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10 Lessons Learned from a Transitioned Army Officer: The Military-to-Civilian Career Search.

Having just completed a successful transition from an 8-year career as an Army Officer into a civilian business career, my goal is to now pass along some fresh “lessons-learned” to any and all seeking to follow a similar path. The journey is an exhausting one for sure, but I believe these 10 lessons will help you do it better than i did.

Indeed, I wasted energy in some areas and failed to apply enough to others. Hindsight 20/20, I believe these few lessons will help any transitioning military officer, or military leader for that matter.

One of the best pieces of advice I received during the transition/career search came from a civilian mentor. He told me, “Erich, this will be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done in your life. Treat it that way, and work it like a part time job”. He was right. Bottom line: You have to treat the process like a part-time job (at least). Preparation and effort is key for transitioning Service Members, especially since most of us have zero experience on “the outside”. The only way we can compensate for that lack of civilian industry experience is by preparing thoroughly for the career search itself. Especially if you’re looking to seek out a civilian business career (non-federal) like I did, you must keep in mind the competition: our civilian counterparts competing for the same jobs. They bring industry training and experience to the table, and if we’re going to even the playing field, preparation is how we HAVE TO do it!

As a quick pep talk: When I began the civilian career search, I was not confident. On the contrary, I felt intimidated, nervous, and hesitant, and I questioned my decision to abandon an established career in the Army. But I can honestly say that, having accepted an offer of employment just a couple weeks ago, it turned out FAR better than I ever imagined it could. There are opportunities aplenty out there for all of us, and as a result, I urge one thing of all transitioning military leaders:

Have no doubt that you are desirable to civilian employers. You are. I didn’t believe it when I began the job search, but I 100% do now.

Without further ado, here are 10 key lessons I want to pass along (I hope it helps!) …

Lesson #1: It’s NEVER too early to start preparing.

As transitioning Service Members, there are A LOT of resources offered to us WELL in advance of the interview season (which I define as 90 days from employment availability). I think that you (we) would be crazy not to leverage as much as possible. Starting early is the key to tapping all these resources.

For most of my career, I thought the ACAP program was nothing more than a way for transitioning Soldiers to get out of work (many of you have probably thought the same). Having now utilized it myself, I am humbled to say that my opinion has changed. Now known as the Soldier for Life–Transition Assistance Program (SFL-TAP), this new program represents our government’s serious investment in reducing unemployed veterans across the country. The resources offered are extremely valuable, but only if we take advantage.

Personally, I got involved with the SFL-TAP program WAY too late in the game. I waited until 4 months from my ETS date to go see them, and it was a huge mistake. I was still able to take great advantage of some great offerings, but doing so while interviewing for jobs was stressful and unnecessary. Had I exhausted their resources earlier, things would have been MUCH easier (less updating resumes with earned certifications, less scheduling strain, and more focus on interview prep).

Aside from basic transition counseling and resources, the greatest value lies with all the certification opportunities (offered for FREE). Most installations host instructors periodically, partner with local universities, or work through online university programs to provide management and specialty certifications for us. (Syracuse’s online VCTP is definitely worth a look, by the way). As an example, I took an online Six Sigma certification course, which included NO green belt project. At the time, I thought it would be just another bullet on my resume. Surprisingly though, nearly every interviewer commented on how this was impressive because it meant I was willing to learn the methodology. Not only do these certifications give resume bullets, but they also go a long way toward displaying to civilian employers that we (transitioning Service Members) are willing to learn their accepted methodologies.

A quick story to further emphasize the point: When I first met with my SFL counselor (again, just 4 months from ETS), she showed me a list of upcoming training events and recommended one in particular: a facilities management certification course. I had no idea what this was, and less of an inkling as to how it would help me. The class was already booked full, but she suggested I try to walk on anyways. So, I cleared it with my chain of command and went. I showed up early on the start date as one of the last walk-on’s admitted (third-to-last, I think). I completed the course four days later and added the certification to my resume. Not two weeks later, I was interviewing at a hiring conference when one of the interviewers spotted the certification on my resume and asked, “Do you know how valuable this is to our company?” My response: “To be completely honest, before I took that course I didn’t know this was an industry at all.” Little did I know then that this particular interview, with this particular company, would be the one I would chose to join!

