Private sector employers start from the assumption that you will bring your leadership experience to their company. During your interview, instead of dwelling on the obvious, be prepared to articulate the specific skills you have to help strengthen the corporate bottom line and bring value to the company’s shareholders and fellow employees.
I recently sat down with Leo Brooks, former Army Brigadier General and currently Vice President, National Security and Space Group at Boeing, who shared his advice for transitioning senior military leaders thinking about a second career in the private sector. Leo emphasized the importance of identifying the “secret sauce” that you can bring to the table:
VSB: HOW DID YOUR ARMY EXPERIENCE PREPARE YOU FOR YOUR JOB AT BOEING?
BROOKS: The Army prepared me in several ways:
- It taught me how to think at three levels as a senior officer, approaching problems tactically, at an operational level and at a strategic level.
- My military experience also gave me the skills to be able to dissect an issue, develop a strategy and consider diverse points of view.
- I learned the importance of collaboration and teamwork. The military helps coach you in collaboration and teaches you how to create synergies. Great leaders need to be able to bring together the best people, ideas and solutions in a timely manner and at the lowest cost.
- During my years of military service, I learned how to communicate in an efficient and effective way and to convey confidence in communicating a position, vision and direction on any given issue.
VSB: WHAT WOULD BE YOUR KEY PIECES OF ADVICE FOR CURRENT ACTIVE DUTY SENIOR LEADERS AS THEY PREPARE TO TRANSITION FROM MILITARY SERVICE?
BROOKS: Don’t leap at the first opportunity. You need time to assess what you are seeking, the type of workplace and company that are the right fit for you. Pay attention to the culture and climate of the company, which is far more important than the financial compensation package they are offering you. After your many years in public service, if the culture is not right for you, the money alone will not make you happy.
VSB: HOW MIGHT SENIOR MILITARY LEADERS ASCERTAIN THE CULTURE OF A PROSPECTIVE CORPORATE EMPLOYER BEFORE THEY ACCEPT AN OFFER OF EMPLOYMENT?
BROOKS: Do your homework on the company. Don’t just look at its web site. Look for public statements and comments. See where the company is putting its money philanthropically. What is the company and its key leadership saying about its primary corporate focus and goals?
Look for subtle indicators in how the company delivers its message, online, in public speeches and during your interview. When you meet with senior level people from the firm, are all their questions to you during the interview focused on the rolodex you will bring from your current military service? Or are they also talking about opportunities for your professional growth within the company? If they are asking about how you can help them grow the company from a team leadership perspective or if they are trying to assess your energy and passion, it probably means the company has a more open culture.
VSB: HOW DIFFERENT IS CORPORATE CULTURE FROM MILITARY CULTURE? HOW CAN TRANSITIONING MILITARY LEADERS BEST PREPARE THEMSELVES TO ADAPT TO A DIFFERENT WORKPLACE CULTURE?
BROOKS: Firstly, every company has a different culture. Some companies have a military hierarchical structure. Their presidents are retired 4-stars. Their general managers are retired 2-stars. And their ranks are still on their business cards.
When I was preparing for my second career, I wanted a different experience. While I am proud of my military service and I have used the skills I developed as a senior military leader, I am a businessman now, not a General Officer. I wanted to be in an environment where I am valued and evaluated for who I am and what I can do today, not solely for who I was when I wore my rank on my uniform. In my company, we are all on a first name basis. Having a subordinate call me by my first name is not a sign of disrespect – it is who I really am.
VSB: WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO CONVINCE A PRIVATE SECTOR EMPLOYER THAT YOU ARE THE RIGHT SENIOR LEADER FOR THE JOB?
BROOKS: Senior leaders tend to oversell their ability to lead. I can find 100,000 leaders, so that can’t be the only thing you are selling in an interview. Talk about your specific skills. For example, let the interviewer know that you have a deep understanding of the federal budget process, who makes the decisions, how the decisions are made, when they are made, etc. I’d prefer to hire a person with skills like that, over someone who can only tell me that he/she commanded 50,000 people.
What private sector employers want to know is how will the individual be able to help the business become more profitable and grow? It’s a financial equation – how will you grow the business and increase its value for stockholders and employees?
You have to find your “secret sauce.” What makes you the best person I can hire? Can you monetize what you did and translate your military experience into skills that are marketable in the workplace? You also need to be able to convey an ability to operate in a very lean environment, getting by with minimal resources and in the most efficient and effective manner. You need to persuade your prospective employer that you are a “value add,” not a “value drain.
VSB: WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON MISTAKES SENIOR MILITARY LEADERS MAKE IN THEIR FIRST YEAR OR TWO IN THE PRIVATE SECTOR?
- Don’t come into the civilian workplace as a “know it all.” While you might have been the fountain of knowledge when you left your senior level position in the military, you are entering a different environment. While you may have expertise in some subject matter, there is much you will need to be willing to learn in your new position. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge that you don’t know everything and be passionate about learning what you don’t know.
- Think about how you communicate with your colleagues and with those who report to you in your new job. Your background will naturally be intimidating to some of your teammates. Think about the language you use. You should seek to be respected for your work and the relationships you continue to build, rather than exploit authority through position. Help your people know you are approachable.
- Don’t assume you will come in and revamp structures, policies or systems that may seem confusing to you. You will need to be adaptive and flexible in an unfamiliar and constantly shifting environment. We are taught to be agile based on the changing external environment. While you were in the service, you were given a clear mission, you generally knew who the enemy was, you had a specific budget, and a specified number of staff to help you carry out the effort. In the corporate environment, there are no givens. The budget environment can change much more quickly, you cannot solve issues by placing more manpower against it…managing headcount is important. You may be best partners with another company on one program and dire competitors on another program – I found it challenging to adjust to this.
- You may find yourself carrying out much, if not all, the work on a critical task on your own with fewer staff members available to assist than you are accustomed to in your military life. The foundation in the corporate world is not set in stone. You may be given a general direction and it will be up to you to creatively, efficiently and cost-effectively move forward and add value for your company.
VSB: HOW DOES BOEING SUPPORT TRANSITIONING MILITARY MEMBERS?
Boeing has a long-standing commitment to supporting the men and women in uniform and military families. In continuation of its strong support, Boeing recently entered into a partnership with American Corporate Partners (ACP), a national mentoring program aimed at helping veterans transition to the civilian workforce. To get veterans back to work, ACP brings Boeing senior level professionals and veterans together in a year-long mentoring partnership. The goal of the partnership is to help veterans develop their careers and professional networks as they transition to the private sector. ACP also provides an opportunity to attract and recruit diverse and skilled veterans to join Boeing’s team.