Every now and then, we come across people we know are going to go far in life, no matter where they are or what they choose to do. Recently, I caught up with one of those individuals. Charles “Skip” Bowen served as Master Chief Petty Officer of the U.S. Coast Guard, 2006-2010. In his role, he provided counsel and advice to the Coast Guard Commandant, serving as the eyes, ears and voice of enlisted personnel within the service. Skip has brought his years of experience into the private sector and agreed to share his transition advice and perspectives with those planning ahead for their second careers:
VSB: Congratulations on your recent promotion to Vice President of Government Relations at Bollinger Shipyards. How did your military experience as Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard prepare you for this position?
BOWEN: The experience afforded me the opportunity to work and interact at the highest levels of a large organization. I was able to observe and work closely with some of the most brilliant leaders in government, both inside and outside of the Coast Guard. The Commandant at the time, Admiral Thad Allen, empowered and expected everyone around him to think outside of the box and find a way to put into action solutions to the Coast Guard’s challenges. Getting things done in a large complex organization can be very difficult. If, for instance, I wanted to make a change to an existing policy, my arguments had to be well thought out and all consequences considered before I presented the idea to whoever “owned” the policy in the organization. Sometimes that took quite a lot of diplomacy. I was able to learn from each experience and I hope that, as a result, I have become a better leader.
VSB: What were some of the hurdles you had to overcome when you retired from military service and do you think they reflect what others are experiencing today as they begin their own transitions into civilian life?
BOWEN: The first hurdle was simply separating from an organization that I felt I knew literally from top to bottom. Retiring from the Coast Guard was very difficult. You think you are preparing for it but when it happens, it is quite a shock. One moment you are involved in everything that the service is doing and the next moment you are totally out. It was a very hard pill to swallow.
Of course, the next step was to determine what I was going to do in the civilian world. Initially, I accepted a position at a professional services and information technology company as a senior program manager. The folks there were very good to me and I was surrounded by retired and former military, but the transition was still challenging. For instance, much of the work had to do with working proposals and business development… neither of which were familiar to me prior to retirement.
After 9 months on the job, I was approached by Bollinger Shipyards to be the Program Manager on the Fast Response Cutter (FRC) program. I had a lot of experience as a Bollinger customer and I loved their vessels, so I jumped at the chance. I had been assigned to the first 110 WPB, the CGC FARALLON from 1986-1989 and I commissioned the second 87 CPB, the CGC HAMMERHEAD (still the coolest name in the 87 fleet!) My decision to accept Bollinger’s offer had mainly to do with my desire to successfully run and have a positive impact on a very large program… a program that I could sink my teeth into and feel like I was contributing again. I had a very steep learning curve as I had very little engineering, contracting or acquisition experience, all of which were important in the new position. But, with a lot of assistance from my co-workers at Bollinger and some additional contracting training, I feel that I was able to contribute to the major success of the FRC program.
VSB: How do you think senior enlisted personnel can better prepare for their own separation from military service?
- For senior enlisted, the most significant way that you can prepare is to pay attention to your own education. You must get that degree… I can’t overstate how important it is. Very shortly after I took my first civilian job, I found myself in charge of looking through resumes to fill a position. There were a lot of great people in that pile but, quite frankly, I wasn’t even able to consider the folks that were in the non-college degree pile. That piece of paper is critical.
- Another great qualification that is important is the project management professional (PMP) certification. If you can find a way to get it while still on active duty, it is very important in the world of government contracting.
- The last bit of advice I have is to keep your security clearance current. This is also very important.
- As you move toward transition, keep an open mind toward everything and network, network, network. Your military skills and experience should be in high demand but you have to let people know you are looking.
VSB: What do you enjoy most about working in the private sector?
BOWEN: I am not sure that anything can fully replace the adventure that I lived for 32 years. Maybe as time goes on it will get easier but I will always miss the Coast Guard. Having said that, there is something to be said for living wherever you want to and going home at night on a regular basis.
VSB: Any other words of advice for transitioning senior military leaders?
BOWEN: The Coast Guard’s famous motto is Semper Paratus which means, “Always Ready.” Everyone has to leave the military eventually and while it is never easy, if you fully prepare for transition it will be easier. Sometime back I was counseling a retired E9 who had never completed his college degree and had even let his security clearance lapse. To say that he had a difficult time in transition is a major understatement. Don’t let it happen to you. Prepare for transition and you will be ready when the time comes.