Understanding Culture: How to Find a New Tribe After Leaving the Military

The people with whom we serve build the culture we love.

The people with whom we serve build the culture we love.

Disconnection from the military culture is the hardest part of transition. Likewise, connecting with a new culture in civilian society is the hardest part of reintegration. Social connection is one of our core psychological needs. According to Brene Brownit is the reason why we are here. Culture matters. Regarding the challenge of reconnecting with society, it's called a civil-military cultural gap for a reason. So much of the urgency surrounding how to find a new job hovers around the idea of finding the right fit in a new tribe, but what does that mean? How can you assess the culture of an organization, and more importantly, how do you determine the right fit for you?

Because of the shared magnitude and importance of this topic, I broke up this up into a five-part series to better understand (1) the factors that inform the culture of an organization and (2) strategies on how to assess whether or not a particular culture is the right fit for you. This article sets the foundation by defining culture, describing why it's important, and providing some questions to help you find meaningful answers regarding your new tribe in life beyond the military.

What is Culture and Why Does It Matter?

"Culture is the tacit social order of an organization: It shapes attitudes and behaviors in wide-ranging and durable ways. Cultural norms define what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within a group." - Harvard Business Review

Culture defines the explicit and implicit norms of an organization. Culture is not a tag-line or a company logo. It is not a series of pictures with motivational phrases hanging on the office wall. It's more than the patch on your uniform or the color of a beret. Everyone sees the order and discipline of the dress-right-dress formation from a distance, but culture describes what really happens inside the ranks of that formation. Culture is what happens on the production floor, in back office meetings, and in private communications between employees. Culture represents the living essence of an organization.

Culture is the mechanism that guides the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of an organization in the same way an individual’s values and purpose (the WHO and the WHY) guide and influence the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of that person. The benefit of understanding the WHO (your values) and the WHY (your purpose) is to align your intrinsic nature with your external intentions (what you want in life). Likewise, an organization's identity (shared values) and purpose (reason for existing) reveals the potential impact of that organization in greater service to society.

"When properly aligned with personal values, drives, and needs, culture can unleash tremendous amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and foster an organization’s capacity to thrive."- Harvard Business Review

Imagine the potential of aligning your personal values with the shared values of a larger group or company. This alignment was what kept you inspired and connected in the military. There was synergy. It created a resonance that you felt through a sense of purpose, inspiration, satisfaction, and joy. When these elements do not align - as in the case of being in an organization that doesn’t fit with your values or purpose – you feel lost. You crave something more because your intrinsic needs are not being met. In the simplest terms, alignment feels inspired and misalignment just feels wrong. If you imagine the potential of taking that alignment to scale, then you understand the importance of culture as it relates to organizational performance and your sense of personal fulfillment.

What Kind of Culture Are You Looking For?

How can you leverage what you know about yourself and your military experience to assess the best cultural fit for you? Here are three questions to help you discover the right tribe in life beyond the military:

Question 1: What attributes would define the ideal culture in life after the military?The first step in finding your new tribe begins by recognizing exactly what you are looking for. To answer this question, start with your values. Before you determine where you might fit, you have to know where you stand regarding the things most important to you. It's always better to know your size before you go into the dressing room to try on different things. As you search, pay attention to how a particular organization might honor and respect your values. Value alignment is why you fit in the military culture, so recognizing your values - the recipe that defines your unique identity - is the most important step to finding your new tribe.

Question 2: What are the qualities that characterize the best units from your career? Next, reflect on your most meaningful and successful units throughout your military career. The transient nature of the military journey exposes you to some great organizations and probably some "not-so-great" ones too. Each organization has its own nuances whether its special operations, airborne, aviation, marines, submariners, etc. When you think about the positive experiences, what were the qualities of that organization or team that allowed to you to excel in your job and have fun while doing it?

Question 3: How would the people on the team describe the culture? We talk about the importance of culture in finding the next job, but how many people speak with actual employees about the culture of the organization? Notice that I didn't mention the recruiter or hiring manager's opinion about the culture - even though I am sure they have one. If you get a chance to talk to the people you might work with, ask them what the company values mean to them. Ask them what they perceive to be the priorities and "non-negotiables" of the organization. Inquire about what they would change about the culture. Culture is a social phenomenon that can only be understood through social interaction, so to understand the culture, you have to engage the people.

You are the only person who can determine the right culture for you after you leave the military. In the right tribe, you will feel inspired to go to work each day. When your values align to that of the organization, you will be able to more fully express your potential and showcase your strengths to contribute to the shared success of the team. In other words, you will belong. The alternative is to make accommodations or force the square peg into a round hole as you attempt to assimilate back into society. Landing in the wrong culture comes with the bitter consequence of loneliness. The next four articles will describe the factors that determine an organization's culture, but now that you know how to find what you're looking for, you can set your intention to find the right opportunity in life after the military.