The Hard Truth Civilians Won’t Tell You When You Transition

by on May 19th, 2017

This article condenses the lessons learned through years of working with hundreds of transitioning personnel. Please keep an open mind, because when you leave the military, you are insulated from many important “hard” truths. This insulation, and ignorance, works terribly against you and likely you don’t even know it.

This happens because:

  • Civilians who haven’t served normally don’t have the willingness, desire, nor comfort level to say anything “bad” about military experience. Many things therefore go unsaid, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t true, and your lack of knowledge of truths are actively hurting you.
  • Civilians who criticize the military can be unfairly perceived as unpatriotic. It is therefore a taboo to criticize.
  • Most civilian/military transition advisors don’t have the experience that you are seeking for yourself, and therefore they don’t know these truths either. Ask yourself this … if you are the kind of person who would end up in a high performing career track after your military career, what are the odds that you would then take a job as a transition advisor? They are good people, but if you are looking for a high performance track, they are usually not the right resource.

You are therefore fed with biased, incomplete, and all-too-rosy information about how great you are, and nobody will tell you the truth about why they won’t hire you. If you are looking to get into a high performance career track, this article will tell you the truth you must know that you won’t hear from others. So let’s get started.

To set the stage, let’s consider this scenario:

After nearly 20 years of exceptional service, you are the commander of a high performing infantry battalion. You receive a visitor. This visitor is a very successful New York based hedge fund manager. He has made millions, perhaps tens of millions, by being the best performer in his field. He’s built his own company which he leads and employs hundreds of people. He has led them to great success in an extremely competitive and tough environment. He is also an accomplished triathlete, and could out run, out swim, and out-hike anybody in your unit. Lastly, he is a highly competitive shooter, who could out shoot nearly everybody in your unit. In summary, he is a talented business executive who has led hundreds of people, is highly athletic, intelligent, and a great shooter. He now comes to you and says he would like to join your unit as a Company Commander. What would you tell him?

You would tell him “go see a recruiter.” Why? Because in our military system, none of his accomplishments or skills translate or matter. He still has to go to basic training or officer school and start at the very bottom. Does this seem fair? You may say “well, he has great experience, but he doesn’t have military experience. He needs to learn the basics.” Whether that is fair or not is a broader question for a different discussion. However, the reality is that you, or at least the military system, would not afford him any credit for his experience, even if he is a proven leader and can out run and out gun anybody in your unit. So now ask yourself, what makes you think that civilians see you any differently when the tables are turned?

You come to them claiming leadership experience, and unlike our triathlete friend, you probably don’t even have many direct skill sets valued by their industry. The fact that civilians give you any credit for your military experience is already a lot more than you would give them. You may say that leadership experience “translates,” but then wouldn’t that “translation” be a two way street? Just think of how you would view experienced civilians trying to join the military and how you would place them, and then turn the table around and you will see how you are viewed by civilians. This is a critical perspective to understand.
In summary:

  • Think of how you would view a high performing experienced civilian wishing to join your military unit. Now realize that civilians see you in a similar way.
  • Most normally start at a much lower level than their current experience level when changing industries, no matter what those industries are. The bigger the change, the bigger the reset.

So let’s get into the things that no one will tell you:

1. You don’t get hired by applying online.

I have never known anyone who has ever gotten a job by submitting a resume online … anywhere. The Department of Labor published a study revealing that 70% of jobs are found through networking, and that includes all blue collar jobs. That number is much higher for the most desirable jobs. I don’t know where people in the military get the idea that the way to get a job is to craft a great resume and submit it for a bunch of jobs. It’s so ingrained in you, it’s almost like you’re born with it in your evolutionary DNA. Perhaps that is how you’ve seen people get jobs in movies. The secret nobody told me when I got out of the military, and wished I knew, is that applying to jobs through sterile formal channels is NOT how you get hired for a good job, no matter how good of a resume you craft. I’ve had people tell me “I’ve applied to over 500 jobs online and I rarely get a call back and I haven’t had a single offer, they must have something against the military.”—No, they have nothing against the military. You have just been wasting your time all along. That is simply not how anyone gets a good job! More on how you do get a good job (networking) later.

2. You are institutionalized.

You may recognize that you’ve been institutionalized if you’ve been in for 20+ years, or may be in denial about it if you think you haven’t been in long enough, but the reality is that you are almost certainly institutionalized. Look at how you dress. How you look. How you stand. How you walk together. Down to the G-Shock watches on your wrists and Skilcraft pens in your hands. I can identify a military person in a crowd of civilians nearly every time. That may not necessarily be an entirely bad thing, but realize that it means you have been institutionalized. The sooner you realize this, the sooner you can be self aware about what traits you need to keep and what traits you need to quickly drop.

