In the April 9, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a transitioning military officer asks how to break through:

I have spent the morning drilling through Ask the Headhunter. Thank you for the time and effort you put into that forum. I especially appreciate the reasoned, personal responses you give to select comments on your posts.

I would like to ask you for some advice if you have the time. I am retiring from the U.S. Army after 24 years as a senior commissioned officer and rated aviator, but I want to work outside the defense industry. My skill set is very broad and leadership-focused. I’ve been looking for jobs at the executive level, and over the last three months I’ve selectively submitted resumes for jobs (7 total) that I think would rock my world. My evaluation of these job postings put them right in my round-house. I’m not getting any responses to my resumes, though, and I don’t know how to break through. Any advice you have would be appreciated.

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for your kind words about Ask The Headhunter — glad you’re finding it helpful. And more important to me, thanks for your service to our country and to all of us. I’m particularly troubled by how difficult it can be for military folks to transition into the commercial world.

I’ll try to offer a few suggestions.

First, please keep in mind that the average manager spends an average of 30 seconds reading a resume. That means you need to tell managers quickly how you’re going to address their specific problems and challenges. Here are a couple of short articles that might drive this home:

Tear Your Resume In Half

Resume Blasphemy

triangulateI recently gave a presentation to Cornell’s Executive MBA Program — these are managers who’ve been running companies for 7-15 years who invest about $145,000 for a two-year business degree. I’ll tell you what I told them:

When you hand your resume to an employer, what you’re really saying is this: Here’s everything you need to know about me. My education, my credentials, my work history, my accomplishments, my skills — Now, you go figure out what the heck to do with me!

Managers suck at figuring this out. Just consider that they’re looking at hundreds of resumes — not just yours.

In How Can I Change Careers?, I talk about how show a manager that you’re the profitable hire for his or her specific organization. This process can be used to produce a “blasphemous” resume — but the work involved essentially eliminates the need to use a resume to get in the door. It’s all about doing your homework on the problems and challenges the manager faces, by talking shop with people connected to the company. They will educate you and tip you off on what to say to the manager. The objective is to let these contacts lead you directly to the manager, while your competition is sending in resumes.

This set of articles may also help you get started: The Basics.

You have already selected your target companies, so you’re already ahead of the game. Most people can’t do this. They insist on applying for jobs they find.

Please also check this article: Pursue Companies, Not Jobs. Having specific targets is more than half the challenge. Honing in on them is the rest. If you do it this way, it almost doesn’t matter if they have open jobs. Believe me, managers open up jobs when they meet someone who can drop profit to their bottom line. It’s what a consultant does when pitching services to a prospective client. She shows up with very specific solutions.

One caution: Don’t deliver so much up front that you’re doing free work they can poach from you. Offer a plan for solutions, but leave them hanging a bit, until they make a commitment to you.

The best way to “break through” is to triangulate. Find and talk to people near the manager: customers, vendors, other employees, consultants — anyone who touches the operation. Never ask for job leads or to “take my resume in.” Instead, ask for advice and insight about the manager and his operation. Then close by asking if there’s someone in the operation you might talk to, to get more insight and advice: “I’m trying to figure out what I need to do to get ready for a job in this operation.”

Finally, avoid HR at all costs. See last week’s column: Why HR should get out of the hiring business, and this audio segment from KKSF talk radio: What’s HR got to do with it?

I hope you land the job that rocks your world!

How would you advise this military officer in transition? Please post your suggestions in the comments section below.

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  1. I went through a similar transition beginning in 1975. It almost literally killed me, and had it not been for the intervention of Jesus Christ, I’m sure it would have.

    I’d like to suggest, if you haven’t already done so, that you read and do the exercises in the book, What Color is Your Parachute? by Bolles. Another book (now dated in its specific methodology)is Who’s Hiring Who? by Lathrop.

    A suggestion: you need to start thinking and talking like a civilian, and learn how to translate your military achievements into terms civilians can understand.

    Finally, network, network, network. I suggest 75 percent of the time you spend looking for work consist of meeting people at the level who could hire you, asking for their advice and guidance, and asking for others you can continue to talk to. From this process you will tap into the “hidden” job market, and jobs will flow out of the process.

