The Struggle Of Being An Individual Contributor (How to Civilian Good Series, Part 3)

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.

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I’m not really sure what’s going on here

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.

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Yeah, this friggin’ guy. The only thing missing is the “Strength and Honor” tattoo across his chest.

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???

Me, subtly pointing out my cleverness to the reader.

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.

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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.

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A Grease GIF? Really scraping the bottom of the barrel, aren’t we? – Editor

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

  1. Total narcissist that is so full of themselves that they can’t imagine NOT knowing everything
  2. Braver than the other 99% of us mere mortals and willing to say it out loud regularly
  3. 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.

me at work. probably.
Me at work sometimes. Except my boss might read this, in which case, no, definitely not me at work.

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.

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I’ll just come out and say it – COL Jessup was right to order the Code Red. 

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?

 

 

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Make Your Own Damn Luck

There’s an old adage I’m quite fond of that goes something like this – “It’s what you do before the storm that determines if you make it through it“. I like to imagine 2 old English warships, out of an episode of Horatio Hornblower or Master & Commander, both caught in a terrible storm far out at sea. Both ships have daring captains, veteran crews, and the best equipment money can buy (for the 1700s, that is). Yet despite the two ships appearing to be evenly matched, the storm quickly anoints a victor. One ship not only makes it through the storm, but takes full advantage of the raging winds to actually quicken its trip across the seas. The other ship? Driftwood.

that's some good rope chopping right there
Here’s a clue to why the victorious team makes it through the storm – quick adaptation to unforeseen circumstances, like having to cut away a sail!

What’s the differentiating factor that lets one team actually THRIVE on the chaos while another team falls apart (pun intended)? Preparation. Team Driftwood let themselves be lulled into a false sense of security because they thought themselves too experienced and too capable to need to prepare in advance for unexpected factors. What’s the purpose in training and drilling for unlikely circumstances? We got this, we’re total pros. Except that real professionals know that resting on your laurels is the quickest way to the bottom (of the sea! Ohhhhh, we’re going to need an ice machine for all the sick burns I’m inflicting). All skills are perishable. All teams need constant refreshment of their knowledge base. No matter how smooth the sea looks, there’s always a storm somewhere farther out. The teams that win are those who know full well that the storm is coming and that it doesn’t give a damn about how experienced you are.

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Mother Nature doesn’t give a crap about last quarter’s earning reports.

I recently read an article by Eric Barker about the keys to raising children who have grit. The fundamental attribute between a child who rolls up their sleeves and says “let me at ’em” and one who says “it just wasn’t meant to be” is having what’s called a growth mindset. A growth mindset is when you fundamentally believe that your abilities can be improved through your own efforts. The opposite is called a fixed mindset, where you stick you hands in your pockets, kick some rocks, and mutter “aww shucks” when things don’t turn out your way.

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Individuals with a growth mindset reject the idea that whatever cards they’ve been dealt are the cards they have to play with. Via Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:

When people are in a growth mindset they’re more willing to take on challenging tasks. They’re more engaged by mistakes or setbacks rather than discouraged. They delve into a mistake, they process it, they correct it.”

To put it more succinctly – They head INTO the storm. Growth mindset folks know that they can improve their position in life, and they realize that the path to that achievement is through trials and discomfort. By pushing themselves into areas they are unfamiliar with, they force themselves to adapt and grow. No different than muscle stimulation from lifting weights, this introduction of outside stress causes an improvement to the system. A growth mindset is the critical first step in able to turn a bad situation into a good one. There’s another old sailing adage I love (I know, I know, I’m in the Army, I don’t know why I like sailing adages either…): Smooth seas make for safe trips and poor sailors. You want to be world class? Turn the bow of your ship into the dark clouds whenever you can. The crucible holds the most valuable lessons.

Is bad luck an uncontrollable aspect, always hovering over our shoulder, ready to strike? Nonsense. Think of those two ships. Both knew they would face unpredictable events like the storm. But one ship took the necessary preparations long before the storm ever reared its ugly head in order to ensure their successful encounter with it. The differences in preparation between our 2 warships wasn’t the type of preparation that comes from reviewing checklists and mock rehearsals while in the safety of a harbor (though those types of preparation are crucial building blocks). The true difference maker between Team Into The Storm and Team Driftwood was in the quality and intensity of their preparations. No half-measures will ever allow you to rise to the top of your field. To be truely growth minded, you must also accept that the effort level of your preparation must be tough in order to make you ready for the chaos ahead.

We all face luck every day in our lives. Out on a race, sometimes we get a strong trail wind and get a PR and stand on the podium. Other times we get blisters, bonk, and break our gear. But any of those unexpected circumstances can be either good luck or bad luck, because what makes the luck good or bad is entirely an internal decision making process. It’s all a matter of if you’ve got a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. So you hit a wall and can now barely walk forward? Sounds like a good time to take a break and make sure you adjust your socks and shoes because you were starting to feel some hot spots on your feet. Luck isn’t inherently good or bad, despite how we may portray it in society. It’s just outside factors affecting us in unpredictable ways. Whether or not that luck is good or bad is up to us. And the surest way I’ve found to make sure the majority of luck is good luck is through preparation. Fortune favors the bold, but it also favors the prepared. Those that show up to the race line with the right mindset and the right preparation are the ones who will win the day. Stop worrying about the cards you were dealt. Toss the cards aside. Flip the table over and tell everyone that now we’re playing Monopoly instead of poker.

RIP to the true hero of Hogwarts
RIP to the true hero of Hogwarts

I’ll leave you all with one final adage that I’m quite fond of from my days as a Boy Scout – “be prepared“. Preparation is what keeps you in the game longer than the competition, letting you push the limits instead of having to pack it up and go home. Remember, luck is neutral. It doesn’t care what kind of day you’re having. So go out there and make sure that when the storm strikes, you make your own damn luck.

Failures in Imagination (How To Civilian Good Series)

Lately, I’ve been spending some free time assisting fellow veterans try to find jobs at my company. Thanks in large part to the benefit of hindsight, I’ve spotted a recurring trend in their actions, one that I was certainly also guilty of. Which means that in all likelihood, a lot of us are victims of this pitfall. We already know that it’s tough getting out of the military and finding a new job. One of the key difficulties is translating our experiences so they are easily understood by civilian employers. While there’s certainly an art and science to translating words like “company commander” to “senior operations manager”, I’m addressing a larger root cause that is hamstringing good service member’s efforts to get hired. The problem I’m seeing is that most of us don’t (or won’t, or can’t) bother imaging themselves in roles significantly different than the one they do in the military, so they end up doing a serious disservice to themselves. We’re not square pegs, people, we can fit into round holes.

Listen, nobody is going to do the heavy lifting for you. No recruiter is going to ask you “so what kind of job would you like us to give you?” You’ve got to do some serious work to expose what your strongest characteristics and skills, and then do even more work explaining that to companies. Which is why some of us don’t do it – it’s a lot of work. Why do all that when you can just go be a shift manager? Or a security guard? Because, you know, soldiers have guns and stuff, and security guards have guns, so, like, super easy, right??

