Apr 08

State Government Great Fit For Retired USCG Officer

Cullen-SabreMany senior officers tend to focus their post-military career search on the federal government when thinking about working in the public sector. Tom Cullen welcomed the opportunity to bring his extensive Coast Guard experience in environmental protection and response, emergency management, port security and maintenance/logistics to California state government.

As one of two Chief Deputy Directors in the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Tom serves as the Administrator of the Office of Spill Prevention and Response, bringing his skill set to the lead state agency responsible for all off-highway spill prevention, response and restoration.

Tom, how would you describe your transition from military service into the civilian workforce?

My transition was not an easy one. All I had known for the 31 years since graduating from high school was the Coast Guard. Anyone who spends that long with one company or agency is deeply imprinted with that organization’s norms and culture, making any transition to a new environment challenging.

My first job was as an executive director with a government contactor and it required that I make the shift from public service to a for-profit enterprise. As a senior Coast Guard Officer, I oversaw and directed hundreds of dedicated individuals with diverse backgrounds and skills. I would set a strategic vision and give minor tactical guidance, but let them do their jobs. In the private sector, I was expected to do it all and bill someone for my time!

There is a misperception, especially among federal contractors, that hiring retired senior government officials/ military officers is “money in the bank,” gaining access to their personal connections with their former agencies and turning those into contracts. I was not willing to tap my contacts for this purpose and was very pleased when I was invited to return to public service to run a state agency.

All I had known for the 31 years since graduating from high school was the Coast Guard. Anyone who spends that long with one company or agency is deeply imprinted with that organization’s norms and culture, making any transition to a new environment challenging.

What similarities are you finding between the nature of your current work and your previous military experience?

I currently work for a state agency that is the Coast Guard’s primary partner in oil pollution prevention and response in the State of California. While state and federal priorities are not always in alignment, my team – as it was in the Coast Guard — is incredibly passionate and dedicated to our mission of protecting the environment and responding, as efficiently as possible, to emergencies. Even things that may seem different between the State and Federal governments, like the budget development and legislative processes, are really more similar than not – it comes down to learning a new vocabulary, relationships, and process maps. Like federal agencies, we are always looking for better ways to do our missions with the scarce resources that we have.

What advice would you give to senior military officers in transition who are thinking of becoming independent consultants?

The best advice that I would offer is to establish a strong presence on LinkedIn and start building your professional network. Seek out former colleagues that are or were independent consultants. Interview them, paying particular attention to how they were able to win contracts. After I left the private sector, I spent 7 months as an independent contractor seeking work – this can be very tough in the current economy, especially if you are just getting started.

How can transitioning senior leaders better prepare themselves for the cultural shift in the civilian workforce?

  • Talk with trusted friends who are working in the sector of interest to you to get their perspectives.
  • Start making preparations no later than 10-12 months in advance of your retirement.
  • Discipline yourself to setting aside several hours each week to concentrate on the transition.  Nearly everyone I know, including me, waited until the last minute.  We are not ready to give up a connection with a service that we love!
  • Think about whether you want  to spend the valuable time before retirement, filling out one last entire Officer Evaluation Report (OER) to document the previous year’s work, rather than taking 10 minutes to fill out the more common “Not Observed” OER that is allowed as a final report for a retiring officer. Few private sector employers are going to ask for your last OER!
I made the very tough decision of turning down a leadership position with FEMA, in part because the agency wanted me to start working four months before I planned to retire. I felt some innate obligation to finish some CG projects and initiatives I had started. Once you or your service decide upon a retirement date, the top priority is finding a new job or, better yet, that next career. For example, I was disappointed to learn that several friends of mine fell short of taking care of some very important pre- and post-retirement tasks like never asking for a certified copy of their health records, not filing disability claims with the VA, failing to allocate their GI Bill benefits, and other seemingly “self-serving” items.
Any other advice you’d like to share?
As they state in TAPS seminars, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of NETWORKING. Both of my post-Coast Guard jobs came from friends who were previous colleagues who knew me, knew my work, and knew that I was (or would soon be) available. I have been approached with several other offers to interview for positions during the past three years, based upon my LinkedIn profile.

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