Myths Transitioning Veterans Believe, Part 10: Senior Officer Transitions Are Easier
As we have explored previously, veterans are similar to all groups of job seekers in that they often think they have it harder than everyone else. But even among veterans themselves, some assume that certain subcategories of veterans have it easier (or harder). Senior officers are one group that other veterans assume have a smooth path to transition. Defined as commissioned officers O-4 and above, senior military officers (“SMOs”) enjoy the benefits of extensive leadership and managerial experience, advanced degrees and certifications and the confidence that comes from command.
Yet in practice, SMOs experience their own set of challenges that can delay, derail or distract even the most ardent and ambitious transitioning officer.
Specifically, these challenges are:
Esteem Shock: When a battalion commander or ship’s captain enters a room, subordinates snap to attention. Many SMOs equate their professional worth with the size of their command (e.g. I used to command a company but now I command a battalion or regiment). It is unlikely that an SMO will transfer to that sort of general management position or even that level of functional authority right out of the service.
The Curse of Generalist: In the military, line officers are trained to be and think of themselves as generalist leaders who can “run” anything. In the civilian world, most leaders are functional experts first. Even general managers (e.g. CEOs) typically come up through one specific function (e.g. Sales or Finance).
Experience Definition: In the military, it is very common not to have had the direct experience for which a certain position calls. For example, it is rare that a new infantry battalion commander would have ever commanded a unit of that size in combat before. The system does not hold such inexperience against the officer. But in the civilian world, great emphasis is placed on the acquisition and presentation of direct and relevant experience. You need to directly address and overcome this perceived lack of direct experience.
Leadership is Not a Function: Similar to the “Curse of the Generalist” above, many SMOs think that leadership is a function like sales, finance or operations. In the civilian world, most senior managers do one or a combination of “make stuff, sell stuff or count stuff.” A job candidate that does not fall into one or more of these three silos is difficult to sort and place.
Cynicism and Idealism Coexist: In military culture, there is little discomfort in the coexistence of idealism and cynicism. In the Marine Corps, for example, a Marine might refer to his service as “The Suck” but he will readily die for its honor. In the civilian world, there is less tolerance for what would be seen as a “bad attitude.”
The most effective career transitioning SMOs understand that effective job search is based on solid fundamentals and networking. Focus on the following tips can assist:
Opportunity Awareness: Lewis Carrol wrote that “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will do.” A transitioning SMO must be able articulate specifically what he seeks in his next career move. There is less understanding for vague goals like “run a company,” “take charge,” or “have a seat at the table.”
Rule of Threes: In articulating her career goal, a SMO may utilize a “Rule of Three” method of describing the target from specific to general in an “elevator pitch.” For example: “I am seeking an operations role in a railroad company in the DFW area; an operations role in transportation anywhere in Texas or Oklahoma; or a transportation company job anywhere.
Fake It Until You Make It: The elevator pitch will refine over time, but you always need one. “I am looking for a good job in Chicago” is not descriptive or helpful. It must be specific even if you are not sure.
Social Capital: The bad news is that most people, veteran or civilian, are terrible at networking. The good news is that most people would be happy to meet with a veteran who has a clue what he seeks. Developing these “cells of HumInt” are critical to your job search. You must be relentlessly focused on networking. Seek information and access and jobs will follow.
Help Others to Help You: After someone meets you, imagine what they would say to other people they meet. You want to hear “I just met this sharp former USAF officer who wants to get into consumer products marketing at a small or medium sized business in New England. Who do we know who can help him with contacts and information?” and not “I met a USAF officer who wants a good job running a company.” Vague “asks” earn soft, if any, follow through.
Follow Up: Most SMOs and indeed all job seekers fail to follow up after a networking encounter. Believe it or not, anyone who took the time to meet with you is eager to help and from time to time will ask themselves “whatever happened to so-and so?” It is up to the job seeker to find an excuse to stay in touch. First to say thank you and cement the bond and later to stay remembered. So, an email every 3-4 weeks that says something like. “Hey, thanks again for your time two weeks ago. I followed your advice and reached out to Sally Jones; we are meeting on Tuesday. Jim Smith was a huge help too and gave me a great orientation to his railroad company. As a I reminder, I am focused on finding an operations role at a Texas transportation company that will take advantage of my logistics experience.”
Give and You May Receive: Be sure to help others along the way and do not be selfish. It is not all about you.
Transition is a challenge for all veterans, including senior officers. The insights and recommendations above apply to all veterans. It is best not to envy others experience their search and instead focus on your own journey.
Those who are self-aware, energetic and clear with their goals will find success while those who resist such clarity will follow a more circuitous path to their future.