The physical link in a leap from military to corporate

Sam McGrath © Image from authors collection

Major Sam McGrath describes how Lancaster’s Executive MBA helped him transition from being at the top of his game in the army to the top of the corporate ladder.

“I’d gone from being trusted to lead 200 blokes into combat to not being trusted with the photocopier, from being the youngest of my peers to command a company to being the oldest dude on the graduate programme at Barclays,” says Major Sam McGrath (Executive MBA, 2009). “I spent the first few months thinking ‘what have I done?’ My ego was under siege.”

Sam had been one of the youngest officers to reach the rank of major since World War II, a highly decorated member of the legendary Parachute Regiment - but moving into the corporate world not only meant changing jobs, but moving into a whole new universe: new country, career and first time father all within nine days. 

“I could have gone into a pub and said I was a paratrooper and people would have bought me a drink. In the wake of the financial crisis, saying I was a banker in the same setting would have left me with a wet shirt.”

Armed with the experience of his Executive MBA at Lancaster - along with an ethos of using physical training as a basis of resilience - Sam has marched his way to the top of his new profession: becoming Managing Director within a FTSE 100 bank, Standard Chartered Singapore, within six years - an unheard of feat in such an intensely competitive sector.

Having made his name in the armed forces, wouldn’t there have been easier paths to follow?

“In the military I’d scratched every itch that I’d wanted to. I’d been on multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, commanded big groups, been through difficult times, and in 2010 the military was transitioning from a war to a peace footing. I wanted kids and to settle down, and I felt young enough to start again. I just didn’t know how my experiences would be transferable to a commercial setting.”

Sam’s regiment gave him the opportunity to find out - studying for an MBA part-time, which meant he could extend his service an extra year by being posted to run the Paras elite selection process for P Company.

“I chose LUMS because of it was highly ranked in the UK and globally for its MBA. It was good value compared with schools like London, Judge and Cass, and I liked the campus, it had a good feel about it: the green space, the community. I’d also been thinking about employers in the North West, BAE Systems and BNFL, and LUMS had great networks.

“LUMS turned out to be the fulcrum that instilled a confidence that everything I enjoyed about the paras was equally applicable to a commercial setting: running one-off complex projects in the face of a determined and well-resourced adversary. 

“The management topics we studied were fascinating. But often what was even more interesting was the time I got to spend with the other people on the programme who were already in corporate jobs, learning how the ideas were put into practice. The military is tribal and I got the same sense of a tribe on campus, a real community. I’m still firm friends with them, in touch with course leaders and tutors. When I did the Bob Graham Round [an extreme fell running event in the Lake District covering 66 miles and 42 fells] they came and supported me, and one did the last leg with me.

“Lancaster was the first time I’d got any real benefit from studying. When the military sponsored me to take a degree I’d just turned up and done the minimum, enough to get me into Sandhurst. But at LUMS I turned up to learn.”

When a friend from Barclays who’d been in the armed forces suggested interviewing for the Barclays Capital graduate scheme, Sam was ready to take the plunge. Following a series of promotions at Barclays he was headhunted by RBS and then by Standard Chartered.

“The biggest challenges around leaving the military were cultural. In the paras your first instinct is to trust everyone – in a corporate setting many believe and act as if the opposite is true. ‘Team’ is a verb in the military, but all too often just a noun in the private sector. In the Paras money was of no interest to anyone - in a commercial environment it can be motivator and the metric for everything. As a paratrooper my boss planned my career, within a few months of banking I realised it was now my job.” 

“It took a year to understand the lingo and the ecosystem of the banking sector and make sense of it, before I was able to leverage the skills that had made me successful in the military. That was the problem to begin with – people valued what I’d done in the Paras far more than what I was doing for the bank, and that was getting further and further away. After my first few months I thought and sometimes hoped I’d be let go, but my manager and Barclays gave me the time to evolve and adapt.”

What helped Sam through was a psychological resilience founded on physical fitness. 

“I wanted to join the army from a young age, but it was an intimidating goal, I was even cautious about saying it out loud. I looked at the physical standards involved, and I knew it meant a fundamental change to my way of living, not just training but also sleeping and eating. The training showed me how it was possible with hard work, planning and execution to make significant changes to my fitness, going from novice to ninja in 6 months.

“Physical training instilled a growth mindset. I don’t think anything that provides a visible evidence of your ability to change your mental and physical state is fitness. But it also provides grit and resilience, a mindset to push through adversity and come back stronger. Since training for the Paras I’m comfortable being uncomfortable. 

“In my EMBA thesis I researched how an elite selection process created high performing teams, and in doing so I learnt the utility fitness plays in preparing soldiers for psychological stresses of combat. But more interestingly I learnt this was equally applicable to dealing with the stresses of a demanding corporate career and was the best antidote to PTSD.”

With this in mind, Sam continues to combine his senior executive role with competing at elite level in ultra-marathons - and being a dad to four daughters. Getting some momentum is what matters, he says:

“We never feel like we’ve got all the information we need to make the best decisions. You just need to act, like I did applying for EMBA - I’ve always winged it – a good plan today trumps an excellent plan next year every time. You commit and momentum keeps you going, and that’s what’s helped me through combat, competition and in navigating my career”. 

Major Sam McGrath’s new book, Be PARA Fit: The 4-week Formula for Elite Physical Fitness, is to be published in January 2020 (Osprey Publishing).

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