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A Navy commander ships out to earn an MBA

‘I’m surprised, as a military member, to see how many of our core principles apply to the business world ... honesty, duty and honour,’ says Commander Lorne Carruth.

Desmond James/Department of National Defence

Preparing a business analysis of Lululemon's operations wouldn't have been on Commander Lorne Carruth's radar a year ago. "I drive ships," said Cdr. Carruth, who's stationed in Esquimalt, B.C., with the Royal Canadian Navy's Coastal Division.

Responsible for the operation of 15 Navy vessels, Cdr. Carruth, 45, also oversees about 500 officers, a job not unlike being in charge of a large company.

So, it's fitting that Cdr. Carruth, still working full-time, is taking an 18-month MBA program in executive management at Royal Roads University in Victoria.

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"What I do at work is a lot of corporate-style governance. I have to play a leadership role. The MBA is a good fit," the Dundas, Ont., native said. "I'm surprised, as a military member, to see how many of our core principles apply to the business world ... honesty, duty and honour."

Terry Power, a Wharton Fellow who also spent 21 years with the Canadian Forces, is a Royal Roads business school professor who teaches strategic management, one of Cdr. Carruth's MBA classes.

Of the 40 or so students who take his class twice a year, about five Canadian Forces students are in the mix. The variously-ranked military students come from across Canada to earn an MBA under Royal Roads' blended model where they spend several weeks at the campus and then return home to complete their studies via online tools and video conferencing.

Royal Roads was a military college from 1940 through 1995 and still strives today to attract Canadian Forces students, Mr. Power said.

Recalling his shift almost four decades ago, from being a Black Watch infantryman to a Dalhousie student in Halifax, Mr. Power, 73, cites two distinct reasons why military students decide to shoot for an MBA degree.

"Do you still want to be running around in the woods at 55 and playing soldier?" he asks. An MBA degree, combined with military experience and discipline, looks great on a civilian résumé.

Other soldiering students stick to the uniform and view an MBA degree as one more "box to check off" on their career ascent, Mr. Power said. "There are very few generals running around without a degree."

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Canadian Forces members who stop serving after 20 years get a partial pension while those who leave after 35 years collect full pension. With almost 25 years of service, Cdr. Carruth hasn't decided whether he'll stay a sailor or jump ship when he gets his MBA degree in July of 2015.

He does know that adding those three letters to his title would give him an intro into jobs beyond merely the business-oriented. Calling his MBA studies "practical learning," about good governance and how to efficiently run a corporation or other organizations, Cdr. Carruth mentioned the shipbuilding industry or public service as employment options.

The case study of Lululemon, for example, has familiarized Cdr. Carruth with various analysis tools. The students are assessing where Lululemon fits in the high-performance athletic clothing marketplace, comparing it to companies such as Gap, Adidas, Nike and, fittingly for a military student, Under Armour, Cdr. Carruth said.

Noteworthy is that students like Cdr. Carruth have a head start on their MBA studies.

"There's not that much difference between military strategy and business strategy," said Mr. Power. "Just change the lexicon." Both domains have missions to fulfill and both require teamwork and collaboration to get the job done.

For Cdr. Carruth, the parallels between military strategy and business strategy include long-range planning and figuring out what the enemy or competition is doing. The writings of Chinese general Sun Tzu and Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, two of his favourites, are easily transferred to the business world.

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One example of Tzu's advice – "When going into foreign lands, use local guides" – are words to heed when leading a business trip to China, said Mr. Power, also a Sun Tzu disciple.

But do highly ranked military officers such as Cdr. Carruth – accustomed to giving, not taking orders – butt heads with MBA classmates? In a class littered with doctors, lawyers, accountants, bankers and even deputy ministers (average age about 40), the playing field is levelled. "They're all alpha dogs," Mr. Power said. As mature adults, prepared to learn from one another, the students tend to put egos aside.

Lately though, military alpha dogs have become a smaller pack.

A Royal Roads business professor for 14 years, Mr. Power recalls that about a decade ago there were more Canadian Forces students in his classes, often from lower ranks.

According to Lieutenant-Commander Desmond James, Canadian Forces members can access various programs to upgrade their education under the Canadian Armed Forces Education Reimbursement program. "The general public doesn't really understand the importance we put on education," he said.

Specific programs include the continuing education officer training plan, which for 2013-14 spent $300,000 on 232 students, and the postgraduate studies program, which for the 2012-13 fiscal year spent $1.45-million on 165 students. Separately, regular Forces members qualify for tuition fee reimbursement (up to 100 per cent), which for 2013-14 handed out $5.44-million to 4,955 members.

Canadian Forces' students study at various military schools, colleges and universities. But with the Department of National Defence facing multibillion-dollar expense budget cuts, the Department's website cautions that program funding is not guaranteed and that, "Due to current departmental fiscal pressures, the funds available for education reimbursement may have been significantly reduced."

When Cdr. Carruth gets his MBA degree next year, it will have cost him $40,000, he said. With access to the Forces' education plans, he figures he may get about $4,000 back for his MBA efforts.

"For a military guy, in public service for 25 years, seeing how the rest of the world works has been valuable. Taking on a master's takes you out of your comfort zone," he said.

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