Connecting Veterans to Their Next Career

I wrote previously about the immense challenges military veterans face as they exit the military and seek a new existence. The disruption of their sense of purpose and community can be emotionally crushing as the veteran seeks to find a meaningful new career and regain connection to a community beyond that provided by the intimacy of their military unit.

If a disconnect between employable veterans and companies desiring talented employees does exist, how do we address this problem? What can we do to link the supply with the demand? I believe that, as a society, it is urgent that we develop and implement solutions. I say this not purely from an altruistic sense of obligation to my fellow veterans- I say this in recognition of the tremendous economic and social welfare foregone by under-employing military veterans in America’s labor force. Significant financial value is NOT being created and captured because we are not leveraging the full potential of veterans in the work force.

There is a substantial body of evidence that indicates veterans are under-employed. I previously referenced a survey of over 1,200 Veterans in 2013 – 2014 conducted by VetAdvisor and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University that illuminated a significant first and second-year turnover rate post-separation, with over half of surveyed veterans leaving their initial post-separation position within the first year and over 65% within two years.

What is causing this? Why do veterans feel compelled to leave these careers in droves? What about these first post-separation career opportunities is so unfulfilling that veterans are willing to again wade into uncertainty and risk (loss of income, no health insurance, emotional instability) in order to continue searching for their professional passion?

I came across some additional evidence that suggests some reasons why we struggle to retain veterans. The employment website Monster.com conducted a 2014 survey of military professionals and human resource professionals,  discovering that most employers (68%) do not have any retention programs in place to serve their veteran employees. In another survey of 1,022 veterans working full-time in white-collar professions conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation, researchers found that only 2% said they have an executive who really champions and advocates on their behalf. By contrast, 19% of civilian men and 13% of women in felt the same way.

I believe 3 major obstacles exist to linking military veterans to meaningful careers where they remain and grow:

  1. The difficulty of identifying a meaningful career opportunity that ignites the veteran’s passion
  2. Dissatisfaction with job quality and company culture
  3. Lack of development or advancement potential

Despite the difficulty and complexity of reducing these obstacles, I offer 2 solutions I believe are worth consideration and action. First, we must connect veterans to the right roles that allow them to immediately apply their existing skills and abilities (leadership, character, drive, creativity and innovation, curiosity, task orientation, risk management, etc.) while also stretching the veteran to introduce challenge and enable development and growth. Second, once employed, a company would do well to support the veteran with meaningful corporate mentorship and connect them to veteran resource groups within the company.

To connect veterans to meaningful new careers, platforms and opportunities must exist to expose veterans to various industries, fields, and roles. Fortunately, a substantial number of organizations and resources already exist that endeavor to help veterans find their next career. I’ll highlight a few who do this exceptionally well:

  • Veterati is an incredible platform that links transitioning veterans with mentors who can help them navigate the complexities of the job hunt and provide access to their professional network. Mentorship is an extremely powerful tool that can serve as a “flotation device” for a veteran and help them organize their career search. The value of a mentor who is willing to provide access to their professional network is extremely salient- veterans frequently lack a robust network in the industries and fields they target and therefore struggle to network effectively.
  • BreakLine prepares veterans for high-powered tech careers by providing exposure to Silicon Valley’s titans. BreakLine’s founder and CEO Bethany Coates is a true giver and connector- she has committed her life to helping realize military veteran’s talent and capacity for innovation. Bethany is astonishingly well connected in “the valley” and exposes BreakLine participants to a revolving door of legendary tech founders and executives. Her organization consistently places veterans highly in companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, PayPal, Square, and Palantir (just to name a few).
  • Similarly, Stanford Ignite is a program through Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business that provides veterans an unbelievable entrepreneurship and innovation experience. The intensive 1 month program provides veterans the knowledge, tools, and network to successfully launch their own venture. I participated in this program in 2015 and it was absolutely transformative.
  • NextOp seeks to propel veterans into careers in heavy industry. Located in Houston, the epicenter of Oil and Gas and industrial construction, NextOp is well positioned to introduce veterans to careers in companies that benefit greatly from veteran’s existing skills. To achieve this, NextOp provides transitioning veterans with the mentorship and coaching necessary to support them into their new career in industry and beyond.

