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Aug 03

Brigadier General Brings Academic Credentials to New Career in Higher Education

Tom Kolditz Restablishing your credentials once you are no longer wearing your military uniform takes on a whole new meaning when you are interested in pursuing a post-military career in academia. I learned this from someone with first-hand experience — former Brigadier General Tom Kolditz, who served most recently as professor and department head at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and recently transitioned to head up the Leadership Development Program at the Yale School of Management.  Tom agreed to share his insights with Military Leaders in Transition:

VSB: Tom, congratulations on your recent appointment as director of Yale’s School of Management Leadership Development Program. How was the transition from department head of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at West Point into your new position at Yale?

Kolditz: People here have been very welcoming, helpful and supportive; they are happy to be here and the organization has a great mission, so it has made for a very smooth transition.

VSB: How do you think military culture is perceived in the academic world?

Kolditz: During the selection process, there may have been some who initially wondered what qualified me, beyond my military rank, to assume this leadership position within the university.  Those concerns quickly evaporated once they saw my academic credentials and realized that I received my doctorate in 1985, had 12 years of high quality teaching experience at Westpoint and have been published in several scholarly journals.

Unfortunately, I do think there are some military stereotypes that are tough to get around. In some of the articles written about my new role at Yale, there were some very shallow observations about things such as the tidiness of my office. I doubt this would have been  included in the article had I not come from a military background. So, while some stereotypes exist, they are not insurmountable.

VSB: What advice would you give to military leaders contemplating future transition into academia following their military careers?

Kolditz: Entering higher education is not something you can decide to do on the spur of the moment. I recently spoke with someone preparing to leave command who casually said that he was thinking about entering academia.  Unfortunately, he had laid no groundwork, had no doctorate, no history of high quality teaching, had not done any original research or writing in scholarly journals, and, as a result, lacked the credentials needed to be competitive in a university teaching position.  If you are serious about teaching following your military career, you will need to ensure that you have solid academic credentials and experience in order to be taken seriously.

VSB: Do you find yourself drawing on your military leadership experience in your MBA classroom?

Kolditz: I hold a Doctorate in social psychology, so I draw first on scholarly work and evidence about leadership and then, frequently refer to leadership experiences that I had in the military and in business. I don’t tell war stories or talk about what I think leadership is. I stay as evidence-based as possible and that’s important in my business as an educator.

VSB: What are the key pieces of advice you’d like to share with transitioning senior military leaders?

Kolditz:

  • In the end, leadership experience will be much less important than the networks that they have when they transition.  If their networks are confined to former military colleagues, they may be limiting future opportunities to those tied to the defense industry.  The broader the networks they can build both inside and outside the military field, the more varied the opportunities that can be explored as a second career.
  • While it’s important to have a solid resume, senior military leaders will not get hired from their resumes, but when others have developed trust and confidence in their abilities.  It’s important to take advantage of the growing number of organizations that provide mentoring and networking opportunities to give people a chance to get to know you in the sectors you would like to pursue after your military career.
  • Networking takes a lot of time. If I could do it all over again, I would have started heavy networking activity two to three years out; it takes a long time for that process to foment and for those relationships to develop into opportunities.
  • The Armed Services need to become more tolerant of individuals building networks and contacts while still in the military. Of course, such networking still requires military members to abide by the limitations imposed by existing laws and regulations.  However, military officers should not hesitate to seek legal advice about what they can do right and left, right up to the edge. Many are afraid to test those limits and so they stay away from it entirely; this limits their ability to build the extensive network they will need to tap after their military career comes to an end.
  • As senior military leaders, we are sometimes our own worst enemy. We are all too ready to accept the somewhat artificial elevation of status that comes with our senior rank; the cloud of entitlement we may feel at the most senior ranks will make our transition into civilian life all the more challenging.  Transitioning senior leaders would be wise to alter their expectations and recognize that military culture inflates importance of individual leaders sometimes beyond their actual contributions. 
  • The personal staffs that senior leaders come to rely on in the military are far more robust than is affordable or appropriate in civilian life. Make sure you are better prepared, prior to leaving military service, to become more self-reliant in day-to-day things.  If you can’t operate technology – i.e. know how to forward your telephone to the front desk by yourself – you need to accept things like that as your own personal responsibility before you enter the civilian workforce.
  • As important as leadership is to us in the military, what most people are looking for is personal and organizational performance; leadership and management are only parts of that. We have a tendency to overlead and undermanage.  It takes more than strong leadership to give organizations what they need; it takes humility, management capacity and an ability to put things in perspective – those are especially important.

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