Career Services For Active Duty Is The Key To Long Term Success

Veteran hiring is an important issue and it’s rightly on the the minds of a lot of people and organizations.  But in reality, it’s only a symptom of a larger disease.  Instead of veteran hiring initiatives, what we really need is better career services programs aimed at those on active duty.  In comparing active duty service members and college students it’s easy to find many similarities, as well as differences.  One big thing they have in common is that, eventually, they will need to leave their present organization in search of gainful employment.  The manner in which they prepare for that jump, however, is in no way the same.

Colleges and universities exists not to produce students, but to produce successful alumni. Students pay a lot of (mostly borrowed) money for an organization to prepare them for the next stage of their life. Good colleges understand this. They know that a diploma only validates the worth of a student so long as the graduates continue to validate the worth of the diploma with their productivity. It’s a symbiotic relationship and the department of career services is the catalyst in this equation.

The military on the other hand exists to harvest your skills while you are inside the system.  Yes, you will be trained to do a job. You will then be given all (or at least some) of the tools needed to perform said tasks and expected to get the job done. That’s how the military operates. It’s mission driven.

Military career planners are tasked with assisting active duty members on how to navigate their internal careers. They ensure career wickets are met, forms are completed, and classes are attended. They let you know if, and when, you can reenlist and, if so, under what circumstances. They must know how their particular service works in order to advise a member how to best navigate his or her individual career. But make no mistake, they work for the organization, not the individual.

This is the reality of the situation and the sooner an active duty member accepts it as such, the better their chances for long term success.  I’ve seen too many  mid-level service members get comfortable with the idea that the skills they’ve acquired will enable them to walk right into a similar job once they decide to leave the military.

Service members should learn early on that value in the civilian world is based upon supply and demand. Not only are there a lot of other individuals coming out of the military with your same skill set, but there are also others that may have attained the same level of proficiency through the traditional education system.

The decision to leave the military (voluntarily or not)  means we  are entering the job market and now must compete for those coveted things we call jobs. Fortune favors the prepared.small_8072539635

This is why smart college students are engaging their career services offices early and often in their academic careers.  Admittedly, not all college students take advantage of this opportunity, but then again not all college graduates are getting jobs either.

Unfortunately for those in the military though, there isn’t a true “career services” center as readily available, even if they wanted one. The closest thing are the various  Transition Assistance Programs, but while these programs have some great individuals working there, the focus is often retrospective.  The task is more about sorting through previous experiences and certifications to try to piece together a plan. Often times this is too late.

What service members need is no different than what their peers need. They need to figure out who they are, where they want to go, and how to get there.  The sooner anyone, college student, service member, or entrepreneur can answer these questions, the sooner they can move forward on their life journey.

I know that it’s unrealistic to expect the military to develop and fund a career services department in the same manner that colleges operate. It’s not the job of the military to do that, and to be honest, I doubt it would be effective, cost efficient, or well received.

This is why it’s incumbent on the service members who truly want to succeed after the military to become their own career services center.  Service members must let go of the notion that this lack of a dedicated career services department is an obstacles too difficult to overcome.   There is very little that a career services center does that can not be done by an individual service member, particularly in the age of the internet.

The most important part of the career services puzzle is to network early and find mentors in fields that interest you.  This means keeping up with people you work with in order to have strong network. It means using the military alumni network the same way universities do, not to ask for a job after graduation, but to learn about a job, career field, organization early.

Early engagement leads to knowing what it takes to get there, and it provides opportunities to become a known entity. When people talk about getting a job from someone in their network, it’s rarely a close friend.  On the contrary, it’s typically from the weak connections, the people you used to work with, or the civilian individual in the same field that you only see every few months.  Strong networks are only built over time,and  luckily that’s one thing the military offers in abundance. It’s up to us how we use it.

I’m not advocating for people to spend their entire military career schmoozing.  Just as the first job for those in college is to be a student, the primary mission of a service member is always to be a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine.  It is very possible, though, to be great at your job while simultaneously preparing for life after the military, especially if you keep up with your industry.

