Monday, September 30, 2013
Military Transition Pointers
I recently completed a transition from the military to civilian employment. This is my effort to share some of the lessons I learned in the process. First, I’ll provide a little information about myself as a baseline. This post is targeted primarily at officers and senior SNCOs with a college degree and 10 or more years of service, to include retirees at the 20-plus year mark, aiming at civilian employment outside of the defense sector. Many of the lessons here will carry over to military members separating earlier or those looking for defense sector employment, but my experience is not in those demographics.
I was a Marine major (LtCol select) with 16 years of service, a BS in chemistry and biology, a MA in National Security Affairs, and KC-130 pilot and Middle East foreign area officer MOSs. My assignments included aviation maintenance division officer, squadron operations officer, detachment commander in OEF, and director of security cooperation and aide de camp at Marine Corps Forces Central Command, during which time I acted as a speechwriter. In addition, I am fluent in Arabic, was the Editor of the Small Wars Journal until this July, and have published two non-fiction books and numerous essays. My goal was to find civilian employment at a level of management at or near the “lieutenant colonel level” outside of the defense sector in an operations management or process improvement role. I was not narrowly targeting a given sector, but looking for roles that I felt fit my wide variety of experiences (including aviation operations and safety, Middle Eastern expertise and global operations experience, professional writing, command and control headquarters staff experience, process improvement campaign implementation, and a good deal of instructional and organizational culture knowledge).
I believed that I was approaching transition with an appropriate amount of research, preparation, and self-awareness. In the end, I believe that my transition was very successful. I received several worthwhile offers and accepted a position as a Senior Vice President at a major multinational bank, but it was much more challenging to find a position than I thought it would be. The HR process is slower and more risk averse than I expected. Even with what I saw as a strong and unique resume, many companies showed no interest whatsoever. And while networking was a powerful help, ultimately few people knew how to help me to find the appropriate niche. These challenges all could be and were overcome, but even going into the transition with good research and my eyes open, I was still a bit surprised. The below essay incorporates what I felt were some of the most important things I learned.
The research you need to do and what this is not: You need to conduct significant research on the job market, HR process, resume writing tips, interviewing principles, salary negotiations, appropriate attire, and more. These are the fundamentals and advice is out there in droves. If you can’t do this research, don’t expect to be taken seriously. The rest of my points are offered in addition to these basic job-seeking fundamentals.
Start early. Really early. Everyone says to start early. They’re talking months to a year or two out. That isn’t early enough. The first part of this post will focus on things you need to do years ahead of time. The last part will focus on resume and job-seeking specifics.
Once you get yourself established in the military—I’d say mid-grade O-3 timeframe at the latest—you need to be thinking about what you want to do with your career as a whole. If you’re only thinking out to a 20-year retirement, you’re missing the boat. Plus, with today’s budget environment, you need to have a plan B anyway.
I started laying the foundation for my transition as a captain with about 6 years of service. After seeing a lieutenant colonel retire and take a job that made me cringe, I realized that I needed to do something to give myself an employable skill after military life. It was then that I started to consider a master’s degree and ultimately was accepted to the foreign area officer program and attained that degree and foreign language proficiency.
Get certified. There are a number of things you can do to lay your foundation educationally. Some specialties lend themselves well to transition: logistics, contracting, acquisitions, etc. Others like aviation (if you’re not going to the airlines) and the infantry are harder to sell. In all cases, relevant civilian certifications make your skills much more understandable to HR and hiring managers. Certifications to consider include: project management professional, Six Sigma or Lean certifications, Certified Information Systems Security Professional, Certified in Transportation and Logistics, etc. Start now by searching for job postings that interest you and see what sort of certifications they say are “preferred.” While you may feel that you are perfectly qualified based on your experience, having the preferred certification will make you a much easier match to understand for HR and hiring managers.
Volunteer positions can both vastly expand your network and make your skills more understandable and marketable. Community service can likewise improve your standing with potential employers. It is much easier to convince someone to accept your strategic planning or budgeting skills when they aren’t paying for it. It may then be easier to sell such skills to a civilian employer. Seek leadership, planning, or other roles within charities that match to your job goals. For example, if you’re in a military specialty that doesn’t deal with money very much, you may want to volunteer to be a treasurer for your parent-teacher association.
