Climbing the Corporate Ladder After the Transition from Military to Civilian Life

by Carolyn Heinze, Contributing Editor, BMI Transition Team


Ask those who served in the military about the transition from military to civilian life, and chances are they will admit to a bit of culture shock – positive and negative. One of the most exciting aspects about this change is the opportunity it brings, especially the chance to broaden one’s skill set and venture into unknown territory, armed with the wisdom acquired from years in the service.

The civilian workforce has changed significantly over the last couple of decades. Fewer companies offer careers in which salaried professionals sign up knowing they will remain there until the end of their working lives. The job market today is as transient as society itself, and it is not uncommon for someone to take a job then move to a new position in as little as two years (via promotion, inter-company transfer, or outside position). The reasons for such a move include more pay, more responsibility, more interesting projects, or a combination of all three.

What is “advancement”?

For those looking to transition from military to civilian life, the changes in the civilian workforce require a change in mindset when it comes to advancement. While you may have been in charge of teams of people and millions of dollars of inventory during your service, that does not mean that you will be given equivalent responsibility the minute you enter the civilian workforce.
“The truth is, just because they have managed teams in the military – if that’s the case – that doesn’t necessarily mean that is what they are going to want to do when they get out,” said Julie Jansen, career coach and author of I Don’t Know What I Want, But I Know It’s Not This: A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Gratifying Work (Penguin) and You Want Me to Work With Who? Eleven Keys to a Stress-Free, Satisfying and Successful Work Life…No Matter Who You Work With.

“When you get into the military, you have to pay your dues and you get promoted. It’s the same kind of thing in the corporate world, except there is not as much emphasis, in the corporate world, on getting promoted and advancing. The emphasis is more on expertise and the ability to meet business results.” Of course, she acknowledges, most people who take on a new job hope that there is some opportunity to grow. However, “growth is not just measured by getting promoted; growth is measured by interesting new assignments, learning new things and innovating.”

How to advance

In many industries the entire system of promotion is different; climbing the ladder is not always as clear cut, with people often moving horizontally throughout an organization before they move upwards. In fact, Jansen argues, moving up is not always the ultimate goal. Because of this, she advises people to focus not on the management portion of their career, but rather on functional expertise. “Perhaps they want to gain industry experience, or new career experience in general,” she said.

There are outlets for those who wish to perform pretty much the same tasks they had in the military and where the system of advancement is also similar. Jansen cites the financial services industry as an example. For some people, salary increases and annual promotions are high priorities, and companies that have built more traditional hierarchies may be a better fit. “You will probably try to get into a larger company, where there is more mobility and there are different positions and larger departments,” she said.

Jansen warns that the older you are, the more difficult it is to find work in certain industries, especially if you are seeking management positions. “It also depends on what your age is when you transition from military to civilian life, because there is prejudice about age in the corporate world,” she said. “If you are trying, for example, to get into financial services, it’s going to be hard if you don’t have that kind of experience. You are going to end up having to start on a lower level, if you can indeed get hired.”

Grow outside your specialization

Jansen encourages professionals to achieve results and innovate or improve upon something in the organization. It is also important to remember that while you may have been hired as a specialist, there may be an expectation that you would also become a bit of a generalist. “When you are hired as a specialist, it’s key to be the specialist but to also broaden your skills as much as possible while you are there,” she said. “That means sitting on committees, getting involved in special projects and finding a mentor or someone to coach you along – particularly when it’s a new industry.” Voluntary professional development – such as continuing education through evening classes or online courses – can also win the favor of an employer.