Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Obstacles Our Veterans Face In Transitioning Into the Post-Military Job Market: A Case Study

Some recent conversations with veterans seeking jobs in the private sector have reminded me of the timeliness and continued relevance of this article that I posted several years ago on The White Rhino Report.

In my Executive Search practice, White Rhino Partners, I am often asked by my client companies to find leaders and managers with very specific skill sets.  It turns out that in many cases, some of the best candidates I am able to present to my client companies have honed their leadership skills which serving in the military - either as junior officers or more senior field grade and flag officers.  As a result of this niche area of specialization, I spend a great deal of time with very talented and gifted candidates who are in the process of transitioning from a career of military service to a new career in the business world.  Some make this transition directly; others do it by way of business school or some other graduate level program.

For many of these men and women, the transition is fraught with frustration and disappointment.  A short while ago, I spent time catching up with a combat veteran who has recently completed an MBA from a top-ranked business school.  He is still looking for the right fit as his first post-military job.  In our recent meeting, he was very transparent and honest in sharing his frustrations, and he has consented to allow me to share with readers of The White Rhino Report some of his recent experiences in his job search.

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Several weeks ago I had an interesting conversation with a relatively senior human resources professional at a major defense contractor.  As a veteran engaged in a post-military (and post-graduate school) job search I went into the conversation with some confidence—I understood the product and the customers that this firm was trying to reach.  My record is a good one, and I recently graduated from one of the better business schools in the world.  I had reached out to senior executives at the firm who shared some elements of my background and they put me in touch with this recruiter.  While right now the hiring environment in the defense industry isn’t the best, I had hopes that perhaps there’d be a fit somewhere in the organization.

All of the confidence went right out the window, however, when practically the first words out of the HR executive’s mouth were along the lines of “we can’t hire you, you don’t have any experience.”  As I have approximately eight years of military service, this was surprising to me, so I pushed back some, mentioning what the military-to-civilian transition folks tell you to highlight: leadership, responsibility, technical expertise, and the like.  This recruiter then let me know that my specific military background wasn’t a fit for their organization, and that besides, I had no “corporate” experience.  I admitted that this is indeed true, but I had an internship between my two years of business school, and in-depth coursework that I felt complemented the “soft skills” of my military background.  This HR professional was unswayed.

This was a disappointing turn of events, and I asked if the recruiter would like to end our call, as I wanted to respect his time and the vibe I was picking up didn’t seem entirely positive.  When he didn’t immediately get off the line I didn’t want to waste an opportunity to garner some feedback on my job search process—so asked, in his opinion, was I barking up entirely the wrong tree trying to approach companies like his with a background like mine.  He said,  "Yes, we look for corporate experience," and he had doubts that with my background I’d be able to hit the ground running in his business and immediately start adding value.  Times are tough and they don’t have time to train up novices.  He was very generous with his time and gave some additional specific feedback and offered up some of his connections to help further my job search.

This exchange took me a back—I know times are tough, but I had been confident that at this firm, in this industry, a veteran would have a chance to break in.  Their CEO was a retired (very high ranking) military officer who had come straight out of uniform to the company—my thinking was that if they’re willing to do that for such a position as the CEO, then a lower level business person could follow suit.  This whole experience leads me to question how vets can better position themselves and how companies can better capitalize on talent coming out of the military services.

A good analogy would be an athlete switching sports.  Imagine you’re a very good sprinter, excellent in the 100 meter and 200 meter dash, and that you enjoy the thrill of going fast.  For whatever reason you’re leaving the spring squad.  So you go out to evaluate your options in other sports.  Some options go right out the window—table tennis and Greco-Roman wrestling just wouldn’t be a fit.  Other options are possibilities, but would take a long time to transition—football or rugby would certainly capitalize on your speed, but the coach would have to take a risk and be willing to work with you to develop your skills.  If it worked out, though, you could be a star and bring a lot to the team.

Some coaches would look at your background and see a runner—and immediately suggest becoming a marathoner.  They missed that you were a sprinter, and that it may actually be a more difficult and costly transition to go from the 100 meter dash to marathon than it would be to switch from 100 meter dash to the football field.