The next frontier of this effort is to expand the availability and quality of “internship-like” experiences to allow veterans to “try out” potential occupations through workshops and opportunities to shadow employees/managers/executives currently working in targeted roles. This type of experience would reduce the necessity of a transitioning veteran to choose a career arbitrarily or through trial and error.

Despite the existence of an abundance of high quality organizations that seek to inform and place veterans, I believe opportunity for improvement still exists. When I transitioned from the Army after 10 years, I struggled to connect with any of these organizations in a meaningful way. Despite my effort to market myself, I did not access support from a single one of these organizations successfully. In many cases, conversations with their leaders left me feeling even more confused, lost, and self-conscious than before. I did not gain the mentorship and enlightenment that I desperately needed to transition into a new career.

Once placed into a new career, the second part of the solution is for businesses to better support and nurture their veteran talent in ways that ensure the new employee’s professional abilities are applied and adequately valued. Providing a corporate mentor is an extremely effective way to educate and develop a new veteran employee, accelerating their assimilation into the company. The natural tendency is to link a new employee to another veteran employee; although this is a reasonable approach, I encourage companies to create a corps of mentors who are high-potential managers with a deep understanding the company’s culture and operations. The mentor’s status as a veteran is much less important. Another sound technique to improve retention is to connect veteran employees within intra-company communities where they can leverage one another as a resource and create a sense of camaraderie through shared identity. Employee Resource Groups are a great way to engage veteran employee’s inherent resilience and self-sufficiency. Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs, are generally informal and employee-run groups. ERGs provide a platform for veterans within the company to connect and also provide veteran employees a voice. ERGs create opportunities for veteran employees to learn from one another’s experience, network into more appropriate positions within the company, and increase cross-department collaboration through trusted relationships.

The Son Tay Raid

Source: http://seanlinnane.blogspot.com/2010/11/son-tay-raid.html
Audacity, Audacity, Audacity

During the dead of night in late November 1970, an HH-3 Jolly Green helicopter deliberately crash landed into the courtyard of the Son Tay Prisoner of War (POW) camp near Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam and one of the most heavily defended cities in the world. US Special Forces soldiers poured out the helicopter as rehearsed and assaulted the camp, eliminating North Vietnamese Army guards and securing prison cells to rescue the 61 American POWs believed to be held at the prison camp. At the same time, other helicopters landed around the camp to disembark additional assault teams; a total of 56 Special Forces soldiers surrounded and secured the camp within minutes. The assault force executed the mission flawlessly…however, they discovered that the cells were empty and no POWs were found on the target. Flying away from the camp, each member of the assault force stared across the dark helicopter into the faces of their fellow assaulters and saw the same shock and disbelief that they themselves felt, anguishing over the fact that they had failed their mission despite months of exhaustive planning and preparation. For the last 5 months the team had planned and rehearsed the operation thousands of times on a full scale mock-up of the prison camp in the sweltering heat of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

Despite the operators’ initial sense of failure, the mission was in actuality a tremendous success. Recognizing that the US was willing and able to launch raids deep into its territory to rescue POWs, the North Vietnamese drastically improved conditions for imprisoned US service members held across the North. The operation, which many felt was impossible due to the significant challenges involved, demonstrated that anything is possible if led by ambitious leaders who dream big and embrace challenge.  This operation became a striking model of success and has influenced Special Operations missions for decades after the act.  The lessons learned from the Son Tay raid have continued to influence elite military units, which can even be seen in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

So what?

The key to their success was in their spirit and preparation. Despite being up against tremendous challenges with no certainty of success, the operators accepted the challenge head on. Even though an operation of this size and complexity had never before been attempted, they were only concerned with what needed to be done and ignored the suggestions that their task was impossible. The opportunity to succeed against the odds is what fueled the operators during the hundreds of hours of planning and rehearsals that enabled the mission’s flawless execution. The detail of the planning and preparation far surpassed anything that had been done before, but was absolutely necessary due to the fine tolerances demanded of hostage rescue missions.

