How to Transform

A guide for transitioning from military to business

This is a Part 1 of a short series on my tips for transitioning from military to business

If you plan to eventually leave the military, keep reading.

I read a book called “Ahead of the Curve” on a quiet night in Afghanistan. I was seated in a Special Ops Task Group operations room, taking a break from the usual mayhem of war operations. The book was a memoir by a journalist who spent two years in the cut and thrust of Harvard Business School, an elite MBA program. I was hooked. I was on my 10th deployment overseas, and I was tired. I had already battled mental illness from some traumatic deployments early in my career. I was ready for a change. My problem: I had little understanding about the challenges waiting for me once I left the military.

Leaving an institution like the military is not just difficult, it’s also dangerous. Statistically, you have a higher chance of being unemployed, of committing self-harm, and becoming estranged from family and friends. That’s the bad stuff. On the upside, you have gained many skills that cannot be taught in academic institutions, and you have a chance to make serious impact in society. If you are willing to learn some basics, then you stand a good chance of turning yourself into a new animal for an exciting second-turn at life.

Here are a few interesting facts:

The Bad:

  • Veteran unemployment rate is five times the national average
  • The suicide rate for male veterans is +13% the national average
  • Risk of homelessness is higher for veterans
  • 46% of departing veterans have some form of mental illness within five years of discharge

The Good:

+ Self-employment opportunities are higher than ever before

+ Your leadership and execution skills are well aligned to small business ownership and entrepreneurship

+ You have a higher probability of outperforming peers in some key industries

+ Top academic institutions are actively searching for capable ex-military candidates to join their ranks

+ There is no ceiling to what you can achieve, and no rules, other than the law and common decency

Some challenges you may face

Apathy. Many people won’t care about what you went through in the military. I don’t say that to be callous – I say it because at some point you will need to move on from your experiences and forge new skills, in a new culture.  It’s an opportunity – a great chance to show you are not a ‘one-trick pony’

Stereotypes. There is a lot of recent media that refers to ‘veteran issues’. In the last six months, I counted a 100 different reports. Most of these relate to mental health, substance abuse, unemployment and homelessness. There is a counter-narrative to all this – one of ‘post traumatic growth’ where people come back stronger after a tragedy. I have countless friends from the military: business owners, actors and professionals, that experienced hardships, but many of them were able to turn their misfortune into a growth experience.

Special Ops? Once upon a time, mere mortals would reel at the site of you in your advanced body armour, and ‘Call of Duty’-style weapon. Those days are over. In the workplace, people will ask you curiously how many people you killed, if ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ was real, and how fast your bullets go. Many will be sympathetic to you, because you ‘followed your orders and did what you were told’. This might sound far-fetched – except for the fact that I experienced all of these biases in the workplace. The good news is that you have even more skills you will be able to turn to your advantage in the fullness of time. A strong bias-to-action, willingness to learn, and agility will be your best assets.

The transition process lacks structure. There are a ton of well-meaning institutions out there ready to help with your transition. The Defence Community Organisation (DCO) and their Transition Department have the lead. I counted more than 30 other organisations within the official Defence Transition Guide alone. The problem: many of these teams have not stood in their customers shoes before. The support system is fragmented – if there is an overarching, coordinated strategy for transitioning veterans, I was not able to find it. The good news is that there is a large network of ex-military people waiting to help you.

I found my transition and transformation very hard, that’s the reason I am sharing my ideas with you. 

Three things to consider before you transform yourself:

Consider purpose first, then pay. I was pretty confident I could walk out of the military and land a $250,000 annual package, work 9-to-5 every day, and waltz around the office like Harvey Specter from an episode of ‘Suits’. Instead, it looked more like this:

  • I failed three job placement tests before I even started
  • I interviewed four times for jobs I knew I wouldn’t love, wearing a terrible suit, often being assessed by people I would not normally associate with
  • I was coached in the interview process by ex-military personnel who had joined and excelled in great companies

When I finally received a job offer, it was from one of the best firms in the world – I earned a good salary and it was a prestigious role. The downside: 14-20 hours of intense work each day. I sometimes flew six times a week. I gained weight and my physical health was poor after two years in the job. Admittedly, the weight gain was mostly due to cheesecake overeating in 5-star hotels – it’s hard for me to be sympathetic to myself when I put it that way.

Aside from the cheesecake perks, the work was stressful and technical. I was inserted into companies I had no background in and had to swim hard to keep up. I felt displaced and struggled with a loss of purpose and identity. However, the training, skills and discipline I gained were world class, and it was the apprenticeship I needed in business before I really got started.

Since then, I have worked for myself for the last 12 months. I started an ecommerce fashion brand Kill Kapture, and coach other companies in resilience and high performance. In 2018, I earned less financially, but I gained time, freedom and a sense of purpose. This has been a far more sustainable proposition for me, especially as a new father and partner. With the right approach, you can turn your unique knowledge and skills into a valuable proposition for businesses or consumers.

So back yourself. You have outstanding skills. You have faced adversity like no other. You were given responsibility from a young age. You are not afraid of leading, failing and making decisions. These skills are in short supply in corporate Australia, and they are very, very hard to teach.

Your defining advantage (Unique Value Proposition, for business jargon heads) lies in these skills. Your years in the ADF have made you tough and resilient, with an execution focus: that is valuable.

Once you learn the basics, you will be ready for battle. But first, put the work into learning the fundamentals.

More to follow:

I’m looking at covering some of the themes below.** Please let me know what you might be interested in:

  1. Tips for pre-departure from the military
  2. Joining a US Ivy League Business School
  3. The MBA: Where to go, how to pay for it, and what it leads to
  4. The Job Hunt: How to land a great job in a top company
  5. Consulting: Joining one of the Top 3 (BCG / Bain / McKinsey)
  6. Startups: Creation and failure on your own terms

**My personal guarantee to you is to only discuss fields that I have first-hand experience in!

“Freedom is the right of all sentient beings” – Optimus Prime, Leader of the Autobots