3 Reasons Why Transition is Harder on Senior Leaders and 3 Things You Can Do About It

When you transfer the colors, it is time to take command of your life.

When you transfer the colors, it is time to take command of your life.

Thank you for your service. You've had an impressive career . . . but you're not what we're looking for.

Sound familiar? I've heard that before, and if you're a senior leader, perhaps you've heard it too. Interestingly enough, I didn't hear it when I left the army as a junior captain. I remember attending only one hiring conference about three months before my separation date. From that one event, I had eleven follow-up interviews that landed six job offers! Three of the six offers had compensation packages that exceeded what I was making in the army. Finding a job as a junior officer was easy.

I can't say the same for my experience when I retired after more than 20 years of service. I figured that I would follow the same process that worked so well the first time I transitioned from the military. Why wouldn't the same process yield the same - or even better - results? After all, I was better educated, more experienced, and I had multiple resources to help prepare my resume and facilitate my career networking. I was better postured for success when I attended two different hiring conferences, but I didn't get any job offers this time. In fact, I didn't get a single interview - not one!

How does this happen? Here are three reasons why transition is so much harder for senior level leaders.

Reason 1: Transition Programs Are Not Calibrated for Senior Leaders

Transitioning senior leaders comprise a relatively small percentage of the population that separates from the active duty force each year. According to the 2015 Demographics Report, 184,181 service members separated from active duty in 2015. Based on the 2015 Defense Actuary Report, that population included 8,472 officers between the pay grade of O4-O6, 726 officers with the pay grade of W4 and W5, and 6,290 senior enlisted leaders at the rank of E8 and E9. Altogether, the population of senior leaders across the officer, warrant officer, and enlisted population comprised about 8.4 percent of the total population of soldiers that transitioned from the military.

Senior officers comprise less than 5 percent of the transitioning population which means that you are an outlier - not the intended audience of institutional transition services.

Unfortunately, bureaucracies don't have the agility to respond to the needs of outliers. Transition programs are attuned to service the largest populations in the most efficient and cost effective manner possible. This population includes the majority of junior officers and mid-grade enlisted members. Consequently, you won't find retired senior officers among the advisory teams for transition. Transition programs push the same slides and presentations regardless of rank or personal needs. The transition specialists advising and assisting senior leaders don't come from the same population, and "executive" transition programs rely on largely of the same material given to an audience of higher ranking individuals. There is no transition counseling or coaching for senior leaders or their families. (You can read my input on how to change the program of military transition for senior military leaders here).

Reason 2: The Job Market Doesn't Understand Your Potential

Do you know what many military leaders do when they enter the transition process? They get certifications to validate their competence and experience like the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. The PMP credential is an extremely worthwhile accreditation for management professionals, but remember that most junior officers have enough experience to qualify for the same certification. Senior leaders feel compelled to attain this accreditation to translate their qualifications to potential employers even though they had met the basic standards for those credentials during the first 5 or 6 years of their career. If so many recruiters, transition specialists, and senior leaders consider this a "must" during transition, then fine - do it. But what are we doing to recognize the value senior leaders offer from the additional fifteen years of education and executive level leadership experience?

The ability to persevere and succeed in any job environment isn’t a quality that fits neatly into the resume template.

Too often recruiters and companies look at the resume of a senior military leader in terms of specific industry experience at the expense of the most valuable attribute of these job candidates. Over the course of a 20 year career, most senior leaders have had to learn different jobs and roles well outside the parameters of their military operating specialties. These officers worked in human resources, logistics, intelligence, and operations, but many have also been university professors, instructors, and policy advisors. Many have even had to learn a new language to develop the security forces of an entirely different nation. They specialize in risk management, fiscal responsibility, and caring for their people when the stakes are at their highest. In other words, this population of potential hires has years of experience in the art of adaptability, and they've demonstrated that regardless of the assignment, they will be extremely successful.

Reason 3: Old Habits Die Hard

A familiar criticism of senior military leaders is that they are "too set in their ways." I've heard too many examples of senior leaders that step out into society and simply don't adapt well to the corporate culture. They don't fit in, and end up leaving almost as quickly as they were hired. Given the investment of time and money from recruiters to hire senior level managers, you can understand how many employers tend to shy away from taking this risk.

