Hiring veterans: Strategies for success

Chad Storlie, a retired Army Reserve Special Forces officer with more than 20 years of military experience, is the author of "Combat Leader to Corporate Leader: 20 Lessons to Advance Your Civilian Career" and "Battlefield to Business Success: Applying Military Leadership Skills in Your Career."

The message “Hire veterans” has been a hot tagline for years. Federal agencies benefit immediately by hiring veterans because they are attentive, possess leadership skills, work well on teams, have a global perspective, take initiative and can adapt well to changing conditions. Despite all those benefits, though, veterans might have little experience in government outside the military and might not have a high degree of confidence and comfort in a nonmilitary workplace. Those small obstacles could make an agency wary of hiring a veteran.

There’s a solution to that concern: Challenge veterans to higher levels of performance, just as the U.S. military does. After all, veterans fought successfully in Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations across the globe while training teams, maintaining equipment, operating in grueling conditions and safeguarding resources. The military knows that challenging people is how you derive optimal performance from individuals and teams.

The following five-step process is a basic framework for how to identify and issue challenges so military veterans can exceed the goals of the organization.

1. Hire. What should you look for when hiring a veteran? First, find military veterans who have shown a great deal of independence, initiative, creativity, learning, leadership, teaching ability, international experience and technical expertise and who have had a fast career progression. Second, worry less about prior rank, branch of service and formal education level. Instead, look for someone who has the traits you want in a leader in your organization in three to five years. Third, don’t worry much about the veteran’s office skills. You can easily teach him or her how to use Microsoft Excel or other office programs. What you cannot teach as easily are leadership and initiative. Those are the traits they bring from their military service.

2. Train. Training is precisely what the military services do when they have a new recruit. They bring the person in, set the standards of performance, and train him or her in how to meet and exceed the standards. Military veterans love hands-on, task-oriented training, and they enjoy seeing the larger picture. Additionally, the military offers a mix of classroom and hands-on experience. Training someone for a logistics position? Show them the ordering system in the morning and then have them assist with customer deliveries in the afternoon. Connecting all systems together and demonstrating the larger purpose will make your training program a success.

3. Challenge. Veterans live to be challenged. Indeed, the desire for a greater range of challenges is a big reason many military veterans leave the service. Identify the challenges for your department and let the military veterans start attacking the small ones. As they work on and successfully complete the small challenges, they are training and adapting to be successful at the larger challenge you give them next. Schedule frequent check-ins to answer questions and assess progress.

4. Translate. By challenging veterans, you will force them to adapt their military experiences and training to your organization’s needs. One of the greatest benefits to veterans is that their military experience can be directly used to make your organization better. My books list more than 40 military skill sets in leadership, planning, competitive analysis, safety, procedures and coaching that can be put into practice immediately. When a veteran translates his or her military skills to benefit your agency, it is a huge win. But remember that military skill sets should be translated in a way that supports and supplements an agency’s mission, charter, regulations and operations. For instance, initiative is a great military skill set that can improve the effectiveness of an agency’s operations, but it must be applied in a way that adheres to the regulations that govern operations.

5. Listen and support. Finally, veterans are used to reviewing what they have done, receiving coaching for personal improvement and seeking out additional training to improve their performance. Give veterans timely, specific, and actionable feedback in a private setting and a constructive manner. Listen to their suggestions about how to improve the department’s operations, and give them additional training to improve their weak points. Some military veterans might need additional time for medical appointments to treat combat injuries or some help adapting to civilian life. Typically, transitioning from a military culture to a government agency culture will be one of their biggest challenges to feeling comfortable in your department. Use the “Battle Buddy” concept and pair the military veteran with a co-worker in another department. That will give the veteran an independent person to answer questions about the department’s culture and norms. However, do not coddle veterans or treat them differently. Set a high standard of performance, and give them the resources to excel at their jobs.

Agencies and departments that challenge their military veteran employees will get the best of their present and future performance. Organizations need to focus on finding and developing the leaders they want and see beyond some of the immediate lack of government experience that veterans might have. Following the approach of hiring, training, challenging, translating and supporting military veteran employees ensures that organizations will challenge them to reach their highest potential.

Some military skills that agencies can use:

* Wargaming. In the military, wargaming is the process that tests and adapts battle plans against the expected actions and reactions of the enemy. As a plan is developed, military leaders have a separate team role-play the enemy to test the initial plan against the full range of what the enemy will and can do. Once the war game is complete, the plan is finalized to ensure that all anticipated enemy actions are mitigated.

Performance counseling. The military loves performance counseling or coaching. In a counseling session, the military member’s superior reviews the major events, the standards of performance, and how the member performed against the standards, and then creates a specific, well-defined and actionable improvement plan to help the military member advance and improve his or her career.

Risk management. Love it or hate it, the military employs a robust management and mitigation process for everything from live-fire training to weekend passes. The identification of risks, how often they occur, and who should take what specific actions and how often to reduce the threat is invaluable. In the Army, the risk management process has taught the service how to perform highly complex, lethal ground attacks more safely. Risks can represent threats to safety or an agency’s effectiveness.

Rehearsals. In the military, rehearsals are one of the core attributes of combat training. Special Forces teams learn how to operate all team members’ equipment, shoot foreign weapons, live off the land and speak foreign languages. Why? When critical actions and processes are rehearsed in the exact manner they are to be executed on the battlefield, it builds confidence and effectiveness and creates an organization that has already practiced how to win.

After-action reviews. Afterburner, the award-winning company based in Atlanta that teaches military planning techniques to businesses, has just released a book titled “The Debrief Imperative.” A good debrief gathers all the players in a room, defines what happened, defines what worked, defines what did not work and then creates a plan to fix any problems. As Afterburner states, the debrief process is what builds quality in an organization and makes teams great.


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