    There’s more, but the above should provide a solid foundation and get you started.

  2. While I’ll leave the religious piece on the sidelines (and strongly suggest you leave it out of te job search. As in the military, it has no place in the civilian workforce), I agree with the above comment. I’ve been in the shoes of the transitioning author. I did three things:

    1. I read “Parachute.” That book, and Nick’s newsletter, are all you need to read. The rest is a waste of time.

    2. I learned to speak like a civilian. Because nobody outside the Army understands what the S3 of 3rd Bn means, and other similar gobbledygook. Hell, I was Air Force, so I barely understand what the other service lingo is.

    3. Network. I’d say 90% of your time needs to be networking. Set a goal to meet at least one new person a day in your chosen field. It’s hard, hard work. Much harder than “applying for a job online.” Which is why most people take the easier path of filling in an application and sendin out resumes.

    You do need a resume, and it should look good. But the resume comes at the tail end of the process… AFTER you’ve made your contacts, they like you, want you. Good luck.

  3. Recommend you join MOAA if you have not already. 50% of what they do is help officers make the transition. VERY helpful when I made the transition in ’87.

    Michael J. Goldman, LCDR, USN (Ret)

  4. What struck me was how the military guy picked jobs that would “rock” his world because they are in his wheelhouse. If his resume doesn’t speak to how he’s going to rock their world, he’s not getting in. I agree, too, that networking is going to be key, as is consulting with a resume writer who knows how to convert his military career into relevant information a civilian hiring manager will use. There are several very good professional resume writers who work exclusively with former military personnel.
    Good luck and thank you for your service.

  5. I was in the regular USAF, then the Air and Army National Guard. The advantage to being in the Guard is that you are living in both worlds simultaneously, therefore it is not as abrupt a shift as it is for someone who spent their entire adult life to this point on active duty.

    Nick wonders why it is so difficult for people who have had successful military careers to transition to civilian work.

    Lingo is a big factor, as the previous commentors noted.

    The most important difference, I believe, is that in the military, the objective (notice that I used the singular there) is clearly defined. (“Not always,” some will counter. True. But those negative examples provide object lessons as to why a clear objective is so important.) Each member of a unit knows his or her role and how it supports the main objective.

    There is also structure that every military member works within. If and E-1 wants to become an E-4, the career path is laid out for them. If and 0-2 wants to become an 0-5, the same is true.

    While creativity is important to effective military success (how many times did your DI tell you to “adapt and overcome”?) whatever deviations being made are from a known standard.

    Civilian worklife definitely lacks clear objectives and structure, and creativity is often punished rather than rewarded. Most companies profess to have a vision statement, but the employees have no idea how their day-to-day activities move the company towards its goal. Promotions and raises seem arbitrary and the evaluation systems are a joke. Managers are so insecure in their positions that they don’t want any of their subordinates to shine too brightly lest they become a threat.

    However, the companies that do have a clear objective (ie “THE low-cost airline), that ensure that each of their employees knows exactly how their work contributes to the bottom line, and that reward creativity and steadfastness are the notable exceptions and leaders in their respective industries.

    For military members to transition successfully to the civilian world, nothing beats recon (“networking” as civilians call it). Gather intel about your target. You will learn the lingo that civilians use for your job and be able to communicate in their terms. You will learn which company you want to work for: The one that does have a clear goal and transparent structure, where employees operate in the framework with enough freedom to “adapt and overcome.”

  6. If you can get into an executive role from the outside, then you have achieved a very difficult task.
    In my experience, the executives are generally hired within and fought by a large pool of candidates. It is a big risk for a company to hire outside and place a new person into the executive ranks.
    Where I have encountered outside executive hires is when the person either has direct links to the group (i.e. they worked with one of the team before) or they offer new skills that the company does not have internally but has decided it needs(e.g. when the company wants to enter a new market). Even then, the person has a track record of having the needed skills or knowledge.
    ‘Leadership skills’ are important, but usually not enough for the executive ranks, since anybody who has led a team can say they have leadership skills. Make sure you bring other tangible items that the company needs to the table.

