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Geopolitics

From The Barracks To Business School: Latin American Generals Line Up For MBA's

Throughout Latin American, more and more top military posts are being filled with business school graduates. In some cases, promotions are only available to soldiers with advanced degrees, particularly MBAs.

General Guillermo Ramírez Chovar at a press conference following the Chilean earthquake in 2010.
General Guillermo Ramírez Chovar at a press conference following the Chilean earthquake in 2010.
Mariana Osorio and Carlos Tromben



SANTIAGO -- When then-Chilean President Michelle Bachelet decided to deploy troops to affected areas in the aftermath of the earthquake on Feb. 27, 2010, many Chileans were surprised by what they saw. The generals in charge of the operation spoke gently. Unlike their predecessors in the 1970s and 80s, they didn't threaten anyone with an "iron fist."

Instead, they seemed more like cool, empathetic managers educated in the finest business schools. For Guillermo Ramírez Chovar, the general who managed to control the tense post-disaster situation in the cities of Concepcion and Talcahuano, that is actually the case.

In addition to his military education, Ramírez Chovar completed a course in industrial relations and personnel administration at ICARE, a prestigious private business institute in Chile. He also holds a master's in human resources management from the Universidad Gabriela Mistral.

"Little by little, a growing portion of the top-ranked officials in the armed forces have advanced degrees," says Gerardo Vidal, PhD in political science and sociology. "In some cases, an advanced degree is a prerequisite for promotion."

From the perspective of Latin American business schools, this trend has opened up possibilities for a number of joint programs with military institutions. Gen. Júlio César de Arruda of Brazil participated in an MBA program at the Fundación Getúlio Vargas (FGV), a private Brazilian business school. The 360-hour program is now part of the Brazilian army's yearlong course in politics, strategy and higher administration, which is designed for colonels being promoted to general.

Of the topics covered in the classroom, Gen. De Arruda stressed the importance of large-scale military project management, budgets, personnel management and information technology law. He thinks the course is important for high-ranking officials, helping them better manage projects and people. "It opens horizons and helps them manage more proficiently," he says.

The Chilean army and the business school at the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez do something similar. "The program selects a group of 20 officials and superior officers, and it is oriented toward reinforcing leadership and decision-making in complex situations," says Vidal, the program's academic director. "The officials attend classes at the university and are integrated with civilian students. The exchange of knowledge, cultures and experiences is very enriching."

Learning to negotiate

But if the military is turning more and more towards executive education, there are also many civilian would-be executives who would like to learn military management techniques. About 90 MBA students at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Management travel twice a year to Quantico, a training camp in Virginia, where officials in the American infantry are educated. In exchange, the military sends some of its members to the MBA program. The idea came about in 2001, when a group of MBA students got together to discuss military leadership.

One of the most important lessons to learn from the military, according to Preston Cline, the associate director of Wharton Leadership Ventures, is its strong predisposition towards action. "Many of our civilian students have a consulting background, and they are very good at consensus building, which can slow down the decision making process. The marines, in contrast, are taught to decide and act quickly. The MBA students are often surprised when they are asked to make a decision with only 70% of the information," he says.

But the influence of the military on management is long-standing. For example, both business and military use the same vocabulary to refer to similar actions. Strategy, tactics, operations, performance reports, survival, logistics, and campaigns are only some of the words that the two industries share.

According to Francisco López, dean of administration at the Universidad Eafit de Medellín in Colombia, a career in management is a logical follow up to military service.

He recalls how the first executives in Colombia, during the industrial development in the 1920s, were former generals from the Thousand Days' War (1899-1902). "They had a background that allowed them to run a factory. If they had been leading whole battalions, why couldn't they manage a group of administrators in the textile industry?," López quips. "The army works with a very strong concept of work and discipline as well as a concept of power, obedience and subordination."

Through executive education, however, today's military is looking for something very different than fighting skills. Gen. De Arruda sums up his MBA experience this way: "You learn to sit down at a table and negotiate."

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