Reinventing Michael Banks: A Lesson in Empathy

Many veterans on the job hunt get frustrated because they feel like potential employers don’t understand or appreciate their experiences.  While this is often true, we have to remember that empathy goes both ways. Service members also need to find ways to understand the unique constraints that recruiters, hiring mangers, and supervisors find themselves in when dealing with veterans in the workforce.  Bridging the culture gap takes more than just finding newer (and often times louder) ways to tell our side of the story, the empathy that we need comes from understanding where the other side is coming from.

Imagine if a civilian technical representative was assigned to your active duty military team. The person has obvious qualifications on how to run the machinery in your shop, in fact they may know more about it than anyone else. What they lack would be the ability to apply that concept within the norms of your military organization.  How would you feel about this situation?  Would you expect that individual to adapt to the norms of the group, or would you expect the group to adapt the norms of the individual? I think we can agree that if the individual refused to adapt to the group, the group would continue to exist, even without the member.

So it is with veteran hiring. If both sides work to understand each others situation then individual and organizational success is much more likely. In the end, veterans must be prepared to reach out first, and reach out the farthest.  If we do, the hands we find on the other side will be in the best position to offer a strong grip and be the most equipped to help us over the wall that divides our military life from a potential civilian career.

Recently an organization known as WILL Interactive  in collaboration with The Coming Home Project produced a really great interactive video program entitled “Reinventing Michael Banks”.  The best part of this interactive video is that it allows people to take on the various roles of veteran job seeker, recruiter, hiring manager, and supervisor.  Playing the scenarios from different personalities not only allows the participant to make choices about what to do next, but more importantly it  allows the player to hear some of the “thoughts” that go through the heads of each person.

Human interactions are much deeper than the verbal or non-verbal signals we send out.  The more empathy we can have about why a person says or does things, the better we can become at tailoring our messages and actions to best fit for the situation. One of my favorite quotes of all times is from Mark Hortsman, who says “Communication is what the listener does.” In this regard, empathy is a force multiplier.  The object is to deliver the message in all of its intended meaning. The more we know about the receiver, the better our chances of success.

I encourage everyone associated with veteran hiring to spend some time on this simulator. If you only have time to go through it once- please play it from a perspective other than your own.  If you have time to go through all four scenarios, I suggest you play from your current perspective last.  You already know what it’s like to be you……this is about finding out what it’s like to be somebody else.

Click here to go to the Reinventing Michael Banks website and participate in scenario.


Use Your Last Duty Station As A Springboard For Success

Transition.  It’s the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.  In the case of the veteran we know where we start (active duty) and we know where we want to end up (employed), but anyone who thinks they can wait  until their final year in the service to begin planning is setting themselves up for an  uphill battle.  The sooner one knows they will be leaving the service the sooner they can make career decisions that can help to soften their landing into the private sector. Your last set of orders can be crucial.

The location and job description of the service members last tour on active duty has the potential to be tremendous advantage.  While no single location can guarantee success, nor is it an obstacle too tough to overcome, the following factors should be considered as a service member approaches their final tour.  Doing so can certainly make things easier.

1- Do the kind of work on your last tour that you would like to do in the private sector.  The military has knack for exposing us to lots of different situations and using all of our talents.  A military member may be trained to work as a technician on a specific system or piece of machinery, but after doing that job for a number of years you may be asked to do a completely different job for a time period.  Each branch has a genuine need for recruiters, trainers, career planners, etc. but if your plans are to work in the technical field after the military, you will want your most recent resume achievements to reflect that work. Technology changes quick, don’t run the risk of NOT being able to talk smartly in an interview about the latest and greatest issues in your field of expertise.

In a similar sense, operational tours are tougher to retire from, as the nature of your work can be the most difficult to translate.  Although these tours are often the most personally rewarding, spending your last year preparing for and then executing a deployment is filled with some of the most unique challenges the military has to offer.  These are the toughest for the civilian hiring manager to comprehend.  The simple logistics involved with producing and delivering 64 performance evaluations (on time) is quite a bit different in a combat zone than in garrison, for example.  The more your last job naturally translates, the better.

2- Go to where the people are. A network is something you build before you need it and the more you expand that network to include nonmilitary people, the more prepared you’ll be for your transition.  Many veterans make the process of finding employment more difficult because they don’t know how to talk to civilians. Taking orders to a job near a larger metropolitan area can be a great way to break out of the “military bubble” while still  maintaining the security of a steady paycheck.  This can be particularly important if a large portion of your career was spent in smaller, more isolated, military towns.

Organizations like Beers and Careers are prime opportunities for military members to network with their civilian counterparts.

Organizations like “Beers and Careers” are prime opportunities for military members to network with their civilian counterparts.

Networking with civilians in your field is critical to avoiding false assumptions about what it takes to find employment. You will even  find that there are actual organizations dedicated to connecting people, but these tend to exist in the bigger cities.

For example, I recently met a gentleman by the name of Josh Shapiro. He is the founder of one such organization known as  Beers and Careers. His mission is to connect people in similar career fields in low stress, social environments.  The business model is more than just bringing any group of people together, his focus is on bringing people from similar industries together.  These events offer outstanding opportunities for current military members to interact with their civilian counterparts well before they start the actual job hunt and can also help those already out of the military connect with possible employers.

