Managing After the Military: Tips for Leadership and Management as a Civilian
Leadership skills come in many forms. From careers with direct reports to role-modeling as an individual contributor, the pathway to leadership in a company doesn’t follow a straight line. Although there are challenges to transitioning to a civilian role, many leadership skills obtained during a military career lend themselves well to civilian careers. We spoke to some of our veterans, Reserve, and National Guard members to find out what tips they would share for making the best use of their military leadership skills in the civilian workforce.
Thanks for agreeing to share some tips for leadership and management as a civilian. Would you mind introducing yourselves to us a little?
Nate Leach (NL): I’m Nate Leach, a Principal Customer Success Manager in our Seattle office. I served active duty in the U.S. Air Force for eight years and left as a Captain. I have spent the last two and a half years as a Major in the Air Force Reserves. Prior to Qualtrics, I was a Senior Consultant in Deloitte’s Strategy and Analytics practice.
Dave Dequeljoe (DD): I’m Dave Dequeljoe, Leadership Development. I originally enlisted in the Navy Nuclear Engineering program, then attended the US Naval Academy before flying F-14 Tomcats for Fighter Squadron 32 (The Swordsmen - Gypsy Roll!) in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I retired in 2009 and was an entrepreneur and author before coming to the mighty Qualtrics.
Catherine Nuar (CN): I’m Catherine Nuar, an Operations Program Manager based in Provo. I was an active duty Marine Corps Logistics Officer for five years before transitioning to the reserves. Prior to Qualtrics, I worked at Booz Allen.
Robert Hyatt (RH): I’m Robert Hyatt, Senior Software Engineer. I have served for most of my military career in the Utah Army National Guard (and was deployed twice to Afghanistan) and transferred over to the Army Reserves about 2 years ago. I am currently still in as a Major for Civil Affairs.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned about leadership and management in the military?
NL: Even in the military, “fire and forget” orders yield lackluster results. If you truly want teams to perform at their highest level, they have to own the mission. If you want them to own the mission, they need to see themselves as connected to the vision. The role of a leader is to align each individual’s unique aspirations to the vision, set clear intent, and clear red tape so they can hustle.
CN: Be humble enough to learn from the people on your team and admit when you made a mistake. Take the time to learn what motivates and drives them individually and align your leadership approach as needed. When you truly care about them and ensure your actions show it, their performance will reflect that.
DD: I was lucky to see hundreds of leadership styles throughout my time in the military, and could see what was most effective and what stunk. Surprisingly, I found the most powerful and longest-lasting leadership trait to be encouragement. Leadership/Management is a challenging and fascinating art form that can be intimidating at first.
I was excited & terrified when I first graduated from the US Naval Academy and was placed in charge of actual people. One misconception I had was that I had to act a certain way; the truth is you can (and should) be yourself and still be excellent. Leadership is a lot of fun, all you need to do is learn how to optimize your style to make your teammates as awesome as they can be.
RH: My biggest lesson I learned in the military is the importance of taking care of - and relying on - fellow soldiers.
What is/are the top skill(s) you’ve taken from the military into your work life as a civilian?
NL: The primary skill I brought from the military is working in fast-paced environments during high stakes scenarios. Second is the ability to work cross-functionally with other teams in entirely other disciplines. The third is the ability to learn a new role very quickly to the point of being effective in a new environment.
CN: The military taught me to work cross-functionally and influence without authority. Changing roles every 12-18 months forced me to learn new roles as quickly as possible in order to make an impact.
DD: One thing I am so proud of is our ability to win as a team, no matter what the weather or circumstances or obstacles. Find a way to win, no matter what. And while you’re doing it, enjoy every second as if it might be your last. In carrier aviation, you could die on any single mission, so I think this knowledge contributed to our looking to find joy in every situation. Finally, look to leave everyone around you better in every way you can; we are all on the same team, and we are going to fight together, so it is in your best interest to make sure everyone is operating at the very top of their game. This swirling chaos of competition and teamwork and camaraderie is something that I miss about a fighter squadron and I am thankful beyond belief that I have found that here at the mighty Qualtrics!
