Advice for myself on leaving the military

I had the chance this week to connect with an old friend who is starting a new career after almost 12 years in the military.  It’s been 5 years now since I transitioned out, and it’s incredible to reflect on all that I’ve learned along the way.

Here’s the advice I would give myself now, looking back.  And, to all those that helped me with this learning process–thank you.

First, the bad news:  people won’t value your military experience

It’s hard to accept, but it’s true.  None of your coworkers in your new career will understand what you’ve been through.  You won’t have the same bonds in your new job that you did with your friends from your first unit, or your first deployment.  While you will be thanked frequently and genuinely, that gratitude will not get you a job, or give you a leg up in any evaluation process.  And, when it comes to your career, you’ll be starting from behind.

But it will be okay.  You didn’t serve for the recognition or to gain an advantage.  The relationships, the perspective, and the lessons you’ve learned in the service will remain with you forever.  In the most unlikely moments, you’ll know what to do because of your experience in the military.  And you will find meaning and worth in your civilian work just as you did in the service. Be confident of the future, grateful for your experience, and continually encouraged as you begin this new path.


Now, for a few practical tips.

What you should know

Your Initiative Matters

People in the military generally show extreme initiative in all aspects of their work except one–the job roles that they take during their career.

Unfortunately, this is the first area that veterans highlight in telling their story.

In the civilian world, the jobs you take are the primary way that you show initiative.

So, when you’re talking about your career, tell your story in terms of your choices.  Talk about what you wanted from each role, how you volunteered, and where they contributed to your growth.  Instead of “I was assigned” or “they sent me to”, say “I decided to take a role where…” or “I was interested in learning ______, so I…”

Most importantly, don’t talk about the reasons you are leaving the military.  Instead, share what is drawing you toward your new career.  People are interested–take the time to tell them a positive story about your future.

Your Interests Matter

For roles in the military, it seemed like the equation for a new job looked like this:

Prior Success + Relevant Training = Future Success

Because everyone in the civilian world can leave their job whenever they want to, the equation outside the military looks more like this:

Prior Success + Relevant Training + Genuine Interest = Future Success

When a recruiter or hiring manager is evaluating you for a position, they’re asking themselves whether you are capable of doing the job well and whether you want to do the job at all.

If you’re unhappy, you’ll leave and find something else.  It’s that simple.  People do it all the time.

Often, when new veterans are asked, “Well, what do you want to do next?”  they’ll respond, “Well, I don’t know.  I think I could do ________.”  That response conveys a lack of interest.  Instead, try saying “I’m interested in __________” or “I enjoy ___________, and think I could add a lot of value in that area.”

Remember: you can have multiple interests or competing interests.  Interests change over time.  It’s normal to describe your interests differently to different sets of people.  The same is true for your desires in your career.

Here are a few practical questions to narrow down what you’re interested in:

  • What did you major in during college?
  • How do you spend your productive time on Saturday mornings?
  • What kind of magazine do you read at the dentist’s office?
  • What complements do you commonly ignore?
  • What time commitments do you always say yes to?
  • What was the most fulfilling part of your week?

Here are some ways to show that you’re interested:

  • Say that you’re interested
  • Have relevant accomplishments
  • Get feedback from other people who share your interests

Here are some ways to damage the credibility of your interests:

  • Use different language than your community does
  • Fail to learn or read about the topic
  • Don’t enroll in a course of study or seek self-development
  • Don’t have a portfolio of work

If you have a genuine interest, all these things will flow naturally from it.

It’s important to share your interests because people can’t help you until they know what you’re interested in.  That helps them understand where you’re coming from and what you’re hoping to do.  So take the time to develop and share your interests–it will help you as you search for your next role.

Your Skill at Building Relationships Matters

One of your biggest assets is your ability to connect on a human level.

The US military is the most diverse organization in the world.  During your service, you worked and made friendships with an incredible range of people–at all levels, from the widest possible set of backgrounds, and with a huge range of interests.

You learned to care about what the individuals beside you care about, to connect with them as people.  Even when they are very different.  Even when they disagree.

Here are some things you might say to demostrate

  •  “I would start by having individual conversations with each person on my team”
  • “I’d love to get out and meet the people who are doing the work”
  • “In the past, I’ve found that being with the front line team really helps.  I’ve learned that by….”