Moral of the story - I got lucky! But I shouldn’t have needed any luck. Had I tapped the transition resources earlier, I could have completed this certification, and others, months in advance of interview season.

My advice: Leverage ALL of the military-provided (and funded) training NOW, not later. Also, whether or not you think you’ll ever use a particular training or certification, pursue them anyways. You’ve worked hard to earn the opportunities offered by our SFL-TAP. So take advantage by starting early!

Lesson #2: Setting Goals.

It sounds obvious, but I failed to set a decent goal for my career search until halfway through my interview season.

Expect to be asked about your short and long-term goals in most interviews (almost every one, in my experience), but also - don’t overlook goal-setting when it comes to the career search itself. The goal I eventually set: “To make my biggest problem during the career search be that of having to choose between multiple exciting opportunities at the end”. It was a decent goal, and I recommend its use for sure. We probably all define “exciting opportunities” differently, so it may be a good idea to also set more specific goals in terms of target compensation, desired level of responsibility, etc. Whatever your specific goals, I definitely recommend gearing your career search in a way that leaves you with more than one employment option.

My advice: Whatever your initial motivation(s) for the transition, establish quantifiable goals for the career search and gear all efforts towards achieving them.

Lesson #3: The Value of Networking.

Luckily, when I made the decision to leave the Army, I received plenty of advice from folks telling me to get out and start networking. Most of you have probably heard the same already, but I would still be remiss not to reemphasize!

A couple quick statistics from my job hunt: I submitted nearly 35 online applications (a practice I do not necessarily recommend), and out of all those applications which were accompanied by custom-built resumes and cover-letters, how many do you think called me back?


Venture to guess what all of those “call-backs” had in common?

Network contacts. I had established network connections with ALL six companies.

In summary, that’s a 100% success rate in receiving an interview via networking, and 0% without. I’m not saying it’s impossible to move forward in the screening process without a network contact, but in my experience, the odds improve drastically when you spend more time networking and less “mass-applying” to jobs.

Leveraging family, friends, and colleagues for introductions to meet with, speak with, or correspond with civilian professionals allowed me to build an invaluable network during the transition. I spent a great deal of free time travelling to meet with some of these individuals, and it was totally worth it.

Aside from networking through people you already know, go for the “long shot” contacts too! (Read: use LinkedIn!) Quick story to illustrate the point: One of those six I just mentioned was a company that I REALLY wanted to interview with. Located in my hometown, with a great training program, and a lot of growth opportunity, I applied VERY early in the career search. But my application sat in their online talent community for three months. Not a word back. One day, I sat down and typed a LinkedIn search for Army veterans who worked there (you can do that by the way). As it turns out, I found a former AG Officer working as an HR manager. I sent him a message, he invited me to speak on the phone, and I had an on-site interview two weeks later! Complete turn of events. I ended up receiving an offer from that company. I never would have received an offer of employment, nor an interview, had I not reached out to that guy. Moral of the story: Use everything you’ve got to get a “foot in the door”, and take advantage of LinkedIn!

Most of us have an extensive professional network in the military and little-to-none outside. In my opinion, this transition is our BEST OPPORTUNITY to network into the civilian sector. I also believe that creating this network with a “long term” mentality is the right approach. Investing time to building a good professional network now can benefit us on “the outside” long after the transition. I have no doubt the network I’ve built will help me later on in life. It’s a long term investment I definitely recommend investing in.

I also became aware of different ways networks are valuable for us. Not only can it introduce potential job opportunities (which mine did), but it also educates. Spending time with successful civilian professionals is something we should all do during the transition, in my opinion. Let’s admit one thing: most of us don’t have a clue how things work “out there”. I thought I did until I began meeting with my network contacts, and I quickly realized that I did not. In my opinion, there is no better way we can prepare to be successful “outside” than by learning from those who already are!

My advice: Go out and build a professional network, not just for the opportunities it may lead to, but because doing so taps into knowledge and mentorship that we, as transitioning Service Members, all NEED to be successful out there!

