Generals Trade Their Army Boots For Wingtips in Trek to Civilian Jobs
Lt. Gen. William "Gus" Pagonis hung up his desert fatigues after the Gulf war, replaced them with pinstripes, and learned more about dresses than he ever wanted to know.Skip to next paragraph
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The retired three-star general - once responsible for getting every bolt, every freeze-dried meal, and every M-1 tank to Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm - is now the leader of logistics for Sears, Roebuck & Co.
As they leave the military, General Pagonis and other high-profile Desert Storm commanders are in high demand in the civilian business world - a dramatic turnaround from the post-Vietnam years, when hiring retired military personnel was not a popular thing to do. Moreover, a number of them are being tapped to head off looming crises, such as salvaging troubled public schools.
"The public came to think well of the military and realized it wasn't the military, but the country's leadership, that caused the problems in Vietnam," says Michael Corgan, professor of international relations at Boston University. "The military started having some successful operations after Vietnam, and cleaned up its own act with strict drug policies, [and] created a landmark of how to make racial relations work without lowering standards."
Indeed, Americans today think more highly of the military than of most other public institutions. A February opinion poll found that 32 percent of respondents had "a great deal" of confidence in the military, and 38 percent had "quite a lot." By contrast, the survey by the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut found that only 4 percent had "a great deal" of confidence and 10 percent had "quite a lot" of confidence in Congress.
Such attitudes are reflected in the number of retired military officers who are landing top jobs in the civilian world. They include retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, appointed by the White House to lead the nation's war on drugs; retired Maj. Gen. John Stanford, superintendent of the Seattle public schools; and retired Gen. Julius Becton Jr., now in command of Washington public schools.
For Pagonis, his job at Sears is not unlike what he did for the US Army: make sure the customer gets what he wants in an expedient and cost-efficient way. So far, he has cut the time it takes for a dress to get to a store from 21 days to seven days. Logistics spending has dropped by $45 million, without heavy layoffs.
"I know more about dresses than I ever wanted to know, but it's very important [that] our stores see the latest fashions and colors before our competitors," Pagonis quips. "I also have 114 different shades of lipstick to get to the beauty counters."
Business-management experts say the military builds skills that can be as valuable in the office as in a war zone. Ex-military commanders generally bring order, structure, discipline, and a sense of mission to their jobs, says Roger Porter of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. While mastery of those skills is less vital for creative endeavors, such as high-tech startups, it is important for a wide variety of jobs, he says.