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7 Things Veterans Can Do to Succeed in a Civilian Job

The job market is a different world from life in uniform


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Employers value and increasingly seek what veterans have to offer. But the civilian world is different from life in uniform, so you’ll need to adapt to survive and thrive.

Here are seven things to learn:

Ask what is required

“What I hear from veterans is that in the military, authority comes from rank,” Damon Lembi, CEO of Learnit and author of The Learn-It-All Leader: Mindsets, Traits and Tools, told AARP Veteran Report. “Everyone knows who’s in charge and what happens if their orders aren’t followed —nothing good!” 

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You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published twice a month. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

In uniform, there’s usually no need to negotiate or persuade people — communication is very direct. In the civilian world, it’s more unusual to receive direct orders. Job responsibilities and directions may operate in the gray. 

“You’ll often need to figure out what your boss wants and how to manage your time and competing priorities to get it done,” Lembi said.

To succeed, anticipate ambiguity on the job and learn to ask specific questions rather than expecting unambiguous direction.

Embrace failure 

When you’re in the military, you’re taught that failure isn’t an option. But in civilian life, you may not always land on your feet. Failure is a possibility and isn’t going to be life or death. 

Scott Shigeoka, author of Seek: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life and Change the World, told AARP Veteran Report that failure is “a way to learn and grow personally and organizationally.” He added: “When it happens, stay open to those moments and ask yourself questions like: ‘What could we learn from this failure?’ ‘How will this make us stronger?’ ‘Where do we go from here?’”

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Pause and slow down

In the military, most things were full speed — and full mission — ahead. In the civilian working world, you can learn to take a breath to regroup, think more clearly and then proceed, especially at first when learning both the job and company culture may feel overwhelming.

Shigeoka said: “In the civilian world, taking the time to pause and slow down even in times of urgency can help with challenging assumptions, decision-making and long-term focus.”

Expand your network

According to Barbara Spitzer, founder of Two Rivers Partners, a human capital and strategy execution firm, connections and relationships are critical in the corporate world.

Spitzer, whose father transitioned from Army lieutenant colonel to a post-military HR career, told AARP Veteran Report: “It's not only about your performance and living core values, but also about who you know and who knows you, including extending your network across and down hierarchies with clear asks. 

“You must hone your interpersonal, communication and listening skills to effectively express your aspirations, thoughts and ideas, show genuine interest and truly connect.”

Create a personal brand

It’s no longer all about the team and the mission.

“While you come from an environment that shuns self-promotion, it's the opposite in the private sector, especially in the social media age and you'll need to extend your brand outside the company's four walls,” Spitzer said. 

“Use social media to build a following; it will be helpful as you seek future opportunities or a post-retirement portfolio career.”

Spitzer also recommended sharpening your writing skills and “learn business speak, but keep it plain.”

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Find a battle buddy

Everyone at work won’t understand your journey. Although it may feel like you don’t have a strong connection with colleagues, it’s important to pursue one. 

Rocky Belmonte, a former staff sergeant in the Army National Guard, now a senior director at Grainger and president of its veterans and military supporters’ business resource group, told AARP Veteran Report that it’s  critical to find your tribe, perhaps by joining an employee resource group

“Having a battle buddy or two, a mentor, someone who has an understanding of the veteran transition to civilian life will help as you join and thrive in corporate America,” he advised.

Shift your mindset

During his journey to civilian work, Belmonte embraced learning and honing his influencing mindset. 

In the Army, his goals centered on helping troops boost their physical fitness and firing-range success. At Grainger, he helps employees advance their education and achieve their career goals, often providing them with insight into specific asks.

“When leading team members in my civilian career I found that team members want to understand the ‘why’ behind the ask/request, and I love the opportunity to coach and teach those I lead,” Belmonte said.

Bottom line

You have the skills and ability to make the transition a success if you are open to new ways of doing things.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published twice a month. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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