welfare of 80 soldiers. As a maintenance platoon leader, she managed equipment worth more than $10 million, and at one point she managed a warehouse that supported more than 3,500 troops.

So when Terry decided in 2008 to leave the military, she wondered if she’d be able to find a civilian job that would optimize the leadership skills she’d honed in the Army. “I was looking for a company that had values similar to the military, that offered upward mobility and would value my potential and try to develop it,” Terry says. As timing would have it, in June 2008 Wal-Mart Stores Inc. had begun an innovative recruitment program designed to bring more young people into store management–those with proven leadership skills who were interested in learning the retail business. The military would offer an excellent talent pool, executives thought. “The nation has made a huge investment in the growth and development of military leaders,” says Gary Profit, senior director of military recruiting for Wal-Mart. “They have a record of performance under pressure.”

So Wal-Mart launched its program to recruit junior military officers, or JMOs, scouring job fairs and connecting with military-focused headhunters and military associations to find talent. Terry is one of 250 military leaders to date who have been trained by Wal-Mart to work in store operations management as shift managers, store managers, and market managers.

JMOs are first introduced to Wal-Mart’s culture by visiting the home office in Bentonville, Arkansas, for about four weeks of training. Afterward, they are sent to a store and paired with a high-performing manager who serves as a mentor and teaches the recruits about the world of retail.

All in all, the training program, which lasts about 90 days, gives participants basic skill development in Wal-Mart merchandising, supply chain, finance, and human relations.

Wal-Mart’s strategy of finding top leaders and giving them the retail experience they need to excel is a good one, says Timothy A. Wilson, president of T.A. Wilson & Associates, a management consulting and organizational development firm in Northborough, Massachusetts. “What better organization to train young people in how to lead than the military?” Wilson asks. Not only is it patriotic to give former military leaders a chance, but it’s good business sense, he adds. “You have a strong core of people that can demonstrate the ability to manage complex problems and projects.”

At Wal-Mart’s 2010 Shareholders Meeting in June, President and CEO Mike Duke remarked that in order for Wal-Mart to continue to grow globally, its workforce, which will increase by 500,000 jobs over the next five years, must reflect that diversity. The JMO program can help in that regard since “the military community is one of the most diverse talent pools in the world,” Profit says.

About six months after Terry began training, she was tapped to oversee her own Walmart store–a supercenter in O’Fallon, Missouri, where she manages between 430 and 450 associates. “Wal-Mart valued my leadership from day one,” she says. “They told me, ‘We’re going to help you get the retail piece, but come in with that leadership ability and we will develop it.’”