When Toby Johnson was 24 years old, the Army pilot was in charge of eight $30 million Apache helicopters, plus the 30 people who managed them — more responsibility than any of her friends in the private sector. But when she decided to leave the Army and get a civilian job, she realized she had a challenge: most hiring managers weren’t veterans, and they struggled to understand how her military experience might translate to the corporate realm.
Transitioning from a military career to the corporate world can be a fraught process for the nearly 360,000 U.S. veterans who leave the service each year. In addition to networking their way into new professional circles and learning new cultural mores, veterans have to face down the even more fundamental questions: what career will best suit them? And once they know what they want, how can they convince hiring managers that their skills will translate — especially if they’re not quite sure they will?
Since 2013, I’ve keynoted talks to groups of transitioning military veterans nearly 20 times as part of Deloitte’s CORE Leadership program, which helps vets reinvent themselves into civilian careers. In the process, I’ve gotten to know hundreds of veterans and heard their stories of entering the corporate world – including what they wish they had known when they began their transitions.
The first lesson they’ve shared with me: control your narrative. Toby Johnson, who I interviewed for my book Reinventing You, taught me this one. She ultimately realized she had to take control of how she told her story, and make those hiring managers understand she wasn’t marketing her flying abilities — it was about the leadership skills she’d developed. Those leadership abilities, she knew, could be applied inside a corporation — and she was ultimately able to make that case successfully. Today, she’s a VP and General Manager for a prominent Fortune 500 corporation.
To make that kind of case, though, you first have to recognize the value of your experience. For some veterans, that can be tough. Chris Robinette served in the Army for 11 years, first as an armor officer, then in Army Special Forces (also called the Green Berets). But despite his prodigious experience — which included a stint in Eastern Europe working with NATO partners — when it came time to transition to a civilian career, he doubted himself. “I felt very intimidated by undergraduate classmates who had gone into more traditional corporate careers,” he told me. “I felt like they had this decade of totally unique, impressive experience that I couldn’t match.”
Over time, though, he came to realize that direct corporate experience wasn’t really necessary. “It’s very much, ‘Can you learn? Do you have a strong work ethic?’” Today, Chris is leveraging his military and leadership experience running a startup operation within a larger company that specializes in security consulting for major sports arenas and convention centers.
Veterans often place an inordinate amount of pressure on themselves to identify the “perfect job” after they leave the service. But recognize that your first job may not be a fit. Of course, we all want to make good decisions, and it makes for an appealing can-do story to identify the job you want and land it. But the truth is, even with planning and preparation, there are some things we just can’t know in advance about whether we’ll thrive in a given job or industry or workplace. Indeed, close to half of veterans leave their first civilian job within a year.
John Lee Dumas (I profiled him in another book) went through a string of jobs after leaving the Army. He tried tech, finance, and real estate — all to no avail. But instead of beating himself up about his failure to succeed in those industries, he did something important: he noticed what he actually cared about. Through his work in real estate, where he’d spend hours each day driving, he started listening to podcasts, and eventually decided to start his own.
It’s important to recognize that your first hypothesis about “the right job” may not pan out. That isn’t failure — it’s data. Learning to listen to it, as Dumas did, enables you to find the avenue where you can ultimately succeed. Today, he’s one of the most successful business podcasters, earning seven figures a year.
His experience highlights another piece of retrospective wisdom I’ve heard from many of the veterans I teach:you don’t have to take the straight path. When I met TJ Wagner at the CORE program, he had a plan — he just wasn’t sure it was a good one. He intended to enter business school in the fall, but he had nine months between his separation from the Army and the start of school. His plan for that time was to take sailing lessons and qualify to become a skipper for Yacht Week along the Croatian coast over the summer.
On the surface, it might seem like a frivolous pursuit — what did sailing have to do with business school or a future corporate career? But he was excited by the prospect and decided to do it. Over the ensuing months, TJ took sailing theory classes in the Philippines and attended sailing school in Malaysia. To pass one of his final skipper exams, he told me, “one night the instructors untied the five yachts from the raft, and woke us up screaming and yelling, ‘The raft is collapsing!’ I felt like I was back in the Army.” TJ took control of the situation and passed his exam with a perfect score, and spent Yacht Week as skipper serving “Lebanese, Australians, Europeans, members of the American military, South Americans, and many more. It was the best job in the world.”
He originally worried that recruiters would look askance at the gap on his resume, and his nontraditional choice of how to fill the time. But he’s no longer concerned. He’s leveraged his maritime skills as a networking asset, becoming president of the sailing club at his business school. Indeed, doing something out of the ordinary can often increase your professional status, making you an object of interest and giving you an entry point to connect to others on a human level. TJ is still considering his plans once he graduates. He may take a corporate job, he says — or he may open a sailing company.
It’s comforting to assume that our career transitions will be linear and orderly. But that’s rarely the case, whether you’re shifting between corporate roles or from the military to civilian life. By recognizing that there’s no one “perfect transition,” it becomes easier to do the deep work necessary to find the right job and career for you over the long term.