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Reality Check: Overcoming Challenges JMO’s Face Entering the Private Sector

By Dan Woods (1763 words)
Posted in Military Officer Transition on March 14, 2013

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By Dan Woods, VP & COO ManagingAmericans.com

If you are reading this, chances are you recently made a transition from the Military or are thinking about making one in the near future.  Either way, thank you for your tremendous service.  It is my hope that this resource provides some insight that is helpful in your transition.


I wish I could reassure you that your transition will be easy, however, looking back on my own career, having made the very same transition, as well as interviewed hundreds of JMO’s over the years, I can say with certainty that you are facing the most difficult cultural transition of your career.  Don’t worry, I am by no means suggesting that it is a bad experience or something to avoid, but I do believe it is important that you fully understand the challenges ahead so you can prepare yourself to make it as successful as possible.


It’s true, donning the uniform for the first time and making the cultural transition into the Military was a HUGE transition.  Probably a shock for most, but there is a radical difference between your entrance and exit from the Military.  Upon entering they had a well-developed (and mandated) support system to onboard you including a performance review program that was monitored along with feedback.  You also got to experience the transition along with a pool of peers who shared your situation.  Unfortunately, the Military doesn’t have the same robust support infrastructure on the outbound; most individuals opt out of the resources that do exist.  The lack of resources as you exit the Military is compounded by the lack of resources that exist to acclimate you as you enter the private sector.


Common Pitfalls You Can Expect as You Onboard in the Private Sector: 

  • Most organizations lack a meaningful onboarding program.  If they do have one, it is tailored for what you need to know about the company.  For many organizations these are all-encompassing cookie cutter programs created for all new employees.
  • The organization often lacks the formal and informal performance feedback systems necessary to create an appropriate level of communication between employees and managers.  Certainly it is less consistent than the one you are used to.
  • There is a high degree of probability that unless you are joining a large organization who has a formal military recruiting program, that you are most likely alone in your transition, surrounded by those who most likely don’t understand your challenges.  Even if you are in one of these programs, the reality is that after your training, you are likely to be sent to a different division, or be part of a team that has limited interactions with the onboarding group.


The good news is that as long as you know what you are walking into, you can succeed.  You are at the forefront of a unique and exciting experience full of nothing but opportunity.  The leadership and management experience gained during your tenure has most likely exceeded your peers in the private sector.  The challenge for you is to compliment that leadership and management experience with the necessary organization, industry and job specific knowledge where your civilian peers have developed a decisive edge over you.


Most importantly, you have to do this without becoming overly frustrated and prematurely leave your new organization.  This would be a mistake and missed opportunity for both you and your employer.  The frustration will invariably arise from what you perceive to be a disparity between what you have grown to expect in terms of social interactions and performance, and what expectations were set between you and your organization at the beginning of employment vs. what actually happens.  This is normal, and if you jump ship, you will face the same frustration everywhere else you go.  Instead, refocus on understanding the situation and navigating your way to success.


8 Insights & Tips to Help Make Your Transition a Successful One:


1) Your supervisor is most likely under enormous pressure to meet key objectives that may or may be explained to you. 

  • Do your best to understand those objectives and try to make their job easier.


2) Your manager or supervisor may not have much, if any, management experience or training before becoming your boss.  As a result they often have to figure it out the hard way without resources to draw upon.  Even if they have had training, it is most certainly not at the same level on performance management, leadership, teambuilding, etc. that you received upon becoming an Officer.

  • Use your experience to lead by example.  Help your manager manage you by sharing your experiences and treating others the way you have been trained to treat them.


3) Competing interests exist!  Many organizations lack the clarity of objectives and clear delineation of responsibility/authority that you enjoyed in the service.  As a result, competing interests and objectives arise that can be incredibly frustrating.

