As servicemembers exit the military, one of the biggest challenges we face is finding post-military employment that is commensurate with what we bring to the table. Many times, I’ve heard the story of someone who works hard, networks well, and ends up in a job with great promise. A year later, that person is dissatisfied and feels like they were sold a bad deal. From the employer’s perspective, that person is filling every single requirement for that job description, so this could be a one-way street. Or, if that person’s resentment is great enough, it could spill over in the form of workplace friction until one or both parties decide to part ways.
But is it all the company’s responsibility? Perhaps we owe ourselves and our prospective employers a more defined value proposition.
Although I’ve spent my entire adult life in the military, I was fortunate enough for the Navy to send me to FedEx headquarters for a year. My entire job was to learn about FedEx and bring insight and experience back to the Navy. It was a great opportunity to learn about what post-military life could look like. I also met two retired O-6s that exemplify the extreme ends of how value proposition defined their post-military career satisfaction.
Colonel X – Settling for What “Looks” Like a Good Job
In my first weeks at FedEx, I met Colonel X. He was a manager in one of FedEx’s fuels procurement branches. He led a group of about 5-8 people in their functional area. One day, I got a chance to sit down with Colonel X and learn about his background.
Colonel X had been an Army quartermaster. He had over 25 years of experience leading Army troops at the company, battalion, and brigade levels. His final military job was as the commanding officer of a Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) depot in nearby Millington, Tennessee. During his retirement planning, Colonel X approached FedEx because:
- He wanted to stay in the area
- He thought that FedEx was a large enough company to find a place for someone with his skills, knowledge, & experience
Colonel X’s resume impressed FedEx so much that they brought him in for a series of interviews. There were a variety of positions that required his expertise as an Army quartermaster. There was also opportunity for upward expansion within the FedEx family. Once they negotiated his salary band, based upon the government’s former National Security Pay System (NSPS), he had his job lined up as an individual contributor.
Within a week, Colonel X was miserable for several reasons:
- Once he started talking with his colleagues, he quickly realized that he was paid less than others in a similar position. Part of this was due to FedEx’s use of ‘pay bands,’ but part of this was not.
- He realized that he was an ‘action officer,’ when he thought he would be leading people as he had done in the Army.
- The level of work was not as challenging as he was accustomed to.
In short, the job didn’t suit the skills and experience that Colonel X felt he was bringing to the table. It took him eight years to eventually work his way up to manager. At that point, he was responsible for 5 people. Not very satisfying, and it appeared that Colonel X had become a ‘work-to-live’ type person. There was clearly little job satisfaction, and it appeared he would only work until he felt he was financially independent.
It occurred to me that FedEx did not clearly Colonel X’s value proposition. Perhaps they didn’t try, or perhaps he did not communicate his value proposition clearly enough. Either way, FedEx was happy, but Colonel X was not.
Captain Y – The Importance of Leveraging Military Experience
I met Captain Y a few weeks after I checked into FedEx, and he eventually became my mentor. He was a vice president (later promoted to senior vice president), and was in charge of FedEx’s long-term acquisition planning.
Captain Y was a Navy pilot by nature. Like Colonel X, he came to FedEx after finishing 25 years in the military. During his Navy career, Captain Y held several commands, and had also developed a financial background. Notably, he was on the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) staff, where he helped build the Navy’s future years defense plan (FYDP). The FYDP is the military’s long-term planning tool that communicates to Congress its intent to fund major programs, like ships and aircraft. Captain Y had also served his final tour as the comptroller of U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM).
Captain Y knew that he wanted to work in a career field that capitalized upon his experience flying planes and projecting long-term budgets. When he worked at TRANSCOM, Captain Y did have periodic meetings with FedEx, since they are a principal supplier to the government’s Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF). CRAF is a program that leverages civilian aviation capacity during major mobilizations, such as for Desert Storm, and Operation Enduring Freedom.
He maintained contacts with officials at FedEx throughout his tour. After his retirement (within the applicable DoD ethics guidelines), Captain Y met with FedEx officials who had heard of his aviation and financial background. FedEx had been looking for someone who could help them with their long-term planning for aircraft procurement. In fact, for the first 30 years of its existence, it never had a long-term plan. It would just buy aircraft whenever, and wherever they could with money from its operations. If they had a great quarter, they’d buy aircraft. If not, they’d wait until they got more money. Captain Y seemed like someone who could help them put it all together.
In fact, this skill set was so valuable, that FedEx had to create a new office for him. He was hired on as a Vice President, and established a long-term procurement strategy that saved the company hundreds of millions of dollars. Before he retired, he was promoted to Senior Vice President and was working for FedEx long after he stopped needing the paycheck.
Value Proposition Observations
While these examples are two extremes opposite scenarios, I took away a couple of observations:
- Captain Y’s focus on leveraging his past experience created a substantial value proposition to FedEx. Before he came along, FedEx didn’t even realize they had a problem!
- Captain Y had a clear understanding of the value he could bring to an organization, while Colonel X wasn’t so sure.
- Captain Y remained relevant in his community. This way, he had a network of people who understood his value proposition.
Value Proposition Takeaways
I had a couple of takeaways, which have become part of my personal philosophy:
- No one will have your best interests in mind more than you will.
- If you don’t understand the value that you bring to an organization, how do you expect the organization to understand it?
- Your compensation & work satisfaction are directly related to the amount of value that you add to an organization.
- To create upward mobility in an organization, it’s up to the prospective employee to find ways to create value in excess of their current job description. If there are not opportunities to do so, it’s time to leave the organization and find one where this is possible.
- Tradeoffs matter. You should take the time to internally clarify:
- Must-haves: Requirements you have to maintain a happy balance between work and your personal life.
- Trade-offs: Concessions you’re willing to make in order to obtain your must-haves.
- Redlines: The extent to which you’re willing to make concessions.
For example, you could consider work hours, location, and compensation. You might determine that you must have no more than 40 hours per week, in Tampa. You’re expecting a salary in the $60K-$80K range, but you’re willing to work less to stay in Tampa. However, you won’t go any lower than $60K, because you know this is the low end of your skill set.
When you’re looking to post-military life, it’s important to realize all of the variables. Many of the things that you used to take for granted (such as pay scale or benefits) go out the window. They’re all negotiable, and your ability to negotiate depends on your value proposition. As you exit, it’s worth taking some time to figure out how you can deliver value to your future organization.
What do you think? Do you have any horror stories or success stories?