My Military to Private Sector Transition – Seven Lessons Learned

By John Rumbaugh, Program Manager and former Military Officer

I retired in March after 30 years as a US Naval Officer. It was the end of a rewarding career that included travel, challenging work and camaraderie, but I knew that it was also the beginning of a new post-military chapter. While I was excited about the possibilities and confident in my skills honed in crisis management and international medical support, I was also unsure about where that experience could take me. My biggest concern was that somehow my skill sets would not translate well from the military to the private sector.

Six months later I am leading a team supporting the Department of Defense/Veterans Affairs Interagency Program Office (DoD/VA IPO) as a Program Manager with Integrity Management Consulting. This week I have the chance to share several lessons I learned during my job search, with other military officers who will attend the West Point Career Networking Night. I have seven tips for others making the transition.

Use every tool to get the word out: These days you could stay home and apply for dozens of jobs online without ever talking to anyone. But would that land you the job? I recommend you attend job fairs and networking events which can provide visibility and help you hone your message since you have a very brief time to make a good impression with a recruiter or interviewer. There are many events designed specifically to help those in the military. That’s how I ultimately made the connection that led me to my current position. I think of networking though, as something bigger – Communication. Now is the time to get the word out about your availability, by communicating with every community you are involved in, including your veterans group, local church and neighborhood. Companies prefer hiring people who come recommended by an employee. Your personal connections could be the link to a new job.

Be confident in your ability to make the transition: Has the military prepared you to succeed in the private sector? Yes. I believe your greatest quality is Leadership, which can sometimes be lacking in organizations. Companies can be risk averse. As they promote from within they tend to get trained, effective, bureaucratic managers who maintain existing processes and procedures. Management involves processes, but leadership involves people. Military officers offer something that can go unsaid in job interviews focused on specific tasks – the leadership skills we can provide at any level of the company. Military officers are not only classroom trained in leadership, but have on the ground experience in making decisions, taking responsibility and inspiring others to follow. On your resume, in conversations and during interviews you need to communicate not just your credentials, but how you can bring leadership to the table and why leadership is important.

Prepare for skeptics: I mentioned earlier that I was worried my skills would not translate well from the military to the private sector, and I discovered that sometimes others shared the same concern. When I interviewed with several larger companies I found a perception that people in the military are only used to following orders and are not able to think creatively or strategically, or make their own decisions. I quickly learned it was up to me to change that thinking. If you have made it through a career in the military, you know how to think on your feet and how to apply strategies that are outside the box. I had to explain how being flexible and agile in order to accomplish missions in faraway places with few resources, are qualities that are equally desirable in today’s competitive private sector marketplace. If the company you are interviewing with does not appreciate that, then it is probably not the right company for you.

Know your best credential is your successful military career: You may have certain certifications in a particular area. Mine are in healthcare administration management. I’m a Fellow, Statesman, and Diplomate with the American Academy of Medical Administrators, but I don’t have a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. The key is to show that you have mastered and are professionally advanced in your field. Certifications, whatever they are, demonstrate that you’re committed to your own professional development and advancement. My new employer was more interested that I had credentials and that I was respected in my field, than whether I was PMP certified. Equally as important as my security clearance, was my ability to apply my credentials, focus and ethics to the new opportunity.

Know what you want and be prepared to walk away: Even as companies are interviewing you, you are interviewing them, so think about what you are looking for in a company. I looked for a culture that afforded me immediate challenge, growth opportunity and a rewards structure that recognizes my contribution to mission accomplishment. The private sector is profit oriented; it has to be. However, if that seems to be an over-riding purpose, where ethical compromise could be on the horizon or corners will be cut that could affect you, your staff or your clients, be careful. If something does not feel right during the interview process, then trust your gut. I had several interviews and offers that did not seem quite right for one reason or another. Your military retirement puts you in a position to take the right offer rather than the first offer.

Rely on your military traits to stay motivated: What are the most important character traits for finding the right job in the private sector? Drive and perseverance – traits the military has instilled, and you have honed over the years. You have drive or you wouldn’t have been promoted and stayed in the military. You have persevered through tough assignments and put up with their impact on your family. The process of finding a job is hard. You must craft multiple resumes, research positions, make a lot of phone calls, and conduct interviews. It takes perseverance. But you are already used to hard work and challenging assignments. You can do this.

Be open to something different: Not sure what you want to do now that you are leaving the military? Whether you worked in health care like me, drove ships or flew planes, you may feel you should stick with that in a private sector setting. You will have skill sets that could work right away. But this might be a time to consider something new. Look for opportunities to embrace your passions in life. Your military retirement check may allow you to assume a little risk or take a lower salary in order to try something new. Unlike the military where you may have to wait three years to move, in the private sector if you make a wrong choice, move on. It is a whole new world. I encourage you to embrace it!

How does this compare with your experience with a military to private sector transition? Share your tips.

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Tracey Wright

Jim, thank you on behalf of John Rumbaugh, my colleague who wrote the article. I will pass on your congratulations. I know he’s heard from several people who are also making career transitions and they’ve commented that it’s good to share perspectives.