The Power of the People in Finding Your New Tribe After the Military


"Mr Sims doesn't want it. He doesn't need to be labeled: 'Still worthy of being a Baird Man.' What the hell is that? . . . If I were the man I was five years ago, I'd take a FLAME-THROWER to this place!" Colonel Frank Slade (Al Pacino)

Can you believe it's been more than 25 years since Colonel Slade talked about torching the Baird School? In the movie, Scent of a Woman, his caretaker and friend, Charlie Simms, didn't fit into the culture of the prestigious prep school. Charlie wasn't like the other students. He may have had the grades, he may have met the admissions criteria, but Charlie wasn't a 'Baird Man.' Because he didn't fit with the people, he didn't fit in the school. This fictional story highlights the fact that the qualities of the people in the organization shape the culture of that organization.

The leaders may provide the WHO (Part 2) and the mission may provide the WHY (Part 3), but when it comes to understanding the culture, the power belongs to the people. Now, in Part 4 of this 5 part series, I'll explore how the qualities of the people shape the culture of an organization and offer some questions that might help you discover the right tribe in life beyond the military.

Who You Are is Determined Largely By Who You Are With

Social belonging ranks just above safety for an individual's hierarchy of needs. There is science underpinning the idiom - Birds of a Feather, Flock Together. Similarities in experience, interests, talents, or values between people provide a means for connection. We develop relationships with people who are similar to us. As an application of the social identity theory, we form attachments to the shared identity of the group and differentiate ourselves from other groups across society. Because our personal identity is tied to the group label, we strive to distinguish our shared prestige and collective accomplishments of our brothers and sisters. We recognize the 'in-group' as something better than the 'out-group'. This satisfies our psychological need for esteem - the next level up on our hierarchy of needs.

Think about how this applied throughout your career. You considered yourself a part of the in-group as a soldier, and you may have had some strong opinions about civilian outsiders. Even within the military, we have sub-cultures and established norms for how things are done based on the groups we belong to. Paratroopers believe that they bear a standard that is distinctive from the 'dirty, nasty leg.' Tab wearers tend to expect more from fellow tab wearers. Your unit patch makes a difference, and sometimes, you combat patch does too. We formed strong attachments to the people and the culture of our groups.

The fact that I didn't account for the kinds of people I would be working with was one of my fatal flaws in my first transition as a junior captain. My colleagues at my job were engineers, and truth be told, they were exceptionally brilliant. They were never condescending, but I couldn't follow most of their conversations. They had different interests and styles of communication. Their values were rooted in science in the same way a soldier's values are rooted in service. The things that I thought were important were not the same things they thought were important. To be honest, I fit in better with the blue collar, union staff than I did with my "peers." I only worked there for a year, and I wasn't disappointed when I left. After all, I didn't fit into that tribe.

Your Starting Point as a Member of the 'Out-Group'

The challenge when you transition is that only 6 percent of the population is comprised of veterans, so you may reasonably assume that you begin life beyond the military as a member of the out-group. Talking endlessly about deployments and military experiences runs the risk of reinforcing your status as an outsider. Your strategy for determining your new tribe needs to look past the purely military aspects of that culture and explore some of the more universal qualities of your experience. This is why recognizing your values, your purpose,and your intrinsic strengths are so important because they transcend the uniform and provide an opportunity to make meaningful connections with your new 'in-group'.

To be certain, agile organizations value diversity. Powerful leaders respect constructive feedback and opposing points of view. Different perspectives can uncover blind spots, challenge assumptions, and invite healthy debate for better solutions. That said, the connection point for the people who belong to successful organizations comes from the values, purpose, and vision for that organization. The military is a great example of a high performance team that cherishes diversity in everything but the most important factors of values, purpose, and vision. These are the non-negotiable elements for assessing who belongs with the 'in-group.' Bringing people together who share in those intrinsic qualities is the screening criteria for any high performance team - including your next team after the military.

Assessing How You Fit With the People

Assuming you recognize your values (the WHO), purpose (the WHY), intrinsic strengths (the HOW), and your intent for life beyond the military (the WHAT), here are some questions that could help you determine whether or not you identify with the people of a potential employer:

Question 1: What do you value most about the people who work here? As you listen to the answers from this question, determine whether or not the people value the same things that you value. The most dangerous answer you could hear when asking this question is "I don't know." Think about how you would answer this question about the men and women who stood next to you in formation, and it might reveal whether you would fit within the ranks of their 'formation.'

Question 2: What three words would you use to describe the people of this organization? Just because the people like working there that doesn't mean that you will like working there. When you are networking and interviewing, you need meaningful intelligence about the people you are going to spend at least 1/3 of your life with. When asked to multiple employees, this question will reveal whether or not consistency exists between how the employees identify the qualities of their 'in-group.'

Question 3: What makes the people here unique? This question can be revealing when asked across different departments or echelons of management in an organization. It can uncover any cliques that could offer deeper insight to a lack of cohesion that feeds the politics of divisive corporate cultures. Alternatively, it could highlight the reasons why a particular organization might be the ideal fit for you.

Moving Forward

Admittedly, it is very difficult to make an accurate assessment of the people from a handful of conversations with people you might be meeting for the first time. This is why the leadership and the organizational mission might be stronger indicators of the culture in the job search process. Still, these questions may help you establish whether you are more likely than not to fit with the people of an organization. A wide array of answers about the people may suggest a lack of cohesion or a divisive culture. Always remember that your military experience informed your intuition about people, so trust your gut.

One of the questions you will have to answer when selecting your next employer is whether or not the organization's people are your people. The company will do its part to make their own assessment, but it is incumbent upon you to make yours. Be honest with yourself regarding where you fit. Only you will know whether or not you can identify with the people. You may have all the talents necessary to succeed, and you may meet all the prerequisites for the job, but from the context of the organizational culture, only you will know whether or not you are a 'Baird Man.'