Graduate degrees. Graduate degrees are also a great way to make yourself more relevant and understandable to a private sector company. It is critical to understand, though, that not all graduate degrees are created equal. I would argue that it is far better to get a relevant certification that is much quicker and cheaper, than to do a masters degree from the wrong university.
There are three components to a graduate degree. First is the relevance of the degree to the position you desire. Second is the academic rigor/prestige of the program under consideration. Third, and often most important, is the network that a given school affords.
If you’re solely looking at a degree as a ticket to punch, I‘d recommend seeking a certification instead. If you think you really need a master’s degree to break into the position you want, I recommend going for the most prestigious physical university you can afford/make work with your military duties. I’d avoid online or on-base programs.
Once you’ve narrowed down the degree you want, there are two options for selecting your program. You can go for a nationally or globally ranked program which will give you a wide network and instant recognition no matter where you are applying for a position. As an alternative, if you know where you plan on settling down, look for the best local program. This will provide you a more relevant local network, often at much lower cost and sufficient academic quality.
MBAs. You need to do some very job-specific research before investing in an MBA. The MBA is seen as “the” ticket to punch, but for that reason the degrees can be a dime a dozen. You need to do some very job specific and personal-experience-specific research. I was told that with my experience, a run of the mill MBA wouldn’t really do much more for me. The advice was go big, or don’t bother.
Additionally, if you’re looking to get into top tier consulting, banking, or other elite ladders to the stars, you really need to do a full-time, nationally ranked MBA. A possible alternative to this is to do one of a few truly elite executive MBAs that are offered and the Ivys, increasingly in collaboration with multiple schools throughout the globe. These will cost you significantly in terms of tuition (near the $150,000 mark) and time required (45 or more days of leave in a year), but the payoff can be significant. One friend did an elite EMBA and was rewarded with a high-level position at a global investment bank due to the networking opportunities that stemmed from the elite global program.
You can’t expect nearly the same from your average MBA and should plan for even less from an online degree. I’ve been told that the value of an MBA is more about the network than the knowledge, especially if you’re not looking to go into something technical like trading, so choose wisely. This is one of those instances where going for a regional power where you’re looking to settle down can be far better than shelling out for a national brand.
Consulting. Consulting is one of the best ways to build private sector credibility. It pays very well, gives you exposure to a wide range of companies, industries, and challenges. In general, though, the tempo is grueling and tends to grind people up and spit them out. You pay your dues for as long as you can stand it and then try to use your experience and contacts to springboard into a more stable position. For many coming out of the military to settle down and enjoy life a little, this may not be the best avenue. You may be gone more than you were in the service.
You can get into consulting without an MBA, but it is difficult and requires a great deal of networking (a topic I’ll discuss more below). You have to be introduced into the office that you want to work to really have a chance at getting an interview. Once you get the interview, though, you really need to have done your prep months ahead of time. Most big-name consultancies have a unique interview process where you have to work through business cases and varying degrees of brain-teasers. You can get books to learn the business lingo and practice on cases. Your best bet is to augment these books by reaching out to a local, reputable business school and finding vets willing to let you into their case prep study sessions. They have the latest inside scoop from recent grads and network contacts so really can hone your preparation.
You can also aim below the top tier big names to find some smaller and more life-friendly consultancies, as well as some consultancies that bring military planning and execution experience to the private sector—a great way to be compensated and valued for what you’ve learned in service while also learning about the private sector.
Build Your Network. The most critical aspect to most job searches is your network. Why? Don’t look at this at a “who you know matters more than what you know” sort of thing (although that is true in ways). What matters is finding a way to (a) make sure your signal rises above the considerable noise in and insensitivity of the HR process and (b) find a personalized way to ensure that a hiring manager understands why your “out of the box” military experience is perfect for a position description you probably can’t match.
