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Jamie Lawrence


Insights Director

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Interview: Air Commodore Warren James CBE


In this interview with Air Commodore Warren James CBE, we look at what military defence is really like and discuss the skills that ex-defence personnel bring to the workplace. Warren James is Head of the Directorate of Training, Education, Skills, Recruiting & Resettlement (TESRR) in the Ministry of Defence.

“With the best will in the world the UK populace has spent ten to fifteen years looking at a television and thinking ‘that’s what defence is like, when really it’s a little part of what we and our people do. We are a training organisation that prepares people to turn their hand to almost any eventuality. Which is quite a neat trick.” -Air Commodore Warren James CBE

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Is it the well-rounded nature of the mindset that’s attractive to employees? It’s quite hard to pick one thing and define what is exactly the army, or navy, way of being.

Warren James: Yes it’s a relevant question. It’s very easy to say, “it’s a can do attitude” but that translates into a lot of things, such as ‘we’ll do it,’ ‘we’ll organise it,’ ‘we’ll take part,’ and potentially ‘we’ll dive into it,’ or ‘we’ll listen.’

The Career Transition Partnership have noted how the skills they see in Service personnel match what employers are looking for: communication skills, organisational skills, leadership and management, professionalism, problem-solving, health and safety and security awareness. That’s really not a bad list at all.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: No, it’s a list you’d want of someone who you need to perform well under varying conditions.

Warren James: It’s a mix of hard and soft skills.

For soft skills you might say ‘yes, they’ll be smart, punctual and polite’ but actually  there are some soft skills that are different in a civilian workplace. PwC and Deloitte have taken on quite a lot of ex-defence personnel and they say you don’t have to teach people from the services a lot, but you’ve got to spend a bit of time coaching and supporting them initially to acclimatise to a new culture.

But once you’ve done that, they adjust very quickly and then run a lot faster because they’ve already got the innate skills and confidence that makes them think ‘okay, I get it now, and I’ll go and do that myself.’ They tend to be very good at self-starting and self-driving.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone:  And what type of things do they need coaching on? The ‘subtleties of corporate life?’

Warren James: I think it’s the subtleties of corporate life, it’s the language and how you communicate in that organisation. Not everybody in the military is exposed to commercial skills and of course while we [defence organisations] are a business, we don’t work on profit and loss in the same way.

Our  focus is more about having done the job properly, that everybody is okay, rather than a hard bottom line. While many of our people will have developed some commercial skills, others don’t use that skill on a daily basis.  You might need to give them commercial training, but their military career will have given them a great deal of experience of learning new skills, being trained to new roles. Once they’ve had the training they’ll be able to think clearly and work on the other challenges.  They’re happy to do it and they know what hard work is.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: So do you like the term soft skills?

Warren James: Yes, very much so. It might not be a military term, but it describes that more rounded individual, there’s a focus on this through military training, and of course developed through experience..

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: The thing I do like about the term [soft skills] is it adds an extra element to other skills as well. You can have very good project management skills but can fall down completely if the project you’re trying to manage involves a lot of communicating and bringing people on your side and helping them understand deadlines. So there’s a soft element to every hard skill as well.

Warren James: I think that’s absolutely right.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Some people naturally assume there’s a huge wall between the two and that there’s hard skills and soft skills but actually you combine the two and you make them work in your own way.

Warren James: We can teach and educate about both through life. And there’s crossover. Do soft skills extend to them being able to cope with change, or understand hard work, or what it means to communicate well?

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Why do you think that is?

Warren James: Service people are not fazed by an audience: you will rarely find one who can’t stand up and talk in front of a group of people. They’ve all been made to do it, taught what works and what doesn’t. They’ve had their strengths and weaknesses discussed with them so they’re able to at least say, “I’m not good at that but I know how to do enough that will give me a clear course.”

 We’ve taught people to be independent so they will go and act accordingly.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: That’s true and just coming back to the change thing, do you think ex-military are naturally better at going through that change?

Warren James: I think better is a wonderful pejorative word. I think can they do it and are good at it. Humans don’t really like change but I think we all know that we’re all changing all the time.

