The Power of Purpose for Transitioning Veterans

This Friday will mark my first Veterans Day as a member of the prestigious class of people who call themselves, “Veterans.”  It will be the first Veterans Day since I was 18 years old where I didn’t have an Army Active Duty Service Obligation (ADSO) dictating what I will do, when I will do it and where it must be done.  Oftentimes, when I was serving on active duty, I imagined that glorious day when I would grab my DD-214 Honorable Discharge paperwork and, like Charlie Bucket sprinting home in absolute glee, that it would be the Golden Ticket. It was the breaker of chains, the winning lottery ticket and the port key all rolled into one that would take me to a magical place called, “the Civilian World.”  However, the more realistic description would be comparing it to your high school or college graduation when you’re handed that diploma; it’s exciting at first, as it feels as though the ceiling has been lifted and the possibilities are endless, but then in sets the anxiety, uncertainty and fear of the unknown.

The Army has made great strides at attempting to help us translate our skills and competencies to assist with career transition. That’s step one. For some of us, we stop at step one, and we transition into unsatisfying roles. Step two is the most important piece of all and, from my own experience and those with whom I’ve served, is overlooked, or, at best, underdeveloped.  Step two is knowing your passion, finding your purpose and seeking employment with a company whose purpose matches your own.

Through this blog post, I’m hoping to convey through my own story how difficult it can be to transition.  Hopefully, I can shed some light for other veterans who may be reading to help them avoid some of the pitfalls and potentially find purpose and happiness in their next profession.  Second, this post will provide some tips for hiring veteran job seekers and managing veteran employees.

The Anxiety is Real

After seven moves, living in the Deep South and a deployment in our six years in the Army, my wife and I decided we were ready for the next chapter in our lives. Although we really enjoyed being part of that community, we had served and sacrificed together and moving on was the best shot we had at both of us reaching our full potential. Making that decision was a tough – albeit correct – decision, but it was only the beginning of the whirlwind that was to come.

Moving, by itself, is difficult and stressful enough.  When my service ended, we moved from upstate, rural New York – literally five miles from Canada – to the heart of Chicago.  On top of that, I didn’t have a job lined up, and I was giving up the life I knew and a rewarding career I really enjoyed.  I spent over five years at the same “company,” progressing through the ranks and building a reputation. As an officer, people you outrank call you “Sir,” salute you as you walk by, and, I like to think, I was a trusted advisor to high ranking individuals in the world’s most powerful Army.  So, to go from that to being unemployed, not being invited to interview at every place I applied and receiving rejections from companies was a difficult pill to swallow. It was a low point. It was tough.

veterans day 2

The next struggle came once I started actually receiving offers and accepting employment. I started to alter my expectations, accepting that I wasn’t going to find the “right job,” and that I just needed to find the job for right now. I figured as long as I was making enough money to live comfortably and was gaining experience to help me achieve my desired professional goals, I would be content.  It would be fine.  I just figured millions of people go to work each day unhappy, or, at best, content with their employment, so I thought I just needed to continue to adjust expectations.  I wasn’t in a bad job, but something was missing.  Being grateful for a positon and opportunity doesn’t make it the right opportunity, and it doesn’t mean you’re going to be happy.

It was back to the drawing board.  After making an extensive list (my wife, Jordan, loves lists!) of what I was looking for in my career, it all led to one thing: purpose.

In the military, we are fulfilled with the triumvirate of intrinsic motivation – purpose, mastery and autonomy – discussed in Daniel Pink’s theory in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  For most, those three factors are of the utmost importance to happiness and production, but I think it’s even more so true for the veteran job seeker and employee.  As most positions either call for mastery or they don’t and largely will depend on the individual, I’ll focus on the ideas of purpose and autonomy for veterans and employers.

Purpose

Transitioning out of the military can be a rocky road and despite the difficult and often grueling demands and conditions of the military career, we’re left with a gap seemingly impossible to fill. The comradery, the structure, and, above all else, the purpose and nobility are inherent in the profession, and it’s difficult to patently replicate in the civilian world. There are few professions where those are an added perk to the job. I could be at a dinner or event and mention the “company” for which I worked, and people would thank me. That was certainly never necessary, and although most would prefer not hearing that at all, it’s definitely better than the alternative. Regardless of one’s politics, whether you agreed or disagreed with a political party or the President of the United States, or regardless of how bad the work day may have been, the base of our cause and purpose is noble; we sign up and swear oaths to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

If your company lives and breathes its core values and purpose, veteran employees would thrive in the environment and embrace them as well.

