I know the culture. I’ve worn the boots, the body armor, the Kevlar helmet. I’ve humped the “pig,” the 26-lb M-60 machine gun, as a light infantry scout. I’ve deployed overseas in wartime, and served domestically in peace. I’ve flown at the tip of spear, where the slightest miscalculation would put the reconnaissance plane over the Korean DMZ. I’ve monitored Russian and Korean radio traffic and been on the targeted side of enemy SAM sites. I’ve served on the enlisted side, and I’ve been an officer. And I’ve spent time in both the Army and Navy, served shoulder to shoulder with Marines and lived on Air Force and Coast Guard bases. I’ve transitioned from boots to briefcase, making the challenging move from the military world to its civilian counterpart not once, but twice. So, I write this with what I believe to be a bit of hard-earned credibility…
I appreciate wholeheartedly the myriad veterans assistant organizations that have sprung up throughout the United States over the past fifteen years or so, joining even longer established organizations that have done similar work for decades. But too often, I’ve seen advice given and perceptions promulgated that, I believe, do more of a disservice to our veteran population than assist them. Advice such as, “Be authentic to your military background, no matter what the organization wants…You know best and it’s time we proved it to companies the value we bring,” “Don’t settle for less than what you’ve earned through your military service,” and “As a veteran, every organization should hire you.” Statements such as these, while well-intentioned, do little to move forward the experiences or transitions of our veterans, as does the notion that all veterans are valuable hires to every organization. I hate to say it, but it’s just not so.
Aspects of military culture and experience are invaluable for nearly everyone who has experienced it. And certainly it is a boon for the society in which we live; to have a proportion of our population with personal exposure to and experience in the military is critical for shaping the direction of our country’s leadership (and it’s fantastic to see the numbers of Congressional leaders with military experience has ticked up slightly in the past decade).
That said, I work with and have heard increasing lamentations from transitioning veterans over the challenges they face getting jobs they deem worthy of their experience. And that’s a real problem…but far fewer want to hear the reality of the situation. First of all, we are not entitled to a good paying job or career right out of the gates without tangible, transferable skills. Does that mean we can’t get one? Absolutely not. We’re just not entitled to it, i.e., it’s not automatic or a reward for our years in uniform. Second, we’re not going to get hired into an industry or career field simply because we are excellent team members or experienced leaders. And third, finding a good second career takes both time and extensive effort. Adapt, improvise, and overcome, right?
But while I will address more specifics for veterans themselves in separate posts, I want to address the organizations out there. I know there are many who claim to have “veteran-friendly” workplaces. There are recruitment and tax incentives to categorizing yourself as such, and that’s great. But what does it truly mean to the veterans themselves when you say you’re “veteran-friendly,” and what can you do to improve your organization to leverage the skills and experiences of the veteran population?
Let me start off by reiterating an earlier point. All veterans are not created equal, and the veteran community is doing a disservice to itself when it paints veterans with broad brush strokes. There are top-notch veterans, average veterans, mediocre veterans, and there are honorably discharged veterans I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole from an employment standpoint. Now, I know what you’re thinking…sounds a lot like every other group of job candidates. And you’re right. So, don’t simply set your sights on hiring veterans out of a sense of patriotism, loyalty, reward, or even just for the tax benefits. Because chances are, if those are your motivations or criteria for hiring a veteran, they won’t end up with your organization for long. Either they will leave, or you’ll figure out they are a poor fit and ask (or tell) them to leave. In the end, either circumstance is counterproductive.
So, what are some keys to recruiting and retaining good quality veterans?
Understand the military culture and military jobs
Too often veterans do not fully comprehend that taking their experience from their uniformed days into the civilian world simply doesn’t translate well, and by “well,” I mean “easily.” Oh, I can tell you with great pride that as a Cryptologic Technician Interpretive (CTI) I supported national and fleet consumers in the collection, analysis, and exploiting of Top Secret COMINT in support of airborne, shipborne, and land-based strategic and tactical consumers. Sounds impressive and quite honestly, more than a little cool (and it was!). But unless I’m applying for a job at the National Security Agency (or another such federal agency), a lot of that description means little.
Oh sure, it’s on the veteran to provide a translation that makes sense to the specific job for which they are applying, e.g., “As a Russian linguist and member of a consolidated team of communications specialists, I provided time-sensitive data, as well as economic and cultural expertise that allowed organizational decision makers to best adapt plans to a dynamic, high-paced environment.” Now, that definition may still sound impressive, but it’s in a language that is understandable in the civilian workplace. And while some veterans may realize the need for this “translation,” some of the best may not, and trust me, you don’t want to miss out on some of this talent!
Ensuring as a recruiting unit that you understand the basics around the military culture, job fields, etc., can allow your organization to leverage the talent that other organizations may not recognize. After all, that’s the name of the game in a competitive candidate market, right?
Emphasize the “equal but more” principle in recruiting veterans
Often, I hear veterans complain that despite organizations claiming to be “veteran-friendly,” they were not offered a job there. This sentiment points to a real misunderstanding of what “veteran-friendly” hiring practices mean, and ultimately, I would argue, the accountability for that messaging falls to organizations. Having talked with many an HR leader about their veteran hiring philosophies, practices, and policies, it’s clear to me that virtually nowhere do these initiatives mean that candidates without the requisite skill set will be hired simply because they are military veterans. Yet, in the minds of many veterans, this isn’t so clear.