Finally, there are options out there that require some measure of creative thinking.  You as an excellent sprinter may also be an excellent bobsledder.  But bobsled is just esoteric enough that you have never had the chance to give it a try, and additionally the coach has to recognize (1) that your talent would add a lot to his team and (2) the transition to bobsled may be a lot less costly than it would at first appear.  In my conversation with the recruiter I was trying to make the case that I would be an asset to his bobsled team—he thought I should go out and start running marathons.

How then to bridge this gap?  I think that first it falls to the candidate to make clear what knowledge, skills, abilities, and attitude they’d bring to the company.  Here all the standard resume and application advice applies—demilitarize the language, draw the connections as clearly as possible, talk to veterans within the organization to see if they have advice on how to make your case.  But that can really only get a candidate half way.

I think there does have to be some effort on the part of the hiring company to see talent for what it is—and this is really, really hard.  The economy and business environment are such that it’s difficult to justify taking risks in hiring.  My point here, though, is that lack of creative thinking when evaluating a potential military hires may present a greater risk than would first appear—the hiring firms are missing out on a significant pool of talent that is there for the taking.

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My candidate makes some very valid points about the dual responsibility of bridging the gulf that often exists between veterans and hiring authorities.  Bridges need to be built with effort on the part of both the candidate and the hiring company.  To use a different analogy, veterans are often manacled by an inability to convey their potential value to an employer on the one hand, and the employer's inability on the other hand to extrapolate from the candidate's military experience and envision him/her solving analogous problems within their enterprise.

Companies need to do a better job of training their people to see the gold that veteran candidates bring to many open positions.  They should do this  - not out of pity or out of a sense of obligation, but because it is a sound business decision to recruit and hire the best and the brightest.  And in many cases, because of their leadership experience under fire, men and women who have served in our military bring a maturity, sense of responsibility, work ethic, solid core values, people skills, communication acumen and cross-cultural sensitivity that are rare commodities in the business world today.  When I asked a client of mine why he has come to value and to hire veterans, he smiled and said plainly: "Because they know how to get shit done!"

So, on the corporate side, what can we do?
  • We can educate ourselves and enter into conversation in response to the kind of honest sharing that my friend offered above.
  • We can learn from and support the many veteran-led organizations that have figured out how to bridge some of these gaps.
  • We can utilize current employees who have served in the military to better educate hiring managers and recruiters about how to properly evaluate candidates who are veterans.

In the coming days and weeks, I will be highlighting in this space many examples of organizations and companies that are leading the way in these efforts.  We need not reinvent the wheel- we just need to get better mileage out of it and a smoother ride. 

Oh, yes.  If you would like to learn more details about the brave veteran who shared his story in this piece, with a view to possibly adding him to your company's leadership team, contact me and I will be glad to pass along his details.  You just make be able to make your bobsled team that much faster!


Sobering Words of Advice for Transitioning Military Veterans As You Enter The Job Market - Sultan Camp's Article

In a recent edition of Business Insider, recruiter Sultan Camp offers a very provocative article entitled: "Thank You for Your Military Service - Here Are 9 Reasons Why I Won't Hire You."  Written from his perspective as a headhunter who places military veterans in a variety of roles, he offers nine warnings that should serve as a cautionary tale to each veteran who is preparing to enter the job market in what is still a challenging economic climate.

I will share the 9 Topics, and trust you to click on the following link to dig deeper and read the full article.

  1. You Can’t (or Won’t) Accept That You’re Starting Over
  2. You Believe You’re Unique (Just Like Every Other Transitioning Person That Day)
  3. Your Resume Is Longer Than the CEO of Our Company’s (or Shorter Than a Recent College Graduate’s)
  4. You Didn’t Proofread Your Resume
  5. You Don’t Have a LinkedIn Profile (Or, Even Worse, It’s Not Complete
  6. You Think Social Media Is For Kids or Sharing War Stories
  7. You Didn’t Prepare For The Interview
  8. You Wrote a Thank You Note (But Only to Say Thank You)
  9. You Don’t Know What You Want to Do

    Full Business Insider Article Link
Let me add my own observation to Mr. Camp's excellent advice.  I would add Points #10 and #11:

#10. You did not utilize your network of contacts assertively enough or strategically enough to open doors for you.

#11  \Prepare to tell your "story" in short narrative vignettes, telling what you have done to solve a problem or seize an opportunity and telling how you have utilized your hard skills and soft skills to accomplish something meaningful.  Weave these stories into the interview.

