I’m back and ready to drop the hottest mixtape of 2016! And by drop, I mean publish on my meager social media accounts, and by mixtape I mean blog post, and by 2016 I mean 2016.
I’m often asked by both civilian and military coworkers what the transition has been like and what my biggest challenges have been. And while there are things I really enjoy about both worlds (and things I subsequently dislike about both), I’ve narrowed down my response to one particular challenge, as it’s become the most significant to me. Upon leaving the active duty, I went from a position of leadership, with relatively high authority and responsibility, to a position as an individual contributor, with relatively little authority and responsibility. This change of my position within the organization has shocked me more than anything else, and to this day remains my biggest issue. Well, that and the dramatic decrease in the frequency of fart jokes in the work place.
When I was 17, I reported to the US Military Academy to enroll as a cadet. Since that day until August 2015, I was in the active duty Army. And through the entire duration of my employment in the active duty Army, I was trained in and employed for leadership. Not tank driving. Not bomb disposal. The role of the officer is to provide organizational leadership, ensuring the accomplishment of assigned missions by being a role model for the values that the military stand for, directing the resources of the organization, and being a conduit for communication (among a number of other responsibilities. I’m not a organizational leadership doctrine guy, I’m sure I’ll be corrected like 80 times on my definition.) It’s so thoroughly ingrained in my DNA to lead that it feels unnatural to not do so.
Now I find myself in charge of no one but myself, and the shift has been startling. I’ve written previously about how valuable this opportunity is, as getting a chance to take a step back sets you up for long term success. It’s like hitting the reset button on your career, so you can re-align and re-calibrate your skills. I’m not going to lie, it’s nice to not have the weight of the world on your shoulders, wondering if this Saturday night is going to be the one when you get “The Call” and you’re picking up Private Dipshit from the drunk tank at 3 am.
I have a coworker who is a retiree from the Army. His last job was being second in command of about 5000 soldiers. Now he’s a supervisor of 2. Talk about a severe change in responsibility! And he loves it, because he finally has a chance to learn his job. I’m a firm believer in the idea of “1 step back, 2 steps forward.” Using small plateaus or decreases in performance in the short term lead to significant gains in the long term. It’s “tapering”, intentional rest so that you can explode out the gate when the time is necessary to race. Or, dare I say, it’s LOSING THE BATTLE TO WIN THE WAR? Yeah?? Yeah??? See how I just referenced my own blog posts from more than a year ago?? How cool am I???
But in the 9 months that I’ve been a civilian, I’ve felt a gnawing sense of emptiness that I’ve come to realize is stems from my lack of serving in a leadership role.
You may or may not put much stock in the Myers-Briggs personality types, and I wouldn’t say I’m a big adherent either, but much like StrengthFinder, it’s a useful framework for exploring your own capabilities. According to the test, I’m an “ENTJ“, which is called “The Commander” personality type. I’m sure this classification of my persona comes as zero surprise to anyone who knows me. But what was extremely helpful for my own development was seeing a lot of my underlying motivations be written out in a way that made sense. Much like this blog serves as my “dear diary”, helping me put thoughts that otherwise bounce around my head into a structure (I never had a leadership philosophy until I actually wrote it all down), the write up on the ENTJ personality helped me realize how much I was missing being responsible for more than myself at work. One of the core components that makes an ENTJ flourish in their work environment is being directly responsible for the performance of others. Being an individual performer, no matter how successful, makes an ENTJ feel short changed and under-utilized. There are many others who love nothing more than to sharpen their skills until they’re the best, but we ENTJers feel incomplete and hollow when not responsible for sharpening others. Our success is predicated on building the success of others.
I think a lot of the frustration comes from the alien nature of being an individual contributor. I love the ownership that this isolation provides. I can say “look at this. Look at how awesome this is. I made this.” But it’s unusual to be out on a limb by myself, when a decade in the military taught me to always think of the team’s responsibilities and the team’s accomplishments. Top that off with the segmentation that occurs with what tasks constitute “officer jobs” and “NCO jobs”, and you’ve got the recipe for some serious cultural adaptation challenges. I think when it comes down to it, we’re all terribly afraid of being discovered as frauds, and when you’re an individual contributor, it’s easier for fraudulent behavior to be detected. It’s called impostor syndrome – the fear of everyone around you finding out that you aren’t all your were cracked up to be.
