Dec 06

Retired Rear Admiral’s Top Ten Transition Tips

john actonSorting out one’s options after a long career in military service is not always a simple task. Assessing post-military personal and professional priorities is important. It is also helpful to learn from the experiences of former colleagues who are ready to offer their insights about post-military career options and greater work-life balance.

RADM John Acton, USCG (retired) has had a broad range of career experience and I asked him to share where he’s been, what he’s learned and key advice for other senior military leaders in transition:

Acton: As a retired reservist, I have not only the advantage of 20/20 hind-sight, but also the benefit of very different perspectives afforded by two parallel careers — one with the Coast Guard (33 years) and one with the private sector (25 years) – in addition to recent experience as a civilian in the federal sector.

Upon graduation from the Coast Guard Academy in 1976, I enjoyed assignments both ashore and afloat, including several commands. After leaving active duty and joining the reserves, I completed my MBA at Columbia and went into marketing at Pepsi’s world headquarters, followed by work at Frito-Lay, BellSouth, the America’s Cup (sailboat races), Booz Allen Hamilton, and a couple of internet start-ups.

In the years since, I have also worked as a civilian in the federal government. Through these diverse experiences, I have been able to view the inevitable transition from the military to civilian life through different lenses. With that in mind, I offer some advice for those currently beginning their transition from military service:

1. Understand (and accept) that one day you WILL hang up your uniform.

It is best to accept the inevitable and prepare for what will be one of the biggest transitions in your life, ranking right up there with marriage and parenthood.

There’s much that you can do before your retirement that will make the transition easier, including attending a military-sponsored retirement seminar and sitting down for a candid discussion with a financial advisor. Don’t put either of those things off.

2. Determine your first priority — job or location?

This is your first big question, from which most other decisions will flow.

It may be that you’ve found your post-military calling, work you truly enjoy and at which you excel. In that case, you may be willing to live wherever you can best do this work. Alternatively, you may find that you love a certain location and will take on whatever work will keep you happily ensconced in that region/state/city. Either way, give this careful thought, as it will set your near-term path.

3. Do your homework.

Once you’ve answered the first “big” question, get serious and research what you’ll need to know to follow that path with eyes wide open. What do you need to know about your dream job? What do you need to know about your chosen location in terms of job opportunities?

While the internet can be a rich source for background research, NOTHING can replace good old face-to-face networking, particularly when you’re looking for a senior position. You never know which lunch might open the door to the job you want.

4. Manage your expectations.

After very successful careers with substantial leadership responsibilities, some (not all) senior military leaders, both officer and enlisted, will have high expectations regarding salary and benefits. On one hand, don’t be brow-beaten with the argument that you should be paid less, since you have a military retirement to supplement your civilian income. You should be paid what the market will bear, whether or not that meets your expectations. On the other hand, in this economy, the days of big signing bonuses and stock options may be just a memory.

5. Figure out the right fit for you – private sector or public service.

Your choice between the private sector or public service may hinge on your personal risk/reward calculation, which will vary for each of us at different points in our lives. Key considerations are:

Compensation. There will likely be differences in compensation packages since the private sector can be a bit more creative, though those differences may not be as big as you would expect. Nevertheless, you may have a bottom line that you don’t want to violate.

Stability. From my vantage point, the bigger difference may be with the level of volatility at work. While perhaps offering slightly lower pay, many government jobs also have a higher level of stability, and therefore, for some, greater peace of mind. On the other hand, while you may be paid handsomely in the private sector, mergers/reorganizations/bankruptcies can trigger downsizing and job cuts VERY quickly.

Comfort with the idea of “selling.” Everyone is in sales. I have found that many retiring from the military do not want to go into “sales,” which they consider money-grubbing or perhaps, beneath them. The reality is that virtually any company willing to pay you will have the expectation that:

  • You’ll understand the company’s business and products/services;
  • You’ll represent the company in a conscientious and professional manner and;
  • When the opportunity arises, you won’t pass on the chance to make a sale (or at least refer a lead to someone else who can make the sale.)

That’s part of the private sector bargain.

Either way, you should expect and be willing to learn a lot more new stuff. Though your leadership skills will be valued, you may need to learn a lot about a new agency, industry or business. Hubris is not your friend here. In part, you’ll need to re-earn your stripes. Show yourself ready to listen and learn.

Though your leadership skills will be valued, you may need to learn a lot about a new agency, industry or business. Hubris is not your friend here… Show yourself ready to listen and learn.

6. It’s a new exciting chapter in your life — have fun with it.

Explore the opportunities. Dream again. Instead of just thinking about private sector versus government work, you might decide to consider a second career in the nonprofit sector, in academia or perhaps decide to start your own business. Assess your energy level, your comfort with risk, your financial needs and the skill sets you might need to be successful in your chosen area and then, forge ahead!

7. Be persistent and resilient.

Depending upon how demanding you are about this next chapter in your life, it might take a while to find the right job. Approach “finding a job” as your new job, and set up a disciplined daily schedule to pursue it every day.

8. Change your perspective and go hire an employer!

This is a key learning that finally dawned on me. Many folks leaving active duty jump at the first decent job offer and sometimes live to regret it. Like any long-term relationship, there needs to be a good match, BOTH WAYS, between you and your employer. It’s just as important that you “hire an employer” who suits you, as it is that you suit your new employer. This change in perspective can remove a lot of the angst you may be feeling.

Like any long-term relationship, there needs to be a good match, BOTH WAYS, between you and your employer. It’s just as important that you “hire an employer” who suits you, as it is that you suit your new employer.

9. Decompress.

You’ve had a long and demanding career, and have most likely missed some of life’s milestones along the way. It’s the nature of the service we all understood and embraced.

The transition between military life and a new civilian career is the PERFECT time to take the extended vacation you were never able to take in uniform. Civilian careers can be demanding as well and this opportunity may not come your way again. My criteria for a successful vacation is to wake up in the morning and not know what day it is; if you wake up and know it’s Tuesday, then you’re not there yet.

10. It’s all changeable!

Remember, if you happen to make a decision you later regret or your circumstances change, you’re not subject to orders (except, perhaps, from your spouse!). YOU can make the decision to change your employer or change where you live. Enjoy that freedom and control.


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