10 Truths About the Military Transition Process Employers Need to Understand
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As business owners, we look for key talent to grow our organizations and stay competitive. Today, employers are faced with greater challenges in hiring and retaining talent and may be overlooking a unique and experienced workforce -- the military veteran.
Veterans bring tremendous skills, talents and experience to their civilian careers. While some of their skills and experience has been taught and refined in a different and unique job -- the military -- their talents, characteristics and value-add to the business make them compelling.
Since 2009, I’ve had the honor of working with thousands of transitioning military service members and veterans, helping them translate their valuable skills and talents and tell their stories to civilian employers. In doing so, I’ve learned that while we can focus on experience, certifications and resumes, the actual transition process from the military to a non-military career requires understanding from civilian employers.
By understanding what many veterans experience in their transition, we can better prepare ourselves and our organizations to receive them.
The military-to-civilian transition.
Imagine leaving the comforts of all you know -- the friends you’ve gained and the work you’re trained for -- and starting over in a completely new environment. Now imagine doing that at age 28 or 48. For the transitioning service member, leaving the military after four or 44 years is filled with mixed emotions and varying levels of success. In my experience, while each of these truths may not apply to each veteran, they are typically experienced by most.
1. Fear is real.
Call it apprehension, uncertainty or fear, leaving the familiarity, camaraderie and comfort of a community and systems you’re familiar with isn’t easy. Regardless of why someone leaves the military (retirement, separation, medical discharge, etc.), there is an emotional component to leaving what you raised your hand and swore to uphold and defend and transitioning to a new culture, community and lifestyle.
Many veterans I work with describe the feeling as “fear.” They tell me, “I don’t know what I’m getting into ... I feel unprepared for what comes next... I feel safer staying in uniform.”
2. Lack of transition preparation.
During their time in uniform, service members are trained for many scenarios -- from the mundane to the mission-critical. Their training gives them the confidence to risk everything for the mission and each other.
Now, as they look to leave the military, it’s common to feel unprepared. While the federal “Transition GPS (Goals, Plans, Success)” program (formerly known as “TAP” -- Transition Assistance Program) is designed to prepare service members for life in the civilian world, it can fall short. Some veterans point to the simple capacity issue -- meaning how could you expect to teach someone how to be a civilian in a week or 10 days?
This isn’t meant to be critical of a program that constantly strives to improve its value and service to veterans. This is where we can, as private sector employers, recognize that perhaps there is still a lot of learning to be done after someone is “transitioned.”
3. Choice is paralyzing.
Every month, as I volunteer to teach personal branding in the Transition GPS program at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, the group takes part in an exercise. They are asked to make two lists: (1) What are you most excited about in transitioning? (2) What are you most anxious about?
Every month, I look at those lists before I present, and one word is always on both sides -- choice. Choice is something veterans are excited about. I get to choose what time I get up! I can choose where I live! I can choose what kind of company to work for! It is also something they are riddled with anxiety about. What time do I get up? Where should I live? Who do I want to work for?
To a civilian, choice is often seen as desirable. We prefer to be in control of the choices we can select from. Limitations are not the goal. To a veteran who had limited choices in the military and is now faced with a completely blank, wide-open landscape in front of them, choice can be paralyzing.
4. They don’t want charity.
Years ago, when I began coaching and training veterans on personal branding and reputation management skills, a young soldier offered this comment. “When I leave the Army,” he said, “I don’t need to be in a position of leadership or to be given any charity. I just want a job that I can come home to my family from and know that I did something meaningful.”
While there are certainly veterans who struggle after leaving the military, the veterans I’ve worked with aren’t looking for a handout or charity. They want to contribute, add value, serve and do work that has worth.
5. They want to be liked -- just like we do.
Stoic, brave, fearless. These words are often used by civilians to describe a military veteran. We call them heroes and sometimes forget that, just like all of us, they desire to be accepted, liked and included.
Transitioning from the brotherhood of the military to a culture where established norms, protocols and systems might not seem intuitive can force the veteran to close off any emotional vulnerabilities. They fear looking weak or vulnerable. Lest we forget that the veteran is a man or woman first, and that individual has a heart, feelings, goals, dreams and a desire to be accepted and affirmed just as anyone from any culture, community or country would.
6. They have stories they don’t want to share.
Some blame Hollywood for the glamorization of military service. I’ve heard many veterans say that it’s not uncommon to be asked by a complete stranger -- on an airplane, in a business meeting, on a date -- questions that are too uncomfortable or inappropriate to share. What we see depicted on the silver screen sometimes does reflect real-world military service experience, but it doesn’t mean the veteran wants to talk to you about it.
As civilians, we can assist in this area by learning what is appropriate and what isn’t when starting a conversation with someone from the military. Asking, “What did you do in the Navy?” or “How long did you serve?” are fine. “Have you killed anyone?” is not.
7. They will answer your questions. Be prepared for the truth.
Civilian employers tell me that they are often caught off guard by the truthfulness of the veterans they interview or hire. It’s as if these men and women aren’t skilled in nuance and innuendo. Because they aren’t!
Similar to my advice in the previous bullet point, asking a question in a job interview might yield an honest and uncomfortable answer. An uninformed hiring manager might inquire, “What was the scariest thing you saw during your combat tour?” to which the veteran feels compelled to offer a gruesome, yet noble, story. Service members are taught to answer questions by people in positions of authority. Use this carefully.
8. They prefer directness and candor.
In the military, information needs to be communicated efficiently and effectively, and that requires a directness not typically seen in corporate cultures. Consider this: On the battlefield, it’s not wise for a commanding officer to sit a Staff Sergeant down and discuss next steps, then check in with the Specialist to see how he feels about the mission, and open up a discussion among the other soldiers about what course to take. No, time is of the essence. Quick thinking, problem-solving skills and leadership are required to protect the mission and the lives of the individuals involved.
The level of candor and directness can be off-putting to a civilian who is more accustomed to inference and softer communications.
9. They struggle to translate their experience.
What is a Private First Class in the Army qualified to do when they leave the military? How about a Captain in the Air Force? What’s the difference in ranks among the branches of the military? Did you know there’s a huge difference between officers and enlisted members? Different branches also have commissioned officers, petty officers, warrant officers. The list goes on.
The difference is vast. You may have a Colonel in the Air Force retiring who went to the U.S. Air Force Academy, a very prestigious university, and has an engineering degree who is ready to step into a top management position. While at the same time, there may be an enlisted veteran who joined the service at 18 years old and has been doing a very specific trade their entire military career.
10. They still want to serve.
To commit your time, family, career and sometimes your life to serve your country requires a certain belief system and character. The person who serves believes it is the right thing to do, strives to serve others more than him or herself and chooses to celebrate the group success over individual recognition.
When the uniform comes off, the desire to serve often remains. We see veterans in our community volunteering at all time levels -- mentoring and coaching those leaving the service behind them and pursuing careers where they can leave a meaningful and positive impact on the people and teams they are responsible for.
As a business owner, former corporate executive and civilian, I can tell you we don’t know the half of what someone leaving the military goes through. While they arrive at our companies well-dressed, articulate and with resume in hand, their transition might very much be a work in progress. Hopefully, I’ve illuminated some of what that transition process entails to build better understanding from civilian employers and greater compassion from anyone who has ever had to completely turn their life upside down.