At the western end of Memorial Avenue—at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery—stands a majestic hemicycle, which is home to the Military Women’s Memorial. Dedicated in 1997, the memorial honors the nearly three million women who have served in the U.S. armed forces. The memorial recently hosted a career and transition forum for transitioning military members. I was honored to be among the guest speakers. My message? The challenge before you is not simply a transition—that would be an understatement. What’s ahead is a transformation.
A transition gives the allure of a smooth shift from one thing to another. This is not that. This is a transformation. It's a transformation from what you were to what you will be for the next phase of your life. How do you prepare for that?
Learn to embrace what will feel like chaos. The military is characterized by its clear organizational structure and strict discipline. The uniform you once wore commanded respect and communicated your accomplishments to the world. It represented your chosen technical field and place in the hierarchy. As you enter the civilian workforce, no such luxury exists. You will find yourself leading less and influencing more. There is less emphasis on the chain of command and more attention to group collaboration, while ranks and rates give way to less precise position descriptions. It can be unsettling at first, but eventually, you will find freedom and innovation in flexibility. That’s where the transformation begins.
Find a place that you fit. Find an organization where the culture aligns with your ethics and beliefs. This is as important as the job itself. In the military, you were accustomed to morphing to fit the culture of whatever duty station or circumstance you were assigned. The exact opposite is now true. You are not under military orders any longer. You can choose where you work, and if it doesn’t turn out to be the right fit for you, find another opportunity. My advice is if it doesn’t feel right, don’t force it.
Know what you don’t know. Your career in the military provided significant skills and experiences, many of which aren’t offered in a formal education. That being said, humility will be required. There are things you likely will need to know in the public sector that you didn’t learn in the military. For example, in the military you didn’t need to understand profit or loss and marketing, but those skills are essential to many civilian careers.
Above all, remember to always play to your strengths. When your passion and profession intersect, your transformation will be complete.