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Navigating a Path to Corporate Leadership

A conversation with Mike Child, Shield AI’s Chief of Staff.

Before joining Shield AI, you were an officer in the US Army. What does it mean to be part of the infantry?

To put it succinctly, the infantry is composed of the soldiers that fight on foot. It’s the running back of the football team that is the Army, and it shares the Army’s mission: to impose the nation’s political will on its enemies. While there are a few universal experiences, in practice, what it means to be a soldier in the infantry can vary widely across different times and locations.

During the years that I served in the US Army, it primarily meant being a counterinsurgent in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes this meant fighting in the close quarters of urban warfare, in which soldiers would have to make split-second judgments. Other times, this meant working with local leaders to settle water rights disputes or break ground on the construction of a new school for the neighborhood’s children.

What lessons did you learn from your experience that are broadly applicable?

One of the biggest lessons I took away from my experience is an understanding of the profound effect a single leader can have on an organization. During my time in the infantry, I interacted with a number of military units, militia groups, and local leadership councils. I found that I could tell a lot about the character of a leader by observing how the members of his or her team behaved. When an unethical or hypocritical leader was at the helm, corruption and incompetence permeated the ranks; people would cut corners, shed responsibility, and bend or break the law. Conversely, when leaders established a high ethical standard and role-modeled living the values of the organization, people across the organization would internalize and embody those values and would hold each other accountable to them.

This isn’t novel or something unique to the infantry, but it’s a truism I found more readily observable there. The crucible of war erodes superficial veneers that could otherwise mask the stark contrast between strong and weak leadership.

I also learned to keep things in perspective. An old soldier I used to work with had a saying for whenever people were feeling sorry for themselves: “Any day that ends with everyone above ground is a good day.”

Why did you choose to attend business school and pursue a career in consulting?

After seven years in the Army, I was ready for something new, but I was unsure of what I wanted to do next. I chose to pursue an advanced degree because I figured business school would give me two more years to decide my future path while providing the widest range of options.

But, at the end of my two years, I still wasn’t ready to commit to a long-term career field. So I entered the consulting world where I could “keep my options open” and have the opportunity to help solve problems across multiple industries and business functions. I thought this would be a good way to have a few more years to figure out what I wanted to do next while gaining valuable experience.

How did your experience in the Army translate to consulting?

For the last couple years of my time in the Army, I switched functions and became an intelligence officer for an infantry battalion. My primary role was to work as an advisor to the battalion commander, analyzing information from disparate sources, synthesizing the results, and then presenting recommendations to help him make a decision. As it turns out, consultants fundamentally perform the same function for business leaders wrestling with difficult, complex problems.

The two career fields also share a similarly consistent pace of change. The Army intentionally moves officers into new positions every year or so to give them a wide breadth of experience as they rise through the ranks. Consulting works project-to-project: one client has a problem, you help the client develop a solution, then you move on to the next client and problem set. The shifts in consulting come at a higher frequency — roughly every two months or so — but both keep things interesting by never letting you get too comfortable.

Why did a career at Shield AI appeal to you?

Honestly, if you had asked me even a month before I joined Shield AI, “What are the things you’d like from your next job coming out of consulting?” working at Shield AI wouldn’t have checked any of the boxes. I tend to be risk-averse, so I was looking for a safe, corporate job and had no desire to join a start-up. I was excited about the idea of working for a consumer-facing company that makes products that I’d want to buy for myself, and the last industry I would have thought to look into is the defense sector. Additionally, I was living in Washington, DC, and while I was ready for a change of scenery, San Diego wasn’t on the radar for me.

But a friend and co-worker of mine reached out to me about an opportunity he’d heard about through his network and asked if I’d be willing to take a call about it. I had just finished up a consulting project working with an organization in the Department of Defense focused on preparing for future wars and I worried for our service members. I remember frequently thinking back to my time in the infantry and imagining what it would be like having to face the kind of threats I knew our service members would encounter on tomorrow’s battlefields. So, as I listened to a description of the kind of technology Shield AI had already developed, and the kinds of problems they were solving, I was impressed that they were producing products years ahead of anything I thought would be possible.

I was that much more excited when I learned about Shield AI’s values and interviewed with the company’s leadership. It was clear to me that this is a group of people that look out for each other and that leaders were as invested in their team members’ successes as they were the success of the company as a whole. I could also see that the company takes its mission seriously, a mission I could be proud of, and that it is committed to making a positive impact in the world. After all that, there was no question in mind that I had to be a part of this effort, so I dropped everything and moved across the country to join the team.

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