Ryan D. McCarthy, an executive MBA alumnus at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, never thought he would be the chief executive officer of the U.S. Army. But his passion for the military’s mission and his mix of experience in service and industry prepared him to be a natural choice for the job of Secretary of the Army.
As the No. 1 civilian position in the largest branch of the U.S. military forces, McCarthy oversees weapons systems development for the Army, manages budgets and interacts with Congress. Being around soldiers every day — whom he calls “the most selfless and committed Americans” — is the best part of the job for McCarthy. That makes the worst part seeing one of those soldiers killed or wounded and having the difficult task of receiving their remains, attending funerals or visiting hospitals, he says.
“I love this institution, and really it’s because of the men and women who serve,” says McCarthy. “The mission is so important.”
He is reminded of that mission every day walking into the Pentagon, where he sees the Constitution, signed by those who fought for freedom as part of an institution older than the country itself. Being part of that lineage, McCarthy says, makes him excited to get out of bed in the morning and go to work.
“I’m sitting at the top of an organization that has a $137 billion budget, a million people in uniform and a couple hundred thousand civil servants,” McCarthy says. “The skills I honed at Smith, I use every day.”
McCarthy credits the Smith School’s executive MBA program with helping him sharpen his business fundamentals. “An MBA helped me think differently,” he says. “It really pushes your intellectual curiosity. It helps you master skills that you can use in your personal life and any range of pursuits. It’s the type of degree that will give you a return on investment for the rest of your life.”
As a Lockheed Martin executive with an impressive resume at the time he entered Smith, his colleagues were surprised he felt he even needed the degree.
After earning a bachelor’s degree at the Virginia Military Institute, McCarthy started his career in the U.S. Army, serving in the 75th Ranger Regime, the Army’s elite special operations team. He was scheduled to wind down his service when terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. McCarthy deployed to Afghanistan with the Rangers and served another year.
He then went on to work for HSBC in the bank’s management and virtual finance programs. He was set to continue that path and start an MBA program in New York when he learned that his college roommate had been killed in action, prompting McCarthy to make a career change back into government service.
“I realized I had left some things undone,” he says. “The world had changed.”
McCarthy landed a role on the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C., then a year later, was asked to serve on the immediate staff of then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. He worked for Gates for more than four years, then took a job with Lockheed Martin when Gates retired. McCarthy was an executive with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter airplane program for the defense contractor when the call came from Washington for his current role.
“The diversity in my range of experiences has helped me a lot,” McCarthy says. “Is some of it luck and timing? Sure, that’s life. But what I’ve learned along the way is to be very candid, to be open and listen to others.”
He says the skills of an MBA also helped. “I’m very grateful for my experience at the Smith School,” he says. “I enjoyed it thoroughly and it’s helped me in my career.”
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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business
The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.