3. The good things about being institutionalized by the military.

  • You are a team player.
  • You have tactical initiative. Meaning, that if given a project and a clear objective/mission, you will take the initiative to get it done. You’ll even knock down a few walls in the process to get there. That’s great.
  • You are disciplined. You show up on time, often early. If you say you’re going to do something, you can be counted to do it. Many civilians aren’t like this. Get used to it.
  • You care about the organization’s success, perhaps even more than your own success. Many civilians don’t. Get used to it.
  • You have ethics. You won’t lie, cheat, or steal. Most civilians won’t either, but it happens more in the private sector than it does in the military. Get used to that as well.

4. The bad things about being institutionalized by the military.

a) You are terrible at networking.

This will hurt you both in launching your new career and in being successful in your new career. Networking is how business gets done, and most of you don’t even know what networking actually means. It is a fatal disadvantage.

b) You lack strategic initiative.

You’ve always had a mission statement, or at least a unit mission. You’ve probably even had a mission statement available two levels up. Your military specialty and tasks are all defined in some neat publication somewhere. Short of a 3 or 4 Star level, the military does not expect (nor possibly even want) its members to come up with truly strategic initiative on their own. If you think you have, you may not even know what one is. This is a painfully underdeveloped skill in our military leaders.

c) You don’t question things enough.

You’ve learned to accept idiotic orders and policies. You often just pass them on because “orders are orders” or “policy is policy” and you’ve learned from unfortunate trial and error in your early days in the military that they’re often not battles worth fighting over. You’re better off just “putting up” with these small idiotic procedures so you can still accomplish “what’s important.”

What this has led to is military leaders who routinely act on idiotic policies and have lost the instinct to say “wait a minute, why are we doing this? Let’s do something different.” This is because in the military “not rocking the boat” and following orders is the reward structure which facilitates your progression. You’ve learned that you will be rewarded if you stop challenging poor decision making. However, in the private sector, stopping stupid practice and instituting better practices is how you get ahead. It is the polar opposite environment, and many people from the military never adapt to this new incentive structure and culture reality. Even if it sounds appealing “yea, I’ve always wanted that environment,” you probably don’t realize how ingrained it has become in you to not question and to just deal with idiotic policies as a coping mechanism. You almost certainly are underestimating how ingrained it has unfortunately become in you.

d) You are stuck thinking in your lane. 

Your whole career you have been taught to think in your lane. “Stick to your pay grade.” “Stick to your what you’re qualified to do.” The result is always having a narrow and small view. This is another consequence of lacking strategic initiative. Here is a parable to help illustrate:

  • Say you’re a Department Head in the Navy. The head of Naval Operations visits your ship and asks you “tell me, how would you improve our organization?” Your instinct would be to tell this 4 Star Admiral about things like improving the night shift organization of your Department, or maybe some gadgets that you guys need to be slightly more efficient, or maybe some nuance changes to your training course to help prepare future junior officers for the specific job you are doing. The 4-Star would give you a pat on the back, and so would the intermediate chain of command, because good job … you stayed in your lane. You just talked about your job. In fact, doing anything else didn’t even cross your mind!
  • Alternatively, think of yourself as a middle manager working at Facebook. The CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, visits your department and asks how you can improve the organization. Instead of talking about boring and irrelevant details of your mundane job, you pull out your notes of how to make Facebook better for the entire world, how Facebook can branch out into other adjacent spaces while still remaining within its brand, and your observations of how to improve the entire hiring and promotion process across the company. Mr. Zuckerberg is intrigued by your ideas and either pulls you in to work directly with him, or gives you the equivalent of a 5 pay grade promotion because he realizes that you are capable far beyond your current title.
  • The difference is that in the military, your opinions are oppressed. If you are an E-5, nobody wants you to express your opinion on decisions that are reserved for an O-5. You are trained to only think on a local, tactical level. You can’t be promoted any faster anyway, and if you give ideas above your pay grade, many in your chain of command would be upset because it challenges the cultural assignment of lanes. This has been so institutionalized in you that you haven’t just stopped expressing bigger ideas, but stopped thinking about them. That part of the brain has been effectively de-activated. It is a tragedy that destroys creativity and innovation. To bring these skills sets back will require a lot of self-reflection, honest introspection, and practice.

e) You don’t know how to market yourself and are afraid to stand out. 

