Our Greatest Strength Is Also Our Greatest Weakness

We’ve done so much, with so little, for so long, that we can anything, with nothing, forever.  

This phrase highlights the strength of the current military member, and at the same time, the weakness of the veteran job seeker.

One of the biggest issues transitioning veterans face as they prepare to move on from military service is the “jack of all trades” hurdle.  Although we prided ourselves on being able to accomplish any task given to us, we quickly discover that there are no listings on job boards for the position of, “Swiss Army Knife.”34912_3901

Yet, if there isn’t a market for this, why do so many veterans end up here?  I believe it’s because that is the only world many veterans have ever lived in.

Think about it. For the vast majority of transitioning veterans the only recruiter they knew didn’t care about what they did, they only cared about what they could do.  Enlisted recruiters in particular sell the organization, not the job.  The ideal applicant will be committed to being a Marine or an Airman, for example, well before they are offered any specific job in the organization.  In fact, there are even opportunities to come in under an open contract. This means you’re hired first and eventually we’ll figure out something to do with you. In the meantime, of course, you’ll get chance to do the much-needed, but not so desirable tasks of the organization.

Eventually, though, the services will find a job field that the applicant qualifies for and then he or she is sent off to training for a series of weeks or even months. Ultimately the service member is then given the opportunity to perform the job.  This cycle, by the way, may be repeated a number of times over an extended career.  Needs of the organization are identified, training is provided, member does the job.  This onboarding and subsequent cross training process is how we end up with so many veteran job seekers with a breadth of technical and management skills, yet no real career focus.

Unfortunately at one of the most critical times of their lives these people can’t answer the critical question, “What do you do?”

Private organization don’t operate like this.  They have specific needs that have specific requirements.  Very few, if any, will have the financial resources to hire people into a long-term training pipeline, and the ones that do, much like the military, will only do so for entry-level positions.

The “move up or out” organizational culture is pretty unique to the military. We as veterans can’t expect the real world to change for us. Today’s job seekers must be able to focus their resume, elevator speech, and personal brand around specific goals.  If you’ve had multiple tours doing different jobs, you may need to get comfortable with multiple personalities.  It’s not fake or disingenuous to portray yourself as a technician to one person and a trainer to another as needed (provided you actually have those experiences).

For those currently in the service, the best advice I can give is to learn this lesson now.  It’s true, the military does provide great training and tons of experience, but as your career moves forward you’ll eventually have to figure out where you  want to be after the military. Once you figure that out you need to make every effort put yourself into positions to succeed in that arena.  Hit the right wickets, get the right education, capture the right data, all  while you’re still in. Then, when the time is right, you can set out on a targeted job search. Believe it or not, keeping up with your own professional career can actually make you a better service member, too.

I’ve always said that you’re better off running towards something than running from something. Many people join the military because they are unhappy with their current life situation. They fact that they then find relative success in the armed forces can provide a false sense of security when it’s time to leave. The process won’t be repeated in the civilian sector.  Only the armed forces are built to make that kind of magic happen. In this regard, the military is as unique as it is awesome.

If you try to run away from the military without knowing where it is you’re going you will end up discovering that there are no private organizations for you to “join”.  You’ll need to be hired. And organization only hire because they have a specific need and they truly believe that you will be the one to perform the needed tasks. If you can’t convince them of that, someone else will.



Networking.  It’s important to the job search the same way planting seeds in the spring time is important to someone hoping for vegetables in the fall.  Like gardening,  it can be harder than it looks.  Once you know how to plant the seeds, however, it makes perfect sense and becomes easier.

Let’s look at the art of networking by breaking it down into three parts: the net,  the work, and the -ing.

NET– This is the why we do it, to build a net. And like any net, a strong network is built with many soft connections, as opposed to just a few strong ones.  Malcom Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point talks a little bit about this fact when references a famous study on the “strength of weak ties“.  The author of the study found that more than half of the people he talked with got their job through personal connections (OK, that’s not surprising).  The real important finding was that, of those who found jobs through their network, 16% said that connection was someone they saw “often”, while a whopping  56% said they only saw their connection “occasionally” and another 28% said they saw that person “rarely”.  That’s 83% finding success through soft contacts. As Gladwell put it, ” People weren’t getting their jobs through friends. They were getting them through acquaintances.”


