Not All Lessons From Your Military Career Matter to a Successful Civilian Career

Not All Lessons From Your Military Career Matter to a Successful Civilian Career - USAA Member Community


Military experience has a wide variety of uses to help advance your career outside of the military. The military attributes of personal performance such as hard work, determination, showing up early, and staying until the job is done have enormous value. Concrete skill sets that you learned in the military such as maintenance, technology, and how to lead teams are valuable. Finally, military skill sets that can translate to business use such as planning, competitive analysis, risk mitigation, coaching, and change implementation are of extraordinary value to your success in a second career.


With all the value that comes from a military background, it is vital to remember that not ALL value comes from a military background. There are some conceptions of military leadership or attributes of how military tasks are performed that are just plain wrong. For example, in the military, over-stocking of critical supply items just in case they might be needed is an acceptable practice, especially in a combat environment. However, over-stocking items for a commercial company, where cost and concern over cash flow rule supreme, over-stocking of all but the most important items is something that is not to be done. Just In Time use and ordering of material, not over-stocking, is the rule.


Here are five areas that military veterans need to be aware of where their military experience does not translate well into civilian careers.


  1. Not Everyone Follows the Same Path to Leadership. In the military, to be an Infantry Squad Leader, everyone who got to that position got there the same way. The Squad Leader attended Basic Training, Advanced Individual Training, served successfully as an individual soldier, attended advanced leadership training, served as an assistant squad leader, and met all the time in grade requirements for promotion to a squad leader. When all of these leadership, school, time in grade, and performance attributes were met, then they became a squad leader. In the civilian world, everyone reaches a position of responsibility differently. Different backgrounds, different education, different time with the company, and different former positions. There is no rule what background it takes to be successful in a position. Leaders are judged mainly on the results they produce.

  2. There is Not a Uniform Code of Ethics and Leadership Attributes. In the military, the leadership style and leadership education is largely standardized into what and how we should act as leaders. In the Army, we know from almost our first day as soldiers what good Army leaders look like and how they should act. Great Army leaders look like Audie Murphy from WWII, one of the most decorated soldiers in history, or those hallowed posthumous recipients of the Medal of Honor. We also know the Army Values of Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. However, the Army values and leadership attributes are not corporate attributes of ethics and integrity. Corporations are far, far different and broad when it comes to defining how they understand ethics and what personal values they promote. 

  3. Physical Fitness is Not a Leadership Attribute. In the military, regardless of service or military occupation, we expected our leaders would be PT Animals and we were extremely disappointed if they were not. After all, to lead by example, a leader had to be able to hike, shoot the entire unit’s weapons, carry gear long distances, and be able to sustain themselves for 48-72 hours with very little rest. In the military, a leader cannot lead if they cannot be at the front at all times. In civilian careers, job performance, not physical fitness, is what is required to be great. I have had great bosses which would have had trouble doing well in a 2 mile run to military fitness standards. However, their job performance and commercial leadership was exemplary and they produced great results for the company. Job fitness, not physical fitness is the standard of the corporate world.

  4. Age is Not an Attribute of Leadership Success. In the US Military, there are established times in grade requirements for every leadership position. We know that an Army Company Commander will have anywhere from 4 to 6 years of experience specific to the command responsibility and probably fulfilled a minimum of one to two positions that fall within that command’s responsibility. In the business world, commercial leaders can be old, young, and every variation in between. To make it even more complicated, some business leaders’ first experience in a company is as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Again, the defining qualification of a business leader is success in that position and not age or the number of years with the company.  
  5. Your Military Experience May Not Be Fully Respected or Understood. Military veterans want their military experience respected, understood, and valued when they transition from the military to a new career. Employees from a different company that join new companies want their previous work experience respected, understood, and valued by their new employer. For both military veterans and new employees with a prior work background, this complete respect, understanding, and value rarely happens. Companies value prior experience when they see, understand, and have that prior background create new value for the company. Your prior military experience is valuable and it is important. However, you have to show concrete examples and steps how you made a success at your current job from what you learned at your old job. Do not be frustrated; understand, translate, adapt, and apply your military job skills to your new company.

With all the value that comes from a military background, it is vital to remember that not ALL value comes from a military background. Military experience has a wide variety of uses to help advance your career outside of the military. Be aware that your prior military experience and your understanding of how organizations run may not always be valuable in every scenario. Determine what your new company needs and what your military experience brings to the role, this will help you make a successful transition from your military career to your new civilian career.


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About the blogger:
Chad Storlie is the author of two books: Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and Battlefield to Business Success. Both books teach how to translate and apply military skills to business. An adjunct Lecturer of Marketing at Creighton University and Bellevue University in Omaha, NE. Chad is a retired US Army Special Forces officer with 20+ years of Active and Reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units. He served in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea, and throughout the United States. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Special Forces Tab, and the Ranger Tab. In addition to teaching, he is a mid-level marketing executive and has worked in marketing and sales roles for various companies, including General Electric, Comcast, and Manugistics. He has been published in The Harvard Business Review blog, Business Week Online, Forbes, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and over 40 other publications. He has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University.


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