The military tend to be comfortable with uncertainty and, I think, that helps. They’re used to an incomplete picture and making a decision based on decent risk calculation (and it is calculated rather than unbounded). So quite a few of them are [de facto] Project Managers to a lesser or greater degrees.

Service people are no different to anyone else, but through their military career they have different exposures and experiences; if your job through life is training and getting hard and soft skills continually until you leave, using them occasionally in some extremely difficult environments, then of course that forms a slightly different view, a different language and a different outlook, but I’m very cautious about saying we are so different.  We do bring a different mindset.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: But I guess it’s a balance because you don’t want to say you’re totally different but you also want to say that you can bring something special.

Warren James: We certainly bring something special and we start this from day one. 95% of our junior trainees are placed on an apprenticeship from the word go, so not only is it accredited, it’s a formalised way of doing our business which is embedded in the entire organisation. That, in itself, is quite powerful.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: It is.

Warren James: And of course, we keep developing them, to make them better…  We call it through-life learning and we try not only developing it in the organisation but also in the individual, to take a responsibility for themselves. 

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Well it’s the kind of growth mindset, continuous learning type of thing.

Warren James: Yes.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: The point you made about the uncertainty is very important and perhaps I phrased the question around change wrong. In corporate environments a lot is consistent e.g. the same desk, the same routine, but then people ask you to make decisions on incomplete information. Every decision you make and then action – you need to be able to assess the risks quickly and make an imperfect decision knowing it won’t lead you to the optimal outcome because it never does. That’s an important skill I’d say.

Warren James: It is and we tend to call it ‘comfortable with ambiguity.’ We’ve trained them to [work within] quite a lot of pressure so they’ll stay calm quite well while making that decision.

We also recognise that you don’t tend to end up with a perfect end state.  It may be an ‘almost’ state, where you get to ‘better’. ‘Better’ is good, it’s just not the end of a journey. A lot of people recognise and are taught that ‘we’re on a journey from A to Z, and yet your bit is actually only C to D’ and what you want is a curve to be upwards or at least flat and progressing rather than downwards. Because that may be success.

This is a very different mindset to ‘I have to do this and that’s the end game.’ It’s never an end game because of the continuous development, because of the way the world works. We live in uncertain times.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: But then you know quite a lot of training providers and corporate environments will not have that continuing mindset culture. It’s more about ‘do this,’ you know, go from ‘not being able to do it’ to ‘being able to do it’ which is just not really helpful.

Warren James: Definitely. And this service ability to talk and to challenge is a powerful one. They tend to question something with intelligence rather than just for the sake of it, but they’ll also then knuckle down and get on and make a difference.  Those are powerful things that you can’t get everywhere.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: In companies I think nowadays there’s a return to smaller, close-knit, highly-performing teams – that’s the ideal. But for a variety of reasons, such as members not understanding active followership, or unconscious biases, or just not understanding how to communicate to achieve a common aim, they don’t always work. What kind of skills can be brought into the workplace to help this along? I think it’s going to become a more common problem.

Warren James: (Teamwork) is often why people join defence. Under high stress, danger even, a team that’s been well trained and bonded understand each other and tend to be more inclusive.  On skills, I think having a clear understanding, a clear focus, continuity of expertise, authentic, recognisable, credible leadership and a vision that people can buy into is important.  These are all things we focus on in training, not just when you join but throughout your career and as you progress at each level. People change in all teams, but even in our most high-performing teams, they don’t tend to change every single person all at once.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Do you think you can spot a high-performing team easily?

Warren James: Yes I think so and I think we’ve maintained a few. You mentioned the Red Arrows as an example in conversation. There is ebb and flow in any team’s dynamics, everyone’s experience and expectations, and you’ve got to recognise the importance of playing to people’s strengths.

The Red Arrows rotates new members in and out each year, but their strong ethos, values and discipline, core elements to Defence’s teamwork and training, enable them to keep remaking a high performing team. Put simply, this may consist of ‘not wanting to let yourself down or be the weak link in a team.’ We engender that in our people. Of course, you have to remember the Red Arrows didn’t join yesterday – they have the right experience so they already bring high-performing training into the team.