I was there, and hell yeah, it was tempting. Some of us should take that easy option, because it’s what’s right for you and your family at that point in life, or you need a break, or you were much smarter than me and acquired a valuable skillset in the military that civilians are paying big bucks for. But not nearly enough of us are taking the awesome opportunity provided by transitioning from the military to go after something new and exciting. So if you’re currently a surface warfare officer and want to get into commercial real estate, then it’s time work.

whoa, dial back the aggression there, Britney

You need to find a way to bridge that gap between what you’ve done and what the employer needs, and that starts with having some imagination. Imagine yourself in that new job that sounds cool, even if you don’t think that it’s something an employer would consider you qualified for. THEN, imagine what the company needs to understand about you so they can in turn imagine you in that job.

Of course, I’ve got examples of my own failures in this regard (it wouldn’t really be my blog if it didn’t include some story about how I’ve f*cked it all up, right?) I was having a phone interview with a certain obstacle course racing company for a position at their corporate offices. I thought I was a perfect fit for the role given my experiences. But during my interview, the recruiter kept wanting to talk about my time as a platoon leader (my first job in the Army), despite me having so many additional roles with greater levels of responsibility, authority, and independence. So why on earth did we keep talking about a job I had when I was 23? Because in my explanation over the phone and in my resume, that’s the job that looked like it fit the role at the company best. I hadn’t imagined what the company was looking for, as I was so confident that I was a great fit. Had I imagined myself in the role? Yup. Had I deconstructed my experiences so the other side could imagine it as well? Nope.

So what do you want to do? Get hired to be security guard because you know which way to point the barrel of a handgun, or do you want to seize the initiative? Same same or different?

If you’re still reading, I’m going to assume you want something different, because that’s what the remainder of the article covers. How to bridge that gap so you can do something different. I usually avoid the talk about tactics (losers love tactics), but I admit that the deconstruction of military experiences is a tough one and is worth it’s own deconstruction in kind.

You’re not going to like what I’m about to say. Because it takes time. If you’re going to go after a job, then I’m already assuming a couple things:

  1. You’ve done all your research. You know the job description and requirements forwards and backwards.
  2. You’ve done some recon inside the company, soliciting current workers’ opinions of what makes someone successful in the role you’re looking at.
  3. You’ve also done some serious self-examination, with resources like StrengthFinder 2.0. You know what you’re good at and you’re ready to tell others about it.

So you’ve got 2 endpoints – you and your experiences and strengths, and the job and it’s requirements. Now you need to bridge the gap – imagine how you can fit into that role. Tie the two sides together. It’s not as easy as replacing your military job title with a civilian job title (side rant – I hate it when I see a military resume that says something like “program manager” but when you ask the person basic questions about program management, they stare at you like you’re speaking Tagalog. Dude, don’t claim to be a program manager without having a basic understanding of things like critical path, slack, etc. That’s just junior varsity.)

Oh yeah, I’m totally an operations manager. Wait, what’s Kaizen?

If you’ve actually learned what the company is looking for, then it’s not hard to explain how your experiences give you the capability to solve the problem they have. Did I have the slightest clue of what was required to work in online retail? Oh hell no. But did I know that negotiating was a fundamental skillset needed by the company? Yeah, because I did my recon. And I sure as hell highlighted my experiences with building and growing relationships in my resume and interviews. There was still some serious discussion about if I was going to be the right fit, but I addressed it right on. You’ve got to bridge that gap, help the employer imagine how you’re the answer to their problem and that despite your inexperience in aspects of the industry, that risk is mitigated by hiring someone of strong fundamentals.

This isn’t a cure-all, by any means. Even after all this hard work, a company may pass on you. Maybe it’s too big a risk to take someone aboard who isn’t familiar with the business model. Maybe the recruiter just can’t imagine you in the role, now matter how much you bridge the gap. Maybe that recruiter breathes through their mouth and collects stamps in their free time, who knows? But I do know that if you don’t try, you ain’t going to succeed. If you don’t stand out, you’ll stand in line. And I’m sure as hell not willing to accept that, and neither should you.

Go get ’em.

 

Tales from the other side (How to Civilian Good, Part 1)

Hey friends! It’s been a while. I’ve been fairly busy, immersed in learning my new job and adjusting to life as a civilian. Here’s a quick recap of my journey so far:

1) Decided to leave the Army

2) Panic

3) Hunt for job

4) Panic intensifies

5) Find job, start job

6) Profit?

So I’ve been at my new job for just over 4 months. It has certainly been an eye-opening experience so far, and I’ve started the process of documenting my experiences and realizations. Think of this series as the other side of the coin to my Transitioning From The Army Series. Now I’m going to see if any of my notions or assumptions were in fact true, what I should have done better on my way out of the Army, and if you’re really lucky and read closely, there may even be moderately useful advice.

My first realization is pretty simple:  I have no idea what I’m doing. Military officers are a lot like race car drivers’ wives – we don’t actually DO anything.

I'm starting to like where this blog post is going...
I’m starting to like where this blog post is going…

An officer’s purpose is to align the resources and capabilities of others with specified skills in order to maximize the organization’s efforts and achieve assigned goal. That’s leadership 101, right? Now I suddenly find myself as one of those skilled workers (not actually skilled though..) and the adjustment has been odd. Not just in a “this place is new and I am unaccustomed to their ways” sort of odd, but in a genuine “seriously, what the hell am I doing” kind of odd. I’ll find myself staring at this massive Excel file, trying to load SQL queries, and realize I don’t even know what to type next.

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going with a real Ricky Bobby theme on this post, huh?

Of course, I have no one but myself to blame. As an officer, your position is one of a generalized competency, not a specified competency – you’re not a welder, translator, or cryptologic linguist. What’s that last job? Hell if I know, and I was in charge of a couple of them for the better part of a year. So you’re easily lulled into the act of assigning tasks to the most technically competent person in the group, and more often than not, I was the least technically trained person in the group. When I commanded a maneuver unit, I could shoot, perform trauma medicine, or conduct radio operations, but I was never the best within the group at any of those tasks. I didn’t need to be. I needed to know how to best employ the man who WAS the best at the task. Now I’m one of the guys that leadership is relying upon to provide tactical level expertise. It’s certainly not the first time that I’ve gone from being a leader to being a follower, but this time the experience in amplified because it’s in an entirely new field. I’m simultaneously learning my job while also learning what it means to be a good team member in a corporate environment. It’s tough and humbling, asking people younger than myself “how do I do this?” I’ve found myself frustrated after spending an hour trying to perform a task that my coworkers complete with ease. No matter how many times I get assured that I’m doing a good job and have learned my job quickly, I still get upset that I’m not performing at an excellent level due to the learning curve I face. So I’ve got some ways to go yet, both in learning my job, and accepting the humility that’s involved with leaving a role that I was intimately familiar with to one that I’m new to.

 

The take away I’d urge those of you about to make the jump from military to civilian is this: You’re going to have to take a step or two backwards. It just has to happen, as there’s simply no way you’ll be able to be as good as you were at your last job in the military at the time you left than you’ll be at your new job when you start. I know it seems painfully obviously, and everyone bobs their heads in agreement at such a factual statement. But it’s one thing to acknowledge it, an entirely different thing to internalize it. If you’re anything like me (and let’s face it, if you’re still reading my writing, you are), then you’re a proud individual who physically gets upset at the thought of sub-par performance. So while you say out loud that you realize who won’t be immediately excellent at your first job as a civilian, we both know you don’t actually believe it. I’m urging to stop and truly think about it. You need to honestly prepare yourself for the big ol’ slice of humble pie you’re about to eat. Because recognizing your new position is the first step to quickly moving past it. The more time you spend being upset about your lack of institutional knowledge in your new job, the longer it will take to start kicking butt.

