Veterans’ Transitions: Holding Onto “Purpose”

Keeping a Sense of PurposeAs many of you know, I spent eleven years in the military, five in the Army and six in the Navy.  I’ve lived in Europe, Asia, Central America, and been stationed throughout much of North America.  I’ve heard the crack of bullets flying overhead and smelled the sickly sweet mix of JP-5 and hydraulic fluid.  I’ve spent holidays and anniversaries away from home, missed the birth of my youngest daughter.  And through it all, I never doubted my sense of purpose.  As I slid amongst the mangrove roots lining the Shagris River in Panama to the ten-hour flights off the Russian Far East and along the DMZ of the Korean Peninsula, what I was doing made a difference.

That pride in belonging to something so noble is easily sensed when speaking to a veteran about their experiences in uniform.  Nearly ubiquitous, it’s more than simply the military environment.  Ask them about it, and you’ll likely hear of the shared sacrifice, the bonds developed from facing danger together, and service to a “great good.”  Pretty awesome stuff, I’d say.

So then, what’s the problem?  At some point, most veterans transition from their military roles to civilian ones.  Their technical skills.  The strength of their leadership experiences.  Their work ethic and sense of discipline.  All translate well to strong contributors in nearly any work environment they choose.    But where is the sense of purpose?

Almost inevitably, veterans tend to suffer a letdown when moving from the high-level purpose culture of the military to civilian workplace cultures.  That’s not to say civilian employers don’t have a purpose.  Rather, the sense of purpose is different, and typically not as extreme as that with which veterans have become accustomed.  As a result, many flounder to stay engaged, to remain excited with the daily grind of the “normal” workplace.

I’m often asked what organizations can do to help veterans maintain their sense of purpose.  The answer is two-fold…coaching and connection.

  • Coaching – One of the most effective ways organizations can affect veteran transitions is to offer transitional executive coaching to them.  A coach, particularly one with a true understanding of both military and civilian work cultures, can help reestablish expectations and transfer values from one environment to the other.  Coaching need not be a permanent engagement (in fact, no coaching ought to extend in perpetuity), but several months worth of conversations and interactions between transitioning veteran and a coach can pay dividends for the receiving organization.
  • Connection – Corporations need to pay closer attention to the formal and informal veterans’ networks that already exist within their workforce.  Just as combat veterans tend to seek out other combat veterans, as the only ones who can truly understand what they’ve been through, even non-combat veterans share an experience with others who have served that should be leveraged within corporations.  Deliberate attempts to connect veterans within your organization create a healthy subset of your larger workforce culture, taps into the veteran’s on-going need for affiliation, and ultimately does more for building a “sense of purpose” that might otherwise be lacking.

Career transitions are always tenuous times for anyone.  For retiring or otherwise transitioning military veterans, these times can be one of “make it or break it.”  Organizations that understand and actively support these highly skilled technicians and seasoned veterans will have grasped a key competitive advantage over those companies who opt instead for a more “natural” transition.  So, which kind of company are you?

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