Veterans are trained to be trainable, and as service members are expected to continuously learn and develop — they master adaptability
Author’s Note: I have had the chance to work with a unique example of everything I’m advocating below. The Wyakin Foundation believes that by serving and sacrificing in the name of our safety and freedom, veterans have earned the right — not to a handout — but to our very best efforts to assist in re-purposing their values and talents toward a successful and fulfilling civilian future. They measure their success by individual Warrior victories and accomplishments. There have been many. Please check out www.wyakin.org
With nearly 1.3 million active-duty troops, and another 865,000 in armed forces reserves, the U.S. boasts one the largest military forces on the planet. And this fighting force is less than 0.5 percent of the American population.
Many Americans outside of the military have little exposure to the skills and experience veterans acquire during their service. This lack of exposure can become a challenge as veterans look to re-enter the workforce and as prospective employers look to hire valuable talent (especially as it is now in short supply).
The primary challenge is awareness, since much of the population is not routinely exposed to the military. Because of this gap between the military and the citizens it serves, common perceptions of military service are often distorted, especially when those perceptions are formed through portrayals in movies or on the news.
I want to try to quell those misconceptions. Service members and veterans will benefit, but so will companies that may be underutilizing a skilled and loyal talent pool.
Veterans Are Trained to be Trainable
From the moment they join, service members are expected to continuously learn and develop. Service members must master the art of adaptability, from learning how to follow orders and complete specified tasks to knowing when to take initiative and bear responsibility — all in an environment where improvisation is key and individual roles may shift from day to day.
Lots of training occurs on the fly, as service members find themselves charged with new responsibilities in different environments.
Take, for example, young infantry soldiers. When they enter the military, they’re trained in basic tactics and techniques. However, when they hit the ground, they may be responsible for doing humanitarian relief, for peace-keeping operations or for instructing other military organizations on tactics and how to act professionally.
These roles require a broad set of skills, ranging from employing weapons systems to earning trust and building relationships. A company looking for both capable and adaptable employees — especially a company that may lack the resources to provide extensive training or simulations to develop this flexibility — will do well to consider veterans.
Veterans Are Trained Leaders
Thanks in part to this wide range of roles and responsibilities, service members often achieve the kind of big-picture perspective that is key to being an effective leader. They do so relatively early in their careers. These “junior” leaders become cross-functional at a very early age.
Military careers often provide a broad set of experiences, some of which many wouldn’t necessarily have chosen. Such experiences may not normally occur until much later in most careers — and in many circumstances, not until eventually reaching the C-suite.
In addition, many service members have plenty of experience formally overseeing and developing others. By their early 20s, many of these service members are responsible for the training and deploying of teams, as well as the well being of subordinates. They are often accountable for millions of dollars in equipment.
The notion that these early experiences can translate to leadership success in the corporate world is consistent with research by Northwestern University Kellogg finance professors Efraim Benmelech and Carola Frydman.
They found that firms that are run by CEOs with military experience actually perform better under pressure than those run by other CEOs. Also, CEOs with a military background are 70 percent less likely to engage in corporate fraud than CEOs without a military background.
Veterans Learn Selflessness Early
In adapting to the military life, service members learn early to set aside their personal interests for the greater good of the team. They are trained to think and act with a bias toward improving the entire organization.
When veterans leave the military, they are not likely to leave this attitude behind. Witnessing what people and teams can achieve with trust, and being part of an organization that puts self-interest aside and focuses on achieving an objective leaves a mark.
Interestingly, this selfless mindset can actually work against veterans in the earliest stages of building a career in the civilian world. That’s because veterans are often unaware of this bias and reluctant to promote their own capabilities.
(Interestingly, this selfless mindset can actually work against veterans in the earliest stages of building a career in the civilian world. That’s because veterans are often reluctant to promote their own capabilities.)
Veterans Know How to Take Advantage of Constructive Criticism
The military relies heavily on after-action reviews (AAR): debriefings used to analyze a mission afterward by assessing what happened and determining what can be done to improve future outcomes. These reviews can be brutal, but the rigors of the AAR also make veterans adept at utilizing constructive criticism.
A sort of AAR has also become a useful tool for many companies. Periodically assessing whether a project or process was successful and how it could have been improved offers a good development opportunity. It also exposes employees early and often to opportunities to find blind spots, and to learn from their own mistakes and the mistakes of others.
Constructive criticism helps to build trust in an organization. All can learn to have that candid conversation: “I had a shortcoming. I did something wrong. You’ve done something wrong. Now let’s figure how to fix it.”
Translating and Imagining What Service Members Can Do
If service members tend to be highly trainable, personally responsible, selfless, and good at taking criticism, why do many of them have trouble attracting the attention of hiring managers?
The main reasons seem to revolve around:
- Many veterans don’t view their experience as being unique or impressive, which makes it difficult to sell potential employers on that experience. Service members look to the left and to the right and think: “That’s what everybody around me has done.”
- Hiring managers are often unfamiliar with military structure and struggle to understand the various roles and responsibilities service members hold during their careers. When somebody sees “platoon leader” or “section sergeant” on a resume, it’s not intuitive what that is and what it fully encompasses.
On the other side, veterans could benefit by becoming familiar with corporate terms and “civilianizing” their work history, as well becoming more proficient and assertive storytellers of their experiences.
For their part, employers can familiarize themselves with the military so that conversations with veterans result in a clearer picture of their abilities. One effective way to do that is to bring veterans into the hiring process. When they hear that someone was a first sergeant, they know what it took to become and what it means to be first sergeant. It also avoids having to go back and talk about 15 years of a career to understand.
Bill Wade started Wade&Partners in 2003 as a consultant specializing in worldwide vehicle parts aftermarket and industrial distribution. Previously, he was CEO of Durakon, FAG/INA Bearings, CR Services/SKF. Wade states that he lives in a barn and has taught the finer points of shark fishing (and cooking) to three children and eight grandchildren. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org