Lesson #4: Partnering with Recruiting Firms (aka “The Headhunters”).

Always a popular topic amongst transitioning military leaders (and for good reason), I’ll definitely weigh in on this one…

Please remember that my opinion is based solely on my own experience. That being said, I’ll begin by saying that when I first partnered with a recruiting firm, I was doubtful they would present an offer I would accept. I had a lot of “irons in the fire”, and I spent a great deal of time pursuing opportunities on my own. But what happened? I accepted an offer through a recruiting firm. The reason I say that is to illustrate that I’m a “disbeliever-turned-believer” when it comes to “headhunters”. But there’s a lot more to it than that…

To summarize my opinion, if you choose to transition into the civilian business sector and you choose NOT to partner with a recruiting firm, you are crazy. Without them, you are limiting your reach. Period. On the other hand, I believe you’re also crazy if you choose to partner with an “exclusive” firm. Bottom line: Find yourself a recruiting firm (or more than one) to partner with, but RUN from any that want you to be exclusive to them. I’ll explain the exclusivity thing in a moment…

First though, I think it’s important we all understand how and why these “headhunters” exist. The reason is actually pretty simple, in fact. Transitioning military leaders, like us, are marketable to the civilian business world (we’re actually more desirable than I ever thought). We are valued to the point that an industry of “middle-men” has arisen that provides civilian employers (their clients) with transitioning military leaders (us, the product). That’s how I came to understand the “headhunter” business model, at least. What’s the significance? You and I are the product. Which means, we pay NOTHING for the service of being recruited/marketed. Also, these firms maintain contacts and opportunities that we could never (or would struggle severely to) find on our own. For that reason, in addition to the fact that their client companies are already “sold” on the idea of hiring a transitioning military leader, make them a “MUST DO” in my book. (Let it also serve as a vote of confidence that an industry has arisen due to YOUR desirability!)

In my experience, the biggest difference between interviewing with companies I found on my own and interviewing with the ones presented by a “headhunter” was this: On my own, I had to sell two things. But in interviews through recruiting firms I only had to sell one. Going it alone, we have to sell potential employers on: 1) Ourselves, and 2) The idea of hiring a transitioning military Service Member. Working through recruiters (who have already sold their clients on the latter), you only have to sell “you”.  That “foot-in-the-door” is a true enabler and can make winning a 30-45 minute interview MUCH more manageable.

So back to the “exclusive” recruiting firm topic: What are they? These are firms that officially or unofficially require that you agree NOT TO pursue employment opportunities outside their client base. Basically, shut everything else down and trust them, alone, to find your next career. Unless you want your career chosen like Human Resources Command selecting options for you (Army), then RUN from these firms.

About 7 months ahead of my transition date, I was tightening my partnership with a particular firm (unnamed). They were extremely professional, overly helpful, and I had no doubt their intent was to land me a great civilian job. However, when the recruiter laid out the “exclusivity agreement” over the phone, I was caught off guard. I told him I needed to think about it, and the next day I called to terminate the partnership. At the time, I was unsure of my decision. I’d already invested time and energy with this firm, and I was fully confident they could find me a good career. All I had to do was trust them and wait until their hiring conferences rolled around.

In the end, I couldn’t accept the fact that I should “turn off” all other search efforts. Would it be easier to do so? Heck yes! But why should we be asked to ignore all other resources out there? We shouldn’t. In my opinion, there are too many resources delivered by the digital age and our professional network efforts for us to ignore.

Deciding to terminate that partnership was one of the best decisions I made. Instead of limiting myself to their opportunities, I decided to turn my attention to partnerships with two non-exclusive firms: Bradley Morris (BMI) and Lucas Group. Both were incredible to work with, Bradley Morris in particular. They did, after all, land me the offer I chose. Instead of constricting, they enabled my career search. I was still skeptical though, and during every communication, I kept trying to identify ways they weren’t representing my best interests. I never could. I highly recommend Bradley Morris or any of the other non-exclusive firms. They do a wonderful job for folks like us, and the mutually-benefiting nature of the industry, in my opinion, is far too valuable for us to pass up.

