Thursday, July 25, 2013

Veterans in Transition - Continuing the Conversation About Clearing Hurdles

Last week I published an article on some of the obstacles that veterans face in transitioning into the civilian job market.  

That post has generated some interesting dialogue, and I would like to keep the dialogue going by sharing some observations made to me by a veteran on the West Coast who reached out after reading last week's article.  This individual had also been in the military, subsequently attended graduate school at a top Ivy League policy program, and most-recently worked in foreign policy for a little over five years. 

"I moved out to Seattle, where my wife had a great career opportunity and where we had lived once already (and enjoyed it immensely).  I was open to a change in career and geography, and aimed to move from government to either the corporate or non-profit sectors.  I've worked in a wide number of roles (e.g. strategy, analysis, staffing, people management, program management, operations management) across a number of organizations and cultures.  In other words, I’d switched jobs a number of times and succeeded; I’d transitioned careers once (out of the military) smoothly.  I knew this transition would be more challenging – I was trying to change industries, networks, and geographies, all at once.  But it has been harder than expected.  Despite a number of interviews, I’m still looking after 7 months.

Here are a few observations from the job hunt and broader career transition, both for those in a transition or those who may be approaching one:

1) Develop a ‘translation pitch.’  In applying to a job, you are trying to be the solution to a company’s business problem.  Your challenge is to make a persuasive value proposition, meanwhile mitigating any perception of risk or uncertainty as a candidate.  Companies are generally looking for the candidate that will best perform in day 1, and not based on their growth potential 1 or 3-5 years from now.  Accordingly, focus on your qualifications to do the job they are hiring for, versus your ability to do the job or growth potential beyond that job (unless they are the one focusing on these things).  ‘Potential’ can be a euphemism for ‘not qualified.’  Developing an elevator pitch is important for networking; it helps people understand what direction to point you in.  However, for job interviews, a good ‘translation pitch’ will allow you to clearly and succinctly communicate how your prior experience directly translates to the job at hand and allows you to hit the ground running on day 1.

2) It's increasingly a hard skills world – prepare for it.  Pedigree and past performance are necessary, but not sufficient to landing a job.  Jobs are becoming more and more narrowly and technically defined, whereas military experience provides broad, experiential building blocks.  It is not so much the lack of familiarity with veterans that is the challenge, it’s this mismatch between hiring for hard (versus soft) skills that is the real challenge to overcome.  Don’t assume that others will find leadership and management skills as valuable or important as you do; don’t necessarily lead with leadership.  Remember, in a knowledge or creative economy, many/most of the jobs do not involve direct people management.  For those who have not yet transitioned, professional certifications, fluency with a variety of software programs (especially data-oriented analysis), or industry-specific experience can all help.  These can enable you to lead with specific qualifications and hard skills, vice your general ability. 

3)  A transition is in many ways a non-linear endeavor and thus can be frustrating to task-oriented individuals.  Much will be out of your control:  interview processes will take longer than expected (months); in all likelihood, so will the transition. As a minimum baseline, expect the transition to take six months.  If you find something before then, be happy.  If it is taking longer than that, don’t despair.  Go to every interview (informational or otherwise); you never know where a conversation could lead.  Looking back, you will probably never have been able to diagram out (in foresight) how you ended up getting your job. 

For example, one job for which I interviewed developed like this. 
·         A colleague from my old work place referred me to a professional contact in my new city.
·         He referred me to a broader networking community / event.
·         At that event, I met a new contact.
·         That person then introduced me to yet another new contact.
·         That person then provided a reference and introduction to someone at a company.
·         That person was aware of a suitable job they were advertising and was also able to provide an internal reference as part of my application. 

The internal reference was the key to then starting the interview process.  Referrals are critical and, at many places, you cannot get your foot in the door without one.

In the end, it only takes one job offer.  Remind yourself of this if you get frustrated or lose confidence.   Remind yourself that you are not simply changing jobs, you are transitioning careers – a complex change wrought with emotional and psychological challenges.  And so, above all, stay positive and persistent and open."

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I am grateful to this veteran for sharing his reflections on his job search experience.  I encourage you to keep this conversation going by commenting directly here in The White Rhino Report, or by e-mailing me with your comments or vignettes.

And if you know of a company in the Seattle area that could use someone with the kind of thoughtful and seasoned skill set that my guest contributor has demonstrated above, please let me know and I will be happy to make the introduction.


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