This is an important point. For all the hype you hear about hiring veterans and how important your leadership experience is, you need to understand that no one cares. People care in an abstract way. They care in a personal way. But the system doesn’t care, for sure. The system is made to match round pegs with round holes and you are not a round peg. You are not someone who has grown up in industry x, y, or z and has done this position or the position most clearly leading to it. When you submit your resume, you will/should do all you can to match your experiences to the position description. But short of outright falsehoods, you won’t likely be the best match for most jobs outside of the defense sector. Your operational leadership won’t translate to operations management in a given industry in most cases. For that reason alone, it is incredibly important to use your network to be introduced to hiring managers and to at least be referred into a company’s HR system, helping to elevate your resume to the level where a human will actually consider it.
Even once you get past that point, you can explain how you were responsible for all operations of an organization with 450 people and over $1 billion in assets (in the case of a KC-130 squadron), but you will still get the question, “How would you manage an organization of 17 people doing airport facilities maintenance when you have never done facilities maintenance?” You can answer (more tactfully than the following), that you’ll do it the same way you did it as a snot-nosed kid out of college running an organization of 50 people who were in charge of maintaining hydraulic systems you’d never maintained, and you’d do it the same way you ran much larger organizations doing far more complex maintenance, but some people just won’t see the connection. So, the veterans’ network is incredibly important in identifying positions where leadership is more than just a slogan and where they want intelligent problem-solvers who can deal with ambiguity and stress rather than just someone who has done the same job before.
High-performing military officers are “strategic hires.” You need to look for those opportunities where they aren’t hiring the person who has the best technical knowledge about processes right now, but are looking for the person who has the best leadership, management, and problem-solving potential in 6 months or 6 years.
To do this, you need to network. Hard. The best tool for networking is currently LinkedIn. Every military officer should have a LinkedIn account and should be building their network. If you’re a junior officer, keep contact with your old college friends and colleagues. As people start getting to the end of that first term, ensure that you connect with, follow, and get advice from those friends and colleagues who precede you. As you’re heading toward retirement, revisit your contact list and ensure you’re keeping in touch with those people that you might want to ask for help. The key is to keep in contact and get educated before you’re asking for a job referral.
Don’t be shy about connecting either. Veterans, especially successful ones on the outside, know how hard it is to make the transition. They will, for the most part, be happy to help. There is a “pay it forward” ethos. So feel free (with a healthy dose of self-awareness) to ask to connect to someone you don’t know personally saying, “I don’t know you, but we have some connections and experiences in common and I’d like to talk to you about how you made your transition and got to where you are today. I’d like to follow a similar path.” I did just that and ended up being connected by that now-friend to a number of other helpful, high performing Marines. The Marine in question was a Wharton MBA grad and he said that his Marine network was as powerful, if not more so, than his Wharton network. That is no small thing.
LinkedIn is also powerful for its search and link analysis tools. Say you want a position at Company X. You can search on that company and it will show you what 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree connections you have, as well as connections who share groups with you (join at least veterans and alumni groups on LinkedIn). You can then look to see who you know in common to a person who is at Company X and get introduced. I used this technique to find an existing connection in a different division of my current company and to find a new contact via a mutual friend, both of whom helped me get my current position.
There are a few things you can do to start maximizing the value of your LinkedIn profile. Get a good picture, preferably a professional headshot. Remember, when people search LinkedIn, they see the photo and your headline first. Make that count. Ditch the picture of you in the field or at a party somewhere, unless you want a defense contracting job. And even then… Also, ditch the unsmiling promotion or command photo. Civilian hiring managers are already intimidated or misled enough about how we can only lead by ordering and how everyone has PTSD. Get a picture where you are smiling as warmly and welcomingly as possible. There are two schools of thought on uniform versus suit. The uniform crowd says that you should do one in your Service Alphas (business suit equivalent) to distinguish you from everyone else out there who is in a normal business suit. As one person told me, the Marine Corps has spent millions on branding. Take advantage of that brand. I used a photo in uniform, taken specifically for the purpose of my profile with a big smile on my face until I was hired and then switched immediately to a picture in a suit. Some people think that using a picture in military uniform makes you look like you can’t give it up. I was sensitive to this and initially resisted using a picture in uniform, but I figured I needed to market my military experience and a picture in uniform, smiling, with my ribbons, etc, couldn’t look that bad and it distinguished me from the vast majority of people in suits.
