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In 2011, on the heels of a grueling 13-month combat deployment to Afghanistan, I began the transition out of the Army and into the private sector.
In a matter of months, I went from leading over 100 soldiers to being an underperforming individual contributor struggling to find my new mission and purpose.
On a daily basis, I questioned my decision to leave the military. For me, the transition from combat to corporate America was far more difficult than I imagined.
While the advantages of hiring veterans are well established, hiring is only half the battle. What’s equally important is setting up veterans for success once they’re hired.
From combat to corporate: Tips for veterans making the transition
- Take advantage of free resources to develop private sector skills
The private sector is a new environment with a wide range of cultures and different terminology and ways of doing things. You’ll feel more comfortable (and less pressure to perform) if you get up to speed in the basics somewhere other than your new company. A number of highly-respected non-profit organizations such as Hiring our Heroes, FourBlock, and Patriot Boot Camp specialize in setting up transitioning veterans for success. They offer training programs free of charge and, in many instances, also assist with job placement (also free of charge).
- Find “battle buddies” outside the organization for safe conversations
You don’t have to go it alone. Confiding in a trusted, objective individual with no connection to your new company can help you regain perspective and adjust your approach when the transition starts to feel bumpy. Maybe it’s someone you served with or an older veteran who successfully made the transition. Maybe it’s a family member or a professional coach. Or a combination of the above. The key is to broaden your own perspective and approach by reaching beyond your organization.
- Your career is a marathon, not a sprint
Don’t put artificial pressure on yourself to become an overnight success. The process of building a new career takes years and requires tactical patience. Embrace a beginner’s mindset. Ask questions and don’t be afraid to say, “I need help.” It’s a sign of maturity and self-awareness. Don’t let your inner critic pile on when things aren’t going well — a little self-compassion, especially early on, can go a long way.
Setting up for success: Tips for organizations hiring veterans
- Partner with organizations that specialize in veteran transition training and job placement
External organizations such as Breakline, Hiring our Heroes, and FourBlock can help smooth the transition for veterans before they join your organization. These companies have strong track records of training veterans and helping them land jobs at highly competitive organizations. Letting external organizations assist with the vetting and training process can be a force multiplier for your organization.
- Provide all new veteran hires with a more senior veteran “onboarding buddy”
Veterans have a shared set of experiences, language, and cultural touchstones — they can benefit enormously from having a fellow veteran translate between what they are familiar with and the ins and outs of the new organization. A veteran onboarding buddy can smooth the transition into the new environment, culture, and expectations. Make this type of matching a priority in your onboarding process and support those existing employees who act as buddies. Most of your newly hired veterans will be grateful for the opportunity and will take advantage of it.
- Create space for veterans to feel like they are a valued part of the “tribe”
In his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, author Sebastian Junger chronicles historical approaches to helping veterans reacclimate to society. One way to do this at your organization is to give veterans a platform to share their experiences with others. I’d only been at BetterUp for 3 months when our CEO Alexi gave me the opportunity to stand in front of our 200-plus employee company and talk about some of my time in Afghanistan. It was a remarkable gesture of inclusion and proved to be enormously cathartic for me. This year, with our CEO as Executive Sponsor, we also stood up a Military Veteran Employee Resource Group (ERG) that serves to bring our veterans (and veteran family members) together and build awareness and support across the company.
Creating these public spaces for veterans is a twofer: veterans get the psychological benefit of sharing their stories and being seen while the organization gains insight into the veteran experience. This can help leaders, managers, and peers better understand and make use of the unique skills, knowledge, and perspectives that veterans bring to the table.
In honor of Hire a Veteran Day, why not give a veteran a chance at your organization? Provide conditions for their success and you’ll be amazed what they can do — for your culture and your performance — even if, like for me, it takes a little longer for the picture to come into focus.
Alex Haig completed multiple deployments to Afghanistan as an Army Infantry Officer. He is currently BetterUp’s Head of Government Programs and RVP. He leads BetterUp's Military Veteran Employee Resource Group.