Some of the same advice being offered to current college students is easily adaptable to young service members.  When a career services professional like Rich Grant writes about about how to use Twitter as a networking tool those tips can be just as relevant to the service member as they are to the college student.  When a recruiter like Steve Levy offers tips on how to improve career services at the college level, many of these ideas can be individually applied to the needs of today’s service members. Even better, Levy’s blog has posts specifically aimed at veterans, including a terrific one about active duty people using LinkedIn.

Spoiler alert- he encourages you to get active now, as opposed to waiting until it’s time for transition…..are you sensing a trend?

photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sirwiseowl/8072539635

LinkedIn Groups….Who Are You Hanging Out With?

You need to be on LinkedIn…..that drum gets beat into every separating service members head during their transition classes.  Unfortunately, though, LinkedIn is not something a lot of people in the service use during their time on active duty, so it can be daunting to just jump right in.  A lot of people establish profiles under duress, not believing they will do any good.  Without any direction on how to make the platform work for them, their profile sits there in cyberspace with very few connections, only reinforcing the service members original thoughts on its lack of value.

So, what can service members do to break out of their shell and quit being a wallflower at the Post Military Employment Prom?  Just like any other social event, if you don’t already have a date, you need to hang with a group.  And just like High School, who you hang with is critical. Unlike High School, however, LinkedIn recognizes that people are complex, so there is no need to feel like you have to declare your allegiance to one clique. LinkedIn allows you to be a member of up to 50 groups.

The tips below can help you make the most out of LinkedIn Groups.

 First, you need to diversify. There are always certain groups that we will feel more around than others.  LinkedIn has a good number of military oriented affinity groups and these are the ones service members typically join first.  I’m a Navy Chief….there’s a group for Navy Chiefs…..I know I’ll be among friends…..easy choice.  There’s nothing wrong with joining a group like this, but if this is a far as you go, you’re not likely to grow or expand your network much beyond the military community.

To broaden your horizons and really expand your network, look for affinity groups based upon your actual job in the military.  For example, if you’re an electrical engineer, perhaps you’d find some benefit from joining the over 6,000 members of the Business Industrial Network who’s group page states, “Engineers, Electricians, Mechanics, Maintenance Welcome”.  Those currently on active duty can use this to keep up with the current issues of their industry which is critical for ensuring you’re prepared to jump into the private sector.  And if you’re transitioning from the service, perhaps one of over the 200 job postings in the group may interest you.

In addition to industry affinity groups there are a number of groups that were formed for the purpose of assisting transitioning service members, but be advised, not all of these are created equal.  Some are location-based, such as the Fort Meade Military Transition networking Group and the Camp Lejeune Transition Readiness Seminar Group. The Fort Meade group has over 200 members (about 1/3 are recruiters) and over 850 jobs listed, while the Camp Lejeune group has 89 members (only one with the word Recruiter in their title) and zero jobs. I’m not saying that one group is inherently better than the other (I’m a member of both), but it’s important to know the make up of each, in order understand what they offer.

Other groups with a focus on transitioning veteran have a global audience.  Although the following is not all-inclusive, the following are just three in particular that I’ve found helpful as far as actionable advice: Military-Civilian Career Coaching Connection (MC4), Boots To Loafers, and Recruiters 4 Veterans. Sites like these are less likely to have jobs posted, but will instead be more focused on offering genuine tips on the transition process.

There are two ways to find these niche groups. The easiest method is to use the search field at the top of the LinkedIn page and type in key words by either title or location (engineer, recruiter, nurse, Baltimore, San Diego, Austin).  Another way (and I think more effective method)  is to look at the bottom of the profiles of your connections to see which groups they are a member of.  No matter how you do it, being active in even a few LinkedIn groups from the different categories will set you up for success.

