How Would You Change the Military Transition Program for Senior Leaders?
First, let's talk outcomes, and then I will share some details about how we might achieve those outcomes. The hardest part of transition for senior leaders concerns the psychological and cultural consequences of spending decades serving in an insulated social order that - given the shrinking military and veteran populations - is further removed from civilian society. Given those challenges, I would recommend we set our intentions on (1) Optimizing Whole Health and Wellness, (2) Socialization, (3) Cultural Assimilation, (4) Economic Stability Through Transition, (5) Professional Preparedness, and (6) Family Adjustment. Conceptually, I believe we should attack the problem of transition through an integrative approach - similar to the evolution of patient centered care in Integrative Medicine.
Applying an Integrative Approach
Almost two decades ago, leaders in the field of medicine recognized a looming crisis in the healthcare industry. The diagnostic approach that treated symptoms and illness wasn't working. Healthcare costs were up. Longevity was down. The entrenched, status quo was both ineffective and unsustainable. The solution was a more holistic, integrative approach to wellness that addressed the entire lifestyle of the patient. Today, we call this program Integrative Medicine, and we've come to accept this approach as the gold standard for patient centered healthcare in this country.
The ecosystem for military transition is ripe for a similar form of disruption. There might be an unprecedented tailwind for hiring veterans, but 33 percent of veterans are underemployed and nearly 66 percent of veterans change jobs in the first two years after leaving the military. This says nothing for many of the social welfare related issues that plague this generation of veterans. In the same way that diagnostics wasn't achieving sustainable solutions for wellness, benefits briefings and career services are not achieving sustainable solutions for civilian reintegration - particularly for retirees. A holistic approach that focuses on the entire lifestyle of the veteran would address whole health optimization, socialization, cultural assimilation, economic stability, professional preparedness, and family adjustment.
Optimizing and Sustaining Whole Health and Wellness
In the army, I went through a Master Fitness Trainer Course to understand the science and best strategies for improving physical fitness. Since the early 1990's, we've learned a lot about the construct of fitness and holistic wellness. I recommend we apply those concepts in a commensurate program for lifestyle and whole health wellness for midlife and beyond for retiring military leaders. Instead of focusing on disability assessments and compensation protocols, let's set our intention toward optimizing fitness across the physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual domains.
Such a program would seek to deepen the reservoir of resilience through the transition process and beyond. According to neurologist Joe Dispenza, mindfulness practices can help rewire the conditioned neurology to create new habits after you leave the military. Meditation can help alleviate the stress and anxiety wrought from years deployment cycles. Appropriate, evidence based therapy programs can promote the emotional and spiritual growth necessary to repurpose the wisdom and experience from the military in a new, more empowering role as a civilian.
Executive Coaching for Executive Leaders
The greatest challenges facing leaders after military service involve socialization in a society increasing removed from the military experience and the idea of fitting into a new corporate culture. The coach is to the military leader entering retirement what the drill instructor is for the new recruit beginning basic training. A professional coach is the ideal partner to build self-awareness, confidence, and set intentions through a creative and thought-provoking process for personal and professional fulfillment beyond the military (see the impact of Executive Coaching below from an article in the Manchester Review).
Executive coaches are the perfect resource to help leaders repurpose the wisdom of their military experience for a different path beyond the military. They can help veterans navigate the challenges of socialization and cultural assimilation. Imagine the possibility of making an even greater impact as a leader in civilian society. Executive coaches can help leaders uncover their personal values, reconnect with their authentic sense of purpose, and develop strategies to achieve their intentions for the second half of their lives. According to Forbes Magazine and Harvard Business Review, the reason why so many corporate titans invest heavily in professional coaching for leadership development is because it works. It could work for our executive level leaders in the military, too.
Promote Economic Stability Through Military Transition
We forget the intrinsic qualities of our senior leaders when we talk about transition. We expect these service members to prioritize their personal needs ahead of their military obligations, but these men and women have spent decades tending to the needs of others ahead of their own. Let's face it, we relied on that sense of loyalty to the mission and commitment to selfless service. Why would we expect them to change at the very end? Furthermore, transitioning leaders won't understand the difficulty of leaving the military until they actually drive out the gate for the last time. We need to provide economic stability for the service member and their family during the most vulnerable period of the transition process.
What if we provided a 6 month severance for military retirees to provide economic stability through transition? Before you roll your eyes, but think about it: Most retirees already bank a severance in the form of accrued leave before retirement. This isn't healthy for them, their families, or the example they should be setting for the organization. We already give retirees a large portion of their pay and healthcare benefits, so the incremental costs are not overwhelming. We can find creative ways for service members to buy into their severance on the front end of their career or as a type of advance on the back end to make this option cost neutral. This solution keeps leaders engaged with their units (which they will do anyway), and provides the necessary space for them to find the right job after retirement.
Professional Preparedness and Family Adjustment
Most of the conventional services for transition - resume workshops, interview preparation, career fairs, and accreditation programs - concern professional preparedness for finding the next job. My issue isn't with these services but rather with the sequencing and attention we provide to the other five factors. This is why so many new veteran hires end up in the wrong job (turnover) or settle for any job (underemployment). Transition Assistance is augmented by an army (literally) of mentor programs, recruiting agencies, corporate initiatives, and non-profit organizations waiting to help veterans and spouses find jobs. We just need to recognize that a successful transition involves more than just a job.
Finally, we have to do better for the family who hasn't known anything other than life in the military. We don't have specific programs and services to support the family transition. Allowing spouses to attend service member transition briefings doesn't count. Let's not insult our families by presuming that their experience through the military was the same as the serving spouse. Their journey through the military is different, and consequently, they require a different menu of services for their transition. Their socialization, cultural assimilation, and professional preparedness comes from a different perspective. Done correctly, the family unit can strengthen through the challenge of transition, and what better service could we provide our military families who have endured decades of military service?
When we consider the investment necessary for an integrative transition solution for military retirees, let's ensure we recognize what's really at stake. We continue to lower the bar for recruitment and retention and still struggle to meet personnel strength objectives in a shrinking, all-volunteer force. When most employers would rather hire a junior leader and recruiters tell senior leaders to "step back," it becomes harder to retain the leaders with the highest potential given the perpetual deployment burden shouldered by today's military family.
Think about it: If you deploy multiple times to combat through the first decade of military service, why submit yourself or your family to another 10 years of service at the expense of the next 40 years of your life? Who could argue with the patriot who concludes that two (or even more) combat deployments in the first 10 years of service is enough - especially when your marketability declines as a senior leader? We are on an unsustainable path and must begin to showcase the lifelong benefits from a career of military service.
We can learn a lot from how the medical profession revolutionized healthcare through a patient centered model of service delivery. As with healthcare, we should recognize the 'veteran centric' nature of military transition for retirees and provide services accordingly. Let's work to optimize whole health through transition and the rest of the veteran's life. Let's bridge the social and cultural divide and repurpose the attributes of these leaders using executive coaching. Let's remove the financial urgency of finding any job and help them find the right job, and finally, let's acknowledge the unique perspective of the entire family through their transition. This is my input, but your voice matters as much as mine. So, how would you change the transition program for senior military leaders?