Why Military Transition is So Difficult -- Part 2 of 3: Culture (Leadership) Fit

So Bill, you get that TPS report done yet?

So Bill, you get that TPS report done yet?

“Do you want to run the company?”

Asked my CEO offering me my first real job. He had just given me a role to be the president of a small manufacturing subsidiary, and I was eager as hell. I had just gotten out of my military service in October 2013, and entered a Leadership Development Program for a specialty construction company. During this program, I had lived in hotel rooms for 10 months straight, spending six to seven weeks at a time at various locations throughout the US and been offered this opportunity of a lifetime! I had truly lucked out with my timing and was thrilled to start learning how to lead a business. 

As I got to the quaint company offices in the middle of Indiana, during the fall of 2014, I was immediately struck with how… slow the pace seemed to be. The company manufactured fiberglass insulation and our equipment was from the 1950’s. There were about 45x people on-site, with a significant number of folks staying loyal to the company for over 15, 20, and even 30+ years. I was surprised with a few of these dedicated employees didn’t know how to speak a lick of English! 

I had just spent the last few years of the Army as a Green Beret and recently completed a nine month tour to Afghanistan. I had the honor of being a Detachment Commander for 33 months, and my team had overcome insane amounts of adversity through our deployments in support of our nation’s strategic objectives. We had access to cutting edge technology and equipment, and learned to perform at a high level of trust, competence, and mission accomplishment — I was eager to translate these skills to the corporate world.

But the big obstacle of transition was that I knew I was not entering a Special Operations environment anymore. Private sector life was an entirely new world, and I had no business background to help me lead a 60-year old company with limited resources and aging equipment. Therefore, as a “seasoned” leader I knew that I had to apply my leadership lessons and principles instead: to build a team, create a vision, and drive progress by hitting our agreed upon milestones and KPI’s. I knew I had to rely on emotional intelligence to connect with my coworkers. I knew I had to ask questions to display strength and humility. I had to lead.

What I did not know was that this would take longer than I ever would have ever expected. Building trust wasn’t as easy as talking about family, hometowns and hobbies like in the military. Some of my coworkers were nearly double my age, had completely different value systems, and were completely engrossed in their current culture. Most avoided change because it brought discomfort, uncertainty, and even potential failure. Though in the military you could rely on the commonly shared values and rank structures to accomplish objectives, as a mid-level manager in the civilian world (which all-in-all was what I truly was), authority didn’t buy you a ham sandwich.

Building trust wasn’t as easy as talking about family, hometowns and hobbies like in the military.

I had discovered what thousands of other transitioning military service members went through, despite my belief that I was special and a quick learner. I had to “de-militarize” and understand to slow down. Building trust did not happen as quickly as it did in the Army, and the faster you try to operate without this key component, the further you push people away. Obviously. In the Army, there is the adage that hardship builds teams and you can mold a team to operate well together with tough love and Physical Training, in a relatively short amount of time. In this real world, you can’t just force systems and expect to achieve the mission, because civilians don’t respond this way; they have to choice to walk away. Some transitioning Veterans may feel that they can assume authority to execute in a role, just like they did in the military, but this works against any progress (you think) you make. 

This doesn’t only affect transitioning military folks but actually EVERYONE ELSE in private sector. When one changes jobs, goes to a different company or even a different department, garnering engagement and driving change takes time and needs to come from a foundation of trust from within the organization. As a newcomer, one must indicate that she is part of the team and demonstrate that she brings value to the organization, first. No longer can you do a 30 day RIP/TOA (Relief-in-Place/Transfer-of-Authority) and expect to run seamless operations in your AO (Area of Operations) the very next day.

So this is what I did. I had previously made some decisions entirely too fast as I first came on board, but I took a pause and settled back. Though these initial set-backs took me quite some time to recover from, I was fortunate enough to end up build a trusting team. I got to know some amazing people in the organization, and understood their value as employees and individuals. We were able to promote several folks to take on roles that initially seemed unthinkable. We slowly came together to fix broken processes and cut out the viruses of the organization. We hired driven, like-minded folks who could advance and bring value to the company.

And it “only” took two years.