Jul 27

Retired Naval Officer Sees Nonprofit Sector as Great Fit

tracy smyersAs senior leaders approach transition out of military service, they often consider options simply as a choice between a government job or a position within the private sector. T.D. Smyers retired from the Navy and, after a brief period of time as an independent consultant, decided to take a different path and accept a position as CEO of a nonprofit organization. In this interview, he shares his thoughts about why transitioning senior military leaders should seriously consider the nonprofit sector for a post-military career.

VSB: T.D., you retired from the Navy last November after a 30-year career. How did you decide to apply your “Global Force for Good” experience in the Navy in a new role as CEO of the North Texas Region of the American Red Cross?

Smyers: It’s funny, now that I’m a humanitarian, I often remind my staff that I came from a “global force for good!” Initially, I think they were bracing to ring bells and salute!

From the minute I started networking in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, I let people know that I was looking for a leadership position in a service-oriented organization – public or private.

The Red Cross CEO opportunity grew from a professional relationship I had established with the local Red Cross executive when I was the Commanding Officer of Naval Air Station Fort Worth. When the Red Cross reorganized and established a new region in North Texas, she tossed my name in the hat and the search firm gave me a call to gauge my interest a few days later. At the time, I was in the running for executive positions with a prominent regional public safety company and a local commercial real estate development company, so I had other options; but the Red Cross opportunity was what I was seeking as it gave me the chance to continue in servant leadership in my hometown.

VSB: Why do you think your military experience dovetails so effectively with the demands of leading a regional nonprofit organization?

Smyers: When I took over NAS Fort Worth, Navy Installations Command (the Navy lead on bases) was in the throes of a reorganization very similar to what the Red Cross was about to undertake – transition from a traditional basing structure to a functionalized, matrix model. In fact, it’s kind of ironic that the Red Cross reorganization hit North Texas the same week I turned over command of the base to my successor! I was floored by the similarities between what I had just led and what the Red Cross was asking me to lead in my new position.

It was also exciting to bring over 30 years of Navy training to a humanitarian organization. The more I studied the Red Cross opportunity, the more excited I was about the similarities. This non-profit is full of great employees and volunteers, all of whom want to be here. They were looking for someone to lead them through a tumultuous transition, and I had just finished doing that.

VSB: Over the past several months, you have been learning a new workplace culture and language, learning to lead fundraising efforts and ensuring that your organization respects donor intent – things that were undoubtedly foreign to you before you took this job. How would you describe this learning process, as someone who recently transitioned from a long career in a field in which you were almost completely “fluent?”

Smyers: That’s a really insightful question. I will tell you, though, that the similarities surprised me more than the differences. Red Cross terminology is rich in acronyms and slang, not unlike in naval aviation culture. While the CEO position is different than the traditional Navy “command” role, many of the competencies that helped me succeed in leading operations and logistics in the Navy help me succeed in leading operations and logistics in the Red Cross. Both organizations are mission-focused and heavily operational, so I find my days filled with similar activities. I communicate, strategize, resolve conflict, manage performance, inspire the workforce to optimize achievement, build and nurture strategic partnerships, and serve as the public face of my organization.

While fundraising is certainly a new challenge for me, I’ve chosen to approach it with the same pride with which I led in the Navy. Basically, I look at a donor visit as an opportunity to bring another strategic partner onboard this incredible humanitarian mission, journeying alongside an iconic organization with 131 years of service to humanity. What corporate responsibility executive doesn’t want a piece of that?

VSB: What advice would you give military colleagues planning for their own transitions as they weigh private, public and nonprofit sector opportunities as a possible second career?

Smyers: First, don’t rule out the nonprofit, or independent, sector. Although profit isn’t a goal with these organizations, many executive positions are well compensated and very rewarding. The sense of purpose that made our decision to leave the service so difficult is alive and well out here. You won’t get wealthy in a nonprofit, but you have the potential to live well and happy which carries a wealth all its own.

Second, networking is everything it’s cracked up to be, but done poorly, it can be a tremendous waste of time. Realize that, if you’re transitioning as a senior officer, the job you will land is likely not an advertised job. Somebody, somewhere, in the sector you’re considering, is looking for a leader to come in and take the organization in a new direction. They are much more likely to interview a referral from someone they trust.

Trust is such an important element in networking, and I think it’s one of the things we tend to undercut the most. We attend “networking luncheons” where we toss business cards at each other and share a few snippets of information, but nobody is going to put their reputation on the line for someone they just met.

Networking has to have some depth to it. I found that the best networking I did was as a consultant – an occupation I established for myself as a “bridge” to my new career. In this capacity, I worked with people over days and weeks. I got to know them and earned their respect and support.  Consulting also exposed me to several different sectors  and gave me the opportunity to apply many of the skills I learned in the Navy to civilian applications. I highly recommend doing some real work while you’re searching for a permanent gig.

Finally, don’t underestimate your value and earning potential. I went through two transition workshops, and both left me with the expectation that I was going to have to lower my compensation expectations in whichever sector I landed. Instead of accepting that you’re going to have to prove yourself all over again, seek the counsel of a recently transitioned officer or an experienced transition coach to cast your experience in terms understood and respected by civilian hiring managers. There are a lot of companies out here who desperately need what you have. The challenge is convincing them, in their language, that you bring it. Good luck!

1 comment

  1. Mark Vlahos

    T.D. was an ICAF classmate of mine at Fort McNair. Congrats on landing such a rewarding job in your second career. Appreciate your words and insight! Cheers mate.

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