By Vera Steiner Blore
Military leaders and the troops they lead take pride in their ability to handle every situation, no matter how challenging. They get the job done and believe failure is not an option. As a result, many servicemembers assume the same will hold true when it comes time to transition into the civilian workforce; they simply will determine their objectives and get it done.
While this strategy will work for some, others find the military-to-civilian transition to be a more unsettling process. To make the best of things, recognize you don't have to fly solo. Connect with mentors who can coach you through the process. Reach out to other professionals to tap their experience, insights, and knowledge.
Obstacles in sight
Before you can bridge some of the tough topics of a successful transition, keep in mind these common stumbling blocks:
- The difficulty leaving behind a military career and culture that has been such a central part of your personal and professional life.
- The thousands of military and civilian colleagues competing for the same pool of available jobs.
- The switch from “service before self” to “selling yourself.” You are expected to leave behind the mindset of “us” for one in which you must market yourself as the best candidate for the job. This does not mean simply highlighting past responsibilities and resources you marshaled; instead, you will need to articulate effectively the specific skills and talents you will bring to a prospective employer that will positively affect the bottom line or help achieve the agency's goals and objectives in the future.
- Taking full ownership of decisions the military previously made for you, such as where you will live and the kind of job you will do. Upon separation from military service, your (and your family's) needs will drive the decision-making process and determine which factors have highest priority.
- Standing outside of the military infrastructure and broader military family for the first time in a long while. There always was some uncertainty in your military career, but the military “umbrella” provided sufficient security - both personally, financially, and professionally - to keep things manageable.
- The effects of freedom of choice. It can be freeing to feel empowered to make independent career choices; others may experience “analysis paralysis” as they find the open-ended nature of this major career and life change overwhelming.
Military officers and veterans shouldn't allow these factors to force a quick retreat. The more productive approach is to let your network coach you in the right direction. For example, you might want to:
- Join professional associations. Membership associations, both military- and veteran-related as well as those in civilian fields of interest, provide excellent networking opportunities and offer ways to increase your visibility as you search for your next job.
- Contact college career offices. It might have been a while since you graduated from college, graduate school, or a service academy; nonetheless, many of these career offices are able to assist alumni as they plan for career transition.
- Seek out informational interviews. These informal conversations provide a way to explore possible career paths and acquire information outside of the formal interview process. Use this strategy to reconnect with former colleagues who are currently in a field of interest to you or to open a door to a prospective employer.
- Conduct online research. There is a wealth of information online about people, companies, industries, and organizations. Do your homework in advance, so you can avoid wasting time during an in-person conversation with questions that are easily answered through a quick online search. For example, you can use the LinkedIn company search feature to learn about private-sector firms of interest; Guidestar is a good source of information about nonprofit organizations.
- Take a service-sponsored transition course. These courses are a good first step; unfortunately, though the course binder likely will remain on your desk, it might not provide ongoing motivation.
One of the best strategies is connecting with a career advisor, consultant, or coach. While no one can do all the hard work on your behalf, a good career advisor can help you:
- identify your civilian career goals and work with you to eliminate real or perceived barriers in your way;
- plan your post-military job-search strategy and serve as an objective sounding board as you weigh your options and consider career alternatives;
- develop a thoughtful approach to negotiate your salary and benefits;
- adapt to an entirely new set of workplace expectations and unwritten cultural norms;
- fine-tune your professional social media presence, a critical component of today's job-search process;
- shape your personal brand - what makes you the one to hire? - and
- stand out from your military and civilian competition.
You won't have to look far to find a high-quality career transition professional. MOAA's Military Executive Transition (MET) workshop includes five hours of follow-on, one-on-one career guidance from an experienced career-management consultant who will work with you to address your specific career-transition needs.
Kevin Redman, a recent MET attendee, says, “The career-management advice I received ... was invaluable. The expert guidance I received helped me to weigh competing offers and negotiate a higher starting salary.”
Don't go it alone on your military-to-civilian transition journey. The right career advisor will have your six and stand ready to guide you, every step of the way.
Vera Steiner Blore is an executive career consultant who works with senior military leaders in transition. She is the author of "Success in Your New Mission: A Guide for Senior Military Leaders in Transition."