5 Tips for Succeeding Even When You're the Only Veteran in the Room

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(Department of Defense photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

There you are. You've got your first post-military job. You're excited, ready and anxious to dive in. You know there will be a lot to learn, but you learn quickly.

Walking into your first day on the new job, you dressed to impress (and also fit in), brushed up on your elevator pitch (so you can introduce yourself to new colleagues) and even packed a lunch so you won't have to go off premises when it's time.

Then comes your first opportunity to introduce yourself to a new teammate: Your boss initiates the meeting by telling you, "This is Bob. He's been with us as a project lead for six years. He's one of our star programmers!" Bob seems happy with this introduction.

Now your turn. You offer, "My name is Chris. I was a 90A and just finished up as the S1 for the 728th. I ran the battalion PAC and was responsible for OERs, NCOERs, awards and all MILPO actions. Until we came out of the box in October, I was XO for the 308th Quartermaster Company."

And just like that, the wheels start to fall off.

You've forgotten the important lesson you learned when navigating your military-to-civilian transition: The odds are that the people you'll encounter are not prior military and will likely not understand you if you speak in military language.

To succeed in your post-military career, especially when you're the only veteran in the room, remember:

  • Most Americans don't have prior service, and many don't know someone who's served. Resist the temptation to use military acronyms, lingo and terminology, or they may not understand you.
  • Your new colleagues will likely be curious about your background and experiences in the military. Plan how much detail and information you're comfortable sharing with them, remembering to omit classified information. This avoids awkward conversations where you have to abandon your tale mid-story, because you realize your audience shouldn't hear it.
  • Resist the urge to think you are correct and they are wrong for not understanding you. The civilian experience is different from the military one, and you chose to serve (thank you!). Not everyone made that choice, and that doesn't make them wrong for selecting a different path.
  • Strive to be curious and not judgmental. Your civilian colleague may inadvertently ask a question you deem to be "dumb," but it could be because they don't know the right way to ask or the right question to pursue. When in doubt, clarify.
  • If asked, "Did you ever see someone die?" don't launch into a speech about how triggering and inappropriate that question is. Instead, respond with, "Why do you want to know?" or, "Why do you ask?" Perhaps their answer isn't as insensitive as you believe.
  • Understand that processes, rules and systems will be different now. The military had a predictable career progression track, for instance, but you'll notice in the civilian sector each industry, company and job has different rules for how to succeed. Listen and learn to avoid getting frustrated early on.

When you begin your civilian career, you will be in learning and growth mode. Just like when you began your military career, you'll need to observe, learn, apply and practice what works for you to succeed in the long run.

The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty" (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication and reputation risk management.

A contributing writer for Military.com, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.

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