What was the biggest lesson you learned about leadership and management after leaving the military and starting a civilian role?
NL: I was surprised at how much of consulting and tech industry management is accomplished so similar to the military: checklists, staff meetings, update emails, trackers, etc. A leadership lesson that has carried over into the private sector is that if you are more concerned about the success of your team and manager than yourself, then your success is certain. Those who put themselves first will not be able to surround themselves with winners that choose to stick around.
DD: I have learned so much about leadership since joining Qualtrics it is ridiculous. Thankfully my predecessor Russ Laraway took the very best practices from his time as a Marine Corps Infantry Company Commander and big-time tech companies you’ve heard about to create our three-day Leadership Bootcamp course, L@Q. I read all of our 14 leadership library books to prepare for taking this class over, and I now have an incredibly refined perspective on what actually matters most to the people you are leading. I used to rely on my intuition, seat-of-the-pants fighter pilot feel to make decisions in the moment; since joining Qualtrics I have seen first-hand the power of statistics and collaborating to make sure the best idea wins. This place rocks if you’d like to be an awesome leader; you’ll learn a lot more than you thought you would, and the people here are remarkably smart and fun to work with. If you ever have a problem you can’t solve, tapping into the wisdom of the crowd will save you frustration and get you unstuck...fast!
If someone was leaving or preparing to leave, what one piece of advice that you’d share about preparing for a civilian role?
NL: The responsibility to translate military experience into relevancy for a role is entirely on the veteran. This is difficult at first, but there is a large network of veterans with whom a veteran can practice and learn. An interview should not be the first time a veteran is translating their experience.
CN: Start early. You don’t know what you don’t know. Reach out to folks working in roles you’re interested in to learn what they really do and what the culture of their organization is. I would cold-call veterans on LinkedIn and ask for 15-20 minutes of their time to talk about their transition and current role. Don’t underestimate how willing most folks are to help. Learn how to translate your military experience and practice interviewing. Have folks with no military background read your resume to ensure they understand what you did. An interview is a conversation - treat it as such. Remember that you are interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing you.
DD: Wow, this is the big one. Find something that you LOVE, and find a place that will LOVE having you with them. Many veterans are sadly underemployed, meaning that they are placed at levels far below their capabilities. This is a really miserable situation to find yourself in, I can tell you from having experienced it myself! Don’t think that your extreme skill in something else will help you find this perfect job and be ready for it; you’re going to need to fight hard to learn how to write a resume, how to interview and how to adapt to your new situation.
Please use our ever-expanding veteran network to ask for some guidance; many of us are too proud and too stubborn to ask for help. You wouldn’t hesitate to ask for air support when you needed it, so don’t hesitate here. Be humble in learning, but also be confident in all the things you’ve learned the hard way in the military. There ARE places that will cherish the incredibly powerful skills you can bring to the team; do NOT stop looking until you find a place you can call home. Life is too short to settle; be aggressive, and keep improving yourself every single day while you transition. Then turn around and help our brothers and sisters behind us; we need to look out for each other in this wild civilian world!
What services/support did you use, or wish you had used, for resettlement post-service?
NL: I am grateful for the mentor that American Corporate Partners (ACP) provided for me. I highly recommend the commitment of an ACP mentorship. I set up networking coffee and phone calls with a lot of veterans in the private sector, which was crucial for understanding a new culture and language.
CN: I worked with a mentor from American Corporate Partners (ACP) for a year before my transition. She helped me translate my resume and tapped into her network to set up mock interviews and connect me with other folks who could help. That mentorship along with other networking calls was huge in helping me understand what I wanted to do and how to get there.
