"Lieutenant, why are you in civilian clothes?" I was reporting to my first duty assignment and quickly realized I had made a cardinal mistake by not wearing my uniform on the first day. As I rushed to change into my uniform, I started to panic. Did I make the wrong decision? What was I doing here?
After spending the previous four years in college as a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadet in the U.S. Air Force, I immediately started to question the longevity of my career as a nuclear weapons officer. Fortunately, I overcame my early snafu and learned a few things along the way that I would continue to apply long after I left the U.S. Air Force, and my uniform, behind.
After rebounding from my wardrobe malfunction, I embarked on a journey to the perpetually frozen Minot, North Dakota-one of three locations where the U.S. military stores intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). As a nuclear weapons officer, I monitored nuclear missiles for more than 24 hour shifts from an underground launch control center-commonly known as "pulling alert." As I became more senior, I assumed supervisory responsibility of 150 nuclear weapons and nearly as many airmen. Under demanding conditions, I was charged with carrying out processes mandated by the President and National Security Council. This profession requires flawless execution, and something as simple as wearing the right uniform is a crucial building block to the discipline and attention to detail required by this career field.
Are military skills transferrable?
As rewarding as this experience was, as my active-duty service commitment to the U.S. Air Force came to an end, I began to weigh my options. I was concerned about the lack of "real world" skills I could bring to the private sector. My skillset wasn't the most easily transferrable military specialty. I didn't know if I had the skills necessary to "make it" in the corporate world.
Thankfully, there have been millions of Americans before me who wore the uniform and made the transition to civilian life. Whether these veterans came from World War II's "Greatest Generation" or from our recent group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the track records and reputations of these veterans reflect well on all of us who decide to transition to civilian suits from the flight suits worn by missileers.
Once I devoted myself to a civilian job search, I cast a wide net, hoping that a company might be curious enough to give me a shot. I was ecstatic when I received an offer to work at Accenture, a global professional services company. Coincidentally, the woman who hired me also had served in the U.S. Air Force. The role that she described at Accenture was different from anything I'd ever done. I was nervous that I might not meet the requirements, but she assured me, "I know you'll figure it out."
After leaving the service, I saw that my military experience earned the benefit of the doubt in the private sector...and justifiably so. I did figure it out. Hindsight has shown me that the values reinforced during my military service prepared me for success in the private sector.
3 keys to both military and private sector success
Be willing to do the tough stuff: I spent more than one year in an underground bunker-well above the average of many of my peers. Most of my fellow missileers spent their time trying to secure a different job that would limit the number of alerts on one's schedule. I took the opposite approach. I made a personal commitment to schedule as many alerts as possible--not because I enjoyed it-but rather, I wanted to "pull alert" so that someone else didn't have to. This simple ideology carried forward to my career in the private sector: if something needs to get done, do it. When it comes down to doing the hands-on, unglorified tasks such as scheduling meetings, data analysis, or preparing presentations, don't push it off to junior team members. By jumping in to do the work that needs to get done, you set the example and your team becomes more motivated and effective.
It's how you say it: As a nuclear weapons officer, you're often required to convey orders from a telephone in an underground bunker. Gone is the luxury of being able to read body language to verify that your orders are received. I quickly realized that I needed to be both clear and direct. The way that I asked our security forces to respond to an incident in the field was vastly different from how I communicated field priorities to my leadership. Modifying my communication style to the audience helped us collectively achieve the mission more effectively and efficiently. Today, I practice this when talking to teammates, clients, and leadership. Communication styles should be situational. If you are providing instructions to a new hire, try to offer as many details as possible, references for where they can find material, and clear expectations for a deliverable. When presenting to a senior leader, take account of the top priorities and concisely convey the message to enable them to make a decision or provide a recommendation.
Ignite yourself with enthusiasm: Nuclear weapons allow ZERO room for error. While it was easy to become bogged down in quotidian minutia, I often looked for ways to ease the unrelenting pressure and improve morale. Independence Day is hands-down my favorite holiday. Unfortunately, because monitoring nuclear weapons is a 24 hour, 365 day responsibility, there were hundreds of airmen who missed out on fireworks and festivities. I was eager to bring a bit of joy to those serving in the field. To improve morale, I created a summer feast: steaks, fresh guacamole, and corn on the cob for those who were required to work the holiday. In my current role, I look for the things to get excited about and try to identify ways to instill the same excitement with my teams. While projects can be challenging and complex, try to identify the growth, new skills, and value that your teams are creating for their clients. Address these topics openly on team calls, through reinforcing e-mails, and in one-on-one meetings. Praise and enthusiasm should be part of the everyday culture-not sporadic.
During the time of my transition from the military to civilian work, I worried about how I could fit in the private sector. After an inauspicious wardrobe dilemma at the start of my military career, I figured things out and made the change. Six years removed from military service, I not only know what to wear to work, but I also have a few tricks up my sleeve.