Guess what? Standing out is now the name of the game! If you want the same boring low paying job everybody else has, then look and act like everybody else. Looking like everyone else is exactly what you’ve been taught to do in the military. If you want a high performance track that allows you to excel based on your abilities, then you have to stand out. You have to market yourself. The military institutionalization of not marketing yourself and not standing out is very strong. You may feel that your ability to stand out has been just temporarily silenced, but in reality it has likely been killed. You will have to learn these skills from scratch, or perhaps for the first time. If you are in denial about this, then your institutionalization may be beyond repair. Discomfort in standing out and marketing oneself is another fatal flaw for many transitioning.

f) You’ve embraced a culture of mediocrity. 

When I first joined the military, I was always trying to do my best. Never at anyone else’s expense, but I always strove to perform at my personal best. By the time I was a Captain going through military education, I would routinely get “What are you going for class honor grad or something?”—it was clearly meant as an insult, but I never understood why trying to perform my best was so offensive to others. I came to learn it was because anybody who stood out made the rest of the group look bad. Anybody who wasn’t mediocre, anybody who went above and beyond the “standards” risked shining a light onto the laziness of the rest of the tribe. The tribe therefore tries to always do two things; 1) bring down anybody who is outperforming so that there are no “stars” and nobody looks bad, and 2) bring up anybody who is underperforming, so that there are no “failures” in the class, and no questions asked. Everybody starts and everybody finishes. Nobody looks good and nobody looks bad. Sounds good? That is a culture of mediocrity, and it pervades every bone of military culture. Whether it’s good for military culture or not can be a separate debate, but realize it’s terrible for your civilian career; companies want A-players, not mediocre people.

g) You’ve embraced a culture of anti-intellectualism. 

The military is extremely anti-intellectual, partly because it values mediocrity and conformity. When I tried to excel and perform well, I was constantly told “What are you, some kind of smart guy?” I couldn’t reconcile this question, as it was clearly meant as an insult, but I never thought that being smart was a negative characteristic, yet in the military being smart is sometimes an insult. People liked to say “I didn’t major in math” in response to not being able to perform basic arithmetic. It’s a humorous attempt to deflect the painful fact they lack very basic analytical skills. Not knowing basic mathematics is unfortunately funny in the military, but tragic in the private sector.

Similarly, senior military leaders will often deprecate themselves, which may be a good trait, but notice that what they say is often anti-intellectual in nature. For example, a General may say “I’m not the smartest person in the room” or go even further to say “I’m probably the least intelligent person in the room.” But do you really want the CEO of your company to promote how dumb they are? Do you want the President of the United States bragging about how unintelligent he is? Why in the world would you want this? This may be intended as a joke, but it sets the tone from the top that not being smart is some sort of acceptable charming characteristic, as opposed to a fatal flaw. Your corporate leader may not be the smartest person in the room (they are often just the best networker in the room), but you certainly don’t want corporate leaders who promote being dumb as a badge of honor. Be careful before you joke around about how un-intellectual you are … civilians will just believe you really are.

Epilogue: So how do you get a good job? NETWORKING.

And guess what, you are all terrible at it. Unfortunately, you probably don’t know what networking actually means, even if you think you do. Let’s get into it …

  • Networking is not about asking people for favors; that is being a parasite, not a good networker. Networking is about building rapport and long term relationships with people who understand you and can help you, and that you can help them. A network is something you give and take into. You probably have relationships with a handful of people who fit this criteria, but you should strive for a network of hundreds if not thousands.
  • The simple rule of successful networking is this: you know you are networking properly if people bring opportunities to you. Some of the greatest breaks I have had in my career came from people in my network coming to me and saying “hey, I heard about this great opportunity and I think it would be perfect for you. Would you like me to make an introduction?”
  • Imagine this scenario to better illustrate:

You are a ground commander or liaison in Afghanistan and you are responsible for a certain piece of terrain which has insurgent activity. There are things you will want to know, such as who the bad guys are, who supports them, where they cache IEDs, etc. You likely have an idea of who knows this valuable information (i.e. tribal elders, merchants, etc.). So what do you do? Do you wait until an IED kills somebody on your team and then go introduce yourself to the tribal elders for the first time and demand they help you with information? How do you think they would react? They don’t even know you, what you represent, and would scared to cooperate with you. Good luck. You’ll get nothing. However, an alternative is to have introduced yourself to the key people upon arriving in country, and to have been introduced to them from a trusted intermediary, perhaps the outgoing commander through a “warm intro” as opposed to a cold visit. You would then build rapport with them over time. Build them wells, do medical support, be seen, be known, listen, etc. Then when an IED goes off, maybe they will find a way to get you the information you need before you even reach out to them, because they know you, they know they can trust you, and they know what you need.