Second, you need to participate. You build your network by meeting people, and meeting people on LinkedIn occurs when you join in on some discussions.  See an article you like? Share it with a group.  Did someone in the group post something you find relevant? Share it with your connections.  Have a thought? Add your two cents in the comments section.  These are the things that bring people together.  Participation is the catalyst to check out the profiles of other individuals (which is a great way find ways to improve your own).  This is what leads to connections and allows your network to grow exponentially.

Third, know your audience. Preaching to the choir might be safest way to communicate, but it never really changes anything.  We need to understand our place in relation to the rest of the group and ensure the things we share are likely to benefit those who will see our message.  A great example of this centered around a recent Forbes.com  article about the value of Non Commissioned Officers. The piece has a different meaning when shared with other military members than if it is shared by/with private sector recruiters and hiring managers.

In fact, one of the coaches, (Joseph Paschal) in the MC4 discussion thread put it very well saying, “this article has resonated well on many other veteran sites because it tells veterans what they want to hear. However, it is a grossly obtuse analogy that really does not help veterans because it may lead NCOs (and others) to believe that they can make the case for being qualified for positions simply because they have such solid experience as NCOs (or veterans).”

 Joe wasn’t saying anything bad about the content of the article, but I think his point about how the message was being perceived was spot on. (See the full discussion thread here.)

We need to tell private industry about the military and, at the same time, tell the military about private industry.  These are two distinct conversations and the way we have those conversations on LinkedIn is to be active in many groups, and to share the appropriate message with each.

Veteran participation in industry specific groups helps us all. By sharing relevant articles and making insightful comments we can knock down the walls of misperception.  Even more to the point, we do far more good for our own post military employment chances by participating in the civilian networking groups than we do by simply hanging out with our closest friends telling each other how great we are.

Its time to quit holding up the wall and get out there on the dance floor.

Five Things I Know (So Far)

When I began this blog seven months ago the purpose was to document my thoughts and experiences during the last year (or so) of my active duty time in the Navy.  As we draw down on 2013, I wanted to take some to reflect on my experience thus far.

First of all, I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on the project as a whole.  I’m particularly grateful whenever I hear from my friends that are still years away from retirement/separation.  The original purpose of this was to provide a platform to capture information in order to share it so that others may  succeed and I hope I’m accomplishing that.

 Back in my second post I described this transition process as trying to pull off a trapeze stunt without having the benefit of practice, seven months later that feeling remains. I’ve committed to the process and let go of the first swinging bar, and look forward to catching another.  It’s not a very comfortable feeling.  It’s a stage we all have to go through, though.

For those that have followed this blog from the beginning you may have noticed that the posts have become more advice oriented and less on personal reflections.  Getting some of my posts picked up by other organizations has been a big reason for this.  My article about the American Corporate Partnership was picked up by their website, and I’ve also had pieces shared by the local job board ClearedJobs.net as well as the recruiter organization RecruitDC.

This success, though very moderate and with zero financial gain involved, has validated for me that my real passion lies in helping organizations succeed by recruiting, training, and retaining veteran talent.  Over the years I’ve come to see that making this happen is a two way street. We as veterans need to market ourselves correctly and organizations should continue to proactively seek out military members for employment.  I’ve seen first hand that there is good stuff happening on both sides of this equation.

I’m also convinced that there is room for improvement.  Hence, some of my posts have offered advice to veterans, and other posts have been aimed at exposing civilian organizations to the unique challenges of engaging a military audience. Working to bridge this gap is what I truly love to do and I look forward to helping individuals and/or organizations succeed by helping to get the right people into the right jobs.

Since it’s been a while since I wrote anything “personal” about my experience, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what I’ve learned.

1 Networking early and often is the key.  I can not stress enough how thankful I am to the many civilian individuals that I’ve come into contact with who have helped me.  They have provided great mentorship and even better they have always been quick to introduce to me to others.  Networking really is exponential and there are a ton of very good people in the world. As scary as it is now, I can’t imagine where I’d be without these individuals. Every success I’ve had in this process can be directly traced back to someone in my network.