Source: http://www.psywarrior.com/sontay.html
“Blueboy” Assault Element

The Lesson

Challenge yourselves and your team.  If you aren’t a little uncomfortable with the tempo of your work, then you’re not pushing hard enough.  You can do more.  If you’re concerned about the increased risk of doing more work in a shorter amount of time, remind yourself that this risk can be controlled with effective planning and preparation.  Push your teams to do more than they think is possible, then support and resource the effort and be amazed at the success your team will achieve. We can’t allow ourselves to be on cruise control if we want to be the best.  Don’t settle only for what is acceptable-redefine what is possible.

The Transition Dilemma

Transitioning from active military service to the private sector is, without a doubt, the most challenging thing I have done. Far more challenging than the Special Forces Assessment and Selection course, a 19 day physical and mental gut check to determine if I had the willpower, fitness, and intellect to continue training in the hopes of one day becoming a Green Beret. It is more challenging than my freshman year at the Citadel, where I endured 9 months of Spartan existence at the hands of vindictive young men only 1-2 years my senior. More challenging, in many ways, than leading troops in combat.

I share my experience because millions of military veterans face the same challenge as they navigate into “civilian” life. Over 3.9 million Americans served in the armed forces following September 11, 2001; nearly half of this group deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, or both. In the Special Operations community, whose members maintain a more aggressive operational cycle than most of the Department of the Defense, men and women have deployed countless times to major combat theaters, their periphery, or elsewhere around the world during the last 20 years. The challenge posed by transition is not caused by deployments, but I would argue that it is exacerbated by it. The challenge  isn’t isolated to a specific segment of veterans, either. Whether you completed 4 years of service as a junior enlisted service member or retired after 30 years as a senior officer, service members of all backgrounds are likely to struggle through the monumental change that occurs as they depart military service.

Although there are many aspects to this challenge, one of the most pivotal is the quest for a new career. The natural tendency is to assume that transitioning veterans are unemployed in greater numbers than their civilian counterparts, but Department of Labor statistics show this to be untrue. In fact, as of last month the unemployment rate for military veterans was only 4% (read the DOL report here), virtually identical to the US population (4.1%).

The real problem is not finding a job, but finding the RIGHT job. Military veterans are often underemployed and struggle to find a meaningful and challenging next step. A recent study conducted by the Call of Duty Endowment found that nearly 1/3 of transitioning veterans felt underemployed, 15% higher than their non-veteran peers. VetAdvisor and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University conducted a survey of over 1,200 Veterans between 2013 – 2014. The study found a significant first and second-year turnover rate post-separation from the military. Nearly half of the Veterans surveyed left their first civilian position in twelve months or less and over 65% left within two years. The challenge, then, is not simply hiring more veterans; the challenge is helping veterans find a calling where they can realize the same deep sense of purpose, impact, and value that they came to appreciate while serving with their squad, wing, or detachment.

My Story

Although my realization that I wanted to leave the Army after 10 years occurred rather suddenly, once I knew it was time to go, I knew. I had realized my childhood dream of being a Green Beret and leading some of the best men on the planet. What I hadn’t planned for, despite being extremely conscientious and an “expert” operational planner, was life beyond my military career. Whereas before this moment I had a very concrete goal on the horizon and a clear trajectory to follow, I now found myself in the unusual and uncomfortable position of having the freedom to go anywhere and do anything. I had no clue what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be. With so much of my identity staked on my profession, I found myself in an awkward emotional position at the age 32, similar to what most of you experienced toward the end of high school.

“Who am I?”

These are not inconsequential considerations. Probably because of my military experience or maybe just magnified by it, my profession is a significant part of my identity. When I was a Green Beret, I was unbelievably proud of who I was and what I was contributing to the world. I didn’t have to tell anyone about it in order to capitalize on this pride- in fact, I shirked from recognition and worked hard to live up to the “quiet professional” ideal that I valued so highly. I just needed to have the confidence that what I was doing was honorable, prestigious, and meaningful.

