Military service changes everyone. In some people, the changes are subtle – they may walk a little differently, pick up some new vocabulary, or keep their hair short. In others, the changes are much more profound. They are remade and leave the service with a fundamentally changed outlook and approach. I am part of that second group.
I took my oath of service at the age of 19, less than three weeks before Saddam Hussein’s army invaded Kuwait. I entered basic training knowing that I’d soon be traveling to The Persian Gulf as a mechanized infantryman. After 4 months of training, I arrived in Saudi Arabia and within 20 minutes of landing, experienced my first SCUD missile attack. I remember sitting terrified on the ground with my gas mask on mentally running through my checklist of nerve agent symptoms.
Soon after my arrival, I joined my unit – 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, a part of the storied 1st Infantry Division (“The Big Red One”). Our task force, a mix of armored personnel carriers and Abrams tanks, stormed through Iraq and into Kuwait cutting through Saddam’s 13th Republican Guard. The Iraqis were at a huge disadvantage due in large part to inferior technology but also due to a logistical infrastructure that had been smashed by months of precision bombing. Even so, we had our share of scary moments as we moved through the Iraqi desert village-by-village and bunker-by-bunker.
Once I was back in the US and most of the adrenaline was out of my system, I realized that I had changed. For the first time in my life, I understood what real responsibility meant and my personal commitment had been tested in life or death situations. I was more driven than I had ever been but also more “intense” – 25 years later I still haven’t really shaken that.
After completing active duty, I stayed in the reserves while continuing my education and then entered the corporate world. The biggest challenge I faced in my first two years in business was learning how to soften the hard edges of my military leadership style. I’m thankful for the great managers who helped me to make this transition. I’ve since had the opportunity to pass some lessons along to other veterans and managers of veterans who I’ve coached through the years.
If you’re managing a veteran today, consider yourself fortunate. Your employee has been through rigorous training, has been tested under incredible pressure, and has learned to work on a team. Getting the most out of your veteran and showing them your support, though, requires some understanding. Here are some tips that I hope will help you.
Tip #1 - Make your veteran shine by bringing their best forward: In most cases, your employee will bring a few unique superpowers to the table. Observe closely because these can differ from person to person depending on their own training, personality, and experiences. They may demonstrate, for example, grace under pressure, a talent for “rallying the troops,” or an unusually strong attention to detail. Once you’ve spotted the superpower, make use of it as much as possible. This will aid in the veteran’s transition and help them to grow their own confidence. As they learn your organization and their new role-specific skills, they’ll have the chance to shine in other ways too.
Tip #2 - Make the mission clear and tie it to a higher purpose: Your veteran is used to having a mission but don’t assume this means they need more direction than others. Because battlefield conditions are ever changing, US Military troops are taught to be creative and to improvise in delivering “the commander’s intent.” As a manager of veterans, make YOUR intent crystal clear. What, specifically, does success look like (goal)? How will we know if we’ve won (measures)? What does this specific employee need to deliver to ensure the entire organization is successful (role)? Remember that purpose is also important – your veteran is used to fighting for a higher cause. If and when applicable, explain how the mission will help to deliver positive change and impact for the company and others.
Tip #3 - Make it easy to affiliate with your team: Veterans know what it feels like to be in organizations with hundreds of years of history and to observe traditions that are thousands of years old. They’ve been a part of something big and may have even participated in historic events. You may not be able to fully recreate this feeling but don’t discount the veteran’s need to affiliate with your organization.
- The story of your organization can be really important in helping the veteran to affiliate. How did the organization come to be and what major challenges has it overcome through the years? How does this history shape the team and its values today?
- Veterans are used to symbols of affiliation: unit patches, flags, and even tattoos. However corny it may seem, something as simple as a company t-shirt or a chance to lead the team cheer can make the veteran start to feel at home.
- Give your employee a “battle buddy.” For at least the first six months, assign a coach or mentor to your veteran – maybe even another veteran who’s been on the team for a while.
Tip #4 - Provide visible recognition & affirmation: Although your veteran may have a confident demeanor and may seem less “needy” than other team members, recognition will be an important part of their integration. Remember that where they came from, medals and regular formal evaluations provided a clear barometer of the success. A lack of feedback will likely be taken as an indicator that something’s wrong. If your company doesn’t have formal evaluations and recognition programs, invest the time at least monthly in the first year, to provide your own feedback. Assuming they’re on track, tell them so directly and, if they’re not, let them know how you want them to improve and how you’ll help them to get there. Again, specific goals and measures are critical here.
Tip #5 - Clarify the “chain of command”: As noted earlier, your veteran is likely good at improvising in the absence of direction. That said, they have been trained hard to observe a chain of command. It was almost always clear in the military who was in charge – you just had to look at the rank on their uniform. Violating the chain of command could lead to penalties as severe as imprisonment. Consensus-driven organizations or organizations that have no clear approach for decision making can be unsettling to your employee. When you put your veteran in charge of a mission, help them to understand up front who their stakeholders are and how key decisions will be made. If this is murky and driving to action is more about influence than about clear lines of authority, just be direct about it. Your employee just wants to understand the ground rules and to make sure they’re not breaking them.
While outside the scope of this article, you may also need to accommodate your veteran because of service related disabilities (which may or may not be visible to you). Per the VA, 25% of recent veterans have a disability compared to about half that historically. You have clear responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as it pertains to hiring and employment of these veterans. You can learn more here: https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/ada_veterans_employers.cfm
No matter what their role or the character of their service, every single veteran has made sacrifices that few who haven’t served can fully understand. As a civilian employer, you are in a unique position to give back. By helping a veteran transition successfully to the civilian workforce, you are giving the veteran and their family the best “thank you” possible.