- The Essential Military-to-Civilian Transition Resource

You're in For...What?
by Carolyn Heinze, Contributing Editor

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Article Sponsored by: Waste Management

Change is positive. Change is necessary. Change is difficult. All of this is true - it's the 'difficult' part that is, well... difficult.

At the same time, transitioning into civilian life unlocks an endless supply of opportunities. If you're to take advantage of them, however, it's wise to be prepared for some of the things that veterans go through on the road to building a new life.

Don Orlando, president of The McLean Group, a career coaching firm in Montgomery, Ala., assists high-level officers in making this transition. He notes that one of the biggest surprises veterans face is the finality of their retirement. "The shock is quite great," he says. "You are a member of the military until you get your end-of-tour decoration, and then at the end of the retirement ceremony, you are no longer a member of the military." It can be unhinging, since not only have veterans grown up in a professional culture; being in the military is like being part of a family as well.

Jennifer Mosholder, president and CEO of Leading Org Solutions, a human resources consultancy and career coaching firm based in Highlands Ranch, Colo., reminds us that with change of any kind, people need to go through the process of letting go. With veterans, this translates into giving up the structure that was part of their daily lives in the military. "In the service, there are standards and policies that are pretty black-and-white," she says. "There is the extreme camaraderie that they enjoy as well." Camaraderie and structure may not be as present in the civilian world - at least not at first - and this is a fact that can be difficult to accept.

Your own family is also part of your transition, and Orlando advises married military members to pay attention to the personal aspects of this transformation. "People will say, 'My spouse supported me all these years, and now it's time to support them,'" he illustrates. "It's a good idea to have that conversation." On whose career are you concentrating now - yours, or your spouse's?

Mosholder counsels transitioning military members to explore the community within the workplace, as well as your surroundings in general. "Find support groups - whether it be a community group that you are interested in being a part of, or other military spouses and members who have made that transition," she says. "If you find someone who has gone through the same type of change, you can find that camaraderie." Additionally, don't be shy about asking your potential employer if the organization has support groups in place for those in your position.

Orlando underlines that veterans shouldn't underestimate how significant the difference is between the military and the civilian world on a professional level, either. "The military evaluates its members on the basis of leadership," he says, which leads to the misconception that management and leadership are career fields. "In the private sector, employers hire on the basis of capability - not leadership. Management and leadership are not career fields; they are simply tools."

Orlando counsels veterans to set aside two budgets: one that will, on a financial level, support your job hunt; another that accounts for the time it takes to land a desirable position, an exercise that, in many cases, can take up to a year. While many career coaches warn ex-officers that they should be prepared to begin their stint in the civilian world at the bottom - or close to the bottom - of the ladder, Orlando does not believe this. "The first thing I tell my clients is: 'You have been very successful under very difficult conditions, and you are not required to start at the bottom,'" he emphasizes. However, landing a more desirable position requires forethought and planning, and military members should start thinking about the career field that is right for them well before they enter into retirement. Beyond that, it's a question of return on investment: You must demonstrate that the skills you acquired while in the service are transferable to civilian business, and that you are adept at solving problems. "You are going to be hired as problem solver. The job title could be anything, but you're going to be a problem solver."

Rank - or lack thereof - may also be blurry in many civilian organizations. Civilian professionals don't wear stripes on their sleeves, nor are all high-level executives equal in terms of their competencies. Orlando illustrates a common scenario: "I know who you are, and I know the Navy couldn't possibly have promoted you to the rank of 06 if you were not capable. You couldn't be an executive officer on a destroyer unless you were among the top people. I know that even though I don't know who you are." This doesn't apply to civilian businesses, where promotions are often based on a variety of factors (some not directly related to capability), making it tricky for veterans to determine not only who is in charge of what, but how genuinely qualified those who are in charge may be.

Company policies may be equally confusing, Mosholder points out: "They may find that policies and procedures are more of a gray area," she says. "They're left up to the discretion of the manager versus being laid out in detail, as they would be in the military." She also warns that office politics make Corporate America go 'round: "Individuals might have their own turf, and they may be working on their own agenda. You need to understand the landscape before going in and trusting instantly."

That's not to say that all civilian professionals' abilities or motives should be viewed with skepticism; in many cases, it's quite the opposite. "The good news is, there are some exceptional people in the private sector," Orlando says. "They are exceptional, and they recognize the talent of exceptional military people. They seek them out for good business purposes: they want to work with people who are smart."

A word to the women

Ah, isn't feminism great? In the civilian world, we may have come a long way, baby, but that doesn't mean that female professionals hold the earning power of their male counterparts...yet. Don Orlando, president of The McLean Group, a career coaching firm based in Montgomery, Ala., notes that female veterans may be in for a bit of a surprise when they encounter civilian politics.

"When it comes to equal opportunity, the military has direct oversight from Congress. The cultural mix and the mix between the sexes and equal pay for equal work is absolutely mandated," Orlando says. This isn't always true in the civilian world, where, in some organizations, the glass ceiling still exists. "The earning discrepancies between men and women are still there. It can be a little more of a challenge for female members who are transitioning."

With that said, many companies also seek diversity among their ranks, and most of these employers recognize that the military talent pool is a great source for women and minority hiring. The risk of earning discrepancies should be less at companies who promote a focus on workplace diversity.

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.

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