I highly recommend a professional headshot. I was reluctant to get one because I felt it was somewhat pretentious and I’m a Marine who was insecure about looking like too much of a prima donna. Once I got hired, I finally broke down and got a headshot to put on my professional profile at work. When I got it done, I thought that it looked kind of cheesy, especially with the retouch they did. I asked them to tone down the retouch and was happier with it, but still self-conscious about it looking cheesy. But, in the end I think that the head shot definitely makes you look more like someone who takes himself seriously and who is professional material. In the end, you’re marketing yourself, so you want to exude that professionalism, even if it does take you a bit out of your comfort zone.
For those of you who are afraid to have a photo at all, that is fine, but don’t expect to be clicked on when recruiters search for you. Most people with no photo have incomplete profiles, so people tend not to click through. For those of you who are worried about privacy issues, realize that except for the very few who have been religious about keeping their online trail to zero their entire life, a LinkedIn picture is the least of your worries. And unless you really are a practitioner of the dark arts (a staff gig at SOCOM doesn’t count) no one cares enough to come hunt you down.
After the photo, which is important because it draws the eye, the headline is the next big thing. The default headline is your current position, but you can modify to your liking. So instead of “TPS Reports Watch Officer Second Class,” you can put something like “Operations Leader with Global Experience Seeking X, Y, Z.” One mentor told me to start your tagline with something like an emotional gerund: helping, creating, etc. You can also modify your location at will (hint, match where you want to end up) and your industry (hint: figure out a way to match the industry you want to end up in). Also, you are able to go into the settings and create a custom URL for your profile. You want to do this so that it is easy to use in email signatures, resumes, and business cards. It makes it easier for people to look you up and it shows your savvy. Mine is http://www.linkedin/com/in/peterjmunson.
Once you get past these superficialities… I’ll pause here. These seem like superficialities, but unless you get these right, people are unlikely to click through. So they aren’t so superficial after all from the perspective of someone looking to get hired. Anyway, once you get past these headline details, you get into your resume.
Your resume and your LinkedIn profile should be one and the same, at least when you are actively seeking a job. Your LinkedIn profile should be your “generic resume.” We will talk below about how you need to tailor it. Your resume should reflect all the great things that you’ve done. For most military people, this is the hardest thing and it is very important to start early.
First, we are bad at writing fitreps/OERs so we have bad data. With that bad data, we end up having a hard time writing our resumes because we don’t think about it until 5, 10, 20 years after the fact. So start off by writing good fitreps (for yourself, since most of us at least provide inputs to our bosses). One good way of highlighting your value whether in or out of the military is to explain how you made money, saved money, or reduced risk. At first glance, this seems hard and many military folks may dismiss these metrics for the “intangibles” but I encourage you to get better at your metrics. We hate turning blocks green for the sake of turning blocks green, right? I challenge you to find a way to turn blocks green or create blocks that turn green when we have found ways to more effectively increase combat readiness. The two goals are not mutually exclusive. There are a ton of efficiencies to be gained and you can record those if you are smart. Convince your boss not to do something stupid by quantifying the money saved. Then record it in your fitrep and your resume.
Make your fitreps reflect your job performance in a quantifiable way. We love intangibles in the military, though. So here are a few intangibles that you should try to quantify or at least record.
How do you influence without authority? Many people are concerned that we can’t lead if people aren’t bound to salute and hop to it. But most military officers lead groups they don’t have direct command over and often are able to influence more senior officers to take actions based on their expertise. Record that.
In addition… Record how you have lead global operations and globally distributed teams. Record how you have led teams of subject matter experts to achieve results in cross-functional domains. Record how you are able to create a collaborative environment across multiple sites. Record how you are able to use information technology tools to collaborate virtually. Record how you were selected ahead of more senior officers for a given billet or filled a role normally performed by a more senior officer. These are all things that are highly valued and many people don’t realize military officers can do exceedingly well.
