Retired Rear Admiral to CEO on military leadership and how ex-military personnel could close crucial skills gaps

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Simon Hardern retired from the Royal Navy in 2018 after 34 years’ service and is now CEO of Kenyon International Emergency Services, the leader in worldwide disaster response management.  Though Kenyon has just 25 full-time staff split across the UK, the US and the Middle-East, in order to quickly and effectively respond to disasters around the globe, it maintains a roster of over 60 consultants and 2,000 on-call team member specialists - with 10-15% being ex-uniform personnel.

Simon gives us an insight into his military career and the key transferable skills he gained that he still uses today; he also shares why he believes ex-military personnel make great leaders and could be the key to the success of helping close some of the crucial skills gaps.


Having joined the Royal Navy in 1984 straight out of school, in his early years Simon spent most of his time at sea; this included supporting the British Overseas Territories with disaster relief operations, defence diplomacy activities and operational missions.  He also commanded two warships. During the latter part of his career, Simon was based in Belgium and The Netherlands working within the senior echelons of NATO at the political-military interface.

The retired Rear Admiral gave an insight into some of the highlights of his career, including being the Commanding Officer of the Duke Class Frigate HMS KENT from April 2002 for 20 months.  He said: “To be the Commanding Officer, and ensure the ship is ready to fight and win and be recognised as one of the best in the world, is really what I joined the Navy to do; it was a great honour.  Fostering the morale and well-being of my Ship’s Company and to provide the leadership and vision to ensure that all we did was a source of pride and satisfaction to all who served in her, was always my mantra...and this broadly still holds true today.”

Another notable highlight was his role as Secretary to the Military Committee and Executive Co-ordinator International Military Staff at NATO HQ in Brussels, which, he said, he ‘loved’ given it was at the heart of the Alliance at an interesting period in its history (2010-2016; the military surge in Afghanistan, war against Gadhafi, the annexation of Crimea and resurgence of Russia).  In his final role as Chief of Plans for NATO (2016-2018), he directly led 200 personnel with responsibility for all long-term strategic and operational planning for NATO’s northern and eastern flank as well as delivering the NATO support mission in Afghanistan.


When considering life after leaving the Royal Navy, Simon was looking for a job that aligned with his own values, one where the job would involve a “purpose-driven culture which, in turn, meant one with a clear vision, mission and set of objectives that really showed it cared about delivering an unsurpassed service in its sector”.

“I looked at many sectors where I felt my professional experience and credentials could be used and where my erstwhile need to be kept both busy and mentally challenged on a daily basis could be easily satisfied.  Retiring at 52 also meant I had at least 13-15 years ahead of me to dedicate to a worthwhile and rewarding second career. I had to think carefully, therefore, about in what sector, or where, that would be,” he said.  “So, in truth I looked at CEO, COO and COS jobs in the service sector but also toyed with high-level jobs in other government departments. The walk-across and the skills and abilities I felt I could bring to the table were not always easy to explain away to potential new employers.

“Fundamentally, what I was really interested in was working for an organisation that offered me the possibility to have a personal impact on how the organisation was functioning (day-to-day business), allowed me to offer solutions to challenging problems or with new and unexpected situations and made the very most of my energy, application and knowledge.”

To make the subsequent transition into commercial employment as easy as possible, Simon utilised the MOD-sponsored Career Transition Partnership (with the use of a career consultant and attendance at several workshops and webinars) and also registered with job sites, including J1 Consulting - which has now merged with SaluteMyJob, creating SMJ Consulting Services.  This is where he spotted the advert for his current position and engaged to ascertain whether his aspiration and ability were aligned with those expected by Kenyon. Simon said the consultant “took away the burden and helped push the process through to a successful conclusion - this included guiding me through four sets of interviews.” Simon added: “He also helped advise to successfully conclude my pay negotiations.  Job done!”


Simon said being a former military leader has helped him greatly in his role as CEO at Kenyon.  “Being such a leader allows you to be repeatedly placed into situations about which you know only a little, often under pressing time and budgetary pressures, and yet deliver.  So, given this and my experience forming mutually supportive relationships, it has gone a long way to helping me work collaboratively with Kenyon’s 600 or so clients across the globe.  It has also given me the tools ‘on tap’ to look after and nurture the staff, associates and team members that I have under my purview.

“The military also encourage you to be: personable and to offer trust and respect to all; to be purposeful and able to give clear, unambiguous direction to champion individually assigned responsibilities; show intellectual rigour without losing the capacity to deliver on the softer issues; and to be inclusive in conducting business and yet have a no nonsense approach to help get a grip to help deliver improvements to the current processes.  I have deployed most of these facets in my first nine months at Kenyon.”


Simon offers his insight as both a retired Rear Admiral and now employer of ex-Servicemen and women, into why ex-military personnel are more competitive than others when seeking employment.

Veterans are:

Personable, showing trust and respect to all by: encouraging two-way discussion in an open and transparent way; view time spent with people as a learning environment; and recognising that no question is ever too stupid.

Prepared, recognising the importance of good situational awareness to ensure rapid decision making when necessary.

Purposeful, so, should they find themselves in a position of authority, they offer clear, unambiguous direction and ensure that a team share the credit for successes but that they take responsibility for failures.


There are a huge number of skills gaps within a number of industries, cyber, construction to name but a few.  We asked Simon, what attributes and skills could make this talent pool the key to the success of closing skills gaps across the UK.

Leadership: Veterans know that leadership is all about behaviour because you lead by example; it is up to you whether it is a good one or not.   They understand the concept of servant leadership where the leader acts to support and develop their people, empowering them to make decisions and giving them the freedom to act.  They know that great leaders balance the team, the task and the individual taking responsibility for mistakes and working to generate trust between them and their team. They don’t give orders; that is a myth.

Adaptability: The modern battlefield is described as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.  Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan had to be able to fight, deliver aid and train a foreign force all within a small area; the environment was fluid and challenging.  That is exactly what the world of today looks like.

Decisiveness: Veterans are used to making decisions and taking responsibility for the outcome if it goes wrong.  If it goes right, they pass the credit on to the team knowing that it will generate trust. Veterans also understand that not deciding is a choice in itself, ‘the decision to burn time’.  Burning the most valuable resource an organisation has is rarely a good idea. The 80% solution delivered now is better than the 100% solution further down the line.

Determination: Organisations want people who are resilient, won’t give up and can handle pressure.  They want people who are able to ‘reframe negative experiences’ in order to create opportunities for growth.  There are non-more resilient than those who have experienced conflict.

If you are an employer and looking for ex-military, competitive candidates, please get in touch with the SMJ Consulting Services Managing Director, Andrew Jackson, at