John H. Graham IV served the American Diabetes Association for 24 years, the last thirteen as Chief Executive Officer. Today, John serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer of ASAE, the center for association leadership ( www.asaecenter.org ) ASAE includes more than 21,000 association executives and industry partners representing 10,000 organizations in the United States and around the world.
I asked John to provide his perspective on the association/nonprofit world for those considering a career transition into this sector.
VSB: John, what do you see as the key skill sets needed to be a successful association executive?
Graham: Association management is not rocket science. To be proficient, it requires knowing a little bit about numerous areas including public affairs, communications, non-profit finance, sponsorships, meetings, tradeshows and technology. However, the most important skill is a high EQ and being able to be a servant leader putting volunteer leaders first.
Association management is not rocket science…the most important skill is a high EQ and being able to be a servant leader putting volunteer leaders first.
VSB: Those new to leadership in the nonprofit sector may not realize there are many different types of organizations. What are some of the important distinctions between leadership of a membership association versus leadership of a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization? Are there any similarities of note?
Graham: There are broadly three types of volunteer organizations: charitable (American Red Cross), individual membership (American Bar Association) and trade associations (American Plastics Council).
- Charitable organizations usually focus on a specific cause and tend to be dependent on, and engaged with, volunteers in addition to maintaining a paid staff. They typically rely on contributions from individuals, foundations and other grants for support.
- Individual membership or professional societies focus on a given profession and rely on active volunteer leadership to ensure the organization is as effective as possible. Membership and event dues often provide the backbone of financial support.
- Trade associations generally tend to focus on advocacy for an industry and require little volunteer engagement other than around governance. Financial support is provided by the companies that belong to the trade association.
Each of the three types have boards of directors and committees that focus in on specific areas of importance to the organization.
VSB: What additional guidance would you like to share with senior leaders retiring from military service who are thinking about a second career as an association executive or perhaps taking on a volunteer role as a nonprofit board member?
Graham: Serving on a non-profit board and being as staff member are two very different paths. Becoming an association executive is a career choice that can be very rewarding but it is a definitive career path. Board service is an avocation and, within the nonprofit sector, is typically an unpaid opportunity.
VSB: Does ASAE Center offer any resources that might be useful to military leaders exploring a transition into the nonprofit sector?
Graham: ASAE has a micro site called Career HQ which helps interested people navigate jobs in associations. http://www.asaecenter.org/Career/careerhq.cfm
VSB: What about getting a Certified Association Executive credential?
Graham: Among association leaders, the CAE designation has become known and appreciated as a mark of distinction that offers a wide range of benefits.
Individuals pursue the CAE for a variety of reasons, including professional development, career planning and professional pride, dedication to their career, a personal belief in the association profession, and self-fulfillment.
At the same time, individuals cannot sit for the CAE exam until they have five or more years of experience as an executive working in an association.
It is fair to say that we are largely creatures of habit at work and at home. The creation of personal and professional daily routines gives us some feeling of control in the chaotic world in which we live. That said, there comes a time in both our professional and personal lives when we are facing a change. It is not always easy to do.
Disabled American Veterans’ National Chaplain, Michael P. Dover recently shared some of the common reasons that people resist change.* His thoughts were presented in the context of people quickly abandoning well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions, but I think several of his points are equally relevant for those finding themselves stymied in the process of a major professional transition:
- People are unwilling to give up the safe, predictable and familiar.
- We have no real conviction that change is better than the status quo.
- We feel safer staying where we are, uncertain what life will be like if the change takes place.
No question that with change, comes risk. We want to avoid failure, making mistakes, feeling embarrassed in front of colleagues or family members who know us as high-achieving, highly competent individuals.
Professional transition, whether by your own choice or someone else’s, mandates change in routine and a departure from established activities and behaviors. It may be challenging to shift gears in mid-life, but it can be done. As with the proverbial joke about the number of psychologists it takes to change a light bulb, the answer is “One, but it must be willing to change.”
It may be challenging to shift gears in mid-life, but it can be done. As with the proverbial joke about the number of psychologists it takes to change a light bulb, the answer is “One, but it must be willing to change.”
Keep Chaplain Dover’s suggestions in mind:
- You have to be committed to change — in your heart and in your head.
- Set attainable, specific goals for yourself, rather than flap around in the ambiguity of motivational slogans that “all things are possible” — you may, indeed, not be able to compete any longer as a U.S. Olympic javelin thrower.
- Don’t isolate yourself. Talk with others throughout the transition process to learn from your peers’ experiences. Don’t think you have to do this in a vacuum.
Here are some basic ways to get started:
- Replace that LinkedIn headshot of yourself in military uniform to a more recent one you have taken while wearing a well-fitting business suit.
- Reevaluate your current resume and LinkedIn profile to see how you can reframe your military experience into terms that anyone could understand and appreciate.
- Remove all the acronyms and highlight how the experience you’ve gained can make a quantifiable difference for a civilian employer who is comparing you to another veteran applying for the same job.
