Jun 20

Integrating Former Senior Military Leaders into Private Sector Success

BurroughsWhile there are many resources currently focused on transitioning junior enlisted and junior officers into the civilian workforce, it can be challenging to find targeted support for senior officers getting ready to retire after a long career in military service.

I was pleased to connect with Mike Burroughs, a seasoned executive and author with an extensive background in global recruiting, executive coaching and organizational development, following a successful military career. Mike agreed to share his candid perspectives based on his years of experience and his solid understanding of the military to civilian transition process.

VSB: What are the most common challenges senior military leaders, in particular, face as they prepare to enter the civilian workforce?

MB: I should start with the basic tool:  the resume.   There are advisors who encourage senior military leaders to craft a resume that is in civilian terms.   As an executive recruiter, I can say that this should not be the case.   While a resume should be free of acronyms and jargon, regardless of the background of the executive, it makes no sense to call a group, ship or brigade commander a “CEO” or “president”.  

Senior military leaders have become accustomed to having a staff to which they delegate much of their work.  This is usually not the case in the private sector.   Executives do a lot of the work that “action officers” might do, for example, in a high level military staff role.  CEO and president roles are not the same as flag officer or senior field grade officer command roles.

The question is not “Can the retiring officer adjust?”  Rather, it is “Can the retiring officer adjust quickly?”  Senior military leaders have much more to set aside and that is primarily the military culture and methods of getting things done; they are often quite different in the private sector. Even defense industry companies’ cultures are quite different from the uniformed services.  If a retiring senior military leader seeks a position within the government, the transition is less severe.

While good leadership values and practices are welcome anywhere, it is the day-to-day nature of the work itself that changes substantially from the military to a corporate role.   The language also changes.   Other significant changes involve different methods of evaluating performance and career management.    None of these differences are insurmountable.  Keep a positive attitude and be open to new ways of getting things done.  Ask good questions and keep an open mind.

VSB: As an executive recruiter and executive coach, what would you cite as the top priorities for senior military officers approaching transition out of military service?


  • If humanly possible, start giving serious thought to your transition well before your retirement date.  A couple of years out is not too early. Treat this transition as you would treat going to night school to get an advanced degree, because in many ways, it is an equally daunting educational process requiring many hours of research and after-hours homework.
  • Identify a dozen of your former colleagues who have made a successful transition and interview them. Think of your questions well in advance and ask them all the same questions. Do your best to get them to tell you what they did wrong as well as what they did right, and for sure, ask for  their observations and advice.
  • Begin now to build your network of influential people who can help you in this transition.
  •  Also, start identifying organizations you might want to work for and research as much about those organizations as possible—to include identifying the key players. Don’t think you can rely on executive recruiters to place you.  98% of your job search work will be personally researching and reaching out to people from whom you can learn and who might also be able to open some doors for you.
  • Throughout this process, do not lose site of the fact that, if you are married, the transition that your spouse is making to civilian life is every bit as challenging as it is for you.  Work together during this transition.  Everything is about to change. Look forward to it. 

VSB:  In Before Onboarding, you cite a 2011 executive transition study in which 30% of the executives who joined an organization as an external hire failed within two years.  Why do you think that percentage is so high?

MB: That was alarming data!  There was another study even more alarming, which stated that 40 to 50% of outside hired managers are ultimately unsuccessful.   Moreover, while internally promoted managers fare better than outside hires, the marginal difference is minimal.   When you consider one study said over 500,000 managers change jobs in the Fortune 500 alone every year, the impact of failure is very significant.

What I’ve seen both as a corporate executive in the Fortune 500, as an executive recruiter and  executive coach is this:  Organizations are placing increasing emphasis on the selection process of executives they hire, but few of them are taking any meaningful steps to ensure their recently hired executives are properly integrated into these organizations.  This is critically important because the studies I cited also state that what a new leader does or neglects doing in the first 90 days on the job often determines ultimate success or failure.

These studies focused on executives already in the civilian workforce.  When you consider the significant cultural and operational challenges senior military leaders experience when leaving the service and entering the private sector, you can see that a structured new leader integration process is even more necessary.

VSB: While larger companies may provide on-boarding programs to facilitate senior military leader transitions into the private sector, these do not always prove successful.  How can companies do a better job integrating transitioning senior military leaders into their new roles in the civilian workforce?

MB: I have not experienced, either as a transitioning military officer, or as an executive recruiter, any organizations, regardless of their size, devoting resources to helping retired military officers assimilate.  The few that do are to be commended, and I’m sure the results speak for themselves if they are well thought out and well-managed programs.

On-boarding programs are common these days, but they are usually more administrative in nature.  They are designed for every new person entering an organization and most of what they cover is information applicable to all employees.  There is an element of job specificity that occurs in most of these programs, but they are not designed to ensure that new leaders get the right results quickly and avoid costly mistakes.  That said, the process I developed and documented in my book, Before Onboarding, is relevant to any new leader integrating into a new organization, including retired military officers, and focuses on quick results and long-term success.

Aside from the numerous questions I pose that are relevant to a new leader transition, I also have a chapter on executive coaching.  The process outlined in the book begins well before a new leader’s first day on the job and culminates 90 days after the start date.   Executive coaches can be extremely helpful in new leader integration programs regardless of the new leader’s background; however, retiring senior military leaders would benefit from an executive coach who speaks the language of both the military and the private sector and gives good advice and counsel during those critical transition weeks.   If organizations provide neither integration nor coaching support to incoming senior military leaders, then these transitioning leaders should consider finding a coach on their own with whom they can confide and who can give good transition advice in a timely manner.

