3 Strategies to Help Tech Startups Add Veterans to Their Workforces
Many veterans don't know what they're looking for in private-sector jobs, let alone long-term careers, and that's one area where startups can lend them additional support.
Microsoft expects technology jobs will increase fivefold in the next five years. That’s 190 million new jobs created. The challenge many companies will face is how to possibly hire enough people to meet that demand. Furthermore, many of those jobs will occur in startups. How can startup companies meet their hiring needs? One answer could be hiring skilled veterans.
We overlook that startups need entirely different kinds of employees than large companies do. Established companies look for steady and dependable hires who can maintain a profitable market segment. Startups, on the other hand, have little to no market, structure or product. They need visionaries: People who can learn fast, handle ambiguity and figure things out on their own.
Startups need adapters, and you know who's great at making quick decisions under pressure? Military veterans. In the field, they’ve learned how to rapidly collaborate with a team to meet moving objectives. They understand how to pivot and make quick decisions, often under extreme pressure.
Veterans have amazing leadership and problem-solving skills. What they sometimes lack are clear pathways to high-paying technical careers. I lead a tech startup that provides free technical skilling and job connections to veterans, so I can attest that our veteran students often already possess the agility they need in order to be great fits for startups. They just need the technical skills training and support as they adapt to a new culture.
Making the most of recruitment efforts
We have worked with more than 100 transitioning veterans over the past two years, and what we've realized is that most veterans don't always know what they're looking for in private-sector jobs, let alone long-term careers. That's one area where they can benefit from additional support. Organizations like Microsoft, for example, develop employee resource groups to give veterans a better idea of workplace culture and discuss career trajectories during the first six months to a year at a company.
Given that 44 percent of post-9/11 veterans stayed in their first jobs for a year or less (including 20% who stayed for less than six months), being the company that gives them access to free education and resources can pay off in the long run.
With that in mind, here are three strategies to consider when making the move to add veterans to your team:
1. Discuss culture and support systems during onboarding
We always like to say empathy doesn’t cost much, and it’s very valuable. Why not try it? One area where empathy can make a huge difference is onboarding. We often see onboarding as a process to be completed, but onboarding is actually the start of a relationship.
For example, ManTech International is one company that employs many veterans (47 percent of its ranks, to be exact). The company understands that assimilating to a new culture can be difficult, so they focus on informing new hires about culture and expectations from day one.
While onboarding veterans isn’t all that different from onboarding any other new hire, you should remember that this could be their first job outside the military. We recommend discussing more than just the day-to-day duties of the role — it's just as important to discuss culture and support systems. Ask questions about new hires' past experiences so you can gain perspective and share what's similar or different about the way your organization operates.
For example, ask what their culture was like in the military and who their favorite supervisor was. It’s often better to share culture as a conversation, rather than dictate your culture with veterans. If you give them space to understand your culture and understand their history, you will eventually meet in the middle.
With support systems, we see big results from veteran resource groups (VRGs). VRGs allow veterans to connect with other veterans. If you are a non-military CEO, there will be some things you don’t understand about transitioning from the military. That’s okay. Military members in your network or company can answer questions and provide details to help your new veteran hires with problems such as benefits, promotions, and culture.
2. Provide structure and consistent feedback
Following orders is often a major component of military life. Startups will have to coach their employees that it's okay to work autonomously. It's a good idea to start with small, low-risk projects where they can have total control.
Let your veteran employees make decisions and ask them to provide regular updates so you can share consistent feedback to help guide their future decision-making. This is a good strategy for all hires, but you might need to provide extra encouragement for those who've only followed orders from others in the past. Remind them regularly that they're empowered to solve problems on their own.
It's common to see that veterans know the answer to a problem but don't speak up because it wasn't the culture in the military. For example, we have one alum who, when working in his first job after graduating from our courses, told us he expected a seniority-based system where he did certain tasks for several years and could then formally apply for a promotion. He was pleasantly surprised that he could actually be promoted just for doing good work. He's been promoted several times in only a few years, and now he helps other military veterans transition into the industry.
Another veteran told us that he didn’t trust that he actually had autonomy until his company ran a hackathon to develop apps for accessibility. Teams were given time off work to build the apps. The winning team developed an app that recommended more inclusive word choices — for example, "white list" converted to "allowed list.” Incentivizing autonomous work can help veterans feel empowered to make decisions on their own.
3. Lend support with a hands-on approach
We've often seen that transitioning veterans like people who are consistent in what they say and do.
For example, one student, who has been promoted several times after first struggling to grasp industry culture, shouted out his principal — a boss several levels up — for consistently prodding him to take the initiative. His principal even gave him his cellphone number, so he could ask questions at any time. The student said his boss’s openness made him feel safe trying new things, which has led to his success. It’s very common for successful students to have stories where high-level bosses went above and beyond to make them feel safe.
Another student said that after working in the military, he was afraid to take the initiative because every time he tried to solve a problem, he was met with red tape. He said he fell in love with his organization when it polled him and fellow veterans about their biggest challenges from the military. Within a few weeks of the poll, a high-level executive summarized the polls openly and immediately made changes.
Founders should establish relationships with veterans as with any new hire. Along with simple, frequent check-ins to see whether they have any questions as they get started, plan to have more in-depth check-ins every few months. Ask how new hires feel they're adapting, how their career is progressing, whether the culture is what they expected, and if they're learning what they'd hoped to when they started.
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