Making the Leap from the Military to Civil Service


For most service members, your military career will end long before the professional age of retirement. You will live through a couple or even a handful of retirements. Or perhaps you are mid-career and want to leave the military for something different. As your military run comes to an end, there are new opportunities that await you. The question is, are you prepared to make the transition from military to civil service or the private sector? We hear from two individuals who offer some advice on how to prepare for such a transition and how they have adjusted to their new positions in government.

1. Have a plan. Start your transition planning 3-5 years ahead of your retirement.  The Military’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP) provides training, tools, and resources to prepare for the transition. Consider taking the offered training courses about 3-5 years before you retire, and then again about 6 months or so before you step away.  This allows you time to proactively accomplish and plan important actions, some of which are necessary to consider or get started on well ahead of your retirement.

2. Start your search early. The application and interview process for obtaining a position in the government is often lengthy. It could take anywhere from 3-6 months (or even longer) to secure a position. Begin your search for opportunities early to align the start of a new position with your timeline. Keep in mind, if the position requires a clearance, it may take even longer to fill the seat.

3. Know your worth. The private sector and civil service values greatly your decades of leadership experience, your security clearance, and simply you (and your training.)  These are valuable and somewhat intangible assets that you need to know sit in your “asset column” and are very much worth something from a monetary perspective. As you search for your next opportunity, don’t lose sight of what value you bring to the table.

4. Step away and don’t look back.  Your new career needs 100% of your focus and your loyalty.  Embrace your new civilian service or private sector culture.  Don’t try to change “the new” to look and behave like “the old.”  You need to adapt. If there are old tricks that have application in your new role then certainly use them. But recognize, the old just may not work in your next position.

5. Cultivate your chameleon leadership skills.  While the above advice may suggest that you shouldn’t behave like a Colonel or a General Officer in your new civilian organization (i.e. don’t treat your people as though they are military troops); it doesn’t mean you can’t leverage the best of your military leadership style.  The trick is to be a chameleon.  While your core has not changed – you’re still the same seasoned leader that you were when you took off your uniform. You have to learn how to translate your traditional style of talking and taking direct action to fit into the cultural traditions and expected behavioral practices of your new organization. You can indeed still draw on your wealth of experiences and normal means of situational leadership, but you have to adapt them and translate them into what works in your new civilian organization. If you do this successfully, you can use techniques that made you successful as a senior military leader, and not come across as a rigid military person to your team.

6. Promote the “Total Force Blended Family Unit Culture.” As military senior leaders, you are likely used to stepping into leadership roles and creating a sense of unit cohesion. This often involves promoting a unique culture and pride in your unit mission. Likewise in the civil service, you also want to create a sense of camaraderie among the workforce – almost a sense of family.  The key to this is helping every member on your team to understand fully the unit mission and to help each one of them see clearly the roles they play in that mission success.  As a military leader, you may be used to a blended or “total force” that consisted of uniformed active duty military members, Guard and Reserve members, civilians, and contractors.  Challenge yourself to mobilize and motivate your new unit in the same way.  Make all of your people feel valued and a part of the team, whether they are federal civilian, uniformed military, detailees, or contractors.

Military service ends, but service does not. While you are preparing to leave military service, note that you are not leaving the duty of serving your country. See this new opportunity as a way to continue to serve the nation in a different capacity.

Brigitte Mardigras is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). The views expressed by this author are her own and do not represent the views of the Department of Homeland Security or U.S. Government. You can also find Brigitte on Twitter at @brigitttem. To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here


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