Yeah, I said it – I live in constant terror that I’m one question away from my coworkers finding out that how utterly full of it I am. And I’m positive that so are 99% of the rest of you. Unless you’re a
- Total narcissist that is so full of themselves that they can’t imagine NOT knowing everything
- Braver than the other 99% of us mere mortals and willing to say it out loud regularly
- Lying about it right now as you read this
then you’re afraid of it too. It’s like the adult version of dreaming that you’re giving a presentation in class and you’re in your underwear. I think that fear, when properly harnessed, can be a powerful stimulant for performance. Sure, I SHOULD be motivated every day to do my very best because doing your best is the right thing to do. Just like I SHOULD only write blog posts when I haven’t drank 3 IPAs. But that’s just not always going to be the case. Sometimes, I’m only motivated to do my best because HOLY SHIT, EVERYONE IS LOOKING AT ME AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE HELL I AM DOING, QUICK, START TYPING SOMETHING.
That fear can be used to get my “rear in gear” and start producing good work. At my best, I’m on my grind, seeking out new challenges and new opportunities to make myself a better individual contributor. At my worst, I’m fear-motivated to not look like a fool and try to not let the rest of the team down. Either way, as long as I continue to lean forward, I can help the team and fulfill my responsibilities. You can’t ALWAYS bring your “A game”, because as we just talked about, you’re sometimes taking a step backwards while learning a new skill or adjusting to new responsibilities.
So step 1 is to conquer my own fear of being an individual contributor, fight back against the impostor syndrome, and be a consistently high-performing employee. Step 2 is to use the acquired knowledge from step 1 and becoming a leader within the workplace, initially informally, and then, once proven, formally.
Side Rant – It’s definitely a challenge to my pride, as I was entrusted by the US government for lives of others and equipment in the millions of dollars when I was in my 20s, but now I’m fighting to prove my worthiness to be responsible for the workplace performance of a few peers in my 30s. But as I advise my fellow transitioning service members (and often, I say to myself out loud), if I wanted to maximize the value my employer places in my military service, I should have stayed in the military. Otherwise, its only natural that there’s a decrease in the amount my accomplishments in the service is valued. We shouldn’t expect a 100% appreciation (and subsequent accommodation) of our time in service when we enter the civilian workforce. Obviously there exists a sliding scale for which companies and industries appreciate* your time in service. Odds are Blackwater (or whatever they’ve recently re-branded themselves as) will place greater value in your Airborne School honor graduate certificate than Applebees. But neither of them made you leave the service. That was YOUR choice. So suck it up, buttercup, because you’re not in Kansas anymore. Just because you could rain Hellfire from the skies at the click of a button doesn’t mean you’re ready to be the regional manager the day you start at your new job. You are valued. Don’t confuse that with entitled. Side rant complete.
How to achieve step 2? Well, that’s a work in progress. But I can inform you that excelling at step 1 endows the rest of your team with confidence in your ability to achieve step 2. I know, shocking stuff – be good at your job and you’ll likely get rewarded. However, it’s not usually that simple. You have to get over yourself and realize that you’ve got to prove yourself as an individual contributor. Easier said than done, but let’s just pretend for now that you’ve achieved that mastery of self. The second important sub-step is to make sure your excellence in step 1 is being properly documented and recognized. Listen, I get it, no veteran likes to talk about themselves and their accomplishments. Hell, I can’t think of anything more painful than when I had to do my Officer Evaluation Report Support Form, because it required me to review all my work and put my achievements in a bullet list. But it’s no different in the civilian work place. Can you honestly expect your supervisor to remember every dang project you worked on? I’ve heard it called a 100 different things, but in my unit, we called our collection of “attaboys” the “I Love Me” book. It’s where you were expected to keep all the thumbs up, shout outs, and certificates that showed you were a regular contributor and achieved great things. Painful? Yes. Embarrassing? Sure. Necessary if you want to actually proceed up the corporate ladder? You bet your ass.
I recommend you go read “So Good They Can’t Ignore You“by Cal Newport. While it mostly focuses on debunking the whole “follow you passion” BS, the underlying guidelines he provides on how to achieve excellence are universally applicable. Bottom line – Strive for excellence in the job you have and passion will naturally blossom. I’m trying my best to apply that principle to my own work, so in time, I’ll earn the right to formally lead in the workplace.
Question to all my loyal readers (the mighty 7 of you): What’s been your greatest challenge in the transition? Was it physical, cultural, spiritual, etc? Leave a message in the comments section below, let’s have us a good old fashioned conversation.
*I always caution folks about the companies that are marketed as “Great Companies for Veterans”. Not to be a cynic, but there are a few companies that rely upon a steady stream of recently separated veterans to power the corporate hamster well. Not a lot of them, and let’s face it, sometimes you just need a job, but if a company can take your specific rank and MOS and provide you a detailed suggestion of what job they can provide you, that should be a bit of a red flag. If you really want to be told precisely what job you should do, why are you leaving the military?