2- There are some outstanding programs out there  and American Corporate Partners is a great one.  My mentor has given me a fresh perspective about career paths and the organization has been truly top notch.  I look forward to attending a specific ACP Networking event at the end of January.

One thought that continues to bounce around inside my head is the idea of striking out on my own. I’ve found the Small Business Administration has great information. I have also learned about an organization known as Score that provides local mentors for service members starting their own business. For those that are service disabled and looking to start your own business please check out the Entrepreneur Boot Campthis looks like an amazing program. (I don’t qualify, but it’s worth passing along.)

3- The amount of helpful outlets can be overwhelming. For example, LinkedIn has a ton of groups that offer career advice, many of them are very good, but there are so many it can be tough to keep up.  I was told that these are the key to building your network on LinkedIn and I should pick a couple and be active in the discussions forums. I’ve done that and it’s worked out just as I was told. I’m establishing myself as a “content creator” with “virtual footprint“, but sometimes I know that can get lost down the rabbit hole of LinkedIn.  There’s a lot of people, on a lot of sites, saying the same things,  to the same people.  Sometimes I just  need to remind myself I don’t need to be everywhere, all the time. I can’t read everything on the internet.  I also hope that this blog doesn’t fall into that category of just regurgitating the same information.

4- I know more than I think I do.  In all honesty, having the blog posts picked up by other organizations has been an ego boost. So has the feeling that I’ve become a subject matter expert, at least to some degree, for veterans and recruiters alike.  This has given me a lot of confidence. The more people tell you that you can do something, the more likely you are to succeed, and as an active duty person it’s very nice to get that validation from those in the private sector.

5- I don’t know everything. Despite point #4 above, there are still some things that I need to learn and experience.  Knowing this has led me to ask a lot of questions of a lot of people.  It’s what motivates me to attend professional events and do a lot of professional reading.  I think there is such thing as healthy amount of self awareness and that knowing our shortcomings is a critical component in preparing for the jump from Sailor to Civilian.

Over these past few months it’s become obvious that the transition process can happen very quickly, and yet at the same time seem painfully slow. I’ve always believed that you’re better off leaving the military because you are running to something, as opposed to running away from something and at this point I feel like I have found my focus in terms of what I want to do. For that I’m thankful.

Although the manner and location I ultimately do the work of connecting organizations with veteran talent is still undecided, I remain confident that it will all work out.  Terminal Leave starts in June of 2014 and my last day getting paid on active duty is August 31st, so I still have some time.

I hope that my thoughts thus far have been helpful to at least a few people and I look forward to continuing to share this experience with those so inclined to follow.

Seven months into this project, has anything been helpful?  Is there anything else you’d like to see addressed?  Let me know in the comments section.

Veteran: Innovation vs Standardization

Back in 2010 Harvard Business Review had a special issue largely focused on things the private world could learn from the military.  One of the articles in that issue that immediately stuck with me focused on the different leadership styles that each service cultivates.  The authors of Which Of These People Is Your Future CEO? essentially separated the services into Ground Pounders (Army and Marines) and Non Ground Pounders (Navy and Air Force).

Harvard Business Review November 2010

Harvard Business Review November 2010

The article took the position that the Army and the Marine Corps cultivates a spirit of innovation, while the other two focus on standards and process.

This is true at the macro 10,000 foot level, but may not always be the case at the individual level.

In general, the ground units do rely on the concept of Commanders Intent much more than the Air Force and Navy. For those unaware, the concept of Commanders Intent is a general mission statement that enables lower level personnel to adjust their course of action based upon the facts on the ground, even if they are not the facts they anticipated finding. (See the video below for an excellent example of a Two Minute example of commanders intent)

The saying “No plan survives contact with the enemy” is certainly a bit cliche, but it’s only cliche because it’s so true. Success in combat is measured by quickly and efficiently accomplishing the mission. Individuals are trained to think about the big picture, process the reality of the situation, formulate, and then execute a plan.