You also have to translate and tailor your resume. This is a very hard part with a lot of pitfalls. You need to get far away from military jargon and metrics into the realm of dollars and cents and civilian job titles, but you also need to be honest. This can get tricky. I think that if you stick to the points above for most of your bullets you will be in good shape: how did I make money, save money, reduce risk, and how do I show my value in non-traditional leadership roles.
You also need to translate your roles into civilian terms. The most important thing is to translate your accomplishments along both the lines discussed above and in terms of the specifics of the job description. You need to first create a generic resume, but then you need to tailor that resume to the job description of each job you apply for. Let me give you a hint: CUT AND PASTE. Cut and paste the intangible verbiage and link that to what you actually did and your specific stats. This part is relatively easy. Leave out the military terminology. Leave out the specific locations. I also personally recommend leaving out the combat terminology. No one cares. No one understands. And if they do, they can read between the lines. I used terms like “led X people in the most challenging and complex aviation environment.” Emphasize terms like challenging and complex. Those are relatable. Don’t emphasize terms like Iraq, Afghanistan, or deployed. Those aren’t relatable.
When it comes to job titles, I recommend keeping your military job title and putting an equivalent civilian title in parentheses. Several issues here. First, a job like “Theater Security Cooperation Chief” sounds decidedly unmanagerial to both military and non-military, though in some commands it is an O-5 billet. When I got this billet, I decided to call it Director of Security Cooperation. It is more reflective of the level of the position and by getting it in my fitrep I made it official. It isn’t always so easy, but you really should consider how to get the title you want into your fitrep.
The worst thing you can do when trying to translate your title is to overreach. A battalion or squadron operations officer can become a Director of Operations in parentheses for most organizations, but realize that equivalent title levels vary from organization to organization and industry to industry. If you’re applying to a position as COO for an organization with a roughly equivalent personnel and budgetary responsibility to what you’ve done in the military, then go ahead with putting an equivalent title in parentheses. If you’re applying for a job at a big multinational, COO on your resume or profile just makes you look at best out of touch. Even worse, you could be actively removed from consideration for being dishonest. Translation is a delicate topic, so the best bet is to keep your documented job title as your primary and not to reach in parentheses.
One other small detail: use numerals instead of spelling out numbers in all cases and use percentage symbols instead of spelling the word out. For HR and managers scanning a resume quickly, eyes are drawn to the numerals and percentage signs as a quantifiable data point.
Once you’ve done all of the above, you’re well positioned for the application phase. I hope based on what I’ve said so far, you realize that finding a job isn’t easy. Be ready for a lot of rejection. That being said, I think the best thing you can do is start early. Especially if you are being very specific in your geographic targeting.
Some companies can take 2-3 months or more to call back and then some companies took up to 2 months to go through their hiring process (6-7 interviews) for a high-level position. I also interviewed for one job at a corporation and was turned down as their number 2 candidate and was then asked to apply for a second position, for which I got an attractive offer. Better to apply early and not be able to take a yes than to apply late and not get to yes.
Realize that your expected salary and your qualifications can throw you out of the running from the get-go. Do a lot of salary research and temper your salary expectations to the sort of work you want to do (especially when it comes to your entries in the application forms).
All of this is designed to get you to the interview. Once you get there, the game starts anew. This is where you really stand or fall on our own merits. It all comes down to preparation, but like any engagement, you have to realize that the “enemy” has a vote. What it comes down to is being likable over all (if they’ve called you for an interview they think you’re at least basically qualified) and being able to turn every question (e.g., what was your biggest failure, what is your weakness) into an authentic advertisement for your strength, while showing the appropriate level of humility and self-awareness. How much and what kind of prep you do will depend on your particular strengths and weaknesses, but the bottom line is that you need to be comfortable, well-prepared, and ready to play every question like a game of chess while coming off natural and relaxed.
This is just a start. Overall, the best thing you can do is to talk to as many people and ask as many questions as possible for at least the year prior to your transition, you should be talking to at least 2 people a week about your future. The more people you talk to, the wider your network will be and the more perspectives you will get on your job search. Take all the help you can get.