Granted, the amount of steps you take back will vary dependent on what your new job is. If you run a warehouse for the Navy and then get hired to run a warehouse for FedEx, it won’t take you too long to ramp up at your next job. I went from the world of Special Operations to online retail, so there’s a fairly drastic difference. I’m more along the lines of 3 or 4 steps back instead of 1 or 2 steps.

That’s it for the time being. I’ve got a lot of thoughts brewing in my mind, so hopefully I can start churning out additional entries to the How to Civilian Good series.

 

Oh yeah, new website. I was tired of the “lifehacking” term, and realized I had zero interest in SEO optimization or using my website as a vehicle for promoting myself, so I’m retiring the fancy site and switching over to a simple wordpress blog.

 

 

There’s Something In The Name – A Book Review of Stan McChrystal’s Team of Teams

Well hello, fellow outlaws, rapscallions, and all-around hell raisers. I apologize for my absence, but I’ve been a tad busy with a new job (hooray!), a new house (exhausting), and a new city (sweeeet). Minor inconveniences that distract me from my primary purpose in life, entertaining you unwashed heathens. I’m back with a whole new feature that I haven’t done before – a book review. Now, I’m not any sort of book critic and I’m certainly no military expert, so let’s all agree to take my examination of General McChrystal’s new book with a large grain of salt, m’kay?

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I want to establish one thing right of the bat before I start the book review, because I realize there is cause for confusion. Stan McChrystal is NOT Stannis Baratheon. I don’t know what is about having “Stan” in your first name, but somehow it empowers those with the name to become spectacular military leaders. Stan McChrystal is one hell of a leader and a warrior, but he should not be confused with Stannis Baratheon.

General Stan McChrystal, contemplating going H.A.M. on some poor Al Qaeda
General Stan McChrystal, contemplating going H.A.M. on some poor Al Qaeda
Stannis Baratheon, having recently gone H.A.M. on some poor usurper
Stannis Baratheon, having recently gone H.A.M. on some poor usurper

Both grizzled veterans of multiple wars? Check. Both proven combat leaders that stand head and shoulders above their peers? Check. Both willing to burn their close loved ones in the hopes it will grant them the blessing of R’hllor, the Red God and Lord of Light? Check. Well, I’m not 100% sure on that last one, we’ll  put that in the “maybe” column for now. All I’m saying is that we should count how many kids McChrystal has. Stan the Man may very well be the finest leader to emerge from America’s war on terror, but he’s no Stannis the Mannis.

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McChrystal wishes he was this hard

Right, so I think we’re all on the same page about who Stan McChrystal is NOT. As for who he IS, well, from 2003 to 2009, he commanded Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which is where all of America’s favorite action heroes reside. Think of all the best Chuck Norris, Mark Wahlberg, and Sylvester Stone movies, and you generally get the picture of the kind of warriors we’re talking about. Under McChrystal’s command, JSOC became the preeminent hunters of Al Qaeda in Iraq. McChrystal’s new book, Team of Teams, documents his lessons learned during his tenure in command of JSOC and how the organization painfully adapted to fighting a new enemy, one that was significantly more agile and flexible than they were. The transfer-ability of his book’s lessons to any company is significant.

If I could boil down all of McChrystal’s teachings into one simple blurb, it would be this:

Adaptability is the new currency of the realm.

In Iraq, JSOC was floundering badly because it simply couldn’t react fast enough to Al Qaeda’s operations. AQ didn’t have a decision making process – it was a nebulous system of teams that were vaguely guided, but had almost no operational or tactical level coordination. This allowed them to constant adapt and adjust to their environment, where as JSOC was confined by many rules and protocols, similar to those of many major corporations. JSOC was a big, bad ass great white shark, but it was trying to fight a school of jelly fish. McChrystal realized in order to fight an enemy that took no solid form, held no territory, or didn’t follow any playbook, he had to recreate his entire organization. In his own words, he realized “efficiency remains important, but the ability to adapt to complexity has become imperative.” Take a typical SEAL platoon for example. SEALs are great at 3 things:

  1. Working out
  2. Shooting bad guys in the face
  3. Writing books and making movies starring themselves that shows them working out, then shooting bad guys in the face.
IN THE FACE!

Where was I going with this? I don’t know, something something, SEALs suck, um……. Oh, right! So now it wasn’t enough for the SEALs to be just good at shooting everyone in the face. They, along with the many other units that comprised JSOC, had to rapidly expand their ability to process intelligence, and just as importantly, SHARE that knowledge with everyone else in the fight.

Until JSOC started to lose in Iraq, they didn’t fully realize that their pursuit of efficiency was forcing them to train and execute towards a specific set of known and stable variables. Al Qaeda didn’t give a damn if JSOC had the most perfectly trained and rehearsed vehicle interdiction drill, because it took JSOC days to conduct just one mission where as they could have a dozen vehicle-borne suicide bombers blow themselves up in a day. The great white shark was getting its ass kicked by the jelly fish.

So they righted the ship. McChrystal’s turn-around of JSOC is now something of a legend within the armed forces. He boosted transparency by openly broadcasting his decision process, sharing as much information with partner agencies as possible, all while simultaneously empowering units to conduct missions as they saw necessary. These types of actions take serious guts. In this day and age, it is so incredibly easy for a leader to dictate down to the lowest level. We have the ability to reach out and watch our subordinates’ every move, allowing leaders to Monday morning quarterback others. This is called the Perry Principle – that which you can see, you attempt to control. It is has been the cause of many a CEO’s fall from grace. It takes a ton of trust in others to know they will do as good a job (if not even better) at the task they have without your close supervision. McChrystal focused the majority of his efforts not on supervising the efforts of his units as they conducted missions. Instead, he worked on fusing a generalized awareness of the environment with the specialized expertise each of his units brought to the fight. This “shared consciousness” was the hallmark of his time in command, and he focused more on building and maintaining that culture than anything else. He relates his role as the commander of JSOC to one of a gardener – occasionally pruning a bush or picking out a weed, but otherwise allowing the garden to flourish in its own right.

The world changes. Quickly. Organizations that don’t change as quickly as the world does end up in the trashbin. Simple enough concept, and there are more than a few consulting firms that say the same thing to their clients. Which is probably why McChrystal now runs a consultant company… coincidences aside, Stan is onto something. The previous century’s companies were dominated by those who maximize their efficiency. The companies that will dominate this century will be those who can shift their efficiency as rapidly as needed to address new threats and/or opportunities. Companies like Toyota are greatly admired for the processes and methodologies they built that allowed them to produce incredibly high quality machines with near-miraculous levels of error omission. Astounding, truly, they are the picture-perfect example of 20th century corporation. But it’s no longer enough.

The rise of the Internet Age has had so many profound changes of society that many of those changes remain largely misunderstood or ignored. But one thing men like McChrystal now understand is that it’s no longer enough to run an organization that’s incredible at doing one thing. The world has become increasingly flat, allowing just about anyone with a little bit of technology and a little bit of cash to build something that challenges the status quo. A hotel chain is able to spot a rival hotel chain’s expansion, but you think any of them saw AirBnB coming? Those guys didn’t have to build any infrastructure. All it takes is a couple cocky 20-somethings with a strong disregard for “the way things have always been run”, a PowerPoint slide deck of their idea, and one venture capital firm that says “screw it, here’s $10 million, let’s see what you can do” and you’ve suddenly got your another competitor in your market space. We see this same thing playing out all over the place. I honestly can’t think of a single industry that isn’t currently challenged in a way that was unimaginable just a decade ago.

This image is totally unrelated to this blog post. Still cool, though.
This image is totally unrelated to this blog post. Still cool, though.

Allow me to further illustrate with an example of my friend. I know a guy, Ralphio (not his real name, but I’m totally going to call him that from now on, and he’ll all be like “why the hell do you keep calling me Ralphio???”) who, despite having a high paying job, drives for Uber on the side. Why? Because it’s fun and it gives him even more money. Taxi cabs used to be a sure fire investment – highly regulated, strict controls, tough unions, and protective city governments all helped build an environment that made it a wise decision for someone to spend a ton of money on a taxi license. Now, thanks to a couple guys down in San Francisco, every taxi company in a major city is scared out of its mind. I mean, think about it – what taxi company in its right mind ever dreamed that they would suddenly face competition in the from of a rich guy who drives on his free time for fun and to make extra cash? That’s what everyone is going up against these days – no industry is safe.

And that, my friends, is why I recommend Stan McChrystal’s Team of Teams book – because you’re not safe, and if you think you are, you may already be too late. Somebody out there is coming for you (in the economic sense, not literally. Please don’t sit at your front door with a shotgun). They aren’t burdened by years of corporate culture that thinks “this is the way things are done” and blinds itself to innovation. It may be out of Silicon Valley, but it’s just as likely out of Manila or New Delhi. The point is, you probably won’t even see it coming because it’s such a tiny blip on the radar. So prepare yourself by building the type of culture that rapidly adapts to new threats. Go read how JSOC did it, then see if you can apply it to your own workplace.

Mic drop.

Be Steel, Not Iron

Welcome back to Thunder Dome. This week’s post goes a bit broader, outside of the “transitioning service member” framework that I’ve been covering these past months. It’s kind of like a farewell address mixed with a motivational speech (just call me Coach Taylor), as I find myself mostly exhausted of new topics and don’t wish to belabor the points I’ve already made. I struggled a bit with the tone of this article, it might be too aggressive. If so, my apologies, I just got really excited. So hopefully my good intentions come across clearly enough. Enjoy!

A few weeks back, I was listening to Tim Ferriss’ podcast. Tim was interviewing Chris Sacca, who is perhaps the most successful venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. Sacca is an early investor in small companies you may have heard of like Twitter, Uber, KickStarter, and many others. So it might be safe to say that he’s fairly competent at assessing the skills and talents of others, even if they aren’t fully matured yet. He’s got a great eye for spotting talent and potential, or the lack thereof.

In the interview, Chris bemoaned the current state of many the workers in Silicon Valley. These wanna be Zuckerbergs come rushing out of the best colleges in the world, with the finest educations possible and golden resumes. They are overwhelming some of the smartest, most educated, hardest working employees in the US. And yet they are horrifically unprepared for the workplace.

There is a fundamental flaw in the current pipeline that feeds Silicon Valley and the other employment hot spots in America, be it Wall St, DC, Chicago, etc. The fierce market competitiveness is driving the search for the “perfect” method to “make it”. We start to equate the fact that if so many millionaires are coming from Stanford, so long as we just graduate from Stanford, we’ll be set for the rest of our lives. This creates an arms race, with every parent trying to make sure little Johnny or Susie has the perfect resume, with classical piano lessons, debate club, and swim team captaincy. Everything box is checked, polished to a sheen, and the kids are never allowed to fail, because if they miss even one step, somebody else is ready to take their spot. This makes for some damn impressive college applications, but it also makes for some awful employees. Paper tigers – fearsome when viewed from afar, hollow when closely examined.

What’s lost in this “perfect pipeline” is failure. Nobody loses at anything. Everyone gets a trophy and their parents are right behind them to make sure it’s the biggest trophy possible. This arms race has prevented anyone from falling on their face, losing prestige, or starving. And that is downright awful. Why is Sacca so pessimistic towards many of the workers in Silicon Valley? Because so few of them know what the bottom of the ladder looks like, they cannot appreciate why it’s so critical to climb up the ladder. They haven’t worked crappy jobs in the fast food industry. They haven’t gone to the poor parts of the world and seen how the other half lives. They haven’t had to bleed in order to win. Their “cultural immersions” consist of a semester abroad in some Western Europe country and a few trips with the family to all-inclusive resorts. Maybe a one-week long mission with their church to Costa Rica that actually did more harm than good. Because they haven’t been exposed to the bad, they have no idea why it is so important to be good. They just know that it’s expected of them. Without the exposure to the harsh truths of the real world, these wunder kids don’t have true, lasting motivation to win. And when the real world slaps them across the face, they have no idea what to do.

imagine Robin is a over-privileged tech employee. Nobody likes Robin. Nobody.
imagine Robin is a over-privileged tech employee. Nobody likes Robin. Nobody.

This critical gap is ripe for exploitation by the kind of people who HAVE bled for it. You know where I’m going with this. Veterans have seen the dark side, the bad, the ugly. We get it. We know why it’s so important to climb the ladder, to make great things, to be the best. Because we have seen parts of the world where that hasn’t happened. Where the privileged few took advantage of the many. Where so many are left destitute, with no real manner of escape. I’ve seen horrific catastrophes, sickening repression, and the anger and hopelessness they generate first hand. That’s why I’m so fired up to win. Because I’ll fight tooth and nail to make it doesn’t happen here. All my fellow veterans know this because they’ve seen it too. So maybe your first job isn’t the “perfect job” or isn’t quite the salary you had hoped for. That’s okay, because there should be no doubt in your mind that you’re going to crush it. Look at the competition.They have glass jaws, where you’ve already taken a couple solid right hooks to the face and discovered that, yeah, it hurts, but the world doesn’t end. They don’t realize how good they’ve got it and don’t know what to do with themselves when the first sign of danger appears. And you, my friend, are The Danger. You’re the One Who Knocks.

seriously though, and I want to be 100% clear on this point, do NOT become a meth kingpin. This is not what I'm advocating. Not cool.
seriously though, and I want to be 100% clear on this point, do NOT become a meth kingpin. This is not what I’m advocating. Not cool.

A quick aside on metallurgy. Iron and steel are very similar metals, as steel is derived from iron. Both are incredibly strong, with the ability to hold enormous amounts of weight. But steel is a highly refined version of iron, as it has been forged to the highest standards. The key difference in their attributes comes when faced with pressure. Under tremendous heat, steel bends, whereas iron shatters. Because steel was built in the hottest fires, it has been inoculated against stress to a level that iron hasn’t. When iron chips and shatters, steel laughs and keeps on going. Be steel, my friends, not iron. We service members have been forged in crucibles that make most of our civilian peers shudder. Use it. When everyone starts losing their minds because the product launch is delayed a week or the critical path for the program is running out of slack, I want you to kick your legs up on the table, sip your coffee, and say in the calmest voice possible, “I got this”, because you DO. Be steel, not iron.

Well, that about sums it up for my wise counsel regarding transitioning from the military. I’m moving into a new house and starting a new job in the next few weeks, so the blog will be going quiet. I plan on doing a “100 day review”, where I’ll do a review of what I’ve posted and see how much it has held up with my experiences in corporate America, as well as add some new content. Until then, my fellow freedom fighters…

P.S. – Yes, I know, there are always exceptions to the rule. I’m sure there is some employee in Silicon Valley who was born to two quadriplegic parents in the mountain of Bhutan, got into Stanford on a scholarship and graduated suma cum laude while working 4 jobs. I get it. Thank you for pointing out that I don’t know everything and am kind of a jerk.

The Terrible “B” Word (Transitioning from the Army Series, Part 7)

Today I want to talk about a dirty word. I’m normally not a crass or vulgar man, and while I do indulge in the odd curse word on this blog, it’s primarily for dramatic effect and written only after consideration. So I don’t take writing this word lightly. But it’s high time I addressed this issue, and there just isn’t a way too without using this horrible, rotten, no good word. I’ve avoided it for as long as I can, but it is finally the day of reckoning. Today, we’re going to talk about your BRAND.

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The Brand storm approaches

Ah yes, your “brand”. Everyone wants to talk about brands these days. It’s all about “brand management” or “building your brand”. There are “brand gurus” who charge Fortune 500 companies outrageous amounts of money to help improve their “brand value”*. Brand, brand, brand, brand, brand. Barf.

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What is this elusive brand and just why in the Seven Hells is it so important? I describe it as the summation of your life experience, key attributes, strengths, and goals, all condensed into a tight little package for easy consumption. Basically, everything you’d want someone to know about you that could be expressed in one breath. Think of it as your business card or a “one-slider” presentation of who you are. Perhaps it’s your elevator pitch that you can use to woo your next employer. It’s how you’re known around the office, what people describe you as when they’re asked about you, and the reputation you’ve earned. Is it nearly impossible to collect and condense something as complex as a human being’s total summation of life experiences into an easily digestible sound bite? Well, um, yeah, it is. Sorry. Better get started.

Listen friends, because I keep returning to this point over the course of all my blog posts. Transitioning from the military isn’t easy. Getting a new job isn’t easy. There are many different reasons why this is true, but one of the biggest is the limitations we all have in terms of cognition. I’ve had some long talks with recruiters for renowned international companies. These people see hundreds of resumes every day, with many of those resumes belonging to intelligent, highly qualified individuals. It’s a numbing experience, as these resumes quickly become a fungible commodity, each looking like the next. Oh, you spent a semester abroad and learned the value of another culture’s perspective? That’s sooooooooo interesting, tell me all about it.

resized_creepy-willy-wonka-meme-generator-that-s-so-interesting-please-keep-talking-254f9e
sarcasm

 

Standing out from the crowd is hard. That’s why your “brand” is such a valuable asset. You’ve got to be able to set yourself apart. Luckily, being a veteran gives you a leg up, IF YOU TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT. Get it? Got it? Good.

 

So unless you’ve got a top-notch life coach helping you craft your life’s work into a catchy narrative, you’re probably wondering just what you’re supposed to be doing about this “brand” thing you supposedly have. Behind all this buzzword mumbo-gumbo lies an immensely important truth:

If you don’t stand out, you’ll stand in line*

I met a guy named Joe (not his real name) few months ago. Joe was a little behind me in the transition process, so I was able to impart a few of the hard-learned lessons from my on-going transition so he didn’t have to get quite as bruised up as me (and hopefully you too!) Joe was an ambitious guy, rightly so given his background, with his eyes on Wall St. One of Joe’s issues was he wasn’t sure how exactly to stand out from the crowd. It was a legitimate concern. Every day (and even more coming soon, THANKS OBAMA), 100s of service members leave active duty and attempt to join the civilian work force. That’s a lot of competition on top of an already high-stakes job market, especially as we aim farther up the ladder towards the more lucrative jobs. So how can Joe stand out from the crowd, when there’s another 50 guys and gals just like him, with similar resumes, all vying for the same job and only a couple of seconds to make that vital first impression? That, my friends, is why your brand is so important. Easily digestible impressions set yourself apart.

Joe has numerous talents, life-changing experiences, and highly valued attributes. Big frakin’ deal. So do those other 49 individuals trying for the same job at Goldman Sachs. But you know what those other 49 individuals didn’t have on their resume that Joe did? That he drove a gorram SUBMARINE. Yeah, those nuclear powered silent killers of the deep that are piloted by Sean Connery.

Suck it, Trebek.

That was the critical “cherry on the top” for Joe’s brand. When everyone is already a high-performing, results-oriented, go-getter, the necessity to make your brand unique and easily remembered is absolute. Ask yourself which of these two introductions is easier to remember:

1) Hi! My name is Joe and I’m a proven organizational leader who is passionate about leading cross-functional teams in high stakes environments to achieve success.

2) Hi! My name is Joe and I’m a proven organizational leader who is passionate about leading cross-functional teams in high stakes environments to achieve success. Oh, and I drive a nuclear powered submarine at work.

It’s not even a contest. Joe may tank future interviews, but, by the blessings of R’hllor, Lord of Light, the Heart of Fire, God of Flame and Shadow (yeah, it’s a long title), he will be remembered. Hell, Joe didn’t even actually drive the submarine, but that doesn’t really matter, because he made himself stand out. He can correct himself at the next interview (which he will of course nail).

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puppy intermission. Just because

Defining and refining your brand is both easy and difficult for service members. It’s easy because many of us have suffered significant trials that have tested us far beyond what our civilian peers have. Those great stories you have of crawling through the mud at boot camp, calling for mortar fire on an enemy position in Afghanistan, or pulling a drunk Marine out of a Singaporean jail? Those form the nucleus of how you pull away from the rest of the crowd, because I assure you, no HBS graduate has any stories like you do.

Conversely, it’s also extremely difficult for us because so many of us are uncomfortable when talking about our time in service. Lord knows I hate it. But you have every right to draw on all your life’s experiences in order to make yourself stand out (unless you’re a JSOC person or have signed an NDA) and frankly, it you want the job, you’ll need to swallow your pride and talk about it. I hate talking about myself and my service, so trust me, I KNOW, I GET IT. But I hate not having a job and my family not being secure a whole lot more. I’m a Green Beret, and while it makes my skin absolutely crawl to admit that publicly because I strongly believe in the concept of a Quiet Professional, that fact is a crucial part of my brand and makes me considerably more memorable to potential employers. I can’t say for certain if that has directly improved my chances, but I do know for certain that interviewers easily remembered me because I was “that Army ninja guy” (true quote from a recruiter). And while some people will ask me if a Green Beret is like a Navy SEAL, and I suppress my urge to go full Patrick Bateman, I smile and say something like “yeah, kinda like a SEAL, only for the Army” because either way, it works. It makes me stand out instead of stand in line.

Christian_bale_american_psycho_patrick_bateman_axe_10989289_RE_PwnzElite_has_declared_war_on_Grammar_Nazis-s400x300-173837.jpg
Oh yeah, sure, SEALs and Green Berets are identical. Hold on just a second, I need to show you my newest garden tool

Don’t just limit yourself to your recent jobs. Include your passions, your extracurriculars, and side projects. This blog is part of my brand, as it’s a mechanism through which I explain how I think, what my leadership style is like, and is a bit of a window into my mind. My participation in adventure races over the past decade is another portion of my brand. My family is a HUGE part of my brand, as their success is my success. Whether John 3:16 or Austin 3:16 plays a big part in your life, you’ve got to get those components across so the other sides understands you better.  You get the idea, right? You’re a peacock, baby, you gotta fly!

*Dang, that was a clever line. I’m putting in a trademark on that. I see a 6 figure book deal in my near future.

Bitter Medicine (Transitioning from the Army Series, Part 6)

This entry is going to focus on a specific issue that I have struggled with since the beginning of my transition. I wouldn’t call this another “step” in the transition process, but rather a unique obstacle that sooner or later, we’re all going to have to overcome. Just how much of a fight it will be depends on every individual’s personal stance towards their time in service and opinions towards the rest of country’s workforce. This obstacle is pride, and let me tell you, it’s like having to wrestle a Grizzly bear.

an actual photo of me fighting my pride. I used to have pretty sweet hair
an actual photo of me fighting my pride. I used to have pretty sweet hair

As you all know by now, transitioning from the military ain’t easy, but we love a good challenge. There are, however, parts that are more difficult than others. Looking for jobs is easy. Overcoming massive amounts of ego is NOT easy, and trust me, we’ve all got pride in spades. Regardless of however long you’ve served, you have be slapped on the back, cheered at airports, and given free drinks enough times that a tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride has been built up inside your mind. Damn right you’re proud of your service, because you’ve done something that 99.5% of the US population couldn’t or wouldn’t do. But now that service is coming to a close and you have to learn to let go of that underlying chest puffery. And if you’ve ever found yourself with a serious case of Irritable Veteran Syndrome, thinking “these friggin’ civilians take everything they have for granted” then you’ve got a long, hard road to walk to let go of that pride. Otherwise, you’re going to run straight into a brick wall during your interviews when the world doesn’t roll out the red carpet because you served.

some Pride Bears are harder to wrestle than others. I got 20 bucks on this guy.
some Pride Bears are harder to wrestle than others. I got 20 bucks on this guy.

I call this post Bitter Medicine, because swallowing down some harsh, bitter truths has been the exact prescription that I’ve had to follow in order to accept my new place in the workplace. But like any medicine, it’s for your own good. You see, over the course of my transition, I’ve interviewed with numerous companies. The ones that provided me an offer all had one thing in common – the job wasn’t commensurate with the level of responsibility I thought I deserved. Initially, I took this like a slap in the face. Now, I understand why this is not only a necessity, it’s a huge benefit.

Here’s the easiest way to think about the necessity of taking a step down upon your entry into the civilian workforce: Imagine a CEO of a moderate sized company with about 500 employees. If that CEO was to enter into the military, he/she should be an O-5, right? And placed right in to Battalion command, correct? They’re already doing the same amount of leadership and management, and even though there would be a steep initial learning curve, they’d obviously succeed because of their track record of excellent performance in the civilian sector. Now, if you thought to yourself, are you fraking kidding me, that CEO could come in as an O-2, AT MOST, and only after some extensive schooling that brought him/her up to speed on the military’s way of doing things, then congratulations, you’ve got the same thought process at everyone else. Of course that CEO isn’t the equivalent of a Battalion Commander, just as that Battalion Commander isn’t the equivalent of that CEO. Yes, both are good leaders, have excellent performance records, and can manage complex systems and lots of people. But being an expert in one field, no matter the number of similarities with another field, doesn’t equate to total transferability. How long do you think that CEO-turned-Battalion Commander is going to last in their new job? A week? A month? Oh, and don’t forget that they are now being rated against their new peers, all highly experienced professionals. (Surprise! You get ranked in the civilian work sector just like in the military!) So at this point, you can probably imagine what I’m going to tell you. Just because you’re a top performing, terrorist-killing, square-jawed American hero doesn’t mean you can replicate the same performance in the private sector immediately upon transition. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you’re most certainly GOING to replicate that same performance, given the necessary training, mentorship, and support (plus, regular readers of my blog are automatically given a huge bonus when applying to certain top-tier corporations*). This, mis amigos, is the bitter medicine:

We simply aren’t going to be as good at our first jobs in the civilian world as we have been at our last job in the military.

There. I said it. Now I need to force myself to admit it. Like most other pieces of advice I’ve given, I’m still struggling to follow my own wise counsel (I can see my wife rolling her eyes as she read this). I recently got a call from a very good company after I finished an interview with them that while they had loved talking to me, they believed I wasn’t fully prepared for the position I had interviewed for. They wanted to explore some other options that would essentially take me down one level in their corporate structure. Seven Hells, I was PISSED. Like, I almost went Super Saiyan.

dem abz, tho
dem abz, tho

It took me a couple days to cool off and thankfully, I was helped by some wise veterans a few years ahead of me who counseled that it was the right move.

If you can accept the fact that like the CEO-turned-Battalion Commander, you aren’t going to be ready for the same level of responsibilities immediately upon entry to your new job, then you should be HAPPY to accept a job that seems a little “below” your potential. Because you can recognize that while you have tremendous potential, you don’t have a matching level of skill. Trust me, most companies you’re dealing with know the value of a veteran and are interested in you not because of your skills, but because of your potential (Character Trumps Competence). They’re hiring you because they’re playing the long game – investing in you, knowing that they’re placing you somewhere that won’t immediately test you to your max so that you can get your “sea legs” and learn the new game you’re playing. Because come on – It’s YOU. There’s no doubt whatsoever that you’re going to blow away the competition once you’re running at full speed. You just have to come to the realization that it may take you a little while to reach that full speed. Don’t sweat it – enjoy that first year with your training gloves, then come out swinging. Bitter medicine may taste horrible, but it’s the best thing to take.

 

*No. But that would be sweeeeet, right?

The Hunt (Transitioning from the Army Series, Part 5)

Oh good, you’re back. I’m was pretty sure nobody would return since the last post was all about feelings and junk. Thanks for coming back, and don’t worry, this one is going to be all about tangible stuff. No more feelings, just action! I know some of you have been salivating for specifics, so today we’re talking about how to find the rightjob.

So by now you’ve already done everything I’ve told you to do, right? RIGHT?? Because I know you would never lie to me and skip ahead… You know what your strengths and attributes are, you have your priorities lined up, and your head is screwed on tight. Bottom line: You’ve got your sh*t together. So let’s go get you a job!

not relevant to the subject of this post. But, come on. Batman. With a lightsaber. Fighting a shark. Underwater. It's a no-brainer.
not relevant to the subject of this post. But, come on. Batman. With a lightsaber. Fighting a shark. Underwater. It’s a no-brainer.

I’m going to present to you my preferred path, because it worked pretty well for me. As always, there are other paths, but this MY damn blog, thank you very much, so we’ll talk about how I did it. There are always other options, like the headhunter companies, or going into a family business, or being that guy who hangs out at the dive bars off post for years after he gets out.

To each their own, right? NO. SCREW THAT. This is not a “everyone is perfect, now lets hold hands and respect each other’s life choices” kind of blog. We want the world to tremble at the sound of your footsteps and we’re going to take the necessary steps to ensure it happens.

Thanks to your earlier efforts, you already know your strengths and you may even know what town or industry you want to go to. So a lot of the work is already done. Seriously. Just think of all the jobs and cities that you DON’T need to consider versus the few you do need to. You just went from fishing in the ocean to fishing in a lake. Last week I was asked to apply to a certain online travel company and I declined, because it was outside the parameters my definition of success had given me. Easy pass. If you know you want to move to Washington DC, and you know you’re an Achiever who does well in fast-moving environments, all that’s left is to find a company that’s hiring that fits the bill. I don’t want to diminish the amount of work you’ll still need to do, but I think it’s important to understand just how much you’ve achieved by the efforts you’ve already conducted. Most people just dive right into looking for a job without laying the necessary foundation. Because of this, they constantly jump around and experience tremendous amounts of stress when asked a simple question like “what do you want to do?” But that isn’t going to be you, amigo, because you’ve done all your homework.

Generally speaking, here’s the steps I recommend. Please keep in mind this is a framework, purposely generalized so that it remains customizable to individual users. I expect everyone’s job hunt to be unique to their needs and situation. Let’s begin, shall we?

1) Make a list of potential companies. Seriously, like use Excel or Word or a piece of paper and actually build a friggin list. Best sources for this are trade magazines of the industry(s) that interest you, friends you may have already in the town or business, and of course, Googling for results like “biggest employers in X city”, “best companies to work for in X city”, or “best X companies in the US”. You don’t have to use the keyword “best”, but I’m not sure what kind of results will come from searching “mediocre company in X city”. Good luck with that.

Pick the companies that interest you the most initially. You can always revisit this list later on, as some of your choices won’t pan out (sorry). I would like to point out, YET AGAIN, that you don’t take this sort of specific step towards finding a job until you have a firm concept of your strengths and your long-term goals. Don’t chase the rabbit down the hole.

2) Research the hell out of those companies. More time spent up front trying to determine what you’d enjoy the most will pay huge dividends later down the road as you start interviewing. Don’t waste your time applying to companies that make you shrug your shoulders and say “meh”. See my resource list below for research methods.

3) Conduct some reconnaissance. Reach out to people at the companies you’re interested in. LinkedIn is your friend – find fellow veterans, alumni, people who like the same football team, whatever. Any reasonable relation that allows you to break the ice is good enough to start a dialogue and find out if the company and you are good fits. Remember those attributes and strengths of yours? You’re looking for companies that have those same attributes woven into their DNA.

4) Apply. Those people you talked to? Have them give you an insider referral for the jobs you’ve identified that you want to get. That rockets you to the front of the line, ahead of all the numbskulls who thought that submitting their resume through an online portal was all they had to do to get a job. And of course those people you’ve talked to are totally going to support your application, because you’ve already demonstrated that you go the extra mile, do your homework, and are super serious about getting things done.

excuse me, super SERIAL about getting things done
excuse me, super SERIAL about getting things done

5) Crush interviews. In order to do this, you’ve got to practice like crazy and finely hone your experiences into easily digestible stories that a civilian can understand. A whole different blog post will cover my experiences with that part of the process.

6) $$$

Well, that’s it! Piece of cake, right? Slow down there boss, you may want to keep reading just a bit more.

Marshawn understands your burning desire to jump into the job hunt
Marshawn understands your burning desire to jump into the job hunt

Resources

1) LinkedIn. LinkedIn. LinkedIn. One more time – LINKEDIN. Seriously, I don’t know why that company doesn’t charge $100 per month, it’s so valuable. First off, it lets you show your best side to the rest of the world. You build a profile that highlights your career, your strengths, and allows prospective employers to do an easy “drive-by” to make sure you’re the sort of person they’re looking for. Secondly, you can search for job openings, as most companies now keep up-to-date listings of all their job openings. Third, and MOST importantly, it makes networking SUPER easy. Ahh yes, networking. That all powerful, horribly cliche word that confuses the hell out of most military folks like me. Here’s my best explanation. Your network = your net worth. The more people who know you, the more people can vouch for you. In this day and age, where there’s an overwhelming quantity of information and 100s of people just like you applying to the same job, DECOMMODITIZING yourself is crucial. What does that mean? It means you can’t let yourself just be another resume that is submitted for a job. People have to KNOW you. LinkedIn shortens the amount of time and space necessary to let people know you. With a few clicks, you can find anyone who works at your target company that’s a former veteran, a fellow alumni, or from your same hometown. From there, just reach out with a friendly introduction message. 99% of people are super happy to share their opinions and knowledge with someone who’s similar to themselves (remember that stuff about tribes from the last post?) That’s how I got insider referrals to all the jobs I applied to, and how I was able to quickly assess if certain companies had the type of culture that fit with my strengths. Using the DC example, if after a few phone calls I had discovered that most people didn’t describe the company as “quick” or “agile”, I knew it wasn’t for me.

Important caveat: LinkedIn can easily suck you into a false sense of productivity. Remember those? Some people think that as long as they keep “connecting” with more people on LinkedIn, then some how they are improving their chances of getting a job. LinkedIn isn’t Pokemon – you’re not trying to catch them all.

LinkedIn needs to be a platform from which you launch surgical strikes on specified companies. It is not a platform for carpet bombing every company you can find with your resume. For the 20th time, LOSERS LOVE TACTICS! Don’t get sucked into the minutiae swamp! People aren’t in your network because you’re connected to them on LinkedIn. They’re in your network because you’ve demonstrated your worth in some manner and they acknowledge that. Understand the difference between the two.

2) Re-read #1. There will be a quiz.

3) Glassdoor. Another super handy website that can work hand in hand with LinkedIn to support your knowledge of a company. It’s basically Yelp for companies – employees (current and former) can post reviews of their experiences with the company, known salaries are posted, job openings much like LinkedIn, and…interview reviews! Yeah, so you can seriously read what other peoples’ experiences were as they went through the interview process with the company. Companies can curate their page on Glassdoor, but they aren’t allowed to edit content. This prevents them from deleting negative reviews, but also allows them highlight the company’s works and respond to reviews. A sign of a healthy company is their web presence and I think Glassdoor offers you a nice lens into the company well before you get there.

That’s it for now, my fellow freedom fighters. Stay tuned for my next post!

* Ah yes, the “right” job. What exactly is the right job? Let’s acknowledge upfront that we’re all special snowflakes with infinitely complex personas, so there isn’t a “right” job out there waiting for us. There are lots of “pretty good” jobs that we can find after diligently hunting (see above). If a job has met all the criteria that you’ve laid out – meets your definition of success, engages your best attributes, etc. than you can rest assured that it’s a “pretty good” job. Here’s the concept we’ve got to understand – it’s not about making the RIGHT CHOICE, it’s about making a CHOICE, then making it RIGHT. See the difference? The former is for people who fret and worry all day if they are selecting the best possible option, wasting valuable time as life passes them by. The later is for people who understand that you make your own damn luck and no matter what situation you land in, you’re going to OWN it. Read more about it here. What kind of person do you want to be?

Fear, Distress, and Other Enjoyables (Transitioning from the Army Series, Part 4)

Welcome back! So we’ve decided to leave the active duty, examined our strengths and weaknesses, and did a little bit of planning for our future. You’re kicking butt and taking names! Bully for you!

let's bring this back into our lexicon. "Hey Mike, how'd your interview go?" "Bully!"
let’s bring this back into our lexicon. “Hey Mike, how’d your interview go?” “Bully!”

Now let’s talk about when it all goes horribly, horribly wrong.

This edition of my series is going to address some of the emotional aspects that have happened to me as I go through my transition. Don’t think of this as the next step in the transition process. It’s more like an underlying current that spans the entire process. I believe it’s an important thing to talk about and is severely under-discussed because most people are uncomfortable talking about the rough parts of leaving the military. I’m going to talk about some of the struggles I’ve had to cope with and the solutions I’ve found so far. So if you’re not interested in reading about a grown man having serious anxiety, move along. But these are real issues all of us transitioning veterans deal with, so I strongly encourage everyone to arm themselves in preparation. On a personal level, writing this article is very cathartic, as I’m still handling these challenges, and knowing that I might help someone helps me in turn.

Transitioning from the military is a thrilling ride, and like any good roller coaster, there are super fun parts and there are “I need a new pair of underwear” parts. When civilians change jobs, they secretly search for new jobs while holding onto their current ones. Once they secure an offer, THEN they submit their 2 week notice. Conversely, service members have to wait until they get out to get a new occupation. And while some of us are lucky and have a job lined up and waiting for us as soon as we sign out from our duty station, most of us feel like we’re in a sudden race to secure a new paycheck. Vacation is supposed to fun and enjoyable. Yet I enjoyed only a little of the vacation time I had saved up. The hunt for my next job consumed a large majority of my time and created significant emotional turmoil, preventing me from fully enjoying my time off. However, there are methods to help you prepare for the coming challenges that I want to share with everyone, and hopefully some brave readers will offer their advice as well.

Let’s start with discussing stress. Stress is neither good or bad, it’s impartial. Stress is simply outside change introduced to an existing system. Whether or not that change is good is dependent on the reaction of the system experiencing the change. It is dependent upon the person experiencing the stress to determine how to interpret the stress. Good stress is called eustress. When you do bicep curls in the squat rack so you can get JACKED, that’s eustress.

sick gainz, bruh
sick gainz, bruh

Your muscles react to the stress induced from lifting weights by growing additional muscle fibers and strengthening pre-existing ones. Conversely, bad reactions to stress is Distress. Sadly, we’re all familiar with distress far more than we are with eustress. Remember when Simba found Mufasa lying dead on the ground after the stampede? Yeah, that was definitely distress you were feeling.

damn you, Scar!!
damn you, Scar!!

The key to making a system better at reacting to stress positively rather than negatively is through building resilience, or stress inoculation. For most of us, this has been programed for us throughout our entire military service. You run 3 miles one week, 4 mile the next. You jump out of a 34 foot tower one week, then out of an airplane the next. When you’re in as expansive and comprehensive a system as the US Military, resilience training is something that’s taken for granted and never really practiced at the individual level. Except now you’re NOT in the military anymore. It’s on YOU to build your resilience so you can increase the likelihood of eustress instead of distress from all the challenges related to transition. Here’s how I’ve done it (and still am doing it):

1) Meditation. Yeah, seriously. Get over your initial reaction of “what, like, what those hippy yoga people do?” Guys and gals, this is the real deal. You don’t have to travel to India for a spiritual retreat or stop taking showers. Here’s what you do – Go download an app called Headspace. It guides you through very basic meditation practices, with the intention of helping you “clear” your mind of distractions and extraneous thoughts. I’m not screwing around with you on this one. This is another investment in yourself. I can absolutely attest to the levels of productivity and amount of eustress I achieve on days where I successfully meditate in the morning. The simple act of setting my intentions (aka goals) at the beginning of the day are utterly crucial to ensure they are actually achieved. Do yourself a favor and check out their free demo.

2) Exercise. Some folks have to be in an environment that enforces physical activity, otherwise they can’t self-motivate themselves to workout. We all know a fat guy who claims that at his last duty station, he ran 5 days a week at a 6:00 mile pace. Don’t be that guy – keep yourself fit. Join a gym with a strong community. Just get outside and lift some heavy weights and set them back down. You’ll feel fantastic afterwards and it will do wonders for your self esteem and health. I could (and still do) talk ad nausea about this, but I’ll save that for another blog post.

3) Routine. Suggestion #1 and #2 are important actions. Routines are how you make sure you keep doing those actions on a regular basis. It’s an often overlooked and vastly underappreciated fact that humans are creatures of habit and crave routines. By establishing some semblance of normalcy through a routine, you are actually made braver and more capable of adapting to change than those without a routine. We NEED some amount of consistency in our lives, otherwise we remain in a constant state of “fight or flight.” Wake up at the same time each day (except for maybe the weekend). Do the same steps within the 1st hour of waking. Personally, I get up, make a cup of Bulletproof coffee, drink said coffee, drink my Athletic Greens and creatine, drink more coffee, meditate, and catch up on major news. How does this prepare me for the day, besides ensuring I’ve got the necessary amount of caffeine rocketing through my veins?

download

Because by knowing exactly what I’ll do at the beginning of the day, I can essentially put that time on “autopilot” and spend more energy and cognition of the parts of the day that are truly more variable. Things like interview preparation, house hunting, and networking are all time consuming and exhausting. Automate those parts of the day that you can so you may focus on those parts you cannot.

4) Community. Maybe you’re happy to be getting out the military and hated your experience. Or maybe you’re pretty bummed. Either way, you’re about to enter an extremely different world, one where the support system may not match the one you had previously. It’s a natural human action to align ourselves with others who are most alike us. In the military, this is easier done because we all get the same haircuts, wear the same clothes, etc. And now you’re suddenly around a bunch of people who aren’t like you, don’t understand what you went through, but keep telling you that their 3rd cousin was in the Coast Guard’s trash sanitation department for 2 years back in the 70s, so they “totally get what you’re going through.” No. No, they do NOT get what you’re going through. So surround yourself with others who do. There are awesome veteran-related communities out there (big shout out to Team RWB and Team Rubicon) but you don’t even need something veteran-related. Just find a tribe, even it’s Extreme Couponing.

you will, however, be dead to me if you choose this as your new tribe
you will, however, be dead to me if you choose this as your new tribe

Listen, I don’t want to pull any punches on this post, so let me be as transparent as I can. I have gotten scared during my transition. I have seen job possibilities disappear without any explanation. I’ve driven myself into some serious panics because of things that were completely out of my control. Some days I felt like the world was conspiring against me and my efforts to find a decent job and provide for my family. Even as I write these very words, I still don’t have a 100% concrete future. However, I am confident that my efforts have gotten me to the finish line – I’m just waiting to see my results posted on the scoreboard. Transitioning out of the military is not an easy thing. But I’m hear to tell you that it’s okay. We wanted this. These obstacles are GOOD. It’s your choice to make them into eustress instead of distress. Remember all those great reasons we wanted to leave the military and pursue a civilian career? They’re still valid and you still kick @$$. But you have to equip yourself with the necessary armor to succeed in this process. We military folks are used to literally clothing ourselves with layers and layers of protection – Bulletproof vests, massive up-armored vehicles, electronic detection devices, etc. Now you need to bring that same mindset to your transition. Meditate, work out, get a routine, and find a new tribe. These are your new layers of protection. So suit up my friends, because it’s time to hunt.