Welcoming Veterans Back to the Civilian Workforce

A new collaboration between global leadership and talent consulting firm Korn Ferry and Exelis Action Corps, the employee volunteerism program at defense company Exelis Inc., is helping military leaders make the transition to civilian jobs.

Veterans are likely to notice many differences between the military and civilian worlds, as now they need to learn to tell their story to employers and network on social media, for example. The Department of Labor estimates more than 1 million former military personnel will be integrating back into the civilian workforce. What unique, diverse perspectives do veterans bring and how can this process be smoother?

Erica Jeffries is a veteran herself, having served as one of the few female helicopter pilots in the Army, and transitioned back to serve as a White House Fellow. Now she’s the chief inclusion and diversity officer at Exelis.Erica Jeffries

Diversity Executive had the opportunity to speak with Jeffries about the veteran program and her own experiences. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

What are some things military personnel should consider when transitioning to civilian leadership?

The first step is having the right mindset. As a transitioning military leader, you have world-class training that makes you a valuable asset to most types of civilian organizations. Take the time to analyze and embrace those skills and strengths.

It is important to begin a transition with the goal of advancing and developing your career, not just switching from being in the military to becoming a civilian. You have the choice to advance your current career in the civilian sector or to do something completely new and different. It’s an important decision that requires a great deal of introspection and research. You have to remember that you’re not looking for just any job. You’re looking for “the job.”

Begin by defining your purpose and brand. Get clear on your values and your passions. You will make a much stronger transition if you align your plan to the things that are most important to you. 

This is easier said than done, but with the help of a coach or a program like the the Korn Ferry/Exelis Action Corps Leveraging Military Leadership Program(LMLP), a transitioning veteran can begin to explore and define themselves and their immediate next steps. For example, if you led large teams on deployments to new regions, you can highlight skills such as change management and leading globally under adversity for a corporation entering new markets. If you transformed a group of service members or introduced a technology platform to streamline processes, those are skills that could benefit a wide variety of organizations. Don’t underestimate what you bring to the table. Your military experience matters and it is directly applicable to positions in the civilian workforce.

Start building relationships with people who can help you realize your personal vision for success and help guide you toward your goals. Don’t forget to help others along the way; networking is a two-way street.

What are some obstacles or difficulties a veteran may face when changing to a civilian career?

This is where the concept of diverse workplaces really comes into play. Stepping away from military top-down leadership style and moving toward a more collaborative and sometimes ambiguous decision-making style can prove to be challenging. However, adapting to this new culture and learning to thrive in it is essential.

Influence without direct authority is a fundamental capability for leaders in the civilian workplace. Leaders should keep an open mind about organizational structure, reporting practices and management expectations. Not all organizations will have hierarchical structures similar to the military. Depending on the organization, processes and projects may be handled differently with a more horizontal rather than vertical approach. 

Be mindful of the formalities and jargon that is customary in military environments. Speaking in plain English and presenting a comprehensive story about yourself and your leadership journey is important to a potential nonmilitary employer. 

How does the LMLP help in the transition?

The LMLP is dedicated to helping transitioning service members and veterans make the most successful and rewarding transition possible. At its core, this intensive program, which is offered free of charge to participants, is about tapping into the world-class development that our soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors have received during their military tenure and repackaging and repurposing it for civilian application.

The LMLP program was designed to tap into participants’ leadership capabilities and to help veterans get the most value out of their military experiences in order to tell a relevant and compelling story to recruiters and hiring managers. The program starts with an individual assessment and a one-on-one discussion with a professional coach who helps the participant explore personal career objectives and also looks at assessment data, highlighting their comfort with new situations and their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Interestingly, early data analysis suggests that the veteran population is more agile than the general population, meaning they are more equipped to successfully make transitions. This changes our perspective as it indicates that the veteran is already positioned to successfully transition. They just need the support network and guidance to help make it happen.

The participants then come together for a three-day session in residence. In this session, they hear from a number of people who have made successful military-to-civilian transitions. They also practice developing their personal stories, identifying core capabilities, using social media, networking, interviewing and developing a compelling career strategy that is based on their core purpose and deeply held values.

How can military experience be leveraged for success in civilian leadership roles? Diversity-wise and skill-wise?

It is important to promote strengths and skills acquired in the military. Veterans are typically known for precise communication, individual accountability, impeccable execution and natural leadership. It’s important to showcase these skills during the interview. All four skills are in high demand, regardless of position. Give yourself credit for experiences that many nonmilitary job candidates may lack. Other key skills to focus on include poise, ingenuity and ability to handle stressful situations well. Also, keep in mind many military professionals have had considerable responsibility much earlier in their careers than others in the same age brackets. It’s noteworthy if you have led people and teams and managed assets, and that should be emphasized.

In terms of diversity, there is no doubt that civilian corporate roles are much different than military roles. Former military leaders need to adapt some mindsets to their new environment. In most instances companies will find three to four qualified candidates per position. All candidates will have equal experience and qualifications for the job, yet only a few will “fit.” In fact, most failures in hires are based on fit, not capability. People are hired for what they know, but sometimes that knowledge cannot help someone adapt to a new situation. Of course, all roles will not fit all people, but veterans who successfully make the transition will be flexible in their approach to new roles.

What do you do in your current position? How has your own background influenced you at your work?

In my current position as the chief inclusion and diversity officer at Exelis, I am committed to fostering an inclusive and diverse environment, where all employees feel respected, welcomed, challenged and valued. Our aim is to support and nurture a highly engaged workforce that positions us to achieve our goals of delivering leading-edge solutions, meeting the challenges of geopolitical and technological change, and optimizing performance for our customers. My goal is to have inclusion and diversity embedded into all of our business practices in alignment with our corporate core values of respect, responsibility and integrity. I aim to achieve this using a four-pronged strategy of employee engagement, learning and development, targeted talent recruitment and leveraged communications.

My own background has significantly influenced my work. Having served in the Army as one of a very small number of female helicopter pilots, I was introduced early on to the notion of feeling excluded or out of place. My perspective and leadership style were not always immediately welcomed, but over time, my leadership recognized the value of having a diverse team with unique viewpoints. It was important then and it’s important now to ensure that working environments are inclusive so that those diverse voices can be heard — and can be part of the solution. I try to keep that at the forefront of my mind and try to impress upon our leadership the importance of being inclusive leaders who encourage diverse teams.