  • Business networking is not unlike the above. Networking is not about reaching out to people asking for favors. You’ll get blown off and gain a bad reputation quickly. It is about contributing to your network, helping your network, curating your network over many years, and being known for something, so when the opportunity comes up for your network to help you, they will.
  • Given the investment that must be made to build a strong network, you may be realizing now that you are unfortunately years, if not decades behind on this whole networking thing, and it is a huge detriment … but it’s not too late to start.
  •  So why are military people so bad at networking?

1) Our jobs are always given to us. We don’t have to be proactive about reaching out and blazing our own careers. In fact, doing so is actively discouraged. The central authoritarian, essentially socialist nature of the military bureaucratic structure has atrophied career initiative in most military members. It has gotten to the point where caring about your career can be seen as a negative thing, being a “careerist.” This is in exact opposition to your civilian peers, who have had to compete in a dog-eat-dog world out there their whole career. They have no career managers who offer them jobs (even bad ones). They’ve had to learn to survive and thrive based on their network and networking skills. You are beginning your new career with a huge disadvantage, and if you don’t catch up quickly, you will be left behind and never recover.

2) There is a perception that networking does very little to help your military career, so most don’t practice networking. You are always taught that “just perform and stick to your own lane and you’ll be taken care of.” However, that is really not true in the military (sorry to break it to you if it’s news), and it’s certainly not true in the private sector. I assure you that our Generals and most senior enlisted did not reach their position just because they sat around waiting for their career manager to make them the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff. They have figured out networking, and if you want to have any kind of success in the private sector, you do too.

Practical networking tips

  • Connect with everyone you meet on LinkedIn. Also use RallyPoint, especially if you are still in the military.
  • Seek out, develop, and make use of mentors.
  • Have mentors from different sectors. Just choosing 3 past commanding officers is not good enough. Choose people that don’t look and think like you. Introduce and value intellectual diversity in your life.
  • Follow up 1-2 times a year with people that are important to you, even if they have nothing to do with what you need at this phase in your life. Keep your old mentors updated on what you’re doing and trying to do. Invest time in people worth knowing. Help them whenever you can. Make sure they know what you are going through and what you are working on.
  • Add people that you respect to your network by writing them after you’ve connected at a conference, an event, or at dinner. Work actively to retain them in your network. You should first be thinking of how you can help them, not the other way around. Enrich the lives of people in your network, and the network will be there when you need it.
  • Reach out to people and ask for 15 minute chats (either in person or on the phone). Don’t be afraid of rank difference (either literal or figurative). Rank doesn’t make a difference. This little 2 minute video by Steve Jobs holds a powerful message about this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CThPfG9ag9E

Find people you want to be like, or seem to have “figured it out” and write a brief message “Hi, I really admire how you have done XYZ. I’m a transitioning military officer and would love to learn more about your experience and get your advice. Would you mind doing a quick call?” Then do a 15 minute call where you just ask questions about them and their career choices. Don’t ask for a job. Don’t ask for a favor. Just let them talk about themselves. You will learn a lot from their experience, and if they can help you, they will initiate the help on their own. Pro tip: Don’t send an initial email to an executive that can’t fit on one iPhone screen because they’re likely not going to even start reading it. Sending these messages out from your phone is a good way to ensure you don’t violate this communication rule.

  • Networking tips summary: Get out your comfort zone. Meet people who challenge your way of thinking, and thank them for it. Invest time to retain those people in your circles and to provide help where you can … it will be personally enriching, and just maybe professionally enriching some day as well.

There is a lot to consider in this article. It is the summary of many years of learning and working with hundreds of transitioning military folks. If it challenges some of your assumptions or way of thinking, don’t be afraid to explore those emotional and intellectual challenges. Keep an open mind, and always continue to learn.

1 comment

  • Hi,  

        I wanted to let you know this is a fantastic article.  I'm a transitioning military officer getting my MBA from UCLA Anderson.   I can't say I agree with everything you wrote, but one of the reasons I'm getting out is the rewarding of mediocrity and that rigid rank structure that prevents the best from shining or the worst from failing.   Just this last FITREP cycle a quote from my CO, "I have to give you the worst ranking because you are getting out."  I haven't even submitted my letter yet!  

      Anyway just wanted to let you know I really enjoyed this article and to use your advice right away - would you be available for a quick discussion about your transition from the military and what you are doing now.  

    Thanks,
    Saunak Shah

Ask a Question or Leave a Reply

The author Military to Business gets email notifications for all questions or replies to this post.

Some HTML allowed. Keep your comments above the belt or risk having them deleted. Signup for a Gravatar to have your pictures show up by your comment.