Although I struggled at first, I quickly realized how important the purpose piece of the trifecta was. Fortunately, I was able to find a home at Medix.  When I was on the job search, I was shocked to see that most companies weren’t operating this way.  To have found a company that truly believes in its purpose above all else, makes the work I do more important and life more fulfilling. In the military, there were difficult times.  There were tough assignments. There were annoyances and almost insane levels of bureaucracy, but at the end of the day, the core purpose was there. My role in the massive machine was important. My work had value beyond money and myself.

Vets: Seek companies that reflect your values and live by a purpose in which you believe.

Employers: If you pride yourself in your purpose, most veteran job seekers possess the grit and understanding and level of buy-in which you might be seeking.

Autonomy

Everyone is groomed to lead.

One common misconception of the military is that we take orders and we follow. That’s only half true. For most of us, we are outranked by some and outrank others. For those we outrank, we’re expected from the very beginning to take initiative and lead.  Regardless whether the veteran was an officer or enlisted member, he or she likely supervised at least two to three people, but potentially up to 30 to 40 people as early as 18-24 months in the job.  A service member with four to seven years’ experience may have as few as 15 to 30 people under him or her, but may even have up to 150 people whom they lead and supervise.  Considering that, at seven years in service, an enlisted service member could be as young as 24 or 25 years old, that’s impressive and often overlooked. For better or worse, the mentality to a large degree is, “up or out” because they’re in the business of creating and shaping the next round of leaders. Either you’re able to lead and make an impact at the next level, or you’ll be phased out.  Most veterans have likely been placed in positions of great responsibility in a sink or swim environment, and, at worst, they learned invaluable lessons. At best, they succeeded.

Vets: Continue to seek opportunities to lead, but understand that leaders must also adapt. Certain styles and methods might be discouraged, but the overall goal and influence of being a leader remains the same.

Employers: Leadership styles, leadership presence and leading by example are commonly discussed and assessed in the military. This is invaluable and second nature to veterans. With hiring a veteran, you at least have the guarantee that he or she has extensive exposure to these ideals and principals. Openly discuss their experience with them and see how you can leverage it to better your team and the company.

Feedback

There have been several books and articles lately regarding managing Millennials. Most of them conclude that Millennials need constant praise and feedback.  Veterans, on the other hand, don’t necessarily need the constant praise and “handholding”; with vets, it’s all about clear expectations, sporadic spot-checks and honest, structured counseling and feedback sessions.

In the Army, individuals are given an initial counseling, which clearly defines their duties and their supervisor’s expectations of them.  The mentality is, “If you don’t tell me your expectations, I can’t surpass them, let alone meet them.” After, counseling occurs at least quarterly, ending with a capstone official evaluation report. The biggest complaint for nearly every service member is that they’re dinged for deficiencies on an annual evaluation that were never addressed in a monthly or quarterly counseling.

Vets: Seek review sessions, and let your employer know that you’re used to constructive criticism and that if you’re deficient, you want to know about it.

Employers: When managing veterans, do not be afraid to counsel and discuss performance. They don’t need praise left and right; they want to be guided and developed.

Train Up Front and Step Back

In the military, anytime we go into a new role, we have the, “left seat/right seat ride” – which is full-on training and shadowing for up to two weeks. The first week is the “crawl phase” where he or she shadows. The second week is the “walk phase” where they’re doing the job mostly on their own while receiving on-the-spot feedback. After that, the Army works in “end states” and “leader’s intent.” Provide the left and right limits of a task or project, provide your intended outcome and provide what “complete” looks like, and allow them to make it happen.  Despite popular belief, micromanagement is exceedingly rare in the military.

Wrap Up

Transitioning for veterans is a life changing event.  Fortunately for me, my spouse had a great career; she was patient and understanding, and we don’t have any children. I didn’t have the crushing weight of failing to provide for a family. I had a support system in which the majority of transitioning service members do not have.  I had this safety net and it was still an incredibly trying time.  I strongly encourage transitioning veterans to begin to find their passion and seek companies that legitimately promote purpose over profits.

Additionally, the military has developed a number of resources to assist transitioning service members find a career. Among other benefits, they help service members translate their skills for civilian employers. For those employers looking to try to better meet transitioning vets halfway, every major Army installation has what’s called Soldier for Life-Transition Assistance Program (SFL-TAP) offices. A simple online search would help you locate the nearest SFL-TAP to learn more about translating skills, discussing your company’s positions and career opportunities and potentially getting involved in career fairs for members and their spouses.

To all those who have served, thank you for your service.

John McGuire currently serves as Medix’s Corporate Counsel, Risk Manager. John began his military career as an Armor officer at Fort Benning, Georgia, and eventually transferred to the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps. John served in a number of roles as an attorney in the JAG Corps while stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Fort Drum, New York, where he deployed to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division.

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