Over the course of three months, they put me in front of 21 companies (21 interviews) at their hiring conferences. Even if I hadn’t chosen to go with one of these opportunities, I would still state the value of attending. I’m not sure any of us will ever get the opportunity for such exposure across the civilian sector again, and I couldn’t be more appreciative for it. I think we all gain a lot of knowledge from exploring these diverse opportunities, whether you’re already leaning toward a specific industry or not.

My advice: Develop a “two pronged” approach to your job search. First, get a recruiting firm working to find opportunities for you. Then once you have them up and running, dedicate the rest of your time to searching on your own. Both exploring on your own and leveraging a recruiting firm are equally critical “prongs” when it comes to enabling your search.

Lesson #5: The “Decisive Point” is the Interview.

Not speaking for other branches of service, but “decisive point” is a term the Army uses to define the point in an operation that is the most critical to deciding the outcome. It can be represented by a location, a moment in time, or when critical conditions are met. Regardless of how it’s defined, the decisive point in any operation is where the mission either succeeds or fails. For us, that decisive point is the interview.

I won’t even try to give interview advice, because until three months ago - I had none. For interview tips, I recommend consulting our civilian counterparts who specialize in the matter. However, the one “lesson-learned” I can confidently emphasize is this:

The interview is truly “make-or-break”. You either win it or lose it, and the value of preparing for this defining 30-45 minutes CANNOT be overrated or overstated.

Especially for transitioning Service Members like us, interview preparation is key. We have little experience in the matter, so preparing for each interaction with potential employers is crucial. The most valuable time I spent during the entire career search was when I was preparing for interviews, hands down. I must emphasize preparing for every interview individually by practicing your answers (stories), developing thoughtful questions to ask, researching the company, and studying the job description.

I distinctly remember the look on one interviewer’s face when he asked me “What is your favorite product that our company makes?” I didn’t have an answer. I hadn’t researched the company at all, and I didn’t have a clue. I was at a hiring conference for this interview and had focused all my time studying other companies. Talk about throwing one away! That was an opportunity I wouldn’t have back. It would have taken me a matter of minutes to prepare for that question, and I didn’t do it. Decisive point failed, interview lost.

My advice: The most valuable way you can spend time during this process is by preparing for interviews. Prepare, prepare, and prepare some more! You’ll be way more confident walking through the door; it will show, and you will win it.

Lesson #6: Treat Every One Like Your Number One.

Along the same lines as the previous “lesson-learned”, here’s what I mean:

During the job search, I took a follow-up phone interview with a company in which I had lost interest. The call had already been scheduled, and I wanted to speak with the interviewer before “closing the door” on the job. At the time, there was a competing opportunity that I though had a better salary and location. So what did I do? I didn’t prepare for the call. What happened? It didn’t go well. Not terrible, but definitely not great. But that was okay, because I had all-but-eliminated this opportunity from my pool of “top choices”. Long story short: The next day I learned that company was now hiring for a position with better pay and more ideal location. Expletive, I thought.

My advice: Treat every opportunity like your “number one”. Things can change quickly on your opportunity “leader board”, and you don’t want to be left with a door closed because you chose not to prepare. Close the door when you have eliminated the option, but give them 100% effort until you do.

Lesson #7: Keeping an Open Mind.

Control. It’s something we have little sense of throughout our military careers. Especially in terms of things like salary, job title, and duty location. But now we have it!

Indeed, one of the most appealing things to me about entering the civilian market was that sense of control. For me, location was a BIG consideration. The first time in my post–college years, I had full control over where I would live (as long as I could get a job there). It felt (and feels) great.

My wife and I are from East Tennessee / NW Georgia, and we have strong ties to family and friends there. When I began looking for jobs, location was an absolute non-negotiable. I was unwilling to budge on it. So how did that turn out? Well, I ended my search with two offers located directly where we wanted to live (within miles). I accepted neither. I instead decided to go work for a company further from home. Why? Because the growth opportunity (among other factors) was better. Had I been unwilling to flex on location, I would have never been exposed to this opportunity. And as one of my mentors told me “Go with the opportunity over location. Get the experience there that will take you anywhere you want to go.”

