Military Career Transition

The private sector is waiting…with all its challenges and opportunities. For your military career transition to go smoothly and achieve the results you have in mind, it’s very important that you remember the following:

  • understand the important cultural difference between the two worlds
  • have a solid, detailed plan adapted to the specific issues and challenges of a military career transition, and
  • take care of yourself and your family and prepare them for a period of uncertainty, which may be stressful, as you move from one world to the other.

Begin with culture
There are private sector corporations that are managed with much of the same discipline and command-and-control mentality you are familiar with from your service career. This is especially true, of course, with defense contractors led by former military personnel and doing business with the various branches. But this is not true of most private sector companies, where the culture tends to be more collaborative and democratic, and where individuals are rewarded not so much for their ability to follow orders but to initiate and advocate for ideas on their own.

Recommendations: The two best ways to gain an accurate and up-to-date understanding of corporate culture in the civilian world is to talk with those on the inside and read up on organizational culture and leadership. Your personal networking–which we discuss briefly below and in much great detail elsewhere on this website–will give you ample opportunities to learn from those with an insider’s perspective. Even better, try to arrange an informational interview with a fellow military retiree now working in business. His or her insights will be especially relevant and valuable. There are many excellent books and other resources you can use to further your understanding. Start with the big names; they’re famous for a reason. Here are a few of our personal favorites. You can’t go wrong with any of them.

  • On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis. This book is a great place to start. Bennis, who has studied and written about leadership probably more than anyone else alive today, is passionate about the need to develop leaders in all areas who are both competent and principled.
  • Drucker on Leadership: New Lessons from the Father of Modern Management, by Peter Drucker, the dean of business authors and the man who, literally, “wrote the book on Management”
  • Managing as a Performing Art: New Ideas for a World of Chaotic Change, by Peter Vaill, the man who coined the phrase “permanent whitewater” to describe current business (and political, social and economic) conditions. Very inspiring reading.
  • The Power of Servant Leadership, by Robert Greenleaf. This business classic won’t appeal to everyone for it links the activities and responsibilities of leadership to core religious values. But all readers embarking on a military career transition will see in Greenleaf’s book a model that may turn many of their expectations about the corporate world upside down.

Another great resource is the Harvard Business Review, which has been publishing ground-breaking articles on leadership and organizational culture for decades. For another perspective on these issues from a hip, contemporary perspective, check out FastCompany.

Have a Solid Plan
Even in civilian life, people have difficulty preparing themselves for a career transition. They’re not likely to know where they’re going to end up. Even if they do, they probably won’t know how to manage the process properly (yes, there is a “proper” way to do this).

A military career transition is even more complex. Expecting to step straight out from the military and into a civilian job is likely to lead to disappointment if not disaster unless you have your plan in place. Begin early. Work with career advisors within the military at least a year before your discharge. Go to job fairs and meet with recruiters and human resource professionals. In this way, you begin to lay the ground work for moving forward once you are out.

The good news is that military career transition follows the same general outline as any career change process. (For an overview read our “Getting Started” page here.) For those making a military career transition, however, some aspects of the process require more attention. These areas include:

  • personal assessment
  • communication
  • professional networking
  • self-marketing

Personal Assessment
The culture of our military institutions is very powerful. Those who wish to succeed adapt themselves to that culture and, in the process, develop aspects of their personalities to conform with the expectations of their superiors and to improve their own effectiveness and performance.

A military career transition provides you with the opportunity to take a step backward and gain perspective. Are those qualities on which you built your military career necessarily the ones you want to base the next stage of your working life? Are there important parts of yourself that you’ve been neglecting?

The answer to these and similar questions depends entirely on your own, unique situation. Some individuals will very happily and successfully continue to build on the same personal assets that shaped their service careers; others will sense that it’s time for a change. In either case, whether it validates your current direction or signals the need for change, it’s important to devote ample time to personal assessment as you begin your military career transition process.

Cultures are defined by their communication style, and while stereotyping is never a good idea, it’s probably safe to say that between the armed services and most business organizations there are big differences in the way people talk to each other.

