Jun 20

” Leverage Your Military Leadership “

As a senior military executive, you have demonstrated your leadership skills as you have built teams, provided vision, and given the leaders of tomorrow the opportunity to learn and grow. Moving forward into your next career, how will you “leverage” your military leadership and highlight the specific skills you will bring to a private, public or nonprofit employer? 

bernadine_karunaratneRecently, I connected with Bernadine Karunaratne, President, U.S. Government Consulting Services, at Korn Ferry, where she leads the firm’s Leadership and Talent Consulting government team. She addressed several key points including employers’ desire to find candidates with the right personality fit, in addition to having the right skill set to do the job successfully.

VSB: What are some of the best ways for senior military leaders to highlight their strengths and talents with retained recruiters?


  • The first step is having the right mindset. As a transitioning military leader, you have world-class training that makes you a valuable asset to many types of civilian organizations. Take the time to analyze those skills and strengths.
  • Highlight differentiators and commonalities between military work and “civilian” work in resume, CV, and interview. Determine and define transferrable skills.
  • Prepare ahead of time walk-throughs of military leadership events/examples and how they relate to or can be utilized in non-military situations.
  • Emphasize servant leadership. Military leaders exemplify the concept of a leader acting selflessly, helping their charges improve their effectiveness in pursuit of their particular Service’s mission.
  • Play up your strengths as veterans; as a group, you are known for precise communication, individual accountability, impeccable execution and natural leadership. Don’t forget to showcase this during the interview. All four skills are in high demand, regardless of position. Give yourself credit for strengths that many non-military job candidates lack. Other key skills to play up: poise, ingenuity, and ability to handle stressful situations well.

Go into transition with goal of advancing and developing your career, not just switching from military to civilian. 

VSB: Based on your experience, what are the most common mistakes made by transitioning military leaders as they begin their job search in the civilian workforce?


  • Failure to step away from military top-down leadership style versus a collaborative sometimes ambiguous decision-making style. Leaders need to adjust their perspectives, for example, on hierarchy, chain of command, and urgency. Those concepts are not unimportant, but depending on the organization, processes and projects will probably be handled differently. 
  • As people who have most likely been in service for several years, military leaders have ingrained ways. They sometimes have the inability to leave military jargon and approaches behind. They need to keep the discipline and dedication without the “ma’ams” and “sirs” and “oh-800” instead of “8 a.m.” Employers appreciate the demonstration of accountability towards a role, but perhaps not the rigidity or adherence to rank. 
  • The worst thing one can do during an interview is to use acronyms and military terms that will mean nothing to a civilian recruiter.  Speaking in plain English and presenting a comprehensive story about oneself is more relevant to a potential non-military career.

(M)ost failures in hires are based on fit, not capability. As we have found out in matching executives with companies over the years – people are hired for what they know, they are fired for who they are.


VSB: How do executive search firms ensure a good cultural fit between prospective candidates and the hiring company?

BK:  In most instances companies will find three to four qualified candidates per executive position. All candidates will have equal experience and qualifications for the job. Yet only a few will “fit.” In fact, most failures in hires are based on fit, not capability. As we have found out in matching executives with companies over the years – people are hired for what they know, they are fired for who they are. Of course all roles will not fit all people, but veterans who successfully make the transition will be flexible in their approach to new roles.


VSB: Many senior military leaders are seeking an opportunity to work outside the defense sector in their second careers. What advice would you give to help them market their talents and experience more effectively to non-defense related employers?


  • Go into transition with goal of advancing and developing your career, not just switching from military to civilian
  • Social networks liked LinkedIn and old-fashioned face-to-face networking are invaluable in showcasing talents in front of a different set of potential employers. 
  • Define your purpose and brand.  This is easier said than done, but with the help of a coach or a program like Leveraging Military Leadership Program (LMLP), a transitioning veteran can really explore how a leader would define him/herself and what he/she represents. For example, if you led large teams in deployments to new regions, highlight change management and leading globally under adversity for a corporation entering new markets. 
  • Emphasize your leadership skills, especially those that apply universally. If you transformed a group of soldiers or introduced a technology platform to streamline processes, those are skills that could be of benefit to a plethora of organizations. 
  • Ensure that you ask yourself, “Am I applying for the appropriate jobs?” Especially at the senior level, leaders must seek jobs that match their level of experience.  
  • Adapt your job title so it is more familiar to those non-military people looking at your resume. This can be done by explaining your responsibilities and helping to make a connection to a non-defense job title.

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