  • Let this discrepancy exist, your job is to understand it, learn as much as possible and develop solutions for working within those constraints in order to reach your objectives.  You can do this by developing relationships with everyone, understand various processes and how to navigate them, and asking questions with a burning desire to understand.


4) Understand that leadership styles are very different than you are used to as a Military Officer.  Leading people and gaining buy-in is more difficult without the common bond of service.  Civilian employees will work on a team, however it is up to you to build the team and convince them to work together.  The hierarchy is based on earned respect; leadership is not implied by title alone.

  • Take the time to get to know your employees; listen to them.  Consider their opinions and acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses.  Set goals, both individual and team oriented, providing guidance & support while breaking down roadblocks in order to help them achieve success.


5) Unlike the military, private sector employees do not sign up for service.  There is no formal commitment and no implied contract from either them or their employer.  This means that their allegiance is ultimately to themselves and their own livelihood.

  • Create a culture based on respect, thoughtful communication, clear objectives and consistent feedback.  If you do this your employees will produce results for you.


6) Set the tone for your new career outside of the Military, instead of falling into the tone that seems to exist around you.

  • It is important to pull long hours, early and late, to get a feel for the organization and its flexibility.  When you do this, you can find your own way, instead of searching for standard operating procedures that don’t exist.


7) There will be a steep learning curve in your new job.  As a Military Officer you will most likely enter the workforce far above entry level, but you won’t have the job experience of your coworkers or your employees.  Although you will be tempted, delegation should be a last resort as you start your job.

  • Do as much as you possibly can to understand the processes, get to know individuals on other teams and be seen as someone who doesn’t mind doing the heavy lifting.  Don’t worry, there will be time to delegate.  Now is the time to learn and earn respect.


8) Autonomy is commonplace in the private sector.  Because of this there are differences of opinion and different ways of doing things.  Don’t be afraid to point our problems or challenges.

  • Make sure you come with a handful of solutions when you do address a problem.  Just pointing out discrepancies is not enough, it may be quite normal that they exist.  It is important that you present your solutions, get buy-in and offer to lead the implementation.  It is a great way to use your unique leadership skills.


Some Final Thoughts as You Make Your Transition

  • Be selective; don’t jump on the first job that comes along.  If you make too many jumps you will limit your opportunity when the right job presents itself.
  • Don’t be offended if your expectations aren’t met at first.  Remember, the reason you are there is to learn as much as you can as quickly as you can.  Do your job and exceed expectations, take on more responsibility as appropriate and try to get involved with other parts of the business to gain exposure if it makes sense.  Don’t even think about number three until number one is fully baked.
  • Evaluate all of your options during your job search.  Recruiting firms are not your only solution.
  • Have an open mind and know that your new organization is going to be radically different than the position you left in the Military.  You’re a Private here, your job is to learn as much and as quickly as possible.
  • Be humble, you are the new guy.
  • Surprises are a no-go!  If there is bad news or something that might/is going wrong, be direct and request assistance.
  • Ask Questions!


{#/pub/images/danphoto.jpg}Written by Dan Woods, VP & COO ManagingAmericans.com
A graduate of West Point Military Academy, Dan has a strong background in business development, operations, project management and change management.  After serving five years in the Army Corps of Engineers, including worldwide assignments, he left the military and entered into the private sector.  With 10+ years in the Renewable Energy sector working for both startups and turnarounds for American, European and Asian conglomerates, he held positions as Director of Business Development and General Manager, as well as led multimillion-dollar projects as Project Director. Dan holds a B.S. in Economics, a Masters in Business Administration, and is certified as a Project Management Professional (PMP).

Do you have a question for Dan?  Please visit our Transitioned Military Officer Community, he will be happy to help: Ask an Expert

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ManagingAmericans.com is a community of Business Professionals & Expert Consultants sharing knowledge, success tips and solutions to common job issues.  Our objective is to mentor and develop professionals to be better leaders, managers, team players and individual contributors. Ultimately, helping people succeed in their careers.  

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