Spotlight

Military Experience: 6 Ways To Translate Talent

This article was originally published on Forbes.com on June 16, 2018.

When my father was a teenager, he enlisted in the military. The experience had a deep effect on how he later maneuvered through the world as a civilian. That in turn shaped how I viewed the world. It meant my early understanding of geography included not only my hometown of Los Angeles, but places like Camp Pendleton and Vietnam. It impacted how I made my bed every morning (sheets tight) and how I wore my watch (face inward). It meant I knew how to wake up at 5am and function as though it were 5pm.

Being raised by a veteran is a unique experience that doesn’t easily translate to those with a different upbringing. That’s because the experience of being in the military doesn’t easily translate to civilian life.

The Broad Center runs leadership development programs across the country. For more than a decade, an important aspect of my job has been interviewing and selecting talent for our programs. Sometimes the talent on the other side of interview table comes from the military. Sometimes that talent is difficult to assess because their experiences aren’t ones we are familiar with.

The six areas of translation

Across the years, I’ve come across six areas that leave interviewers uncertain about candidates from the military. I’ve also seen how the best of these candidates effectively share their experiences and change perceptions that aren’t always accurate.

If you are transitioning out of the military, you need to be aware of these areas of concern and get ahead of them. You can then provide answers that are easier to interpret so interviewers don’t mistake something great as something to be apprehensive about. This article is for you. And for those of us doing the hiring, the lessons learned are just as applicable.

Are your skills transferable?

The military is known for producing strong leaders. The question won’t be whether you can lead, rather whether that leadership is relevant to the job that needs to be filled. Don’t make the mistake of over-relying on stories about managing complicated or dangerous situations. Have a few of those examples prepared because that will impress the interviewer. But keep in mind impressive and relevant are different things. Bring balance by sharing examples about the more mundane aspects of your job — budgets you oversaw, projects you managed, relationships you built, personnel decisions you made, or operational plans you executed.

What exactly did you do?

Lose any military jargon that you’ve acquired. Acronyms from another industry always create an unnecessary language barrier. Take every acronym, figure out what the civilian equivalent of it is in human resources, finance, operations, strategy, etc. — and use those words instead. You want your interviewer to evaluate what you did and not spend mental energy deciphering what you did.

Are you inflexible?

Military professionals are often viewed as being bound by procedure. Use that perception to help interviewers see you as someone who can execute when the stakes are high. To accomplish that, don’t talk about procedure. Instead, talk about “process-orientation” with examples that demonstrate how it allows you to perform under pressure with consistent results. Also make sure to prepare answers that show you can be flexible and switch from process-orientation to results-orientation.

Are you impatient?

Teamwork is paramount in the military and there can be an impatience for people who don’t pull their weight. The willingness to do anything for your team is valuable, so don’t lose those stories. What you also need to convey is how you develop others who aren’t rolling up their sleeves. Provide examples that demonstrate your high expectations blended with your ability to understand others’ needs and how you motivate them to meet expectations.

Are you too tough?

I’ve found that military candidates who are viewed as too tough — are tough. That’s not a problem. It helps interviewers, though, if they know why you are tough. It can’t just be about survival. The strongest military candidates I’ve interviewed were the ones who conveyed how their grit was based on gratitude and a commitment to service. Take the time to reflect on the factors that make you tough. Bring forth those that make you human to balance the perception.

Do you depend on hierarchy to succeed?

The assumption is that professionals from the military depend on hierarchy to get things done. That can be true. I’ve interviewed many candidates who struggle when team-members don’t do as they are told by a superior. I’ve also found many who learned how to get things done despite hierarchy.

This is the unexpected angle you must bring forth. In hierarchies, someone above you always has more power. So, prepare examples of when you had to manage up to get work done. In a hierarchy, influencing peers is important. So, share examples of relationship-building and leading without formal authority. Use the fact that the military is known for hierarchy to your advantage. Showing how you succeeded by working around that structure will dispel assumptions that don’t help you.

For the interviewer

I have never served in the military. But growing up with a father who did, I understand the courage that young women and men exhibit every day when they enlist. I understand the risks. I understand the price paid. When I’m sitting across the table from a candidate with military experience, I know they’ve taken on a responsibility that most of us have not. The least I can do is pay closer attention.

I have to remember that on the other side of inflexibility I may find process-orientation and high expectations. On the other side of impatience — teamwork. On the other side of toughness — gratitude and commitment. On the other side of hierarchy — relationship-building and managing up.

It is important for those who have served to know how to tell their stories. But those of us who sit on the hiring side of the interview table are the gatekeepers of opportunity. It is our duty to make sure their talent and access to opportunity doesn’t get lost in translation.

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