A successful military career will spawn some very solid, deep, long lasting friendships.  These are the relationships that most often come to mind and these are the ones we are the most proud of.

But think for a moment how often the military relies on people leveraging acquaintances.  It’s often said the center of knowledge can be found in the smoking area of a command. Why? Because people from different departments come together and hang out for a few moments, on a rather routine basis.  Next thing you know, the “low man on the totem pole” infantryman is cutting deals with a counterpart in supply to find a more efficient way of distributing the mail.  Or how often, when a problem arises with the computer systems, does the department head ask, “Who knows somebody in the Communications shop?”

This is networking and it’s nothing new. Yet too many veterans just fail to translate this into the job search. Somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that the job hunt network is about having a family member/golfing partner/drinking buddy in the organization.  It’s not.  In fact, it may not even be a first degree connection that turns out to be the most critical piece of the puzzle.

WORK– Here is where job hunt networking differs from previous military experience.  To be successful this kind networking takes thought and effort, not chance meetings at the smoke pit, or a buddy in the barracks.  It means having a plan and going to events that bring like minded people together, whether it be professional or social organizations.  Finding these organizations takes a little individual effort.  Often times the events will be in the evening, some may be in the next town over, and some may even cost money. The really good ones may fit into all three of those categories. While it’s true that these factors don’t always fit easily into the active duty lifestyle, successful people will find a way to do what they can, when they can.  You may not be able to make it to every event, but that’s no reason to avoid them all together.

I wrote earlier abut how location of your last duty station can be a great plus. As an example, working here has allowed me to  attend the local “RecruitBaltimore” conference.  This one day event had a cost of $70.00, but it was worth it to take a day a of leave and pay the money to interact with professionals in the human resources field.  In fact it’s been so great that I’ve gone the past two years. I’ve also attended some quarterly meetings of the Baltimore Area Recruiters Network, and traveled into Washington, DC for social events hosted by American Corporate Partners.  All of these events have costs associated with them, whether it be time or money, but the more I participate in them the better I get at judging the return on investment.

 ING– For those grammar lovers, the suffix -ing is used to make a present participle. This means the word represents ongoing action. You’ll notice that in the study there was no mention of people getting a job because of someone they met “one time”.  The more often you attend events, the more likely you are to meet the same people a second or third time.  This is what turns “somebody you met” into an “acquaintance”.  The strength of a weak tie is not based on the sheer number of interactions you have with an individual, but instead it’s based on both the manner and length of which it is maintained.  It’s better to see the same person three times over the span of six months at multiple events than it is to see the same person four times in one month in the same environment.

This is why it’s important to network early and often.  Quick example:

Two years ago I saw a woman by the name of Chrissa give presentation about social media at the first RecruitBaltimore event and connected with her afterwards on LinkedIn.  A year later I saw her name on the schedule to present at our TAP/GTPS course and sent her a message saying that I was looking forward to the presentation.  Afterwards we spoke briefly and I learned a bit about her organization.

Fast froward three months later and while attending the next evolution of the recruiting conference I spoke with Ben, a very weak connection, who finds out that I am interested in veteran issues. He quickly introduces me to the woman named Kathleen. It turns that she is the marketing director for that same organization Chrissa works for.  BOOM-  instant conversation starter and we quickly hit it off.

Reaching back to the Gladwell book, it turns out that Kathleen is a connector.  In the past six months she has not only introduced me to a number of other individuals in the HR field, she’s also invited me to participate in a discussion/presentation on veteran hiring issues to a group of private sector recruiters in March. Completing the circle is the fact that my counterpart on the discussion will be none other than Chrissa.

I’d also like to point out that this multi-year process was not focused on simply “landing a job”.  Professional networking has made me a better  Officer Recruiter.  It’s strengthened my ties all around the area, including many of the local universities we recruit from.  By the same token, I’ve been able to offer insights about veteran issues to members of my network.  Like any good relationship, it’s both genuine and symbiotic.

Networking does take time and effort. But it’s worth it. For those who feel like they may be behind the power curve or may feel like it’s too late, I would say that it’s always better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Get out there and meet people.

UPDATE: In November of 2014 I began working full time with Kathleen’s company, ClearedJobs.Net. 

photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/veebl/2346514385/