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Military hero shone as CEO

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers,Profiles in Leadership

After flying 61 combat missions in World War II and winning the Distinguished Service Medal and other honors, Robert McDermott didn’t bask in the glow of his military heroics. Instead, he helped build the Air Force Academy into a model of military education and then shifted to the private sector to become CEO of USAA, an insurance company.

When McDermott (1920-2006) re­­tired from the military and joined USAA, he was 48 years old. A brigadier general accustomed to working around men, McDermott suddenly found himself in a corporate environment consisting of 90% women.

McDermott adjusted quickly. He expected employees to work hard but also enjoy their families, so he established a four-day workweek to give them more time at home. A supporter of continuing education, he invested heavily in em­­ployees’ professional development that enabled many women to advance their careers.

To make it easy for staffers to participate in training programs, McDermott’s team persuaded universities in the San Antonio area—near USAA’s headquarters—to provide courses to the company’s employees after work. When McDermott arrived at USAA in 1968, employee turnover exceeded 40%. Sloppy systems and poor morale hurt productivity, even as USAA grew to be­­come America’s 16th biggest auto insurer.

To attract and retain top people, McDermott decided to buy 300 acres outside San Antonio and build a campus with many amenities including a gym, credit union and post office.

McDermott’s devotion to his workforce made an impact. Turnover plummeted during his 24-year tenure as CEO, and USAA’s customer base grew from 653,000 to 2.4 million.

— Adapted from Battling Tradition, Paul Ringen­­bach, Imprint Publications.

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