Stripped of all that, I was truly alone in the wilderness (borrowing the theme from Brené Brown.) It seemed prudent to attend business school so that I could market my Special Operations management in a way that was understandable to the rest of the workforce. Hastily preparing for the GMAT and applying to only top 25 business schools, unsurprisingly, I was wildly unsuccessful. Recreational drinking quickly spiraled into something more menacing. I wasn’t drinking a liter of Jack Daniels a day, I didn’t take a shot at first light to jump start my day, nor did I need booze to put myself to sleep. But I did drink every day, and finally realized with the help of my amazingly patient and supportive wife that my problem was not that I needed alcohol to be happy, but that I was unhappy when I was not drinking or looking forward to drinking. Recognizing that, it was clear that alcohol was in control. I’ve also struggled with depression and anxiety, which I believe are strongly correlated with the erosion of my sense of purpose. I share this to make clear the magnitude of finding a clear direction post-separation and to demonstrate the consequences of simply treading water. The veteran suicide rate being what it is (veterans are 22% more at risk to commit suicide than non-veterans), I often wonder how much of an impact these types of identity concerns have on the veteran community, at large. I was a Special Forces officer…specially selected, highly trained, heavily tested, inoculated to stress and discomfort. If I struggle with these fundamental issues, how many of the 3.9 million post 9-11 veterans are also struggling? How much more are they struggling than me?

Disconnected

There is a disconnect in our society. We’re successfully finding veterans jobs, but in many cases we’re not finding them the right jobs. I think often of my Special Operations colleagues- Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Air Force Pararescuemen, Marine Raiders- super humans in many respects who can accomplish the impossible and frequently do. After decades of honorable service, they transition into the “real world” and are faced with a population that can’t make sense of them. Employers can’t see past the fact that they may not have a bachelor’s degree nor do they bring the 15 years of experience as a supply chain manager or commodities trader that is listed as “required” on the job application. What they do bring to bear- incredible leadership and project management acumen, unparalleled ambition and drive, character and integrity, the ability to connect deeply with people and lead through collaboration and influence, the list goes on- are the very things companies value the most and spend millions trying to develop in their employees. In the end, these men and women frequently accept a position that is well below their ability level that will not provide them the inspiration and development they need to optimize their skills.

On one hand there is an ample supply of highly qualified veterans prepared to join the work force, and on the other are thousands of companies and businesses that desire talented performers and value military veterans. American society must discover a way to make that linkage.

Planning Is Important

Do you think that the goal of planning is to execute your plan flawlessly every time? If you believe that, then you probably don’t think making a plan is worthwhile.

Why, then, do we plan?

Although executing a plan exactly as you intended is ideal, it rarely happens.  There are usually many variables outside of our control which frequently force us to adjust to the actual conditions. The market is a dynamic environment and we can’t always anticipate things like interest rates or consumer demand. It’s not just your team or department out there doing work- frequently there are many functions working interdependently. Oftentimes we depend on the delivery of external resources. All of these factors inject variability into our operating environment. So as conditions change, and they absolutely will, we are required to adjust our original plan to appropriately address what we experience “on the ground” so we can still accomplish our objective.

So was all that time and effort spent planning wasted?

Absolutely not!

What makes a plan so valuable is the process you undertake to create it- all the critical thinking and engagement necessary to align your team towards a specific goal. While making the plan, your team gains awareness of the conditions, purpose, and the priorities and expectations you provide as the manager. Those elements are not going to change even if you have to adjust your actions. While creating the plan, you will discuss what truly needs to happen and probably several ways to accomplish each action. The plan, therefore, is a reference point, a goal for how you would like things to go in a perfect world. But when reality occurs and conditions change, your plan allows you to immediately pivot and create a new plan because everyone already has a deep understanding of what is truly important about that scope of work.