If you’re a service member who feels isolated in your military community, I’d recommend hitting up some events like these, even if it meant making a short road trip.  Take a couple of friends from the shop, get a hotel near the event, see some sights, and then hang out at bar for a few hours. I can think of a lot worse ways of career development.  Believe it or not, your presence at these events is good for all veterans, because not only are you learning about the private sector, those in the private sector are learning about the military.  You are helping to build bridges that will help us all.  So don’t be afraid to tell some (appropriate) seas stories.

I’m not saying that  everyone must have the right job, in the right location, for a successful transition.  The factors  above, however,  should certainly be considered when negotiating your last set of orders.  I also believe  the tips above can  help service members avoid going on the “ROAD program”  (For those unaware ROAD is Retired On Active Duty, and it’s an unofficial acronym used to describe someone who no longer cares about their current job because they are about to get of the service) .  If a service member is working in the same field they hope to eventually find civilian employment , they will be more inclined to produce tangible results. That’s good for all parties involved.

American Corporate Partners Providing Genuine Mentorship

During my visit to the GE Veterans Workshop last month I was turned onto an organization called American Corporate Partners.    The organization puts veteran job seekers in contact with mentors from Fortune 100 companies to assist in their transition. It was founded in 2008 by investment banker Sidney Goodfriend.

American Corporate Partners is a non-profit organization founded in 2008.

American Corporate Partners is a non-profit organization founded in 2008.

I hate buzzwords. They happen when people start to equate talking about a good idea with actually implementing a good idea.  Too often, the word mentorship falls into this category.

By all appearances, however, American Corporate Partners offers mentorship in the truest sense of the word.  I signed up for the program and last week was paired with my mentor.  Please note that I use the word “paired with” as opposed to “assigned”.  This is the key to keeping a mentorship program focused on results.

In order to get to this point I needed to register on the site, which included a thorough (but not too, lengthy) biography section.  Once that was submitted and reviewed I received an email asking for a little bit more information about my career intentions and what I expected to gain from the program.  The next step involved a brief interview with a counselor. At this point we discussed things that I would value in a mentor, in my case, I was looking for someone in the HR field, preferably in mid to upper levels of an organization, similar in age.  (Although they asked, I had no preference in the mentors race or gender, but I think it’s great that they do ask that question, as I know those can be significant issues for many people.)  Once my package was complete it was sent out to their  network to see if anyone would be interested in partnering up with me.  Two days later, I had an offer.

Soon afterward I was given the biography and contact information of Diana Pike, the Human Resources Director at Fox Television Stations in Washington, DC.  Prior to her civilian career, Diana had served 13 years in the Army working with Signals Intelligence. During our initial phone conversation last week we talked about where I’m at professionally, and also a little bit about her experiences.

In our first conversation she gave me some insightful ideas about things I had never considered and we agreed to swap resumes via email to facilitate future discussions. The mentorship program requires at least monthly contact. Her location in DC makes meeting up in person pretty easy for me and we expect to do so soon.

Face to face meetings are certainly great, but the program doesn’t necessarily require people to be close geographically. In fact, Diana said that of her two previous proteges, the one that ended up with the best relationship and outcome, was in Iraq throughout most of the time they worked together.

I had thought about waiting to blog about this until I had been in the program longer, but in keeping with the theme of “fortune favors the prepared”, I wanted to share the information now.  Being that this is a year-long agreement, I think it’s an excellent program to be a part of before leaving the military.  I am excited about the opportunities that American Corporate Partners is offering and am looking forward to developing a strong relationship with my mentor.

The program stresses that it is NOT a jobs program, which is completely understandable. Anyone who thinks that this will directly land them a position at a certain company does not understand how to cultivate and use a network. This is about genuine mentorship, the kind of relationship that enables slow, steady, and sustainable growth.

How long will veterans be trendy?

Right now it’s cool to be a veteran, at least in some ways.  Organizations are spending a lot of time and money to cast their nets far and wide to find veteran talent.  Not only are they doing this, but in many ways they do it very publicly, especially around Veterans Day.

One thing we can’t lose sight of, however, is that they are searching for Veteran Talent….two words there….Veteran AND Talent.  At some point we as a group will not be the “in thing”, and once that happens many of those organizations will revert back to just looking for talent. The other focus is to find said talent quickly and efficiently. After all, it’s really about the bottom the line.

The military will continue to be a great place for young people in America to master the skills that organizations need, but we will  never have a monopoly on producing that kind of person. Civilian colleges and trade schools exist for the explicit purpose of making individuals employable. Not so with the military, future employability is just a by-product with us.  The recruiter may have told you will be able to master the skills that companies are looking for, and while that is in fact the case,  it’s not the whole story. The truth is, the military really provides you with great opportunities. Some people take advantage of them better than others.

Remember- It’s not about being a veteran, it’s about making the case to a potential employer that you have a talent that they can use.  When this “Veteran Hiring Craze”  dies down, it will be even more critical that veterans reach out and initiate those conversations with people in the civilian sector.  I hope those currently serving understand this and are preparing themselves appropriately.