Organizations should publicly discuss and acknowledge what veteran hiring practices/initiatives mean and what they do not mean. And my suggestion will never be to resort to a preferential system that results in new hires that were not the best candidates or at least that didn’t meet the threshold of the required skill sets for the position. But being clear that a “veteran-friendly” hiring practice may (if this is the case) place qualified veterans into a preferential status (just like we do for other minority groups in hiring for diversity) would go a long way in building clarity for veterans about what they can expect or not.
Focus on cultural fit in the last phases of selection
In the last point, I focused on skill set and expertise as the thresholds for determining suitability of hire. Here, though, I’d like to mention cultural fit. To be honest, understanding, and yes, adapting to, the cultural differences of military service and the civilian work world can be a real challenge for veterans. While this isn’t the article to be talking about all the rather stark cultural differences between the two worlds, veterans often perceive mixed messages relating to civilian work places to which they’ve applied or are considering applying. Again, part of the responsibility for misunderstandings in this regard lies with the veterans, but organizations need to be explicitly clear on what their culture is, what their expectations for new hires (veteran or others) is for assimilating into the culture, what their culture is not, and why it’s important for all candidates to have a clear picture of their culture. Now, in the highly competitive recruiting world with its marketing influences, there’s often the tendency to up-sell the positive attributes of one’s organizational culture without providing a true sense of the types of individuals who both thrive within it and who may struggle there. Let’s face it, a highly hierarchical, top-down, bureaucratic organization may not be a good fit for individualistic, entrepreneurial types. Or a start-up tech company may not be a great cultural fit for someone craving stability, clear lines of authority, or more traditional management preferences.
Within the military, one can find cultural “types” as diverse as within the civilian work world. There are highly engaged bureaucrats for whom a very traditional, conservative and highly structured civilian organization would be a great fit. There are top-notch analysts who do their best work in cubicles and on individual projects. There are also highly adaptable team players who thrive on autonomy and empowered decision-making. In short, every subset of cultural preference one finds in the civilian world can be found in the military, so when recruiting or interviewing veterans, getting a clear sense of precisely the type of individual a candidate is, what his or her cultural preferences may be, learning how adaptable they might be to a different cultural perspective, and most importantly, being explicitly honest about the culture that exists in your organization is critical to ensuring cultural fit with new veteran hires.
And where fit may not exist, be explicit about where that misalignment occurs. Rather than simply let a candidate know that they were not “a good cultural fit” for your organization, be willing to talk in more specifics, using the candidate’s own expressed preferences highlight the misalignment.
Onboard, onboard, onboard!!!
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of solid and proactive onboarding…and the extent to which many organization fail to build this into all their new hire assimilation efforts. But nowhere is this more critical, I would suggest, than with veteran hires. In a multi-year study, my own research into veterans integration and re-integration efforts has shown that some of the most challenging aspects of joining (or rejoining, in the case of deployed Reservists) include: a) a lost sense of purpose, b) a missing sense of community, and c) a lack of career guidance. And equally importantly, know that onboarding is not just for new employees, but also for returning reservists and National Guard personnel following combat deployments!
(I’ll take a look at each of these in subsequent posts.)
Evaluate early for potential
Whereas I started out by saying that generalizations that all veterans are highly motivated, highly skilled, highly competent leaders and team players are dangerous, organizations should understand that many military veterans are indeed all of these things. They’ve demonstrated an ability to get the job done, to do what it takes, to innovate, lead, and self-direct. And as a part of the long-term onboarding, organizations would be well served to put into place short-term evaluations of potential for new veteran hires (one could argue this should really be done for everyone, but we know this is not the case in most organizations). Communicate your plans for the growth and promotion of veteran hires, and be explicit. This doesn’t mean promising them unrealistic opportunities, but it does mean articulate where, when, and how you see their potential within your organization expanding. And don’t just tell them your ideas. Listen, too, to their own thoughts, desires, goals, and vision. See where they match…where they do, run with it. Where the two diverge, talk about it. Taking a personal approach to their development will go far in building organizational loyalty in veterans long used to placing their organizational needs above their own.
Knowing how to go about finding, attracting, recruiting, and ultimately retaining key personnel is always the key to a successful and sustainable organization. Within the ranks of our hundreds of thousands of military veterans, there lies tremendous potential, but only if organizations like yours recognize and cultivate this talent. Those who know how to do this will have a significant leg up on the competition, but those who believe themselves to be “veteran-friendly” without having well developed and implemented policies like these in place may be simply wasting talent right in front of their noses. So, take the time to really examine what programs, policies, and practices you have in place in your organization that aim to leverage and maximize the veteran talents in your midst. By all means, if you need help figuring these out, reach out to me or the many others out there actively looking to not only help out our military veterans, who are so deserving of our efforts, but also the organizations of each of our communities. Veteran talent is the talent that can lead companies into the future…if we only give them a chance.
Dr. Trevor Nagle is an executive coach and consultant with Stewart Leadership, an international leadership, teaming, talent development, and change management consulting, coaching, and training company, which has been building leaders for over 35 years.