Breakline is a newer program that has had tremendous success in helping veterans successfully land roles in tech. Veterati is another good network of folks willing to mentor transitioning veterans.
DD: Here’s the big problem. A lot of these nonprofits are well-intentioned, but [for many reasons feel] slow and unhelpful. You can go to a few for assistance, and then give up thinking they’re all the same. Be aware of this and keep hunting for the best of the best. In my opinion, the top of the category has only two contestants: Elite Meet (helps special forces + fighter pilots find employment outside the usual security & commercial airline jobs if you want to do something employers might not think you are qualified for based on your resume) and Warrior Rising (helps veterans become entrepreneurs through funding and mentorship). Both organizations are excellent, and they were started by former veterans. John Allen of Elite Meet was a Navy SEAL, and Jason Van Camp of Warrior Rising was an Army Green Beret. Please be aggressive about spreading the word for our brothers and sisters. Even better, if you’ve got the fire, help the existing teams get better or start your own!
What lessons would you share with someone in or coming into a leadership position (with or without a military background)?
NL: Work to be sure people have bought into the vision and then work to clear obstacles to their success.
DD: Be persistent about getting feedback from any and everyone that you can; the number of blind spots we all have can be overwhelming. Once you learn (it is crazy hard) to detach your ego and self-worth from your behavior, you open yourself up to exponential improvement through the power of listening to other people’s perspectives and opinions. Ask them how they are RECEIVING your leadership and ask them how you can best help them improve. Remember one of your key missions is to enable the success of the people on your team; collaborating with your people and being open to their ideas and concerns will get you to a new level of success, trust me on this one.
If someone had a former military member OR reservist joining their team, what advice would you share about helping that person harness the best of their leadership potential?
NL: Just like in the military, think like your boss’ boss and always be a great team player.
DD: Hey if you just picked up a veteran on your team, congratulations! If you’re at Qualtrics, I would recommend you get to know them better by using our patented three career conversations. They may be super humble (unlike me) so you will want to encourage them to let you know what they are good at and what they love to do. Discover what this is, find out what makes them great, what their core values are, and what their dreams are. Align their dreams with what you’re working on and you will have an unstoppable force for good on your team!
Anything else you want to add?
DD: Yes of course! If you are transitioning home do not be fooled by how “easy” civilian life might look. You might be tempted to think: all these undisciplined, unfocused goofballs can do it, how hard could it be? It seems familiar, but realize this is a completely new world for you; everyone’s transition will be different, but we share a LOT of similar problems and issues. Get intelligently persistent about learning as much as you can, as fast as you can. Then, in my opinion, it is your responsibility and your duty to turn around and help our brothers and sisters who are struggling. Our community has a dreadful suicide rate, and we can just not sit by idly and shrug our shoulders. FIND someone, at least one person to help out. I can promise you, this will be one of the most rewarding things you will ever do in your life, and the positive lasting impact you will have can’t be fully understood…but it is awesome. I have a book for free for anyone in need - search ”Dogfighting Depression” or find a way to contact me and it is yours: no questions asked.
CN: If you want something, ask. The worst thing that happens is you get a no and you’re in the same place you started. If you’re not in a location with easy networking options, start even earlier and be willing to make sacrifices. Interviewing at 5 am isn’t fun, but neither is not having a job when you transition.
The Q-Salute group at Qualtrics is made up of veterans, current National Guard and Reserve members, military partners, and supporters who are aligned by the mission to create a sanctuary of camaraderie, connection and mentoring for all veterans (both at Q and at large…) to ensure that we all have the resources to find success in the civilian world. The work of Q-Salute has earned Qualtrics recognition by Military Friendly as a Best Employer for Veterans and Military Partners.
To connect with Q-Salute please send us an email.
Qualtrics is growing, and if you want to discover more about Qualtrics, you can explore our open opportunities at any time by visiting our career page. Looking to discover the reasons “Why Qualtrics”? You can find a whole series here.
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