My advice: Know yourself, and identify your “non-negotiables” up front. Discuss them with significant others, and be honest with potential employers about them (they really appreciate that). BUT: Be willing to think outside the box. Consider re-negotiating those non-negotiables along the way. Bottom line: Keep an open mind, and be willing to explore opportunities that may take you outside of your comfort zone. Only by doing so will you be 100% confident that the one you end up choosing is the best for your future.

Lesson #8: Battle Tracking.

Another term we’re all familiar with. Plain and simple - tracking the job search/transition process like an operation is a definite “MUST DO”.

One of the best investments I made was building a system of trackers (I used excel for spreadsheets and Google calendar for scheduling) to keep up with applications, interviews, network contacts, and due-outs. From my experience, maintaining a good dose of professional responsiveness throughout the interview season requires solid systems in place. Leave it to memory, and you’re certain to forget something critical along the way.

My advice: Establish systems for scheduling and tracking as early in the process as possible, especially if you are planning on exploring multiple opportunities and expanding your professional network.

Lesson #9: Our Brand is Leadership.

It took me far too long to figure this out. Leadership, above all other experience, should be the absolute benchmark of our “brand”, as transitioning military leaders, and here is why.

Instead of reaching this understanding early in my search, I spent hours trying to “brand” myself through what I believed were more industry-specific experiences. Building my resume and rehearsing my interview answers, I sought to highlight industry-transferrable experiences. I would never recommend omitting your specialty skills, but in my experience – none are more valuable to an employer than the leadership skills you have acquired.

Bottom line: Our leadership and management skills are more valuable to civilian employers than anything else. Many of you have probably heard this before and not believed it. I was in the same boat – I never believed it was THAT desirable. I was therefore convinced that I needed to spend most of my time in interviews talking about skills that somehow related to the industry. I was wrong.

I have consistently been amazed to learn how willing companies are to hire “soft” leadership skills with zero industry experience. Think about it - every day of our careers have been filled with the challenges of motivating and managing people to accomplish common goals. Whether it was two people or two hundred, you did it every single day. As I came to learn, in the eyes of civilian employers – it’s easier to train leaders on the industry than to train industry professionals on leadership. As long as we benchmark our “brand” on leadership, we CAN level the playing field with our civilian counterparts.

**A word of warning**: Although our leadership experience is highly valued, there is a stigma we must all avoid…

Coming out of the interview season, I believe there is an underlying question every civilian employer is trying to answer about us: “Is this person a rigid, command-and-control leader the military is known for? / or / Is he (or she) an influential leader who will “fit” with our team?” There is a stigma which exists that we only know how to bark orders and dish out punishment. Although we know this isn’t the case, you must be aware of this stigma and be ready to answer questions accordingly. Gearing your leadership caveats toward times when you used influence and buy-in to motivate a team are key, in my experience. It’s great for civilian employers to know that we are willing to “lay down the hammer” if the time comes, but don’t scare them off by giving the impression that’s all you know how to do.

My advice: Highlight your transferrable skills, but make leadership the paramount benchmark of your personal “brand”.

Lesson #10: Appreciate the Journey, and Have Fun!

The past few months have been amongst the most stressful of my life. I fully admit that. I would also be willing to bet many of you come to feel the same way.

It definitely gets hard to shake feelings like, “Is this a mistake?!” and “What if this doesn’t turn out well?!”. Aside from those creeping feelings of doubt, the process will also become pretty stressful. Dealing with this part-time job and still managing a current one is not an easy feat. That being said, I think the most important thing we can do in regard to the career search is to remind ourselves what an incredible opportunity it is.

My final piece of advice: Make every effort to enjoy the ride, appreciate the opportunity we are afforded, and do your best to have fun with it. I will definitely turn out well (I guarantee), and appreciating the journey will ensure you gain as much value as possible from the process itself.

My hope is that some of this rambling helped you out in some way. If it did, and there are more questions I can answer, please reach out and I’ll do my best! Best of luck to you all. Remember to stay confident it will turn out great, and above all – “Work it like a part-time job”!

- Erich A. Murray

Captain, U.S. Army, Field Artillery (May 2008 - July 2016).

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