Jan 24

Find Your Post-Military Passion

Finding the right fit, both personally and professionally, is a key goal in transition from military service. Where to live? How will skills and experience translate into a satisfying second career?  These were just two of the many questions that Captain Sean Mahoney, USCG (ret) asked as he began his transition from Sector Commander into leadership roles in the nonprofit sector, starting with the launch of a brand new organization.

VSB: Sean, what were your key concerns as you approached your transition into the civilian workforce?

Mahoney: First, I had to weigh the pros and cons of leaving the service compared to staying in for a few more years.  The ability to stay in this location ended up being the deciding factor because we loved the area and had developed many friendships.  Once that decision was made, I focused on finding a fulfilling second career in an area that interested me and would allow me to maintain the strong relationships I had in the community.  I spent a lot of time considering what sectors and positions were the best fit for my skills, interests and experience.

VSB: What did you learn during your first year in the civilian workforce that either surprised you or that helped shaped your path forward?

Mahoney: I was surprised at how demanding it was to launch a startup organization!  It is a relentless effort that involves business plan development, hiring staff, leasing office space, procuring equipment, branding, marketing, website development, creation of internal policies, fundraising, and more.  It is also an exciting process, and nothing beats the satisfaction that comes with the successes of a startup. In the end, our nonprofit initiative was very successful and greatly exceeded all initial goals, but that took enormous effort by all involved.

At the same time, it was remarkable to me how much transition-related administration was left to do after separation, and many of these details can’t be completed until the final farewell with DD-214 in hand.  These include changes to taxes, medical insurance and providers, retiree IDs, drivers’ licenses, vehicle registrations, investment accounts and perhaps a move or two. These items sound minor until they’re added to the challenging learning curve and workload that comes with starting a new career.

VSB: How do you think your military service prepared you to become a leader in the nonprofit sector?

Mahoney: Initiative and leadership are critical to success in any professional sector.  Many of us take the significant leadership training and experience we’ve gained in the military for granted, because we’ve been in an organization that emphasizes leadership for our entire careers.  My background with supervising and developing people, planning and implementing projects, leading units and departments, and overcoming challenges has been absolutely critical in my nonprofit leadership roles.

VSB: What advice would you give to those weighing the pros and cons of a post-military career in the nonprofit sector?

Mahoney:  The nonprofit sector is larger and more diverse than you might think.  In fact, it accounts for 10% of all jobs in the US, making it the third biggest sector behind retail and manufacturing.  There are many types of nonprofit organizations serving many different causes, so do your research.  Consider what you’re passionate about.  Is it working in the arts, or helping children, veterans, immigrants, or the elderly?  I enjoy coming to work every day because I genuinely care about the mission of the American Red Cross, which is to prevent and alleviate human suffering.

Avoid the temptation of starting another nonprofit before doing a thorough gap analysis; there are 1.4 M nonprofits in the United States, so it is likely there is one near you that is addressing the community need you may have identified.

Realize upfront that most nonprofits are very lean and resources are scarce. Everyone on the staff needs to roll up their sleeves, wear different hats, and be personally committed to performing and sustaining the mission.

VSB: Other thoughts you’d like to share with colleagues approaching military to civilian career transition?

Mahoney: Focus on the “what do you want to do?” question.  General answers like “something in senior management” aren’t helpful.  Do some soul searching and narrow this down – consider taking a skills and interest assessment if you’re having trouble defining your next career path.  Be able to tell people in your network your specific job interests; this will make it easier for them to help you if they become aware of a related opportunity.

Once you have that answer down, make sure you’re networking.  You’ll never know what event or personal connection will lead to your new position, so stay as active as possible. When you do see that ideal job and submit your application, it is critical to follow up and personally contact someone at that organization.  People like to hire someone they’ve met or who has been referred to them, so you need to stay engaged in the community. 

You will get that interview.  When you do, you’ll have to thoroughly prepare, but remember that the interview is just a meeting and conversation, so it’s nothing you haven’t done before.  Know in the end that you’ll land on your feet and excel! 

Sean Mahoney is Regional CEO of the American Red Cross of San Diego and is a retired U.S. Coast Guard Captain. Prior to his current role, he served as Executive Director of zero8hundred.



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