The transition from the military into the federal government may be an easier career shift for many senior leaders than a move into the private sector. At the same time, there are a number of perceived and real differences that vary from agency to agency. I asked Brian Salerno, Director, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, at the U.S. Department of Interior, to share his transition experience from senior military leader to the Senior Executive service.
VSB: What advice would you give to senior military leaders seeking a civilian position in the federal government in the current budget climate?
Salerno: First, ask yourself if you really want to ride the tiger. Although life as an SES is less intense than it is as a senior military leader, there are still many of the same pressures and frustrations (budget scarcity, congressional hearings, etc) that we all managed while in uniform.
By comparison, I spent a year as a private, independent consultant. I had a lot more flexibility in my schedule, was successful in attracting clients and I enjoyed the variety of jobs. I could easily have kept going. However, I found that I missed the sense of mission that comes with government service. I decided that the more restrictive schedule and the inevitable frustrations were worth the tradeoff!
Budget realities are of course having an effect on staff levels and hiring, although this is affecting different agencies in different ways. As a retired flag, your leadership and management skills will be highly regarded, making you very competitive. However, the military is generally not viewed as having to deal with the same budget hardships as civilian agencies (if they only knew!) so be prepared to show how you have enhanced efficiency in a time of increased scarcity.
…the military is generally not viewed as having to deal with the same budget hardships as civilian agencies (if they only knew!) so be prepared to show how you have enhanced efficiency in a time of increased scarcity.
VSB: What are the key similarities and differences you have found between your current federal position and your previous military service?
Salerno: Several of the processes on the civilian side are similar to those we experienced in the military (e,g,. budget build, rulemakings, OMB oversight), however, many civilian agencies are not as robust in their capabilities. The area where I have been most surprised by the absence of capability is with IT and knowledge management – military services are far ahead of the civilian agencies with which I now work. This is both a problem and a challenge.
Congressional relationships: Military services maintain Hill staff who can help explain initiatives and policies to committee staffs. In return, the services get a lot of insight into what Hill staffs are thinking. In contrast, most civilian agencies do not have Hill staffs, and therefore the intelligence is never quite as good.
As a senior civilian leader, I have spent time on the Hill meeting with staffs and members, but never with as much advance info as I had when in uniform. The uniform brings instant credibility, less so with a civilian suit. You will still find a great deal of respect for your past service, but staffs will likely be more skeptical of your new agency’s positions than what you may have encountered when representing a military service.
The uniform brings instant credibility, less so with a civilian suit.
Finally, relationships with your workforce will be different than when in the military. My experience is that civilian agencies are less formal in their interactions. You will still be respected as a leader and as the boss, but be prepared to be addressed in a less formal style. Many will instinctively address you by your first name, although this is less common with former military. Also, workers will pay attention to your opinions and direction, but be ready to “sell” new ideas in a way that you may not have had to do before.
Working with political appointees is something most in uniform have experienced to some degree. However, it was not until I took a senior civilian position did I interact with political appointees on an ongoing basis. Political appointees place great reliance on networks, and somewhat less emphasis on the organizational chain of command. This can be useful in getting things done, but is different from the way most of us operated in our military careers.
VSB: Based on your own transition experience, what are the top three things military leaders should consider as they prepare to step away from military service?
a. Making the mental shift: You have heard this before: not everyone in government, like society in general, understands military service. They may be intrigued by it and respect it, but they may not to know what to expect from you and what a military mindset will mean for the workforce. Most of what they think they know about the military they picked up from movies. I found people were worried that I might expect military-style discipline from the workforce (this came out in the interview,) and as much as they respected my background, it was clearly not what they wanted in their organization. So depending on the department or agency, be prepared to offer some reassurance that successful military officers are actually quite skilled and sophisticated at inspiring people to perform well in their mission.
Working in a civilian agency requires a mental transition. The Chain of Command is likely to be a lot looser. Many employees will feel free to communicate directly with you via e-mail. How you deal with that will set a tone. Personally, I have accepted such communications, because I want to know what people are really thinking. I miss having a Command Master Chief!
b. Know what you don’t know: When hired into a senior position, particularly into a non-military agency, a little humility goes a long way! You may or may not be seen as an expert in the agency’s procedures. It takes a lot of interaction with the workforce to convince them that you value their expertise, and that you will consider it before you begin to make significant changes.
c. Finally, salary and taxes…Consider your full tax burden taxes as you plan your finances. A safe assumption may be that you will pay a third of everything you make in federal taxes, factoring in your retired pay as well as your civilian salary. You might want to get a financial advisor to shelter as much as you can.
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Brian Salerno is a retired U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral.