Translating Military Experience to Civilian Careers

I spend a lot of time on Linkedin researching info for the book & blog. I’ve joined a dozen different groups and I’m enjoying the discussions. Every once in a while, though, an especially interesting topic comes up.

A month ago a member asked a seemingly simple question:

“What part of your military experience do you anticipate will carry over to your civilian career?”

Over 50 responses have already been posted. Ages & backgrounds vary, from newly separated enlisted & junior officers to gray-haired corporate veterans. Opinions are sharply divided, as usual, but some of the perspectives surprised even me. If you’ve wondered whether the military was such a good way to gain skills for a civilian career, these group members have the answers from both sides. I’ve edited some of them for clarity and military jargon.

The simple summary:

All of it converts! Most enlisted and officers become standouts in their organizations.

(This was one of the more common responses.)

Accountability and responsibility far beyond your peers and your age group:

“Concur with the comments on accountability and responsibility, they’ve served me well. In my current office several of us are veterans (primarily USAF and Navy) and when something comes up requiring extra effort or a duty watchbill, it’s not an issue– we do it.”

“I have found that the high level of responsibility and accountability forced upon me has helped me the most in my post-military career. I’m always surprised with the lack of civilians’ ability to take ownership of a project or problem. Also, the ability to make and keep a meeting agenda is something I’ve found lacking in the civilian sector. It leads to a lot of wasted time.”

“I’d say probably the attitude of ‘tell me you want it done, and it’s done with minimal supervision’.  So it’s not a shock when we get things done.”

“Despite the fact that this is a USMC motto, but ‘adapt, improvise, and overcome’ are extremely important when you are isolated in the middle of the ocean, and you need to get something done. It’s up to you one way or another.”

“I have found that we ‘play by the rules’. We tend to accept the reality and work with it to excel. We adapt quickly. We are inherently ‘fair’ (a word I don’t use often) but we have learned to accept others solely on the quality of their work and to not play office games. Lastly, we have class and always will. I have often found that there are those who will attempt to use our military experience as a negative because they can’t follow all the rules, all the time. They will brand us as rigid and inflexible, but in times of distress, they will call upon us. We have learned not to panic and to assume responsibility regardless of the situation. Most have not.”

“Though dating back to Vietnam, I found my experiences as division officer on a destroyer, preparing for an extended deployment in a combat zone, helped me establish a vision, organize what needed to be done, allocate work to my division team and then execute to make it happen before deadline. Those steps are exactly what’s needed to start and effectively run a business. Exactly what I’ve done in my civilian career. Gaining general leadership and management skills were the benefit of serving. Preparation and practice were also positive lessons.”

Jack of all trades, now mastering one:

“I had a very diverse military career, so can’t say that my expertise in any one area helped me out specifically. It’s probably the fact that I was used to a wide variety of tasking, under adverse circumstances in many cases, and could look at things from a big perspective. It’s also helped that I learned how to ‘lead up’ as junior enlisted, Chief, and junior officer, so I could speak my mind candidly but respectfully. I have to thank my leadership in most cases: lots of learning when it was good, but even when it was bad it taught me. Getting to used to living on the learning curve is also a very handy trait, it allows me to spin up pretty quickly on new stuff.”

Keeping an eye on the priorities:

“The ability to put things in perspective is a trait I learned in the Navy that has served me well running my business for the past decade. The ability to keep focused on the important issues is key to success. Kind of like standing watch while transiting the English Channel.”

Attention to detail:

“One of the things that I notice day in and day out that helps me succeed from my military training is attention to detail. I’m constantly surprised when I’m finishing a report under time pressure to the point that I’m satisfied but with more time would like to add MORE detail and go further. Yet, often the review of the report will come back with great appreciation for the length of detail and comprehensive view that I have given. It’s just interesting at times to see how in some civilian segments there really is a different and often lower standard for detail, discipline, and responsibility.”

“One thing I picked up in the military that paid a HUGE dividend on a recent project: POA&M (Plan of Action and Milestones). Many civilians have never heard of one, and looked at me like I was some sort of genius for putting the project into that format!”

When things go wrong:

“How about: Always be thinking about what can go wrong, and plan for the worst. In the military it starts with simple casualty training and drills. Or: How to sort out reports and data during an emergency. The neophyte takes them in the order received while the veteran handles them by priority.”


“In the military as soon as you reach the top of one ladder, you find yourself at the bottom of another. Promotions and rotating tours provide a gut check every few years that (a) You don’t know it all, and (b) There are people who are more knowledgeable and experienced than you. I’ve found this trait beneficial as I make the transition from military to civilian. You have to be humble, because even though you were once responsible for troops, equipment, and an important mission, you are now a small inexperienced fish in a big pond. You may find yourself working under someone several years younger than you who’s been in your industry since undergrad or MBA school.”

“I went into the private sector. I have been with three companies doing completely different jobs and endeavoring to learn and catch up with my (younger) civilian peers who have been in their positions for 10-15 years. As you said, they are the younger experts. It has been a challenge. You walk into a senior position with zero industry knowledge and experience… there is nothing to do but muscle thru it and endeavor to excel. Honestly, I miss the comfort of the service and being established in the ‘system’. However, in the long run, this is better. The idea of being a DoD contractor was compelling and the easier route, but I wanted to contribute to the country’s GDP. You you need a good dose of humility & humbleness.”

