“Do not try to replace your uniform, because you won’t.”
That was one of the best pieces of advice I received during my transition from the military to the corporate world. Unfortunately, most of the articles I’ve seen on transitioning emphasize the potential for culture shock and misalignment between the two worlds, rather than the mutual benefits of integration and continuity.
Such stereotypes mischaracterize the natural tensions that define the movement to the second half of a veteran’s career — or what I call Chapter Two. Instead of deal-breakers, these tensions present potential areas of growth for both sides.
Corporate managers and leaders honor veterans best by finding roles that not only capitalize on their experience but also respect their commitment to serve something bigger than themselves.
As my mentor implied, veterans cannot simply hang up their uniforms at the altar of profit. The high attrition rate of veterans leaving their first post-military job within two years shows, in part, that you don’t shed the military DNA or the love of mission easily.
That is why mentoring veterans is an essential element of transitioning. By demystifying the business world, the right corporate coach or mentor will be a determining factor in whether they choose to stay or depart.
What the Military Gets Wrong About the Corporate Space
Everyone leaves the military eventually. However, the longer the service, the more difficult the transition can be. The career options range from keeping it familiar as a government civilian, joining the ranks of consulting firms laden with ex-military personnel, or bearing the discomfort of going even further afield.
To the veteran, I say this: you can still have a mission and make a meaningful impact while working in the private sector. Contrary to popular perception, these are not incompatible worlds. After all, companies are made up of people, not drones.
In my own case, after serving in the Army for 32 years, I decided to jump into the deep end when I joined one of the Big Four consulting firms, where I learned to adapt my experience to a new role with a new set of skills. I am now with a cyber advisory firm and am a solutions leader at Optiv, where I am still contributing to the broader mission of national security.
Instead of solving hard problems in the military, I am solving hard problems for the government in the corporate space. My motivation is still mission-based. Similarly, although I miss empowering and leading soldiers, I now empower and lead managers and consultants. And I continue to help soldiers by mentoring veterans transitioning to the private sector.
The military-to-civilian transition is about changing priorities, not compromising our core values.
Why Corporate Conceptions of the Military Are Misleading
Soldiers are often given leadership roles in their early 20s, much earlier than their civilian peers, and they continue to develop their leadership skills throughout their military careers.
Companies often don’t understand that they are recruiting veterans who already have mature leadership abilities. Veterans can have an immediate impact in their corporate career — beyond tapping into their network of military contacts — while continuing to learn as they make the transition.
In my transition from the Army, I’ve confronted a range of corporate assumptions about the rigidity of military life and realized that my own assumptions about corporate agility required further consideration. It’s difficult to abandon one way of being successful for an entirely new set of performance metrics – often measuring the same skillset but expressed in entirely different terms.
An excessive focus on titles or roles and responsibilities in the corporate world can impede synergies across divisions. In both the military and corporate worlds, it’s critical to understand how people receive information. When we shift from one world to another, it is critical to establish a shared understanding of our intent. For example, at Optiv, when I tried to establish cross-functional teams to enhance everyone’s capabilities, the idea wasn’t initially embraced; however, I quickly realized this was a result of my difficulty translating my somewhat military intent into industry lingo Another piece of advice given to me early on was to “assume positive intent and understand motivation” and it applies broadly.
It is incumbent upon corporate managers and leaders to develop meaningful relationships with veteran populations that help them adapt to this different environment and withstand the pressure of profit-driven market forces.
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Abandoning Presumptions Can Yield a Dynamic Organization
About 200,000 veterans leave the military every year with many bound for the private sector. They bring with them qualities honed in the military that can be tremendous business assets: teamwork, humility, adaptability, trainability, and tolerance of criticism.
Helping veterans make the transition and keeping them in the corporate world will require a collaborative effort to change perceptions. Almost 65 percent of veterans leave their first post-military job within two years.
Managers at the hiring level, in particular, can adopt a more flexible approach to translating the tasks and roles performed in service to job requirements. Corporate leadership needs to become more adept at evaluating ex-military talent and aligning them to a role where they can add value.
The soldier’s attitude of putting the greater good ahead of personal interest can eventually permeate the rest of the workplace. Indeed, demonstrating how organization-first thinking improves performance may prove to be veterans’ greatest corporate legacy.
Navigating the transition from the military to the private sector can lead to a fulfilling role in your career’s second chapter. It is important for veterans to embrace an open mindset and learn how to apply their expertise and experience to the business world, not leave it behind. At the end of the day, it’s about striking a balance between putting the mission first and learning to enjoy a sense of personal value in a new environment.