Tepper Take: MBA Vs. Army Leadership

As a Veteran and a West Point grad, I’ve managed big groups of people, advised lieutenant colonels on tank warfare, and kept my cool jumping out of a few airplanes. I thought transitioning my leadership skills into the business world was going to be easy. What I didn’t realize was how much was being handed to me. I was coming from an organization where everyone knew the mission, grew up in the same Army culture, and all spoke the same professional language. These are all things I’ve taken for granted in the military that I suddenly didn’t have in my MBA program.

Indeed, I still had some things to learn about leadership in the business world.


I realized this during my first major school project. Here, a couple of classmates in my group had “other plans” and weren’t going to make our group meeting. I thought to myself, “What is more important than getting this done? Don’t they understand that they need to learn what goes into this project?” Little did I know how many competing priorities there were going to be at business school and how much negotiation needed to be done to set the stage for a team to be successful.

Thankfully one of the first things we learned to do at Tepper was to build out a “team contract”, where we set our goals, norms, and how we make decisions. This document is then agreed to by everyone on the team. Reflecting on how useful this was, I questioned why we didn’t have something like this in the military? I realized though, this was built into the military experience through basic training and reinforced through the military’s culture and subsequent professional military trainings.

The convenience of a built-in “team contract” for the military, with the mission to defend the nation and win its wars, is immense. This means that you can take almost any set of people from the military and put them in the same room and give them a goal; they are going to know how to plan, communicate, and quickly establish a chain of command. Also, everyone has a code assigned indicating their Military Occupation Specialty (MOS), or what they specialize in. As a result, everyone already knows generally what skills and talents their peers are bringing to the team. This makes it all too easy to build a team and start performing as a group almost immediately. These advantages are built into the military member’s career from the start.

Tepper Classroom


I had never heard the world “inculcate” prior to joining the U.S. Army. According to Merriam-Webster, it means “to teach and impress by frequent repetitions and admonitions.” It is essentially a fancy word for what I distinctly remember as being yelled at an unreasonable amount for not shining my shoes, not saluting right, and not eating my food correctly when I was a cadet at West Point. While on its face it seems unrelated to this subject, it brought me into the culture so I could understand the values of the military. Very quickly, it set the stage for all the lessons that followed. This inculcation was followed by a career of repeated training in the structures, ranks, tactics, and planning procedures that makes it easy for everyone to quickly get on the same page in the military. This is the military experience by-and-large.

This is not the case in an MBA program. Out of my 139 classmates at Tepper, there were 139 different points of view and different work styles coming together. Coming from all walks of life, some classmates were super detail-oriented; some were great project managers, and others could have cared less about details and instead focused on ideas and networking.

Everyone is coming to an MBA program for different reasons — learning new skills, switching a career path, or starting a new business. This means the priorities and where each of us is putting our effort might be different. Initially, we as a Tepper class also hadn’t had the time to establish our own culture. This was made even more difficult with being virtual during the first semester of 2020. That made setting the “team contracts” an important step and we had to negotiate the most basic things that I had taken for granted during an eight-year military career.


The goals, norms and decision-making processes are some of the most basic things that need to be set for a team to succeed. Typically, the team contracts I have worked with consisted of two major sections when we draw it out: team context and internal functioning. Within team, context there is our purpose, goals and why we exist or our mission. We also discuss who our customers are and what we need to do to meet their requirements. In business school, these requirements are essentially laying out all the required sections, formats, and analysis we need to get a good grade on the assignment. From there, each team member sets their own goals and what they envision success to look like, which we also put that into the contract.

Internal functioning consists of knowledge and skills, effort and commitment, task coordination, meetings, and ground rules. In the knowledge and skills section, we speak to what our know-how and abilities are and write them down so it’s easier to assign out tasks later in the project. We also identify gaps in our skills and write down how we will overcome this gap through skill development or seeking outside help. Effort and commitment may be the most interesting section. That’s because we each write out how we will stay motivated and keep our tasks interesting. Even more, we outline what we will do if someone is not meeting goals or contributing. This is where you can get creative and make it a stipulation if the group feels like someone isn’t contributing. For example, we’ve established that the low contributor must buy the group pizza at the next group meeting.

In addition, there is task coordination, where we determine what we’ll work on together and separately, how we’ll communicate, and which technologies we’ll use to coordinate. Lastly, we determine how frequently we will meet and set our ground rules and norms on how we’ll make decisions and resolve conflict.

