How to Get Civilians to Value Your Experience (and Pay You for It)



After personally directing more than 1,000 searches as a headhunter and the data we’ve collected from the more than 10,000 job seekers who’ve used our programs at All Things Career, I’ve seen one recurring point of failure for professionals who try to translate their skills to a new industry. Focusing their narrative around what they do not have. It’s a common trap that military professionals in transition fall into as well. As you’ve begun interviewing, you’ve likely found yourself speaking to HR or recruiters after learning of a job opening. This is exactly where it starts - defending your resume. Why did you decide to leave the military? It doesn’t look like you have exposure to (insert random technology you’ve never heard of). It ends with them saying that, "you don’t have the exact experience they’re seeking". This has a lasting impact and begins framing your view of yourself around what you lack, versus the unique experiences and expertise you bring to the table.


The good news is that HR and recruiters don’t make the decision as to whether or not you get a job offer. The better news is that there’s a future boss out there who needs your unique expertise. That future boss just needs a message that resonates. That’s what we’re going to build.


My personal experience with this goes beyond simply helping others translate their value. I’ve had to do it on more than one occasion. Before becoming a headhunter, I was an Infantry Officer in the Army. To most, it would seem like quite the paradigm shift. Well, not entirely. After a year in my first search firm, I was asked to interview to become a Division Director - managing and growing a team in a new office, in a new city. All my competition for the position a) had more experience than me as a headhunter and b) had managed within search firms. When I focused on what I “didn’t have,” I was completely non-competitive.


As I started to hone my message though, I discovered that my leadership experience and track record wasn’t lacking, but simply different. I’d led teams in two combat deployments and been responsible for more than 130 men and close to $750M dollars worth of equipment. Austerity, dynamic and ever changing environments coupled with limited resources were my norm. What I quickly realized is that much of what I had, my search firm needed - direly. As I uncovered this, I not only had a completely different conversation than my competition - but I also got the job, a raise, stock options, a full relocation package, paid housing and more. Not too bad for, “not having the experience required.”


You’ve got one shot to do this and do it right. In order to crush it, you need three things to ensure success.


1) Who is Your Audience and What Keeps Them Up at Night?


The hiring process is emotionally charged for all sides. This is something you should put to work for you. As Steven Covey says, first we must “seek to understand and then seek to be understood.” Let’s start with your audience. These are the people who hire you - not HR, not recruiters, not “Companies.” Identify who you’ll ideally be working for in the role(s) you’re targeting. Who are they? Next we need to figure out what the problems are that keep them up at night. In the civilian sector this translates to things like:


  • What stands between them and their next promotion?
  • What keeps them up at night?
  • What’s truly important to them (i.e. things that fulfill them intrinsically).


The ability to speak to these pains cuts through experience level, time in industry and any other excuse we can concoct as to why the “competition” is better positioned than you. You’re likely asking yourself, “OK, great…but how do I find this out?” A simple, yet effective, technique is to begin reading the posts, discussions and comments in LinkedIn Groups.


  • Find Groups that are aligned with the industries and positions you’re pursuing. A simple keyword search using the industries and positions will produce a list.
  • Join the Groups (the number of members and activity amongst posts is a good selection criteria).
  • As you begin reading the posts, discussions and comments, look for themes. What are recurring issues? Do any of these problems sound similar to ones you solved on active duty?
  • Take notes (including who is posting and commenting in the Groups).
  • BONUS: Reach out to those posting and commenting to both connect and learn more from them.


Now that you have a good idea of what’s keeping your target audience up at night, let’s take a look at what you’re really good at doing.


2) What is Your Real Value with Your Current Audience?


Now it’s time to find out your real value in your current (and past) roles.To find out what you have done well, go to the people who know what you can deliver best: former Commanders and leaders for whom you’ve worked. It’s tempting to assume what we were good at doing. You might even look at former evaluations for these answers. While they are places to start, this is about doing market research. Any company taking a product to market does this and the job search is no different. It’s serious business and there’s a lot on the line.


Here’s a sampling of the questions you’ll want to ask your current audience:


  • What did I do that made your job easier?
  • When you think of me, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
  • If someone asked you why they should hire me, what would you say?


In order for this to be successful, you need to really listen. Don’t be tempted to jump into the conversation. You’re looking for recurring themes (i.e. the types of problems you solved). This feedback is important because, regardless of the fact that you’re leaving military service, where you’ve had success in the past is a good indication of where you will thrive in the future.


This should broaden your concept of “fit” beyond title and a hard skills set. Outcomes, and more importantly the emotions we relate with certain outcomes, are where we’re focused here. Solving the problems that stand between a future employer and a promotion, raise, etc. is infinitely more powerful that having five versus three years of experience with a certain technology or tactic.


Now, we need to package this information in a tight message for your audience.


3) Delivering a Message that Resonates


Dan Pink is one of my favorite writers and I was lucky enough to interview him last year when he launched his most recent best seller - To Sell is Human. I highly recommend you grab a copy. In it, he impresses the point about how the world is very noisy. Standing out is tough. Attention spans are short. Dan shared, by way of McKinsey, that we read or hear an estimated 100,000 words daily.


You need a message that speaks directly to your audience, has meaning and is portable.


Enter the “X,Y,Z Technique.” The structure is simple:


     I help “x” do/understand “y” so that “z”


     “X” = Your audience.


     “Y” = The problem(s) you can solve for them (what you uncovered in your research).


     “Z” = The outcome(s) they seek (Think emotional here. What’s going to make them feel amazing?).


This is a simple, super tight way to define who you are, who you can help and how. It’s also focused on where you are going (read: transitioning), not a retrospective. It also becomes a measuring stick for the short stories about your key accomplishments. Do they tie in strategically with this over-arching message? Do they answer the simple question: So what?


Test it!


Like anything else, you need to test it. Once you’ve compiled your data and crafted your “X,Y,Z” Message, take it out to potential audience members. What questions do they ask? Is it resonating? Are they asking you to tell them more?


If you get asked to sit down for coffee or, better yet, an interview, you’ve got a winner.


Kevin Kermes is an Entrepreneur, Author and Speaker. He served as an Infantry Officer and later, worked as a Headhunter where he directed more than 1,000 searches. Kevin writes weekly for 280,000+ subscribers at Career Attraction (Forbes Top 100 website) and Every Veteran Hired with the simple mission of providing smart, actionable advice that gets results.