And also, it’s not only about an individual skill, it’s about how they fit. You talked about active followership earlier – that’s definitely important.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: One of the things you mentioned earlier is that in high-performing teams it must be clear what’s acceptable and what isn’t.  In the modern office environment of high inclusivity there’s a norm that everyone has something to offer, which is true. But a lot of companies are uncomfortable with actually taking a hard line approach to what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Warren James: There are two levels we’re talking about here. One is, “what are your standards, practice and discipline?” and then there’s the need to be inclusive and get the best out of everyone.

I don’t think the two are exclusive. Each of the services has a code but each also has core values and standards that they lay out in very simple terms, as to what it is you expect from people, which includes inclusivity, trust, respect, integrity, etc.

So then you you have given people guiding principles, not rigid boundaries, where there’s room for judgement and discretion.

I don’t think we’re perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I think we’re quite good at getting people to buy into an ethos and a value and a standard that says, ’this is what we aspire to,’ these.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: How is the hierarchical nature of the military changing?

Warren James: I don’t think it’s just changing, I think it’s changed. If you go back twenty years it was very hierarchical and deferential  Now young people’s education is more questioning.

And we are a better organisation for it because they ask ‘why jump?’ and it’s not a case of ‘how high?’ any more. There are environments and the right time for both. There needs to be space for that, but also for a clearly understood hierarchy of responsibility when needed.

Yet at the same time an office environment has a mixed a bunch of experts from different service backgrounds, civilians, contractors and they all have something to add. We must recognise that diversity and inclusivity is the way you generate team dynamics; there is your high-performing team that’s got the most options open to it.

I think that’s how you lead and get the most from a team and actually the clever bit is knowing when the hierarchy element is important.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: So it’s hierarchy in the right situation. And one last question: who’s the best leader you think you’ve ever seen? Don’t feel the need to name them, but let us know why they were best.

Warren James: There are a couple that I have particularly learnt from and admired, for the way that they blend a very good skill with people with the necessary core of steel at the time they needed it, with an innate ability to explain but also to set a vision that everybody could buy into.

I recall one leader who, when it was explained that my team felt we weren’t empowering our youth trainees enough, was right to say “what’s stopping you? Go do it and if it goes horribly wrong we’ll have a chat about it.”  The limitation was mine, but was released by an act of trust that could be passed on and a confidence that could be shared.

I sensed very early on that the best leaders are able to “walk” empowerment, rather than “talk” empowerment. 

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Building confidence in young people is a huge part of what you do, but how do you do that, specifically with those with a confidence problem?

Warren James: It can be as much about channelling and managing confidence as building it.

There’s a degree of doing this by steps. Knowing where the boundaries are to begin with, and letting people ‘off the leash’ to explore those boundariesin a safe environment – with people who know better or at least have the ability to know what’s a good idea or not.

As well as instructors, many people in the Services act as mentors, whether formally or informally.  Our trainees can go to these people for advice so that they’ve got a safe and secure way of testing some of the boundaries and ideas out.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: One of the things you were talking about earlier was honesty and trust. In the corporate world you see stories all the time about people who cover their backs, even in organisations that say they have a ‘no blame’ culture. But honesty seems built into the military mindset because your lack of honesty could endanger other people so how do you encourage that, how do you get to that?

Warren James:  In our training what you get is feedback. All the time. And, of course, it tends to be brutally honest at that point because without that feedback you could harm yourself and others.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: But isn’t brutal open and honest though?

Warren James: There’s a time and place for brutal honesty – in a dangerous situation, for example.  But this comes back to the softer skills and managing people because not everybody’s used to harsh, immediate feedback.  Indeed, once you get into very mixed corporate environments, we’re not all in an infantry company or on a ship.

We’re now in an office environment where there are all kinds of other people. Then you need to understand how to be open and honest at the same time as not being unduly confrontational or aggressive. I hope we teach our people honesty as their default position and I think that’s a key strength.

Readers interested in finding out more about these issues should take a look at the Career  Transition Partnership website – this is the gateway you can use to connect with ex-defence personnel.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

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