  7. I agree with Darlene that you must be able to quantify how you will “rock” the companies world first and foremost. I would also ask have you received your BA in business or an MBA? The reason I ask is most Fortune 500 companies now (including mine) will not waive an MBA for an executive or senior leadership role within the company. In fact, it is a requirement at mine. I was told by a VP years ago that while many people poo-poo an MBA, what it tells executive leadership is you have the drive and ability to perform in a rigorous program. Enhancing the skill set you learned in the Army will only make you more marketable, whether that is college or additional real-world learning.
    I know times have changed and even getting a great job has become different in this landscape, I am seeing it first hand since applying to out of state companies for 8 months now. I wish you luck.

  8. All,

    I’d like to thank you all for your time and valuable advice.

    I understand very much about not using military lingo and took great care to title and explain my jobs in plain English, as well as quantifying achievements in business terms. I also think there are military terms executives understand, such as “commander,” that cannot be expressed in common business terms because they are deeper than words like “manager.” This has been kept to an absolute minimum, though. The résumé writers who focus on military transition résumés do so at a much lower level than I’m interested in pursuing.

    I also acknowledge that I want a job that will stretch and challenge me, or “rock my world,” but that is also a two way street. I am being selective about jobs I “apply” for because I know I need to show any company that I am a value-added proposition with deep leadership experience, from leading matrix teams to organizations of hundreds or thousands of people spread across the country, managing costs, activity, maintenance, and materiel.

    The common thread here seems to be networking, and that is the distilled problem. So my question becomes how do I develop that network or find those people? Nick’s great advice in a “Crocodile,” explains how to do it and that it won’t be easy, but I am a true outsider in every sense of the word and it is a worrisome barrier.

    Thanks again for all your time and input. This is a great dialogue.


  9. To alleviate any confusion, my graduate degree is a Master of Science in Management & Administration with a concentration in Leadership.

  10. @Pat: Thanks for chiming in. I think networking has been over-complicated and over-defined. Remember the term, MBWA? Management By Wandering Around? I think it’s based on the same practice that I think is the essence of networking, stripped of all the mumbo-jumbo that “experts” like to charge a lot of money for. Go hang around people who do the work you want to do, where you want to do it. Isn’t that what MBWA is really about? Participating.

    For “networking” to work, the practice has to be about the work. I’m always amazed at who I can get to talk to me if I contact them and talk shop. From there, it’s all about learning how to continue the conversation, keep it useful, and foster a friendship. The rest comes from that. But there’s no rushing it. Planting seeds now pays off down the road. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun than sending out resumes that you hope will “sell” something…!

  11. Excellent Post especially boiling networking down to its essence. Also much of the advice is applicable to transitioning per se.
    I think a point in my view to remember in talking about the work, is “about the work” includes the environment in which you’ll do the work, the tasks. Yes target companies not jobs and if you triangulate into a company, make sure you get information that helps assess whether you want to be a part of it. The culture, values, how people are treated, internal rules of engagement. someone said business is war..just think of it as changing branches of service…do you want to find another branch of the Air Force, or join a Seal Team?

  12. @Pat: While I agree that recon and networking with managers at your chosen companies is critical, I also agree with the comment that a good resume is needed at the end of the process.

    Would you be interested in finding professional resume writers who do handle military transitions at the executive level?
    While I don’t write US military-executive transitional resumes except in the very special circumstance where someone is transitioning to Canada, I can put you in touch with people who write this kind of resume at the executive level for the US market regularly. If you’re interested drop me an email at and I’ll put the word out for you.

  13. @Pat, The Military Guy,

    Networking takes time and attention. Its like converting a field to a raised bed 10-acre vegetable farm. Time and tending. But you’ll make good friends, true acquaintences and you’ll get to know quite a lot of people.

  14. First and foremost, to the Army Officer: Thank you from me and my family for your tour(s) of duty, your patriotism, and for your thoughtful, purposeful sacrifice(s).

    Nick is right: “When you hand your resume to an employer, what you’re really saying is this: Here’s everything you need to know about me. My education, my credentials, my work history, my accomplishments, my skills — Now, you go figure out what the heck to do with me!

