One of the more nebulous concepts that I struggle with as a transitioning veteran is the idea of “branding”. I understand the value, and frankly, I understand the concept. The uncertainty comes when trying to balance between how I think I am perceived to how I think I need to be perceived. I get confused just trying to articulate what I am confused about.
There is an abundance of excellent, readily available resources on how to brand oneself. There are plenty of opinions as to how to best represent yourself. There is at least an equal number of opinions on how hiring managers or organizations perceive your military experience in terms of value to their business. What I think many veterans struggle with is the baseline branding – a sort of common ground – from which we could then make minor adjustments based on a specific job or situation. I believe that we as a collective group have sent so many mixed messages, those that are looking to hire us really don’t know what to think about any of us!
I think we (as veterans) are best served if we can tighten up the wide-ranging perceptions of who we are, without losing sight of the fact that all veterans are not all the same. How do we establish a positive generalization about veterans that can be embraced by the civilian sector, specifically the business leaders who we know will benefit from hiring us to lead in their organizations, or better yet, lead their organizations? How do we get to where we are asked about ourselves on a personal-professional level – the real interaction that focuses on the substance of who we are and what we can bring to an organization – and away from the well-intentioned though often patronizing pat on the back and “thanks for your service”? Can we agree as to what a veteran is or what we want the baseline of the veteran to be? The answer is yes if we remember that it is not our perception that counts; what counts is how we are perceived by those that have not served.
So what is a veteran? Put another way, what is a veteran not? Further, does the current perception of the veteran suffice when senior business executives or hiring managers have to decide on whether or not to give us a chance? Do they know who we really are, or do they think we are a trumped-up persona designed to keep a divide between veteran and civilian?
I’m not the one percent. What I mean to say is yes, I am a veteran who enjoyed serving my country and yes, I acknowledge that I am in the single-digit percentile of Americans currently living who have served in the Armed Forces. However, I did not subscribe to the Army values, I did not take an oath nor did I make a career out my service so I could then walk around with a chip on my shoulder to eye-poke or stand in judgment of those who did not serve.
As with many of you, my service was voluntary. As is the case with veterans today, my service is largely regarded as admirable by the rest of the population. In most opinion surveys for the duration of my time in uniform, serving as a military leader ranks very high of all professions in terms of a career that is admired and highly regarded. But at some point over the last many years, we as veterans were not satisfied in knowing that we are respected and admired. We wanted more.
Too often, we exhibit behavior that brands us an “entitled” group. We expect more than a “thanks for your service”. We want parades, we want applause, and we want free meals.
We want discounts everywhere for everything, even for things that are not related at all to our service or our profession. We want every civilian to give up their first-class seats and give them to us, regardless of who we actually are, what we do or are doing or even where we are going. Do not even think about charging us for things that our employer will reimburse us for if it is work related, like admissions to conferences/events or baggage fees. We are veterans. Appreciate us. You do not understand us. Just offer a token of your gratitude and move on.
We have collectively gained a reputation for being so demonstrative about what the other 99% should be doing as a way to pay homage to our service, we have lost sight of the fact that what has made veterans’ service so special in the first place is that we stepped forward and volunteered when others would not. We took the risks that others could not even fathom and came back, quietly ready to answer the call when it came again.
But this selfish service instead of selfless service is not the most confusing part of this perception/branding issue. What is more striking to me – what is really a bigger failure of the modern-day veteran – is that as we parade our hubris like a badge of honor. We do this in plain view of the previous generation of veterans who also served, who walked the walk in previous conflicts, yet who now live their lives as quiet, unassuming members of society. These equally accomplished veterans have never received a fraction of the support we have experienced and yet they never seem to feel the need to complain about it, at least not on the level that veterans today do through every social media and news outlet available.
Not too long ago, I was returning home after a family trip to Florida. While waiting for a connection, I saw an Army soldier in uniform with a patch from a support installation. While traveling in the Army Combat Uniform (ACU) was still authorized, I came to find out that this soldier was not traveling to a combat zone or even to a field training exercise. He was on official business, going to essentially attend business meetings at his eventual destination.
I have rarely traveled in uniform so this service member probably did not realize there were other veterans (such as me) watching him. I observed this soldier receive many thanks for his service; I even saw a well-dressed civilian offer to pick-up the tab for the cost of his meal at the counter of an airport food stop. Of course, he accepted this generous proposition, which in itself isn’t a bad thing. But it did make me question this soldier’s true motivation for wearing the uniform (there was a recent article on the website medium.com posted by the Doctrine Man Facebook page about another veteran observing a situation similar to what I observed that day).
Shortly thereafter, I spotted an elderly man – probably in his upper 80s or even 90s – surrounded by friends or family, wearing a hat stating he was a veteran of World War II. Never pass an opportunity to say thanks to those that served before me, I went over to say hello and thanks, and to learn a little more about this veteran’s story.