Among the 9 Points that this article makes, I would highlight #3, #4, #5 #7 as particularly crucial.

#3 For most military veterans, a two page resume is appropriate, using the Harvard Business School format.  It should be results oriented with data to back up claims of productivity rather than just a list of activities you have performed.  You should be telling a story of what you accomplished, not just what you did with your time.

#4 Ask at least one other trusted person to join you in reading and re-reading and proofreading your resume to weed out errors and fine-tuning sections that are not clear and concise.

#5 LinkedIn - a full Profile with recommendations and endorsements is an absolute necessity in this job market.  If you need help, I refer you to a fine book written by my friend, Dave Gowel, "The Power In A Link"

#7 Prepare for the interview by learning all you can about the company, the job, the culture, the background of the people with whom you will be interviewing.  Use your network connections and their connections to learn all that you can so that you can make the case for yourself as someone who can solve the problem that needs to be solved by filling this open position.

Think of all of these steps of preparation as battlefield assessment, coming up with a battle plan and executing that plan.  If a job offer does not result, then do an "After Action Review" to see what lessons you can learn so that you are better at interviewing the second, third and tenth time around.

This is a battle you can win, but it takes preparation, courage, resilience and team work.

Best of luck in finding the next meaningful place of service  and employment.


The Directors Company Presents the World Premiere of "Almost Home" by Walter Anderson

Thursday evening marked the World Premiere of Walter Anderson's play, "Almost Home," presented by The Directors Company and Directed by Michael Parva at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row on 42nd Street.  This new play is a crisply told story about a wounded Vietnam vet - a Marine sergeant returning home to the Bronx and to some undeclared wars on the home front.

"Almost Home" is the first drama written by Playwright Walter Anderson, former Chairman and CEO of Parade Magazine.  Anderson draws from his own experience as a Marine sergeant in Vietnam and his roots growing up near White Plains Road to tell a very gritty and authentic Bronx tale.  He knows full well that the men returning from 'Nam did not return to ticker tape parades, but to parades of nightmarish images and sounds beating an incessant tattoo of accusation and self-doubt inside their heads.  One of the fellow veterans of Vietnam who collaborated with Mr. Anderson in fine-tuning this play was former U.S. Senator Jim Webb, who was in attendance at last night's opening performance.

The play is carefully and beautifully written, speeding along at a sparse eighty minutes.  Within those precious minutes, Mr. Anderson weaves a complex tale of the homecoming of Johnny Barnett, who has been granted a 72-hour leave before having to report to Camp Pendleton, California.  Mr. Anderson uses an economy of words and of action that propels the play at a brisk pace.  The only exceptions are a handful of scenes between Harry Barnett, Johnny's father, and NYPD Captain Pappas that could be tightened up a bit.

Even before the actors take the stage, the audience has been successfully transported to the 1960s. Harry Feiner's splendidly gritty set reminded me of the flat occupied by Ralph and Alice Kramden in "The Honeymooners." From the enameled stove to the besmudged Frigidaire, we have a sense of time and place and even an approximation of which rung on the Bronx socio-economic ladder that the family occupies. The framed photo of JFK peering out at us from over the refrigerator reminds us that even though Kennedy is dead and gone, his legacy lives on in many ways, including the war that LBJ inherited when he took the oath of office aboard Air Force One in Dallas.  Quentin Chiappeta's Sound Design kicks in and we are treated to a couple of period songs that reinforce the fact that we are back in the days when Camelot was being replaced by The Great Society.  The costumes of Michael McDonald and the Lighting of Graham Kindred complete the picture.

In a prologue, the scene is set for tensions that will rise between Harry Barnett and his family and Captain Pappas.  Harry, played with perfection by Joe Lisi, has been arrested for DUI.  Mr. Lisi is himself a former Marine and former NYPD cop, so there is a deep and palpable genuineness  to his portrayal of the WWII vet who struggles to hide his inner battles with alcohol and compulsive gambling.  James McCaffrey sounds all the right notes as the smarmy and belligerent corrupt NYPD Captain who rules as 47th Precinct as if is were his personal fiefdom.  Like a Mafia don, he values unquestioning loyalty and he expects it from Harry and Johnny, both of whom are in his debt.

