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Air Force Col. Mark Valentine finds leadership lessons at Microsoft

When Col. Mark Valentine decided to retire after 27 years in the Air Force, he was prepared to look for an entirely new career path, but soon found himself in a familiar place: Microsoft. As a Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellow, Valentine had spent a year with the company learning about leadership and innovation in the private sector so he could bring that knowledge back to the military.

“When I came to Microsoft as a fellow, I’d been in the military about 20 years, and thought, what is a 20-year military officer going to learn about leadership from a bunch of IT geeks? I could not have been more wrong,” Valentine says. “It was transformational for me.”

Mark Valentine, pilot with the Air Force, poses for photo while in the air.
Col. Mark Valentine spent 27 years in the Air Force.

Today he once again bridges the two worlds of military and business as a Microsoft account executive working with the Department of Defense. It’s a long way from his earliest ambition, to become an astronaut. His natural aptitude for math and science helped him rise above a childhood of poverty in Alabama to secure an appointment at the Air Force Academy, where he studied astronautical engineering and had the opportunity to meet nearly every astronaut serving in the space program at the time. He learned that the kind of ambitious space exploration that had been his dream was no longer the program’s dominant focus, but he also found a new love: tactical flying.

After completing pilot training, Valentine became an F-16 fighter pilot. Over the course of his career he flew missions in more than 30 countries; additional training through the U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons School prepared him for more combat missions and for instructing new pilots. He was at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Sept. 11, 2001, when the attacks on New York and Washington forced base personnel to scramble aircraft, intercept planes and prepare to respond to any new threats. Advancing from one command role to the next, he benefited from the strong leadership training that the military service provides.

“The military was an outstanding experience for me,” Valentine says. “I cannot say enough about the leadership development opportunities that I was given in the military, a chance to lead men and women at the flight level, at the squadron level and at the group level, and I was even for a short time able to be the 113th Wing Commander at Andrews, where I led a group of 1,200 — a phenomenal experience.”

As Valentine rose through the ranks, he found himself in new, non-combat, leadership and strategic roles, including a position with the Strategic Studies Group for the director of the Air National Guard. In 2010 he was one of 10 military officers from across the service branches chosen to become Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellows. The group took classes at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia; then each fellow spent a year working with a Fortune 500 company. Valentine was selected to work at Microsoft, where he took part in programs and initiatives in business strategy, executive leadership development and technology innovation for the government sector. He expected to learn about technology innovations and strategies for bringing products to market, but was most surprised about what he learned from Microsoft’s executive leadership development program at the time, the Microsoft Bench.

“We in the military, I think, are still the best in the world at generating a specific type of leadership, which I will call command and control leadership,” Valentine says. “It relies on a rank structure, with the force of law behind orders. But what I learned is, very infrequently would someone need that type of leadership. At Microsoft I had the opportunity to learn what I call more collaborative leadership: that’s the ability to give and take, to understand where to hold the line, where not to hold the line.”

After completing his fellowship year, Valentine moved to an interagency position with the Joint Staff, serving as the senior military advisor to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He helped manage FEMA’s response to Hurricane Sandy, helping to coordinate responses from a variety of federal agencies and serving as liaison with the military to secure resources, such as bucket trucks and troops to help restore electricity to New York City neighborhoods. He credits his Microsoft experience in collaborative leadership for his success, and for preparing him for a role unlike any he’d ever had.

“It was something I had never even fathomed, because I had come from the fighter aviation side of the Air Force, where we measured our effectiveness in how quickly and how efficiently we could kill the enemy,” Valentine says. “And for the first time in my career I had the opportunity while in uniform to work with the other side of the federal government that was focused solely on helping people, specifically with helping them recover from disasters, or preparing for them, or bouncing back after they had occurred.”

In 2013, Valentine returned to Andrews Air Force Base as commander of the 113th Operations Group. On the verge of another promotion, he decided he didn’t want to disrupt his family by either taking them overseas to a new assignment or leaving them behind. He had put in 27 years of service, and thought it might be time for something new. He reached out to former Microsoft colleagues from his fellowship days, and soon accepted a role working with Microsoft’s strategic programs for the Air Force.

“I am still able to serve my nation as a member of Microsoft because I work directly with the senior leaders of the Air Force,” Valentine says. “I help them identify what their problems are, not just business and collaboration problems, but whatever their problems are, even if it’s warfighting in nature, and then I try to connect them to the appropriate technology solutions to solve that problem.”

Today Valentine is proud to be able to continue to help the military, and proud of all that he accomplished while he was an officer.

“One of the things I like to tell young people who are in the military, especially who are in the Air Force; they see the bright shiny toys, like fighter planes or unmanned aerial vehicles or some of the incredibly complex computer systems that we have, and they get enamored with the technology and the things,” Valentine says. “But when I actually decided to retire from the Air Force, I looked back at my 27 years in uniform and I was most struck with how few memories I had about the things and about how many memories I had about the people, because that’s what made the experience so rich.”