Most of the people in your next career haven’t had this experience.  Life is about relationships: don’t forget how valuable this ability is.

What you should do

Talk to a bunch of people

When you’re leaving the military, you’ll likely be encouraged to “network” by having conversations.  This is the single most important thing you can do during your transition.  Talk to as many people as possible, as often as you can, while still having meaningful, authentic discussions.

Connecting with people from a similar background, or who are going to a similar industry, can give you insight on their journey or the lessons they’ve learned.  Occasionally, if you resonate with someone and build a real relationship, they might introduce you to others in their network.

But, more importantly, they can help change your mindset to be more like theirs.

By talking to people, you can learn the nuances of how they think about problems, how they communicate, and how they evaluate opportunities.  You can learn the jargon and start to understand the culture.  You can learn what they think is important.

Unless you understand these aspects of communication outside the military, you won’t be successful.

Three things to remember as you start:

You need to ask for feedback.  Most people don’t like to receive or give constructive feedback.  If you want to hear it, you must explicitly ask.

You should be selective about the guidance you take.  Career advice and perspective is incredibly personal; it’s based on a myriad of assumptions about your experience, the market, and the future.  So some, or much, of what you hear may not apply to you.  That’s okay.  If you hear advice you’re unsure about, thank the person who provided it; you can see if you keep hearing it before choosing to act.

It will take time to find your new tribe.  You’re starting a new direction.  You need to be patient about finding the people you resonate with.  You won’t connect well with everyone.  That’s okay.  It will take time to find core group of people who will your mentors in the years to come.  Be patient–it will be worth it.

Experiment with your positioning

One way to think about your professional identity in terms of a positioning statement–with a frame of reference and point of difference.

The frame of reference comes from the job title of the role you might want.  It’s what gets you the interview, or puts you in the consideration set for the role.

The point of difference is what sets you apart from the rest of the people in the consideration set.  It’s how you stand out in the interview that gets you the offer over the other candidates.

The frame of reference is what the interviewer knows they are looking for.  It is what will solve their immediate pain point.  The point of difference is extra benefit they might not know they want.  It’s the benefit that resonates with your customer and that favors you over your competition.

It might look like this:

“I’m a [frame of reference] with [most important qualification], but with [point of difference]. “

So here’s how I might describe myself:

I’m a quantitatively-focused manager with strong operating experience in health care services, but with a real passion for building meaningful relationships and creating a positive organizational culture.

This framework can be a challenge for veterans:  after all, there aren’t any job postings looking for “veterans.”  So your frame of reference must be something from your background where you have a strong qualification and a clear story–even though it might not be obvious.

But, for most veterans, their point of difference is obvious: it’s the things that veterans are known for: getting things done, leading teams, driving execution, tackling tough challenges.

Here’s the important thing to remember:  your positioning is specific to the things you’ve done and the “customer” you are speaking with.

So you should experiment with the right wording for your positioning statement.  Try alternatives and get feedback.  Let it evolve and change as you learn more about where you want to go and what resonates with your target customer.

Enjoy the journey.

Finally, don’t forget to enjoy the process.  Your first concern as you get out will likely to just find a job:  something–ANYTHING–to pay the bills.  And that’s okay.

But this change is the start of something really incredible.  You accomplished more than you ever thought possible during your military service.  Now, you have far more time and freedom in your next career to do something meaningful, worthwhile, and fulfilling.  It will take time and growth to realize that possibility.  At first, that can be frustrating.  But – as I said at the beginning–stay confident, grateful, and encouraged.  You have a lot to look forward to.  Enjoy it:)


Thank you for reading this far!  I would love to know what your most important advice would be.  Take care!

One thought on “Advice for myself on leaving the military

  1. You are spot on about building relationships. I’ve been at my company about five years now and I have a contact in almost every single area of our business. And not just a contact, but someone I can shoot a skype message to and get an answer fast. Why? Because I actually care about the people and I don’t just talk biz, I know about their family, what they are doing for vacation and more. To me it just makes sense to connect with folks, but that is defiantly a skill I picked up from the Navy.


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