Jun 13

Getting Ready to Relaunch into a New Career?

carol fishma ncohenRecently, I was invited to attend a career expo hosted by the Military Officers Association in Washington DC and had the good fortune to sit in on a morning presentation by Carol Fishman Cohen who was speaking to a career-driven group of military spouses. Carol holds an MBA from Harvard and, along with her colleague, Vivian Steir Rabin, co-authored a book called Back on the Career Track for people seeking to relaunch their careers after lengthy career breaks.

Having read their book, I am struck by the relevance of the key messages they share that I believe are equally applicable to BOTH senior military leaders AND spouses in transition. Members of both groups may be entering a civilian workforce which has changed drastically in the past 15-20 years.

Military leaders are essentially changing their industry and field upon separating from military service. They will need to assess their career options, learn to network and market themselves in unfamiliar settings, demonstrate confidence in their abilities to be successful in a completely different environment and adjust to a new position after years of remaining within their comfort zones.

Carol’s insights should hit home for active duty members and spouses getting ready to relaunch in a new direction after leaving military life behind:

VSB: Carol, all of us tend to be most relaxed in our own comfort zones. What do you think it takes for military leaders seeking to launch a new career to be able to step out confidently into a workplace that is so different from the familiar military culture, hierarchy, and command structure?

Back On Career TrackCFC: I think the key is to figure out exactly what you want to do, then brainstorm with a range of people — your close family and friends, professional career counselors, practitioners in the field in which you want to work — about the kinds of jobs that make sense for you to pursue.  I think it is especially helpful to speak directly with former military leaders who have already transitioned into the civilian world and ask them exactly how they went about it, what the challenges were, and how they overcame them. Confidence is also built by practicing your “elevator story” — how you talk about your skills, interest and background, and what kind of work you would like to do. The more practice you have telling this “story,” the better you will sound and the more confident you will feel.

VSB: In your book, you note that, for many individuals, their own identities are so wrapped up in their professions, it can take months, if not years to become comfortable with themselves when they leave those former titles behind. What are the take-away lessons in this regard for transitioning military leaders?

CFC: I was one of those people. It took me a long time to adjust to my new identity at home with my kids for many years, minus my professional “status.” I don’t think I ever fully got over it and that was one of the factors propelling me back to work; I missed my working self and wanted that to be part of my identity again.

For military leaders, I think the “identity” question is highly dependent on what role they move into in the civilian world. If they perceive the new role to have significant levels of responsibility, commensurate with the responsibility level they held in the military, even though the job itself is very different, then the transition will be easier than if they perceive they are transitioning to a role with significantly less status or responsibility.

Also, acknowledge that priorities change. Certain jobs that might have been very appealing in one’s 20’s are less appealing in one’s 40’s. For example, if you were single in your 20’s and perfectly happy to travel at a moment’s notice or take on 24/7 schedules, you may feel less enthusiastic about a role with those characteristics if you are now in your 40’s or 50’s, married, and have children.

VSB: While military leaders have developed their self- confidence through their years of service to country, stepping into this competitive job market can give anyone the jitters. Leaders, in particular, will want to avoid failure or being viewed as unprepared and, as a result, may be unsure how to jump in full throttle. What advice would you share to get beyond this underlying discomfort?


  • Rule #1 is to ignore all the negative, macro level, “there are no jobs out there” messaging. You just need one job, and that job is out there somewhere.
  • Get yourself out of the mindset that ageism is an issue with employers. Keep in mind that the population I work with most frequently are people who have been out of the workforce completely from one – 20 years. I can tell you that return to work success among this population is less dependent on age or number of years out of the workforce, and most dependent on identifying specific target jobs and then being relentless about going after them. For example, I can give you a sampling of stories of how people have returned to the workforce after 17-year career breaks.  You can read about these stories at http://www.irelaunch.com/success-stories
  • Employers are especially receptive to former military leaders right now, so use this to your advantage.
  • Avoid “military-speak” — the acronyms and vocabulary — if you are serious about working in the civilian world. There are career counselors who specialize in translating military responsibilities and job descriptions to language civilian recruiters will understand; make sure your resume is sufficiently “translated.”  This translation process is especially important in identifying civilian equivalents to military jobs.  If you make it easy for civilian recruiters to see the relevant parallels between your military work experience and the requirements of the jobs they are trying to fill, then it will be easier for you to move the hiring process forward.

VSB: Military spouses bring a full range of backgrounds to the table. Some have opted to focus on raising their families while others have sought out ways to work outside the home as well.  Many have worked in law, business, health sciences and education, among other fields. Though some are able to remain within their fields in spite of the frequent relocations inherent to military life, others find themselves relaunching professionally with every move. How can all military spouses turn their diverse professional and volunteer experiences into a competitive advantage in this tough job market?

CFC: I want to distinguish between military spouses who are still moving around every two to three years, working hard to maintain some kind of career continuity, even if it means a period of time out of the paid workforce but still doing “strategic” volunteer work, and those who are ending their military duties and getting ready to settle in a particular area.

For those still relocating frequently as part of military life:

  • The best strategies are to develop transferable skills such as tax preparation, learning another language or teaching aerobics.
  • Be selective about the type of volunteer work you agree to take on; try to take on roles that are in line with your longer term career goals.
  • Consider home-based businesses that can move with you from base to base, not only growing your customer list, but also attracting other military spouses who might want to work for you.

For those transitioning out of military life:

  • Include all relevant experience on your resume, including your relevant volunteer work. Describe this volunteer work in business terms and quantify results whenever possible.
  • Do a thorough career assessment, either using the Job Building Blocks Worksheet in Back on the Career Track or assessments that military career services departments or your alma mater may be able to provide at no cost or at discounted rates. Set up an online profile on LinkedIn and use Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube and company websites to research companies; many companies have profile pages on social media sites.
  • Network like crazy. This is important for military leaders and spouses. You must get out of the house and start going to events where you will meet practitioners in your chosen field. Networking simply means having conversations — but having conversations about work.
  • Go to social events so you can tell everybody and anybody that you are serious now about returning to work or about transitioning into the civilian workforce.
  • Find individuals who have jobs that interest you and tell them you are looking at different career paths for yourself; ask if they would mind telling you how they got to where they are today. Military spouses who have been on a career break for years can get in touch with former colleagues in this “information gathering mode” and ask them to explain how the industry has changed over the last ten years while they have been on career break. 
  • Don’t be opportunistic when you are rebuilding a relationship with someone. Establish the relationship first, and then at a later point, you can ask the person to connect you with someone who might be hiring.

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