Myths Transitioning Veterans Believe, Part 12: Selling is Beneath You

“Everybody lives by selling something”
- Robert Louis Stevenson

One of the shocks that attend many veterans’ job searches is the discovery that most civilian jobs involve some aspect of selling. Whether it be traditional selling in the exchange of goods or services for money or selling as persuasion inside an organization, success in a civilian career largely depends on the ability and willingness to sell.

Military personnel are often imbued with an ambivalence or hostility to the notion of sales as a function or career. Some think they can “do better” than sell or that they are “leaders and not peddlers.” This aloofness has many forms but the result of all is to diminish the executive career prospects of the veteran. By sustaining these negative prejudices about the primary function of most civilian jobs, transitioning military personnel are setting themselves up for failure. On the other hand, a determined veteran job seeker can leverage maximum opportunities for success by understanding the origins of his bias against a sales career and acting accordingly.

Negative veteran attitudes about the selling profession derive from four military mindsets.

1. Equating salespeople with sleazy off-base merchants. Most large military bases sustain an economy that is at least somewhat parasitic local service personnel. You may recall radio or print advertisement from car dealers that scream “financing available for all military E-1 and up!” NCOs and officers spend disproportionate amounts of time and energy counseling subordinates on the ill-advised nature of buying a new car for “only” 150 months of $500 payments. These target consumer pitches rightfully engender a skepticism among savvy consumers and that sentiment can cause some to paint all selling with the same brush.

2. Adopting the reflexive anti-profit motive of government officials. It is a sad truth that many government officials, especially at the federal level, condescend to the commercial class whose taxes ironically fund their largesse. Most can’t even articulate why, but there is a reflexive aversion to the profit motive that many government workers espouse and military veterans can’t help but pick up on it.

3. Vestigial class attitudes in the officer corps. Although few modern officers see themselves as members of an elite social class, there remains in the profession of arms a vestigial adherence to an old world view that looks down on selling and commerce as being un-aristocratic. From a time when British or American upper classes produced officers who lived off rental income from property rather than “nouveau” sources like selling goods and services, there remains a condescension to the idea of selling and commerce. Modern officers don’t even know from where this cultural value stems, but some adopt it all the same.

4. Unfamiliarity with meritocratic pay linkage. In the military, pay and benefits are a function of seniority and tenure. There is little comprehension with this time and grade mentality of the notion that those who create the most value should receive the greatest reward. Yet, in the most dynamic civilian businesses the sky is the limit in terms of personal value creation if the member can sell. This shift in thinking can be so uncomfortable that some people conclude that the business approach to merit pay is suspect by its very nature because it is so unfamiliar.

In simple terms, salespeople are valuable because they create measurable value every day. That sort of accountability will motivate and excite some and cause anxiety in others. For veterans who figure out this relationship earlier in their career search, there will be a multitude of opportunities.

Success in sales, like any other function, results from personal effort, preparation and a bit of luck. The difference with sales is that the output of that equation is easily measured. For those professionally raised in a bureaucratic environment that seems to value superficialities and political impressions, a career in sales can be liberating and refreshing. Of course, for those who aspire to transition to “leading” in an organization that is not beholden to market performance, the change can be disconcerting. Indeed, most will find that meaningful careers dedicated to “leading” in isolation are rare in the civilian world. [Most careers involve making stuff, selling stuff and/or counting stuff]( Of these, it is “selling stuff” that is in the highest demand for those with skill, desire and work ethic to be successful.

And for those who think of themselves primarily as “leaders” and [aspire to a CEO position, sales]( is the best function after finance to follow to the top. Very few civilian companies will accept even senior officers into top executive ranks if they have not proven their ability to create value. In most cases, that means selling.

Learn to sell and don’t shy away from opportunities to practice the art and science of sales. Your career will profit as a result.