Veterans: Thank you for your service to our country. As a civilian, I am grateful for the sacrifices you and your family made to ensure my freedom. One way I show my appreciation is by helping you make the service-to-civilian transition. Here, are my five tips to competing effectively in the civilian world.
1. Competitiveness requires talking about yourself
We civilians talk about our accomplishments and how we can provide value to our clients and employers. Self-promotion is familiar to us. We have learned that if we can’t articulate our worth and personal brand, we are at a competitive disadvantage and can be easily passed over or seen as irrelevant.
Veterans: Take inventory of your offer, talents and how you can add value to your employer or client. When someone asks, “Tell me about yourself,” have an answer that focuses on your talents and value in a way that is unique and compelling.
2. Civilian culture is vastly more varied than the military
A financial firm on Wall Street has different formality and protocols than a Silicon Valley tech start up, where people come to work in shorts and sandals. A construction company in Boise will not has the same feel as an engineering firm in Houston. Because civilians have not experienced your background in service, we might perceive your formality as rigid and off-putting. Similarly, you might see our team building and on-boarding processes as fluid and inconsistent.
Veterans: Inventory your skills and preferences, then decide what kind of culture and environment appeals to you. Do you like wearing a uniform (or business suit)? Are you more free-spirited and innovative? Do you like to work outdoors or in an office? These answers will help determine the kind of company culture where you will fit in best and be most successful.
3. Collaboration is key
Civilian cultures value deliberation, inclusiveness and input from stakeholders at multiple levels in the organization. While you might have the title of “director,” you may be asked to solicit input from subordinates (who have less experience) so everyone feels included and sold on the output of decisions.
Veterans: In a civilian job you may be asked to lead a project where you sit in multiple team meetings and discussions. Goals and objectives are reviewed, options and risk are evaluated, then the team builds a strategy. More meetings will follow to discuss and review the project. After a time, the team may decide not to continue the project. This will be frustrating for you, as you are trained in the military to execute a mission at all costs.
4. Dress code
In a civilian company, you cannot tell someone’s rank by what they are wearing. Dress code is vague and inconsistent across industries, geography and company cultures. While a business suit is dress code in New York City, you’ll look like an IRS agent if you wear a suit to a technology firm in San Francisco.
Veterans: Understand the company dress code by asking and observing. Watch how people at that company appear. Your goal is to present yourself with confidence and appropriateness.
I wish I could say that every civilian company operated on the same values you learned in the United States Armed Forces. There are companies who frame posters boldly professing values of “Leadership, Integrity and Teamwork” and operate far short of those ideals.
Veterans: Seek out companies that have clearly articulated values and that live those values. They will align most closely with the commitment and integrity you are accustomed to. You will see their values in how they hire, on board and retain employees (especially veterans), how they present themselves to clients, the community and stakeholders, and their reputation in the industry.
The transition from military to civilian is fraught with fear. While I have not walked in your boots, I have years of experience working with former military. The path to success in the civilian workforce requires both that hiring managers understand how to relate to you and you clearly seeing the world you are entering.