However, humility is a two-edged sword:

“I help veterans transition to a civilian career, and something that seems to come up repeatedly is that former servicemembers are horrible at selling themselves and their ideas. Perhaps because of the military ethos emphasizing group achievement over individual achievement, or perhaps because military job descriptions don’t always translate perfectly into existing civilian organizations, it seems that some former servicemembers have a hard time communicating the value they bring to the table. For instance, a few weeks ago I introduced an attorney (former officer) to another lawyer who had an opening. The former officer’s legal specialty was different from that other lawyer’s niche practice. I was stunned to sit at the table and witness that the former officer didn’t emphasize how quickly he had to learn new roles and new jobs and how versatile his skill set was. 20 minutes later the prospective employer had lost interest.”

My spouse and I have noted a few other military skills that are in short supply everywhere, both in the corporate for-profit and non-profit worlds. We have a combined 50+ years of military service, and we’ve learned that what’s considered common in the military is not so common outside of it.

Above all else, no matter what your rank or whether you were in the infantry or in a very small specialty community, you have still been taught leadership and management skills. You have been trained to be responsible, to take charge, and to get things done. Even if your skills aren’t considered to be “operational”, you’ve still had to learn how to adapt to changing situations and to respond in emergencies. The civilian world is full of people who have been able to specialize in ever-narrower fields for years or decades. However, you’ve repeatedly been forced outside your comfort zone and taught how to generalize. You can’t compete with the depth of knowledge and experience of these specialists, but you can help them form a team. Then you can help them by removing the obstacles in their path while they teach you new knowledge & skills.

Whether you’re an officer, an NCO/Chief Petty Officer, or a corporal: you have learned how to take initiative and make decisions. When you encounter the inevitable “This is how we do it“, you’ve learned to be inquisitive about all parts of the process. You’ve learned to ask “Would this go better if we did it another way?You’ve seen things done differently, and you can imagine the possibilities. You’ve learned not to tolerate unsafe or even dangerous working conditions. You know how to make the workspace a nicer place to spend your time– even if it’s just with better lighting, less clutter, and clean floors. You’ve learned how to bring in an expert to solve a specific problem and estimate the cost: and then to get it done.

Leaders have learned how to gather a team, find the resources, and execute the task. Officers and senior enlisted have been promoted for developing this skill. In fact the more senior you are, the more important it is to gather and motivate a team than it is to know how to perform a task. There will always be a co-worker who knows your civilian job better than you do, but you know how to get everyone on the team working together.

You’ve learned to bring order out of chaos. You’ve learned where to start fixing a situation, even if it’s only with small changes, and how to be persistent. You know that it’s best to spend a few minutes every day on each of the tasks that have to be done, and your “20 minutes a day” skill helps keep everything else on track when the emergency interrupts the routine. You’ve learned to break down big projects into bite-size chunks, to train frequently, and to do it in small doses so that everyone can learn new skills and become confident with them.

If you’ve wondered what to do on Linkedin after you’ve filled out your profile and posted a résumé, then look for members with your military specialty. Start with LinkedIn’s “Groups” menu and choose “Groups you may like”. Linkedin uses your profile keywords to recommend 40-50 groups. Join the ones in your specialty, especially if you have to apply to join a private group by documenting your background or skills. I also recommend “U.S. Veterans“, MOAA, and, if you’re seeking a bridge career, “Jobs for Veterans“.

You’ll quickly encounter some off-topic rambling, as well as the usual whines and complaints.  Don’t waste your time.  Focus on the discussions that deal with your concerns about your transition, and read the posts of those members who seem to be making recommendations or solving problems. Don’t even worry about making connections or contributing to the discussion. Sign up for the group’s daily e-mail digest so that you get small frequent doses of information. (Sort of like subscribing to this blog!) You’ll soon be reading about the lessons learned by people like you who have found bridge careers that they like. After a few weeks, you’ll know enough about the topic to start asking your own questions and leveraging the advice of those who’ve had to make the transition.

One more point: whether you’re earning a military retirement or leaving the service after one obligation, the closer you are to financial independence then the better you’ll do at the transition. You’ll have more time to seek out the bridge career of your dreams and you won’t feel pressured to take the first offer.

By the way, if you’re one of those servicemembers who struggles with spellcheckers, grammar, and punctuation, don’t worry about a civilian career filled with those challenges. If anything, a written product starts out worse in the civilian world and then gets better with each revision. My old XOs have been perpetually surprised by how much my writing skills have improved over the years, and I bet they’ve all wished that they could have given me more opportunity to practice…

Related articles:
Get on LinkedIn, get a job
Starting your bridge career after the military
Should you join the Reserves or National Guard?
The “fog of work”

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About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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2 Responses to Translating Military Experience to Civilian Careers

  1. Deserat says:

    So sorry about all that time on LinkedIn ;-)

    Liked the post and agree with most of the points – below, the two traits that tell me someone was in the military:
    1) The ability to communicate extemporaneously both in writing and orally – and to be as concise as needed (you had 20 minutes, you now have 2 minutes to get the info to the General)
    2) Leadership – understanding that you all work for the same team and that in-fighting lets the other side tear your team apart…..and figuring out what needs to be done and doing it.

    • Doug Nordman says:

      Thanks, Deserat!

      Eh, Linkedin is kinda fun to surf when you don’t actually have to chase down any of the job offers. Lots of interesting group therapy discussions on the submariner forums, too.

      For those who don’t know her, Deserat has successfully juggled both military and civilian careers on the road to early retirement. She’s one of those veterans who knows exactly what military skills transfer over to the civilian workforce, and she knows exactly what to expect from a veteran. And now that she’s achieved financial independence, she has no trouble figuring out what she wants to do all day.

      If I was brought in to a leadership position in a civilian company then I’d hire three lieutenants– or two chief petty officers. That team could do anything…

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