If memory serves, he was visiting family in Orlando. His daughter and grandchildren were with him. One of them recently bought the hat for this aging veteran to wear. I was told that he never wore anything that remarked on his military service before, only really wearing it now because of who bought it, more so than what it said. We talked about his time-fighting in the European Theater and how scared he was as a teenager fighting such an important conflict for the future of his nation. When it was over, I offered a token of thanks for the visit and started to walk towards my next gate. His daughter stopped me briefly before I walked too far away. She quietly shared that he has had the hat for only a short time, but that no one has ever said anything to him, even to say thanks for his service. She then thanked my family and me for not just saying thank you, but for taking time to visit.
Am I really to believe that I am the only modern-day veteran that has ever crossed paths with this fellow soldier? Doubtful. But what do these anecdotes tell us about our how we are perceived when we want so much without any explanation but we are not even willing to express thanks to those that have come before us? If we cannot get “branding right” among the veteran community from one generation to the next, how will determine the impact our current actions have on the brand we have been establishing through our standoffish, isolationist behavior? How do we establish a reputation that tells the corporate leaders and hiring managers that we can be exactly what they are looking for to be their organizational leaders? We have the skills, the drive, desire, experience and proven record of accomplishment that veterans have exhibited after every major conflict that we can parlay into success in the civilian business world. We just have to adjust how we are seen; we have to tweak our brand.
As a veteran, we offer so many qualities that are highly sought after by senior executives. In a recent interview shared on LinkedIn, Alex Gorsky, the CEO of Johnson and Johnson, talked at length about so many of the great attributes and skills that veterans bring that would benefit any company. We already know this. We are told this often. But the statistics do not support this. Veterans are simply not being hired into management and executive management positions – those positions that most senior NCOs or officers held at the time of their departure from service. Often times, reasons cited are education (specific to a field), certification or experience in a specific industry.
Mr. Gorsky is not the first CEO to make the appeal for hiring veterans to be organizational leaders. I have talked to a handful of very successful CEOs and COOs that all say they would hire a veteran to lead in their organizations even if the veteran lacked a certification or specific industry work experience because veterans figure it out. Veterans live in the unknown. We have rarely ever been to a school to do what we are asked to do when deployed (does the First Sergeant Course at an installation teach interagency or foreign government interaction – exactly what those First Sergeants were expected to know how to do with their commanders during most every deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq).
So there is a need; we fit the need, but we do not get hired? In fact, the preferred options for military and civilian alike it seems are for veterans to pursue opportunities in the military retiree created contractor world – there, they will tempt you with out of scale salary and put you in a structure that is familiar to you: pseudo rank structures, uniforms, and military appearance. The cost of the contractor life is high: high-turnover, more time away from the family and a concept I call slotting – whatever rank you had in the military, wherever you ended up, that will determine where you will work in the contract world. First Sergeants and Sergeants Majors will stay in their box as executors and tactical leaders; officers will gain the more profitable positions as upper management.
Keeping all the veterans in the nice little world of contracting (and the related area of DoD-related jobs) solves the need for having the right “brand”. No one will question us because we are surrounded…by us. But is it healthy for veterans or society to maintain this type of segregation – supporting the “one-percent” conundrum – or should we work harder to integrate into the civilian world, more similar to what occurred after previous conflicts prior to the modern era?
Without a doubt, there are stories of veterans finding great success in the corporate world. However, in my pursuit of attacking veteran’s transition issues, these success stories are about veterans who served less than a full career (leaving service as the junior officer or mid-rank NCO) and often earned a degree (e.g. MBA) that launched them into a successful business career. However, I am specifically focused on retirees that are looking to continue their leadership successes, but this time in the business world, maybe even at the corporate level. I am concerned about how the retired NCOs and Field Grade Officers are branded, which is in-turn how they will be perceived. It is that perception that must be changed, not our (the veterans) perception of how we are viewed, but the civilians perception of how they view us.
We must rethink this idea of isolating ourselves as a unique group then we already are – especially if this effort is more harmful than helpful. We must stop looking to be treated like royalty because we are not. We cannot keep a reputation as being “entitled”, nor should we expect to be given the best parking spots (executive management) without working a little in the trenches first, say as a department manager, an assistant general manager or a project manager. We must be willing to assimilate a little when given these opportunities; just because some of our military skills are valued and applicable, doesn’t mean we need to bring in-ranks inspections to our next employment opportunity. We served selflessly and by definition, we should receive any token of appreciation as exactly that: a token of someone’s appreciation for what we have done and what we represent, and more than enough thanks – regardless if it is a first-class seat, a meal, a beer, a handshake or some applause.
Our pride and our honor are not at risk here. Our reputation is. Failure to change this self-imposed culture of isolationism and somewhat egotistical persona adopted by so many of our brothers and sisters in arms will only further divide us from where we came and where we are trying to go now. If we aspire to be afforded the opportunity to excel in the civilian business world, we must initiate the change from within. We must address this issue of how we have branded ourselves quickly, so that those like Mr. Gorsky who are looking to hire us to lead in their organizations can re-brand us to the rest of the corporate world as the established, accomplished leaders and managers, we have been and we know we can be, if just given the chance.
I need to find that old soldier from the airport. I need to thank him for his service again. I also need to thank him for exemplifying the veteran I truly want to be. I am quite sure he wasn’t big into branding, yet somehow he got it just right.