Let us know some of the ways you have brought about change in attitude, perspective or delivery as you navigated your transition from military service. Others are waiting to learn from your experience!
* “We must learn to change”, Michael P. Dover, National DAV Chaplain, DAV Magazine, January/February 2015
Hanging up the uniform need not mean walking away from the opportunity to continue to serve others. There are a number of efforts that have emerged in recent years as a way to enable veterans to continue to serve their communities and their country.
Recently, I learned about the U.S. Coast Guard Retiree to FEMA Reservist Initiative, spawned through conversations about how Coast Guard retirees can help meet the disaster response personnel needs of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. I asked Charles “Skip” Bowen, former Master Chief Petty Officer of the U.S. Coast Guard, to share the background on this new program.
VSB: Tell us about this innovative initiative and how it came together.
Bowen: As a new co-chair of the Commandant of the Coast Guard National Retiree Council, I was looking for ways that Coast Guard retirees could “give back” by applying the experience they gained during their military service. Throughout my own Coast Guard career, I took pride knowing that I was part of a humanitarian service; search & rescue and emergency response are the missions that initially attracted me to the Coast Guard and are largely why I remained for so much of my career. I know that many Coast Guard retirees share my desire to continue to serve by applying our training and skills where they are most needed.
During my research, I learned that FEMA — one of our sister agencies within the Department of Homeland Security — is experiencing a personnel shortage in its Reserve program. Over 2700 FEMA Reserve positions are vacant.
I know that many Coast Guard retirees share my desire to continue to serve by applying our training and skills where they are most needed.
After further exploration and many conversations with respected colleagues, it became clear that Coast Guard retirees’ experience in disaster response, rescue, hazardous material handling, survivor support and recovery operations could bring a reliable and dedicated source of support to help meet FEMA’s current response and recovery needs.
Our dialogue led to the creation of the U.S. Coast Guard Retiree to FEMA Reservist Initiative.
This effort is intended to increase “the depth, reliability and skill set of FEMA’s incident workforce … (by enhancing) its corps of intermittent employees who serve on the ground during disasters…”
The Initiative provides an opportunity for Coast Guard retirees to support one of several Incident Workforce Cadres. These include, but are not limited to, roles in acquisitions, disaster emergency communications, disaster field training operations, hazard mitigation, logistics, safety and security.
VSB: Are there any prerequisites to be eligible to participate? Is there specific training that will be required?
Bowen: While there is no age restriction, FEMA’s Conditions of Employment includes the following stipulation: I understand the Agency may ascertain the fitness of applicants as to health, character, knowledge and ability before appointing them to the Reservist Program.
Once a Coast Guard retiree is accepted, he or she will participate in an in-house FEMA training program. FEMA Reservists are trained and qualified to perform a myriad of tasks during a disaster response. When they are deployed, Reservists will be reimbursed for travel and paid as intermittent FEMA employees.
VSB: How can veterans from the other Armed Forces lend their support to this new program?
Bowen: Reaching out to Coast Guard retirees will serve as Phase I and “proof of concept” for a larger initiative targeting all military veterans. During the second phase, our Council will work with FEMA to reach out to retirees from the other Armed Forces. Phase 3 will entail a targeted effort toward all military veterans in general and to wounded warriors in particular.
VSB: Where can our readers learn more about this opportunity?
Bowen: Interested Coast Guard retirees can learn more about how they can help fill a critical need in FEMA’s disaster response and recovery capabilities by visiting:
Though it has become commonplace for civilians to thank military members in uniform for their service, a deeper acknowledgement and appreciation of veterans’ sacrifices and experiences occur with far less frequency.
At a certain level, it is difficult for those who have not served in one of the five Armed Forces to truly understand the life or death decisions that have to be made in an eye-blink, often with irreversible consequences. Or to appreciate the difficult responsibility of letting parents know their young soldier is not coming home again. Or to know what it means to train for months and years to become part of a team of people who will put their own lives on the line to keep each other out of harm’s way and achieve the intended mission.
At a certain level, it is difficult for those who have not served in one of the five Armed Forces to truly understand the life or death decisions that have to be made in an eye-blink, often with irreversible consequences.
Is it any wonder that, upon separation from military service, many veterans feel as though they have been left alone on an island, uncertain about their own next steps? It takes more than the offer of a job or a “thank you” on Veteran’s Day to truly honor service members no longer wearing the uniform.
It takes more than the offer of a job or a “thank you” on Veteran’s Day to truly honor service members no longer wearing the uniform.
Here is how you can make a difference in the life of a transitioning veteran:
- Become a mentor. Listen to concerns, be a sounding board, provide guidance and remain a solid presence in the veteran’s life; don’t abandon ship once the vet has landed a job.
- As an employer, once you hire a veteran, make sure your on-boarding program goes beyond the typical administrative focus on leave policies. Give the individual time to meet co-workers, ask questions, learn the overall agency/corporate mission and understand the new culture.