When you hit a snag in your plan, and you often will, the most critical factor in allowing your team to respond is your leadership. As the manager, you must assume control and keep the team aligned on the goal, providing updated guidance and direction to keep the group moving toward success. The ability to adjust to the actual conditions doesn’t happen by chance, it happens because the team had a plan in the first place that you will use as a reference from which to adjust.

In Special Forces, when developing a plan we frequently reminded ourselves that “the enemy has a vote.” What that means is even the best laid plans can quickly unravel because we can’t predict how our adversary will react to our actions.  We must estimate and assume how the enemy will behave when we make our plan, based on our experience in the business, but ultimately we don’t have a crystal ball to predict the future. Another expression commonly heard in the military is “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” These expressions tell us that we should expect our plans to change. To avoid being caught flat footed when we execute, we have to try to anticipate everything that could affect our progress (which we call contingencies) and plan countermeasures to respond; ultimately, however, it takes leaders to navigate the team to success when the situation changes. The way to maximize the probability for success is to have a good plan in place from the start. You can’t expect your team to go out there and get it done by shooting wildly from the hip. You need “well aimed fire” to accomplish your objective, and that precision comes from strong planning. To execute work without a plan is to bet on poor performance or even worse, mission failure.

Reunion

I love to connect with people- it’s extremely energizing and uplifting to create an opportunity to assist others and share experiences. I’d be willing to bet that most of us maintain a handful of extremely strong associations at the nucleus of our network, people with whom we can be absolutely vulnerable.

I had the great fortune to enter 2018 with some of the greatest men I’ve ever known. We served together on a Special Forces team for several years, amassing unique experiences that created a profound bond. I am able to generate significant strength purely by reflecting on the existence of this core group, knowing that no matter how murky or confusing the world may become, I always have capable and selfless people in my corner to look after me.

I don’t believe I can overstate the importance of developing and maintaining such powerful connections with a few other souls for my own emotional well being and sense of self.

Learning About Leadership as a Community

I don’t profess to be a leadership expert. I would argue that no one is, though many claim to be. The free advice available on social media and elsewhere online is overwhelming.

There is no magic formula or neat, bulleted list that will make you an effective leader or manager. Successful leadership is a lifelong process of education, observation, experimentation, and reflection.

There are a dizzying amount of factors that must be considered in crafting a leadership style or approach in any particular moment: the world is a dynamic environment with constantly shifting conditions; no two teams are alike and every person responds to stimulation differently; the desired objective and available resources (including time)…

Yet, an unwillingness to share leadership experiences or perspectives is also unhelpful, as it prevents others from learning from our own practice. It is in this spirit that I’d like to share my own experience leading teams and managing projects. I’ve had the good fortune to work with some incredibly accomplished and high performing teams. I’ve also been exposed to some mighty leaders and managers. I spend a significant amount of time studying leadership and reflecting on management logic.

Therefore, I offer my point of view in the hopes that it may help others consider leadership, grow, and succeed. I would love to see this blog blossom into a community of management practitioners and leaders who freely exchange experiences, techniques, methods, and ideas to empower us all.

To that end, I invite and encourage you to contribute and share widely.

Blog Launch: The First Step on This Trail

I’m on a quest to find my purpose.

My calling is to serve- people, communities, mankind, and our planet. My passion is to enable the success of the people around me.

I’m the kind of idealist that expects to be able to change the world, and one way or another I intend to leave it better than I found it.

After 10 years of military service, the latter half of which was leading Green Berets of the US Army Special Forces, followed by an immersion in the private sector, I’ve seen and experienced things that I am compelled to share. This space will give us an opportunity to exchange lessons on life and leadership.

It is not without some reluctance that I launch this blog. I’m terrified of being perceived as a “chest beater,” or someone who emphatically and irritatingly presents their own point of view as the righteous path. In fact, this may be my greatest fear. Humility is something I value greatly and hope that my actions and behavior reflect this closely held belief. I recently completed Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, which inspired me to collect the courage to make myself vulnerable and share myself with the world. It’s not something that comes naturally, but I am realizing this type of vulnerability is important and necessary to more deeply connect with the world and allow for unforeseen opportunities and relationships.

Thanks for contributing to this journey.