On the other hand, the authors reported that vast majority of people in the other services work in very technical fields maintaining ships and aircraft. These environments stress process.  For example, if your job is to ensure a properly functioning nuclear reactor or to repair the landing gear of an F-16, your boss will not be quick to let you off the hook for “trying something new”.  In this situation, success is defined as the absence of failure. Every time.  Without exception.

Both cultures produce very fine leadership styles based on their environment, but it would be a mistake to only apply them based only upon branch of service.  The Navy also has elements such as Seals and Riverine Boat Units that operate in an expeditionary environment, for example. These units are more amenable to the commanders intent style of leadership. The same can be said for the Air Force Para-Rescuers or ground security forces.  By the same token, a zero defect mentality about safety is as critical for Marine Corps and Army aviation units as it is Navy ships and Air Force aviation.

Personally, I’ve spent nearly 20 years in the Navy, but most of that has been serving in support of the Marine Corps ground forces and I’ve been very happy in that environment. I would not say that my years with the Marine Corps is responsible for my leadership style of commanders intent, but I do think that environment allowed me to flourish the most.  In so doing I was able to exercise the traits that were most natural to me.

Despite my inclination to one style over the other, I still completely appreciate the details of a process and the need for checklists. Organizations need both innovation and standardization.  I  know myself well enough, however, to doubt I would be happy in a job that has, as its primary responsibility, the task of ensuring compliance. Emotional intelligence can be a helpful trait in the job search.

Great things happen when the right person is in the right position.  That is why it’s important that we, as veterans, understand where we best operate then seek out those positions. At every opportunity we should highlight the specific character traits in detail, otherwise we are letting the hiring manager assume we have a particular leadership style and that decision might get made based upon our status as a veteran in general, and may not be entirely accurate.

At the same time, organizations that understand that these differences are not only based on branch of service will have a leg up on finding the right person for the task.  This means digging a little deeper than the HBR article. It means getting to know the intricacies of the job descriptions within each branch. It can also mean finding an exceptional sales leader or an terrific risk  manager. Two positions that require different talents, but both of which contribute to the bottom line success of a private organization.

** EXTRA CONTENT**

The video below is an outstanding example of Commanders Intent.  The clip features the  Battalion Commander of 2d  BN, 8th Marines (my unit) as we went into Helmand Province in 2009. I can tell you that this was certainly not the first time these Marines had heard the idea of bringing the Afghan people closer to their government.  We had spent months training for the mission and that concept was drilled into our heads.

This would be the last time LtCol Christian Cabaniss would physically see or speak directly to most of these individuals over the next 6 months. They would face many decisions that would need to be made on the spot, in an environment in which there was no checklist or algorithm to go by and no time to call back and get their plan approved. Quite a lot of responsibility for a group of people, some as young as 19.

The clip was taken from the documentary film Hell and Back Again.

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.

http://www.reinventingmichaelbanks.com/

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.

Networking With Civilians: Four Steps To Effective Sea Stories

Networks are groups of people who know you, not just people who know you exist.  One of the best way to become a real person in the eyes of others is to talk about your experiences and ideas.  Face to face conversation are the chance for you to add context and depth to your experiences in a way that a one page resume can not.

"Old Salts" swapping sea stories in 1888.  Today good conversations are the key to building a strong network.

“Old Salts” swapping sea stories in 1888. Today good conversations are the key to building a strong network.

One tradition in the Navy is that of a ‘Sea Story”.  Often times they take the form a of a parable, other times they may be purely technical.  Either way, a good sea story serves a purpose. In a similar way the skill of delivering a good sea story can benefit us as we develop our network.

The following four recommendations will help ensure your sea story gets the most bang for its buck.