Johnny returns from Vietnam, beginning to heal from wounds both physical and psychic.  Jonny Orsini portrays the Marine sergeant in a bravura performance that is magnificent.  He returns to the Bronx apartment in which he grew up to find his parents still squabbling as they have always done.  He harbors secrets that he is reluctant to reveal, so he skims along the surface - distributing gifts to his parents and to his former teacher and muse, Miss Jones. He shares with them his tentative plans. The Marines have offered him a chance to become a Drill Instructor at Camp Pendleton or Camp LeJeune should he choose to re-enlist.  But he has decided to attend junior college in Fullerton, California. His mother, the long suffering Grace Barnett, is played by Karen Ziemba.  Ms. Ziemba has us believing that this traditional stay-at-home submissive housewife and protective mother is able to summon the strength to confront her husband and force him to unburden himself of secrets he has carried with him since returning from the Battle of the Bulge and a scarring POW experience.  Grace wants Johnny to go to college, but not in California.  Harry wants his son to stay in the Marines and make something of himself as a DI.  Miss Jones wants Johnny to dream of limitless possibilities, as he had begun to do when he read the books she introduced to him when they were teacher and pupil.

The wild card in this equation is Captain Pappas, who shows up to make Johnny an offer he can't refuse. In exchange for forgiving debts owed to him by Harry and Johnny, the Captain has arranged for Johnny to attend the NYPD Police Academy and to join the elite Internal Affairs Department.  He has ulterior motives, as always,  With the immanent swearing in of reformist Mayor John V. Lindsey, there will be investigations of the goings on at Precinct 47 and elsewhere in the vast landscape of the NYPD.  Captain Pappas wants Johnny to be his man inside the IAD to warn him of impending investigations.  In a climactic scene that takes place on Captain Pappas' turf at the 47th Precinct House, Miss Jones confronts Pappas.  Broadway veteran Brenda Pressley summons up several layers of attitude befitting a lioness protecting her cub from a predator when she lets loose with a tirade aimed at Pappas that draws from colorful vernacular from the mean streets.  It is a memorable moment in the play.

Beginning with Mr. Anderson's inspired writing and Mr. Parva's clear direction, the quintet of actors tell the story of Johnny's homecoming in a compelling and moving way.  It is clear that we are being told a complex tale of wars being fought in many theaters and at many levels.  There are the literal wars from which both Harry and Johnny have received wounds and collateral damage.  WWII and Vietnam have taken their toll and embedded secrets only reluctantly told.  Then there is the undeclared war that breaks out in frequent skirmishes between Harry and Grace, and the asymmetrical conflicts between Johnny and each of his parents. The battle between Miss Jones and Captain Pappas is a tug of war for Johnny's very soul and future.  I was reminded of the cartoons many of us watched back in the day - an angel perched on Johnny's right shoulder whispering words of encouragement to do the right thing.  A demon lurking on the left shoulder screaming that Johnny would never be anything but a street punk.  And those conflicting messages set up the final war - the civil war raging within Johnny's mind and spirit, wondering who he really is and who he is destined to become.

A further word about the performance of Mr. Orsini in conveying these swirling emotions.  I have had the privilege of watching this actor develop since his days as a student at Boston's Suffolk University.  I have seen him perform in film, on Broadway, Off-Broadway and "in the Regions"!  It has been an arc of consistent growth and ever-deepening gravitas.  In much the same way that he did in portraying a wounded warrior in the short film "Cigarette Candy," Mr. Orsini has created in Johnny Barnett a man who is grappling at the most profound levels with volcanic eruptions of thoughts and feelings that are often at odds with each other.  Within the space of less than an hour and a half, he successfully opens windows that allow the audience to see and feel anger, fear, doubt, self-castigation, guilt, gratitude, hope, despair, defiance, and ultimately intrepid determination. It is a bravura performance of the highest order.

The play will run in a limited engagement through October 12.

Schedule & Ticketing:
ALMOST HOME will play Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm.
Tickets are $46.25-$61.25 (including a $1.25 facility fee) and are available at, by calling Telecharge at 212-239-6200, or in-person at the Theatre Row Box Office (410 West 42nd Street) Monday – Saturday from Noon to 6pm and Sunday from Noon to 3pm.
For more information on ALMOST HOME, visit
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