Today’s organizations are increasingly collaborative. This means that companies–good ones anyway–encourage discussion, even disagreement, as the one sure antidote for “group-think” and mediocrity. A business manager rarely gets away with issuing orders and having them carried out without at least some push-back. Very often promotion through the ranks depends on an individual’s ability to manage this creative tension to produce better-than-expected results.

This is not to say that businesses are democracies; they aren’t and can’t be. But they can be highly participatory and this may cause some difficulty for those moving out of a military environment. Recommendations: Begin with the suggestions made above: both informational interviewing to learn about culture and communication differences, and the books we’ve listed. You can’t talk about leadership without thinking carefully about communication, so the titles we’ve listed will be helpful here too.

Professional Networking
You can get a job by answering a want ad in the newspaper (assuming, of course, you can still find a newspaper). But finding a really good career opportunity almost always comes though personal connections. There really is no equivalent in the private sector to the institutionalized ranking and promotion systems found in both the military and in government, and whatever systems are in place are very often bypassed by less formal social connections.

It’s who you know that matters.

As you set out on your military career transition, think tactically when you plan your professional networking campaign. Use those results and goal oriented skills you spent your service career perfecting. Set precise objectives for how many new connections you wish to make within a given time frame, then break the work down into weekly and daily goals.

Remember that, like sales, networking is a numbers game. Keep score: if 10 new connections yields one promising lead, than you know what a 100 new connections will do for you.

Self Marketing
This is another area that is likely to be unfamiliar to those embarking on a military career transition. It begins with a basic paradigm shift. Think of yourself as a company and think of what you have to offer as your “product.” Now, really work through the implications. What do companies do to company “mind space” in the public’s awareness? How do they clarify the unique value of their products or services? What does this tell you about what you need to do to compete effectively and succeed?

Recommendation: This is a growing area, and the Internet is full of information from Self-Marketing experts. You can begin on our own Personal Branding page, and follow the links to additional resources such as Business Attire, Business Clothes Shopping, and Dressing for Success.

Take Care of Yourself and Your Family
If you have a family, then the goal of your military career transition is more than just a job. It’s a promising future for you and your loved ones; so, you want to be careful to protect those relationships along the way.

Returning home and re-adjusting to the responsibilities and routines of family life adds additional complicating factors to an already complicated and, perhaps, confusing transition. Plan for it. Remember they are coping with uncertainty and anxiety too. If you find you’re having trouble balancing the demands of the job search with your family relationships, by all means, seek help from a qualified counselor.

In the meantime, here are a few things it will help to keep in mind.

  • Keep communication open to work through the household’s stress will help you keep a clear mind when you are interviewing or talking to corporate recruiters.
  • Be charitable with yourself and patient with those around you. All change is difficult, and no one goes through it without a few graceless moments.
  • Keep your goals front and center. Remind yourself and them what this is all about and the rewards a successful transition will bring.
  • Update family members on your progress and help them see that you are following a logical and sequential process, with milestones that show you’re moving ahead.
  • Share the “wins” even the small ones. If you experience setbacks, you can share those too unless, of course, you are really having trouble. In that case, seek professional help.
  • Be willing to accept a job on your way to a career. Being able to pursue your career search is wonderful, but it may be a luxury you can’t afford. If so, find an ordinary job that will help you pay the bills and relieve the stress. This keeps your mind free to focus on your more important goals.

Many of the challenges faced by men and women moving through a military career transition into the private sector stem from a lack of exposure to the civilian career environment. Just remember, anything that is familiar to you was once unknown.

Give yourself time to change and permission to stumble a bit along the way. Just don’t forget, if you’ve spent time in uniform, you’ve been through harder times than these. Trust that soon you’ll be squarely on your feet.

My name is John Lord. I work with Muller O’Brien, LLC, a private career coaching and counseling service based in the Washington D.C area. Muller O’Brien’s team of HR professionals has worked with thousands of transitioning service men and women and are specialists in providing real-world, practical advice from a business/corporate (a.k.a. “hiring employer”) point of view.