- The sooner you can engage the veteran as a contributing member of a productive team, the smoother the workplace transition will be, regardless of rate or rank.
- Find ways to engage veterans in the community. Nonprofit organizations will find that veterans, on the whole, have much to contribute as board members, hands-on volunteers and in other capacities. Take the time to connect with veterans and let them know their time, expertise and engagement is truly welcome.
- Remind the veterans you know that you “have their six.” Whether you are a family member, friend, relative or neighbor, let transitioning veterans know you are ready to look out for them and their families in whatever way you are able.
Let’s show our veterans that honoring their service to country is what we do 365 days a year; let them know they are not alone in their journey back to civilian life.
As a senior military executive, you have demonstrated your leadership skills as you have built teams, provided vision, and given the leaders of tomorrow the opportunity to learn and grow. Moving forward into your next career, how will you “leverage” your military leadership and highlight the specific skills you will bring to a private, public or nonprofit employer?
Recently, I connected with Bernadine Karunaratne, President, U.S. Government Consulting Services, at Korn Ferry, where she leads the firm’s Leadership and Talent Consulting government team. She addressed several key points including employers’ desire to find candidates with the right personality fit, in addition to having the right skill set to do the job successfully.
VSB: What are some of the best ways for senior military leaders to highlight their strengths and talents with retained recruiters?
- The first step is having the right mindset. As a transitioning military leader, you have world-class training that makes you a valuable asset to many types of civilian organizations. Take the time to analyze those skills and strengths.
- Highlight differentiators and commonalities between military work and “civilian” work in resume, CV, and interview. Determine and define transferrable skills.
- Prepare ahead of time walk-throughs of military leadership events/examples and how they relate to or can be utilized in non-military situations.
- Emphasize servant leadership. Military leaders exemplify the concept of a leader acting selflessly, helping their charges improve their effectiveness in pursuit of their particular Service’s mission.
- Play up your strengths as veterans; as a group, you are known for precise communication, individual accountability, impeccable execution and natural leadership. Don’t forget to showcase this during the interview. All four skills are in high demand, regardless of position. Give yourself credit for strengths that many non-military job candidates lack. Other key skills to play up: poise, ingenuity, and ability to handle stressful situations well.
Go into transition with goal of advancing and developing your career, not just switching from military to civilian.
VSB: Based on your experience, what are the most common mistakes made by transitioning military leaders as they begin their job search in the civilian workforce?
- Failure to step away from military top-down leadership style versus a collaborative sometimes ambiguous decision-making style. Leaders need to adjust their perspectives, for example, on hierarchy, chain of command, and urgency. Those concepts are not unimportant, but depending on the organization, processes and projects will probably be handled differently.
- As people who have most likely been in service for several years, military leaders have ingrained ways. They sometimes have the inability to leave military jargon and approaches behind. They need to keep the discipline and dedication without the “ma’ams” and “sirs” and “oh-800” instead of “8 a.m.” Employers appreciate the demonstration of accountability towards a role, but perhaps not the rigidity or adherence to rank.
- The worst thing one can do during an interview is to use acronyms and military terms that will mean nothing to a civilian recruiter. Speaking in plain English and presenting a comprehensive story about oneself is more relevant to a potential non-military career.
(M)ost failures in hires are based on fit, not capability. As we have found out in matching executives with companies over the years – people are hired for what they know, they are fired for who they are.
VSB: How do executive search firms ensure a good cultural fit between prospective candidates and the hiring company?
BK: In most instances companies will find three to four qualified candidates per executive position. All candidates will have equal experience and qualifications for the job. Yet only a few will “fit.” In fact, most failures in hires are based on fit, not capability. As we have found out in matching executives with companies over the years – people are hired for what they know, they are fired for who they are. Of course all roles will not fit all people, but veterans who successfully make the transition will be flexible in their approach to new roles.
VSB: Many senior military leaders are seeking an opportunity to work outside the defense sector in their second careers. What advice would you give to help them market their talents and experience more effectively to non-defense related employers?
- Go into transition with goal of advancing and developing your career, not just switching from military to civilian.
- Social networks liked LinkedIn and old-fashioned face-to-face networking are invaluable in showcasing talents in front of a different set of potential employers.
- Define your purpose and brand. This is easier said than done, but with the help of a coach or a program like Leveraging Military Leadership Program (LMLP), a transitioning veteran can really explore how a leader would define him/herself and what he/she represents. For example, if you led large teams in deployments to new regions, highlight change management and leading globally under adversity for a corporation entering new markets.
- Emphasize your leadership skills, especially those that apply universally. If you transformed a group of soldiers or introduced a technology platform to streamline processes, those are skills that could be of benefit to a plethora of organizations.
- Ensure that you ask yourself, “Am I applying for the appropriate jobs?” Especially at the senior level, leaders must seek jobs that match their level of experience.
- Adapt your job title so it is more familiar to those non-military people looking at your resume. This can be done by explaining your responsibilities and helping to make a connection to a non-defense job title.