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Top 10 Mistakes Transitioned Military Officers Make in Their New Private Careers

By Lisa Woods (1507 words)
Posted in Military Officer Transition on June 8, 2012

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1.   I know it all - You have been taught to maintain a “command presence” and be in charge at all times which includes showing zero hesitation or doubt in leadership decisions even if all the details are not clear to you.  In the world you come from this embodies leadership and confidence to accomplish the mission.  However, in the private sector, this comes across as a “know it all”.  You must be willing to embrace that you are in a new world and be open to learning all you can.  You must identify and acknowledge your weakness gaps and work tirelessly to close those gaps.

2.   Communication is King– Be very mindful of how you communicate with co-workers and those who potentially report to you.  Think about the language you use.  It is more important to be respected and heard as opposed to imposing your authority.  This can be broken up into three important sub-categories.
a.  Language - use of profanity is a no-go!
b.  Content – What might be acceptable topics of discussion in the military are not in the private sector.  Keep it    clean.
c.  Translation – Military jargon doesn't translate well.  In reverse, some organizations have a language all of their own.  Bottom line is you need to depart from the military terminology and work to understand communication within your organization.
3.    I am going to fix it all – Day one you will most certainly identify things that you feel could be “improved upon”.   Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you are going to fix, repair, or change policies and procedures that don’t make sense to you.  It is up to you to adapt to the new organization and demonstrate flexibility in the new environment.  Some policies, while not perfect, have evolved overtime to be a best solution for now as opposed to the optimal solution.  This doesn't mean you shouldn't work towards process improvement...just don’t walk in day one thinking it will happen overnight and being frustrated when it doesn't.  It’s a marathon effort.
4.   Thinking: “Why don’t you crazy people have a plan?” – Don’t laugh, you will be there!  Everything in the military had a standard operating procedure that formed the basis of common understanding and implementation/execution.  Missions were clear, objectives were understood, resources were outlined and at your disposal, even the process of formalized Operations Orders was well taught and standardized.  You knew who to talk to for each resource, understood your limits of authority, and were given very clear coordinating instructions.  Guess what…that is no longer the case.  To survive you must become more adaptive than ever before.  You must be creative and resourceful in how you deal with issues.  No longer are you able to deploy an additional platoon or company to accomplish the mission, in this new world you have to come up with creative ways to navigate the existing system to get things done.  Don’t get frustrated with this, it is the new norm.
5.   It is hard to delegate to no one - When you make the transition it is likely that you will find yourself no longer responsible for a team of individuals you are able to direct.  You will most certainly find yourself trying to accomplish your job with far fewer team members than you are used to.  You may try and direct other’s in functional areas to “do as you ask” and only become increasingly frustrated when they won’t listen to you or don’t accomplish the task to your level of expectation.  You must learn to work with, around, and through these challenges.  This will evolve uniquely for each individual, but it takes time, a willingness to learn and an acknowledgement that things have changed.  Keep a positive attitude and maintain your standards.
6.   Success at all costs is replaced with Success at a profit -   In the military you are taught at the very core of who you are that failure is not an option.  Success and failure is a life and death situation and failure isn’t measured in lost sales...it is measured in lost lives.  The passion that you have for success is a good thing, never lose it…but you will now be forced to turn in success at all costs for achieving success at a profit.  Managing the limited resources you have to be highly effective and efficient as opposed to overwhelming force to achieve success.
7.   I underestimated the transition - Most individuals that we interviewed commented that looking back they found the transition to be far more difficult than they had anticipated.  They underestimated change in culture, the relative lack of understanding by others of what it is like to be in the military, and ultimately the mentality of “adapt or drown” that you have to take in order to successfully transition.  Most people make the transition, but they wish they had done a better job of preparing themselves in advance.  Read, network, study and prepare!
8.   New Social Norms -You are really going to have to work to break out of your comfort zones that you developed in the military.  There are protocols around chain of command which are heavily enforced.  In the military everyone understands that… in the private sector it might be vague.   Organizations differ greatly and while some have this hierarchical view of communications, some do not.  Watch how others behave and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
9.   You need time to transition – Don’t get frustrated, the reality is that many of the challenges you will face don’t get resolved by reading another book or implementing a new system, instead, over the natural course of time and learning as you go you will evolve and grow into the private sector.   Maintain an open mindset, don’t hesitate to ask lots of questions and keep an open mind for understanding new ways of doing things.
10.  Not understanding the politics - In the military, while no shortage of bureaucracy exists, for the most part at the unit level there was a common understanding.  You worked to standard, not time, and had a pretty good idea of what your common objectives were, while working hard to get there.  It is a whole new world.  That isn't to say that there are not great teams out there with the same focus and success, there are.  However, in many organizations the teams are made up of individuals with self in mind as opposed to team/mission.  That isn't to say that interests can’t be aligned, etc  (example, your boss wants his team to succeed) but it is also important that people manage their personal interests.  You will learn over time that you need to manage your personal interests as well, that will be one of your biggest challenges.
Click here to view more information on "Transitioned Military Officers" & "Managing Junior Military Officers".


Do you have questions about leaving the military?  Ask one of our Expert Panelists who have successfully made the transition.  They are here to provide you tips, guidance and advice.  Thank you for your tremendous service, now let us support you.

I hope this perspective is helpful to you in your day-to-day life.  Test out these concepts and share your results with us.  Others can benefit from your experiences.  Good luck!


Written by Lisa WoodsPresident ManagingAmericans.com

Lisa is a successful entrepreneur, world-class marketing strategist, and dynamic business leader with more than 20 years experience leading, managing and driving growth. Throughout her career, Lisa has been influential in integration techniques, organizational and cultural overhauls, financial turnarounds and developing employees into exceptional leaders, results driven managers and passionate team contributors.


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Comments (4)

Stand up! posted on: June 8, 2012

For the longest time (5 years after I left the service?) I would always stand up when talking to a superior. I thought it was a simple sign of respect, but I eventually found out that it made people incredibly uncomfortable. It was so hard to drop an old habit, feel that uncomfortable feeling that I'm doing something wrong, and just stay seated.

Sherry S. posted on: June 8, 2012

Much of this applies to those moving to the private sector from government positions as well.

Justin Singleton posted on: October 8, 2012

I can see all these from the perspective of the NCO as well. Good tips.

Tom Corbett posted on: November 8, 2012

A great article; thanks Lisa. As a serving RN Officer over the other side of 'the pond', your comments are equally valid in the UK for our military personnel. Thanks again.

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