Army Vehicle Launched Bridge


Looking back on the team contracts I did at the beginning of Tepper, it was an in-depth and invaluable exercise. It did a couple important things for us as a team: created buy in, set expectations, and helped us create a common understanding for how we were going to work together. It also set in a mechanism that would help keep each other accountable if a member wasn’t living up to their promised level of commitment. Everyone’s voice is heard in this process, and it allowed us to prioritize our efforts accordingly to meet all the other commitments and priorities we have we have in the MBA program. It was a great first step for me in the right direction on how to build and start leading a team in an MBA program and a business.

The team contract, of course, was not the only change in my leadership that I needed to make coming to an MBA program. My general communication style, especially after being in combat arms, had to be changed to accommodate a business setting.

There is a much more direct communication style overall in the military compared to an MBA program (and business in general). I believe this stems from two reasons: we’re used to giving and receiving feedback and we’re always finding the quickest ways to do things. In the Army, we’re accustomed to getting feedback because the military has a tradition of doing “After Action Reviews” (or AARs) after every event. In an AAR, we give each other positive and negative criticism on how we performed. The AAR offers a safe space where you be honest about everyone’s performance from private to general officer rank, and it helps everyone develop a thick skin.

I still remember the look of shock on a MBA classmate’s face though when I looked at a slide he had done. Without thinking, I just blurted out, “This is a really bad slide; we need to fix it.” That type of feedback gets to the point and saves precious time, but also can be harsh and insensitive for those not used to the blunt feedback that can be given out during an AAR. I also had a habit of telling classmates, “Hey, this is what you need to do,” or “This is your job,” without really thinking of how the other person felt about the task or if they even trusted me to assign them the task. Again, in the military we need communication to be fast and clear and we’re used to being talked to this way. This is also in part because we trust our leaders and fellow soldiers almost inherently because of the uniform, meaning we can be more direct and maintain that relationship.

Scott Mentzer, Carnegie Mellon Tepper 2nd Year


In an MBA program, trust needs to be built and earned before you can give and receive that level of candid feedback because there isn’t a common upbringing and values. Upon entering my MBA program, I needed to work initially on how to find that right balance in adjusting my communication style and how to build trust quickly with people different than me. In order to address this issue, I constantly asked for feedback from my peers. They were invaluable in helping me build awareness of whether I was being too direct or if I was saying things in a way that they perceived as insensitive. While I might have rubbed people the wrong way initially, the ability to be vulnerable and ask for help really showed my classmates that I cared about them and wanted to gain their trust. Through this, I’ve learned that one style of communication doesn’t fit all and has helped be a better leader going into my future career in business.

Despite these differences, I found I had many leadership skills that did translate well into my MBA program. The first was empathy and being able to put myself in another person’s shoes. This is an invaluable skill as a leader. In both the military and business school, you need to understand people from many different backgrounds and what motivates them to keep a team performing at a high level. The military might be able to come together quickly, but it takes empathy to keep that team together — and it is the same after the team contract in an MBA.

Another critical skill is the project management skills that come from the military. The ability to delegate and plan how different people and teams come together — and using data to track the progress towards a goal — is similar between the military and an MBA program. Here, there are a lot of competing priorities, and you need to show results. In addition, the ability to have tact and influence across and up-and-down an organization is as invaluable in an MBA program as it is in the Army. You need to be able to deliver bad news with a positive spin and have a plan to fix it. More than that, you need to be able to sell and build buy in for your plans to solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity. All three of these — empathy, project management, tact and influence — are some of the best ways I’ve seen veterans shine in MBA programs and where I’ve had some of my best successes.

I need to give credit where credit is due. Outside of my classmate’s help, a major reason I’ve been able to go through this growth as a leader and build on my strengths has been the Tepper Accelerate Leadership Center (ALC). They gave me leadership assessments to find the gaps in my leaderships skills and provided counseling with a leadership coach to help me set goals and come up with a plan for development. The ALC also hosst great workshops to further develop the great young business leaders coming through Tepper. They, along with professors Anita Wooley and Rosalind Chow in my Managing Teams class, introduced me to the team contract to lay the important groundwork for a team to succeed in an MBA program. Tepper has an excellent leadership development program that can help anyone become a better leader and they’ve really helped me adjust and take my leadership style to the next level. If you are curious and want to learn more about it, visit this site.


Bio: I’m just a kid from Youngstown, Ohio who’s trying to make it in the world as part of full-time MBA Class of 2022 in the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. I’m an aspiring consultant and U.S. Army Reserve Commander who spent 8 years as an active duty engineer officer following my graduation from West Point in 2012. My professional interests are leadership, marketing, technology, entertainment, and finance. I also love the outdoors whether that’s hiking, running, or mountain biking. The rest of my spare time is spent watching football and hockey or finding the next great restaurant or dive bar in Pittsburgh. 

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