In his book Breaking the Habit of Being YourselfJoe Dispenza offers an explanation for this:

"Psychologists tell us that by the time we’re in our mid-30s, our identity or personality will be completely formed. This means that for those of us over 35, we have memorized a select set of behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, emotional reactions, habits, skills, associative memories, conditioned responses, and perceptions that are now subconsciously programmed within us. Those programs are running us, because the body has become the mind. This means that we will think the same thoughts, feel the same feelings, react in identical ways, behave in the same manner, believe the same dogmas, and perceive reality the same ways. About 95 percent of who we are by midlife is a series of subconscious programs that have become automatic . . ."

Transitioning in your mid-forties means that you have to reprogram those subconscious routines. You need the 5 percent of your mind to overcome the other 95 percent of your habits. Not an easy thing to do. For employers, it is simply easier - and cheaper - to hire and mold the junior military officer.

What Can We Do Differently?

A better result requires a different approach. Asking senior leaders to apply for the same kinds of jobs that junior leaders stand in line for at career conferences doesn't suit the employer or the veteran. Here are three suggestions for senior military leaders about to embark upon their separation from the military:

  1. Look for Uncommon Opportunities in Uncommon Places. Its going to be hard to penetrate the upper levels of management for most Fortune 500 companies, so look for senior leadership opportunities in smaller ones. Small businesses, non-profit organizations, and start-ups are looking for the adaptability, rapid learning, interpersonal skills, and strategic thinking offered by senior military leaders. Many of these organizations don't participate in hiring conferences. For an employment opportunity, you will most likely need to forge a relationship with the owner or president directly. This will require you to network differently with a more deliberate search for small businesses on the threshold of expansion.

  2. Start your own business (cue GASP!). Yes, it is true that 80% of small businesses fail in the first 18 months, but who among us has better credentials than senior military leaders to be in the 20 percent that succeeds? The economic boom after World War 2 was due in large part to the fact that almost half of all returning veterans began their own businesses. Today, less than 5 percent of veterans become entrepreneurs and venture into the field of small business. There are a number of non-profit organizations and government agencies available to help veterans navigate the process of launching their own business. Unfortunately, we are so conditioned by scarcity and a fear of failure that we deny ourselves the opportunity of so much more abundance in terms of wealth and purpose by creating your own opportunity.

  3. Partner with a coach. Military transition is a psychological endeavor, and a professional coach may help you break the habit of being a soldier. The coach can help you achieve awareness to access the 5 percent of conscious intention to repurpose the 95 percent habituation that comes from decades of military service. This is one option on how you write the story for the rest of your life. We are used to receiving and executing a higher mission and intent to achieve end state, but when you leave the military, that mission statement and intent comes from within you. The end state is the intention you set for the story you want to tell about the second half of your life. A coach could facilitate the clarity you need to understand that mission and intent.

You Write the Requirement for What You are Looking for

Transitioning as a junior officer is much different than retiring from service as a field grade officer. Understanding the transition environment as a senior leader helps you make informed choices about how to prepare for the second half of your life. Along the way, you can gather the necessary intelligence by speaking with other senior leaders who have completed the transition or by talking with a mentor (look into American Corporate Partners). Reach out to veterans who started their own businesses about their experience. Look to hiring solutions that focus on senior military leaders (Orion Talent and Stewart, Cooper, and Coon are just two examples). In order to find the right opportunity, you have to own your transition.

Understand that you are overqualified for most job positions, and you are worth more than many starting salaries. The system isn't calibrated to your needs, and most employers may appreciate - but not fully understand - your qualifications as a military leader in today's world. Embrace the role of the outlier, and write your own mission and intent. Assume full responsibility for how you show up as a veteran leader in the civilian workforce. Accept the gratitude from others with an open heart, but also accept that you own your mission and intent for life beyond the military. Do what you do best - adapt, persevere, and exceed expectations. You've already had one amazing career, and remember . . . the best is yet to come!