    Managers suck at figuring this out. Just consider that they’re looking at hundreds of resumes — not just yours.”

    As a result, managers hate being in this situation. They want YOU focused on their issues with solutions in mind. Not mentioned in Nick’s response, is one of the two ways to all but guarantee resume attention is to determine within the organization pursued, what is the highest position within that firm for which you are qualified?

    Then, following your name and contact info, centered and bold: The verbatim title of the highest position for which you are qualified, without regard for whether the position is vacant.

    Following that title, your objective, a max five line summary of WHY you are qualified to have that position. Everything following written to support that single objective.

    Think you won’t be considered for other positions within the company especially the ones that don’t exist yet; think again.

    The story from the top of your resume: Here’s who I am, how you can contact me, WHAT I WANT FROM YOU, MR. EMPLOYER, AND WHY I’M QUALIFIED TO HAVE IT.

    That’s approximately 6-8 seconds of the read.

    And, by the way, the second way to maximize attention given to the document…is it’s SIMPLICITY.

  15. As a military officer who’s made the transistion afer over 20 years of service, there’s some great advice here. But let me emphasize the networking.

    I was fortunate to have had developed an extensive civilian network before seperating. This network was the second biggest ket to me obtaining my current job which really rocks my world. (The first being advice gleaned from Ask The Headhunter).

    With my network, I was able to arrange informational interviews to explore career options. This eventually lead to some informal talks which lead to my job.

    Since leaving, I’ve been contacted numerous times from friends and acquintances from the service. As they get ready to seperate, they look me up, asking for help in getting a civilian job. Some are contacting me for first time in years. I use to go out of my way trying to help…trying to connect them to people I think could help, or offer constructive comments on their resume. But so many want a job offer, or direction to an opening somewhere, and when they don’t get it, they drop off and I don’t hear back from them. Following up with folks I referred them to, I’ve found they haven’t followed up with them as well. Have had several get snotty regarding resume feedback (common sense stuff, like avoid jargon and military acronyms.) So now I’ll only help out folks that have been in contact with me on a semi regular basis, and that I know are serious about their career pursuit.

    I ramble on about all this to let you know networking is not easy, and not a one time thing. You have to work on it…all the time. Join organizations (trade, civic, church) and participate! Give speeches, chair a committee, volunteer to flip pancakes…anythings. If not already, join Linkedin. Reach out to those you know, and join groups and engage in discussions. Ask for referrals to those in companies that interest you…then follow up.

    There’s lots more, but go back and read past ATH posts.

    Lastly, you’re fighting an uphill battle..seeking an executive position (outside of defense industry) with only military experience. Your competition are folks who’ve been working in private sector, and in specific industries, their whole life. You will not beat them by submitting resumes online. You will not beat them by showing an impreseive (but often irrelevant) list of military leadership experience. You will beat them by building a network to lead you to opportunities they don’t know about, and by being able to demonstrate what you can to help them…Good Luck!

  16. I don’t want anyone to “reach out” to me (I find that the creepiest damn phrase of the past ten years,) nor do I want to “engage” anyone or join their “conversation” two more lines that creep me out.

    I say instead people need to get off the canned phrase bandwagon, (and their arses) and the moronic social media bullshite, clear their minds, outline what they are about and have done, put a suit on and hit the street ready to show KEY people (not some strangers on a social media site) what they can actually do instead of hold a phone and update social media sites! In other words what one can do to profit a business such as what these morons living their lives on social media spewing their canned idiotic phrases while holding their iPhones cannot.

    The business world and making money is about reality, that in my world is my reality.

  17. Some further thoughts:

    In addition to traditional business organizations, you might consider government agencies and not-for-profit organizations.

    There is an online application entitled Reference USA that may (should) be available to you through your local library or the university you graduated from. This is an outstanding resource to help in your networking efforts. You can search for organizations by function using the SIC code option, by geographic location, by size, and most entries will list the names of owners, executives and key managers. You can then contact those individuals, and set up informational interviews with them. Strongly recommended.

  18. Just a thought…

    Even when you find the front door, the hiring manager might be somewhat “hostile” (i.e. make assumptions) to your experiences. Don’t let that discourage you…