May 6, 2019
Challenges of Civi-Employment for Senior Military Officers
As I have explained 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. Senior military officers enjoy the benefits of extensive leadership and managerial experience, advanced degrees and certifications and the confidence that comes from command.
Yet in practice, they experience their own set of challenges that can delay, derail or distract even the most ardent and ambitious transitioning officer.
Specifically, these challenges are:
1. Esteem Shock: When a unit commander or senior officers enters a room, subordinates snap to attention. Many senior officers equate their professional worth with the size of their command. It is unlikely that a senior officer will transfer to that sort of general management position or even that level of functional authority right out of the service.
2. 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 typically come up through one specific function such as Sales or Finance.
3. 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 unit commander would have ever commanded an organization 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.
4. Leadership is Not a Function: Similar to the “Curse of the Generalist” above, many senior officer 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.
The most effective career transitioning senior officers understand that effective job search is based on solid fundamentals and networking. Focus on the following tips can assist:
1. Opportunity Awareness: A transitioning senior officer must be able articulate specifically what they seek in their next career move.
2. Rule of Threes: In articulating their career goal, a senior officer 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 GTA.
3. 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 they seeks. You must be relentlessly focused on networking. Seek information and access and jobs will follow.
4. 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 officer who wants to get into consumer products marketing at a small or medium sized business in Ontario. Who do we know who can help him with contacts and information?” and not “I met an RCAF officer who wants a good job running a company.” Vague “asks” earn soft, if any, follow through.
5. Follow Up: Most senior officers 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 reminder, I am focused on finding an operations role at a Manitoba transportation company that will take advantage of my logistics experience.”
6. 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. 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.