VSB: Should every senior military leader use an executive recruiter?  What factors should be considered in making that decision and how would you recommend finding the right one?

MB: There is a prevailing misconception in the marketplace, even among many executives with no military experience, that executive recruiters are available to serve transitioning managers the way accountants or lawyers might also serve them.  This is not the case.  Executive recruiters work for the clients they represent and their search assignments vary, based on their clients’ needs at any given time.

In the very large search firms, there are often a few recruiters who serve the aerospace and defense industry market sectors.  I held a similar role in my own search career.   From experience, I can say that the vast majority of the search assignments arising from this industry sector are positions which retiring military officers do not traditionally fill; for example, top management, manufacturing operations or finance positions.

Many of these companies do, however, hire senior military officers to serve in roles such as program managers or business developers.  Many times they find candidates to fill these positions from within their own networks, but often they retain a search firm to do the work for them.   If a retiring military officer’s background and network match these roles, they will often be sought out, and for that reason, it makes sense for those who have credentials and interests in certain specialized defense industry roles, to contact the recruiters in these “top 20” firms and express their interests (and qualifications) to these individuals.  

VSB: What were the key lessons you took away from your own transition as an Army officer to successful private sector executive?

MB: I examined a variety of career options and reached out to people well in advance of my departure.  I also interviewed with potential employers as often as key people would meet with me.  Fortunately, I had several options, and I did not jump at the first one.   It also helped that I did an honest assessment of my transferable skills and matched them with my evolving interests, thus making sure that the position I eventually took provided me as seamless of a transition as possible.

I also had to learn that working relationships in my new role were much less formal than what one experiences in the military.  I reported to a company president.  He was “Chuck” to us all.  Everyone who reported to me, and others within my own department, called me Mike.  I called them by their first names, too.

One thing was certain for me:  people respond to good leaders the same way regardless of the organization.  I considered my new role to be a manager, teacher, counselor and coach, and made a point of getting to know all of the people who made up my own organization, never losing sight of the fact that communication is the medium of leadership.

I also made asking good questions and listening into a fine art.  And I learned that performance appraisals in the private sector do not carry nearly the weight that they do in the military.  Also careers (and jobs) can end as quickly as they begin…and for a variety of reasons that one does not encounter in the military.

In addition, an important skill I carried with me into the private sector was practicing the art of managing up and over as well as down.  Bosses tend to be tolerant and understanding (at least at first), subordinates are hopeful that their new leader will be better than (or at least as good as) the previous person.  One’s peers, however, do not suffer fools gladly.  Find out what they want and need from you as soon as possible—and give it to them routinely. 

Finally, don’t look at the job you take when you leave the military as the “be- all and end-all” of your entire civilian career.  The statistics are clear that the first job out of the military is more often than not, a transition period in which you adjust to a civilian working life.  It is not uncommon for former senior military leaders to move on to new civilian roles after they are comfortable with that initial adjustment.   Two to three years is not at all uncommon.

Before OnboardingMichael K. Burroughs left the Army as a newly promoted major to become a corporate executive in the Fortune 500.  He took a commission in the Army Reserve and retired at the rank of colonel.  He has held organization development executive positions for divisions of three Fortune 500 companies, and was an executive vice president and managing director for a “top five” global retained executive search firm.  He is both a Master Corporate Executive Coach and a Board Certified Coach and the author of numerous articles and a groundbreaking book on executive transitions, Before Onboarding:  How to Integrate New Leaders for Quick and Sustained Resultswww.ESIassoc.com


  1. George Cesaretti

    Mike’s comments are thoughtful, cogent, and clearly come from long personal involvement. In my own thirty-nine years as a leader (ten as a military officer), my experiences echo his. To add my own observation, a military officer entering the “civilian” management world for the first time will be immediately struck by the relative inattention paid to systematically developing leaders in his new environment. Likewise, servant leadership values and behaviors that are fundamental to the service world are not so emphasized and continuously reinforced in many non-military organizations. This all will come as somewhat of a shock, and transitioning military officers will do well to prepare themselves for this “sea change” as well. Mike’s practice of pre-boarding goes a long way toward building this new awareness and giving transitioning officers the time and detailed information critical to their early success.

  2. Cathy Price

    Mr. Burroughs, I find your data to be true and accurate. I specialize in government contracting firms and small businesses from a HR perspective. In order to help these great men and women, it takes re-training. They have to learn relationship and communication skills. In speaking with other HR cohorts from Lockheed, Northrup and other large employers, they are having the same challenges with their former Generals, Colonels, etc. It hard for them to function in a very collaborative environment where subordinates are able to challenge an idea or process. The key to their success is an open mind. So far, those I have coached have been open to change and take guidance to heart. Thanks for such a great article. This is a subject that needs to addressed in HR forums.

    1. Michael Burroughs

      Hi Cathy,

      Thank you for your comments to my interview in Military Leaders in Transition regarding senior military leaders moving to the private sector. In your comments you mentioned (thank you) that this topic should be included in HR forums. I would welcome the opportunity to do this if you have any suggestions along those lines. It would also be nice to have a phone conversation with you about your observations. I am writing a sequel to my book (and developing TWO MBA courses) on New Leader Integration, and your insights would be valuable. I am also looking for some good “case studies” (no names of course) that could be included in my book sequel and courses. I can think of nothing more relevant than senior military leaders transitioning into high roles in the private sector. If you would be willing to discuss this with me, please let me know at mike@michaelkburroughs.com or text me at 314-341-1139 and we will set up a convenient time. Thanks again for your comments.

      Michael Burroughs

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