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The unexpected entrepreneurial lessons I learned from the Israeli army

(Image credit: Image Credit: NakoPhotography / Shutterstock)

The Israeli Army’s intelligence divisions are known throughout the world for incubating some of the Start-up Nation’s most successful high-tech ventures. During my 22 years in the army, I served in and commanded the R&D division of an elite army intelligence unit, an experience that offered me the privilege of seeing first-hand the unit’s ground-breaking innovations in cybersecurity and other fields. But serving in the unit also taught me some key – and often unexpected – lessons, not just about creating leading-edge technology, but also what it means to lead like an entrepreneur.

With its rigid hierarchy, the military may seem an unlikely place to learn about entrepreneurship, given the flexibility and almost constant pivoting necessary to thrive in the start-up world. But these six lessons have served me well in both my army service and in the tech ecosystem – and they can be useful for any entrepreneur working to build a dynamic and market-leading company.

1. Forget disruption – it’s all about construction.

The unit I served in develops vital projects that contribute to Israel’s security, winning the prestigious Israel Defence Prize on multiple occasions. How did the unit reach these crucial milestones? At its heart, it was about its remarkable blend of the best of both worlds – leveraging years of experience in defending the country while tailoring that experience to new and evolving needs.

What holds true in the Israeli military also holds true in the business world: To perform your best, you need the insights, resources and history of legacy institutions, as well as the commitment to innovation and forward-thinking that enables great leaps of progress.

But it’s all too easy for start-ups to lose sight of this basic lesson. For many tech entrepreneurs, the “move fast and break things” mentality prevails. But working in the army and cybersecurity, I’ve come to learn how essential it is to strike a balance between old and new. In both my service and in my entrepreneurial career, I’ve found much greater success when my teams have been able to bridge experience and possibilities. Like countries, industries rarely need disruption; instead, they need construction – drawing on decades of built-upon intelligence and battle-tested experience.

Rather than “breaking things,” try breaking things down to their fundamental elements and see how they can be reimagined and reengineered to create something entirely new. And for those elements of change which ultimately do require “disruption,” do so with enormous care and surgical precision, lest you risk doing more damage than good.

2. Synchronisation is key.

Whether you’re building something entirely new, working within a deep-rooted institution, or some combination of the two, your team will consist of many moving parts. It’s vital that those moving parts are synchronised and aligned on all your organisation’s goals.

The Israel Defence Forces, for instance, has made it a priority to improve the flow of information from the Air Force to ground forces. Teams working for high-tech start-ups must also synchronise and promote effective communication between different parts of the organisation and throughout different stages of a project – from inception, through planning and testing, to deployment.

During my army service, my unit was working on a major project that encountered a last-minute obstacle, yet despite the odds, we managed to complete it on schedule. How? We doubled the team’s size, which could have just as easily slowed us down as speed things up – but because we built in the structures of growth and flexibility from the get-go, the new recruits were able to integrate into the team and workflow seamlessly.

Now that I’m leading a company focused on railway cybersecurity – an area that involves highly complex systems and sophisticated technology – I work to apply that same level of synchronisation and communication across the company. Indeed, the train is the perfect metaphor for the importance of synchronisation: All rail cars need to be on track. If one goes off the rails, they all do.

Completely siloing your company’s squads may seem to add swiftness to your organisation, but in the end, this approach slows down the company as a whole. Transparency and communication, by contrast, ensure that all stakeholders are in sync and prepared to pick up the slack at a moment’s notice when a setback strikes or when confronted with a jarring mission-change.

3. Hire for personality.

In putting together a cohesive team, my army unit emphasised not only technological but also social know-how. In short, personality matters.

Once you’ve established the high skill level required, it’s crucial to consider whether a prospective employee has the personality traits necessary to thrive in any given company, given the industry, environment, and culture.

At Cylus, our extraordinary engineers understand the importance of bringing their personalities into their work. A team of whizzes is a great thing for any business to have – but a team of whizzes who collaborate, show persistence, make one another better, and demonstrate a commitment to the company’s vision is the holy grail.

4. Stay humble.

Whether you’re on the frontlines of defence or building a game-changing new product, great power and great responsibility can all too readily breed overconfidence. It’s critical, then, to remain humble in your work – particularly when you’re working to tackle challenges no one else has solved before.

For militaries, excessive confidence can lead to carelessness, with potentially lethal consequences. It also comes with serious risk for start-ups. In cybersecurity, for instance, companies must confront the fact that hackers are often one step ahead, and managing cyber risks is a matter of playing catch-up. The minute you believe you’ve won is actually the moment you’ve lost. In short, your enemies love your ego.

5. Nevertheless, be confident.

Of course, being humble isn’t the same as being timid. While bringing a proper dose of humility to the job, it’s also important to infuse your work with a sense of confidence in your company’s ability to solve the biggest challenges you’re confronting.

When you think big, you can make it big. In the army, we constantly strove to make possible what others long said was impossible – and our persistence consistently paid off. It’s no wonder that so many of my fellow alumni have gone on to build some of the Israeli tech ecosystem’s boldest and most influential start-ups.

6. Show openness.

This may sound counterintuitive for the military, but in any successful organisation, people shouldn’t be afraid to say what they think. By promoting a company culture in which team members can share their thoughts and inject new ideas into the conversation, you’ll promote innovation and communication – and you’ll be the kind of start-up people want to work for.

To be sure, it’s one thing for a colleague to constructively push back on another’s proposal… it’s entirely another matter for a 19-year-old recruit to say “no” to his or her commanding officer – right? Truth is, if the “no” comes with solid reasons that serve the unit’s interests, that kind of chutzpah can actually be quite productive. As the seminal book Start-Up Nation, The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle points out, Israel’s military values improvisation and flattens hierarchies. Far from being rigid and inflexible, I found my army unit to be a hub of forward-thinking ingenuity, which may not be all that surprising for our tiny country, where innovation and survival have so often gone hand in hand.

Are these lessons unique to my unit or to the Israel Defence Forces? Certainly not. In fact, as many have suggested, military veterans the world over are far underutilised in the world of start-ups and innovation. Perhaps more incubators dedicated to soldier-entrepreneurs are in order?

Amir Levintal, CEO and co-founder, Cylus