1. TIMING IS EVERYTHING.  One of my favorite quotes from the guys at Manager Tools is: “Communication is what the listener does.”  If a person isn’t ready for the message, don’t deliver it.  Sometimes this has to do with time, or environment, but it also may have to do with the receivers state of mind.  Networking early enables you to let people know that, while you will be transitioning out of the service soon, you’re not actually looking for a job right now. This is game changer for the other persons state of mind, particularly at networking events.

The minute you tell people that you are currently “looking for a job”, that changes the dynamics of a conversation.  It puts pressure on the other person, even if you don’t intend it to. The vast majority of people will genuinely want to  help, but will probably not have anything for you right away.  Even if they do know about someone or something in their network that may be a good fit, they will likely be hesitant to risk their reputation by recommending someone they just met.  Saying, “Hi I’m Bob and I just got out of the Navy and need a job”, is a conversation killer, not a conversation starter, especially at a social event.

I’ve found that once I tell people that I am still nine to twelve moths away from separation they tend to become a little more open.   There is no longer any pressure for immediate action on their part which then allows the conversation to continue at a normal pace.  The 900 pound elephant in the room is gone and they will usually begin to ask more questions about what it is that I do and how I do it.  Now they are getting to know me as a person and as a professional, not as a charity case.

2. REFINE YOUR DELIVERY. One of the the things I learned in my years as an instructor/trainer is that it’s OK to repeat yourself.  Each class was a new canvas and a new opportunity to refine the message.  Whether I was describing a tension pneumothorax or telling a story about the time I had dinner at the home of a local Afghan village leader, the more often I told it, the better I got at delivering the message.  Reaching into your network early provides the same opportunities to refine your delivery to target your audience. (Note: This is NOT the time to exaggerate or tell stories unrelated to your profession.)

When people ask about what you do, seek to deliver the response in a manner that they understand.  That sets the groundwork for commonality.  Instead of telling people that I’m a “Hospital Corpsman” or an “Officer Recruiter”, I say, “I find doctors for the Navy. ”  If I’m dealing with other HR Professionals I might add the phrase, “Mostly through campus recruitment of undergraduates for medical school scholarships, but also through some lateral recruitment of practicing physicians, as well.” This allows me to let them know that I do both types of recruitment.  The point is to target your response for effectiveness, and effectiveness is defined by quickly  getting them to understand what you do.

3. LET THEM TALK.  Don’t let your “sea story” or “elevator pitch” run on too long, however.  The idea is to have a conversation, not to provide a lecture.  After you tell them what you do and how you do it, be polite and ask them the same question.  If you don’t immediately understand what they do, then ask more questions about it.  This is a time to not only educate the civilians about what you do, but also to educate yourself about what they do.

Remember the search is for commonality not to remind them of how different you are.  If you don’t learn about what it is they do, and how they do it, you may miss an opportunity to connect your experiences with theirs.  Learning about their job, and more importantly, how they do it, also gives you insight into the civilian professional world.  The more they talk, the more you learn the language of the industry.  Once you get home, don’t be afraid to do some research about the people, products, companies, and industries that you learned about during these conversations.  Closing the loop on one conversation will help you find commonality at the next opportunity.

4. OFFER YOUR SERVICES. Networking is about relationships, and relationships are a two way street. Should you meet someone with a strong connection to what it is that you do in the military, end the conversation with an offer to help in some way.  I like to tell people that if they ever have any questions about the military or veterans issues, they should feel free to reach out to me. If you’re at a networking event in which you trade contact information, doing this the next business day via email or LinkedIn is encouraged.  It sends the message that you are interested in maintaining a connection with that individual.  Now you’re  not just a person looking for a job, you’re a potential asset.

Following these four steps can help establish a deeper and more meaningful relationship, which is the key to a strong network.  Over time, it may even blossom into one strong enough that could enable your connection to genuinely recommend you for positions in their industry or possibly even a direct offer for employment.  At the very least, you will get the opportunity to continue to learn about what it takes to make yourself relevant in the civilian arena.