From Army Green to Navy Blue: Four Lessons from My Military Service

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Jul 1, 2011

“Desperate times require desperate measures.” I’ve quoted that repeatedly when asked how I started my career.

Luckily I wasn’t truly desperate, but my 17-year-old self certainly felt that way. I desperately wanted to explore the world, not stay trapped in small-town Iowa. And I didn’t have the time or the patience to go to college … yet. In my quest to escape conventional expectations for young women, I found myself in a military recruiting station, wide-eyed and excited about the great adventures promised. But even at 17, I knew recruiters were paid to make things sound good, so I urged my best friend to meet me at a local hang-out. “Talk me out of signing up!” I begged, confident she could serve as the voice of reason. That friend joined the Air Force a week later.

Having evaluated the various branches of service, I soon enlisted in the Army to be a journalist and go to Germany. I’d been editor of my high school paper so it seemed a reasonable career choice. And since I wanted to travel the world, why not start in Germany? I never anticipated that first four-year enlistment would turn into a career that spanned active duty Army, the National Guard, and a Navy Reserve Commission where I would complete 25 years of service and retire as a Navy Reserve Public Affairs Officer!

Those first months of military life still seem like yesterday. Fearfully boarding the bus to head for basic training; receiving my first ID card with an expiration date four years later — convinced that four years would never pass; doing so many push-ups the ground moved; and learning lessons I never could have guessed would so profoundly affect my outlook — and success — for years to come. Out of many lessons, four stand out; they have truly shaped my civilian career — and, specifically, my ability to be a great recruiter.

One Team, One Fight

It sounds aggressive: “one team, one fight.” But in a business context, I interpret this expression as a commitment to understanding a shared vision — and working together toward that vision. From Day One, the military taught me that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Had my teammates not helped me “get a leg up” (and over) a seven-foot barrier, climbing over that wall in basic training would have been impossible. Had my fellow writers and photographers not helped me, producing and publishing a weekly newspaper for my Division would have been impossible. And, yes, had my amazing team not worked hard, sacrificed, and told the Navy “story” with every assignment, becoming a commanding officer of a public affairs team in the Navy Reserve might have been impossible.

I can say the same for my civilian career. I did my best work — instances I reflect upon with excitement and pride in a “job well done” — when I collaborated: when I took the lead or followed with confidence, listened, shared, and stayed in the business of solving problems rather than worrying about being right.

Attitude is Everything

Anyone who has served in the military knows there are things expected of you: orders given and sacrifices required that don’t always align with what you had in mind. Sometimes you choose — and sometimes choices are made for you. But, either way, how you handle those choices will ultimately determine your experience. Attitude is everything.

When is it vital to check your attitude? When you get recalled to active duty from Reserve status. I received that call on November 30, 2001. When the events of September 11 occurred, all Reservists had been told to get ready … because the chances were high that we’d be called to serve. As I drove home from work that late November day, a voicemail from my Reserve Center instructed me to call back: I was being activated for what would likely be one year. And I was expected to report in four days! (Today’s Reservists typically receive at least a month—if not several months’ notice—before they must return to active duty.) But luckily my orders were for the Navy’s Sixth Fleet in southern Italy, for which my family and I were eternally grateful. (I was recalled to active duty before our country’s move into Iraq, and during only the early stages of building a military force in Afghanistan. Though Reservists may now get longer notice, our service members today face a very different reality than that I faced a decade ago.)

The days ahead were filled with rapid planning so my various responsibilities could be handled in my absence. Who would take care of my dog? How would I pay my bills? Could I quickly turn over my client load to a co-worker? What would happen when I returned? I had no time to process the emotions of leaving: there was too much to do! While I counted myself fortunate to be assigned to southern Italy, it’s just not easy to be lifted out of your “real life” and placed a half a world away for a year. I gave myself two weeks to “wallow in self pity,” and then I vowed to move on and make the best of it.

Just two days before my “wallowing deadline” loomed, I woke up ready to make the most of my year ahead. I had adjusted my attitude. I ended up having an amazing experience — that is, my attitude adjustment worked — all because I chose to do so.

The same is true every day in the recruiting business. You can choose to complain, be frustrated, or generally be unhappy — or you can choose to make the most out of every day. It may sound a little Pollyanna-ish, but I’ve found that just a small attitude adjustment is the difference between being stuck in the middle of the pack — and being a top-performing recruiter.

Find (and be) a Mentor and Coach

Throughout my military service, I was repeatedly selected for great assignments. I took ski lessons in Garmisch, Germany, to write a story about the Armed Forces Recreation Centers. I helped plan the NATO 50th Anniversary and Summit while on a six-month assignment in Washington, DC. I led a team to provide news coverage of a humanitarian mission in Nicaragua. How was I selected for these great jobs that gave me the experience I needed to get promoted and become the commanding officer of a public affairs team? I attribute much of my military success to learning early on how important it is to have a good mentor (or multiple mentors) who can provide you with information, resources, exposure to the right assignments, and people who will shape your career.

Just after being commissioned in the Navy Reserve, for instance, I worked for a Navy Captain who offered to be my mentor. She showed me the ropes of how the Navy worked — a big transition from Army enlisted life. She introduced me to leaders in the public affairs community, and she made sure I was exposed to the right kinds of assignments: those that allowed me to do good work and be seen by others as someone they’d want on their teams. I never forgot how important that mentoring was, and I was proud to mentor other junior officers as I moved up in rank.

Now that I have my own search firm, I continue to seek mentors and coaches to help me grow. I surround myself with people who are smarter and more experienced so that I can keep learning. How do I incorporate mentors and coaches into my business? I have an informal “advisory board” that guides and encourages me regarding best business practices for my firm; these individuals guide me through challenging business situations, and serve as sounding boards when I need counsel. I have joined a coaching club where I participate in weekly calls that provide quality recruiter training; the recruiters on the call share successes and challenges. And I have a network of recruiters — friends and former colleagues—upon whom I rely to share ideas, solve problems, and celebrate big wins. These resources have truly made the difference in my firm’s success.

Leadership is Not About Title

In the military, rank matters. Rank is important for helping to maintain the good order and discipline required of military personnel — especially in combat situations when there’s no time for consensus. But even in the military, when the team needs to get the job done, some stand out as leaders — and they aren’t always the ones with the rank on their collar.

When serving as the Director of a public affairs team, for example, I had the pleasure of working with a young woman who had enlisted in the Navy Reserve in her late twenties. Her civilian job was corporate communications, so serving as a journalist in the Navy was a natural fit. As a Seaman (the most junior enlisted rank for Sailors), she exuded the skills and leadership of a junior officer. Her fellow Sailors would seek her guidance, and they respected her as someone they could trust. In fact, I actually caught myself calling her “Lieutenant” on more than one occasion! Even without benefit of rank, she was a shining example of a true leader.

Whether interviewing candidates for a search assignment, seeking professional partnerships, or hiring for projects within your firm, you can’t always identify leaders by reviewing a resume. But as you engage in conversation, you can identify patterns of leadership by the stories candidates tell about how they’ve moved through their careers and lives.

True leaders, regardless of job title, are consistently selected to take on new projects and train new team members. If they are community volunteers, they frequently find themselves heading committees or becoming board members. They provide a voice of reason in the midst of chaos, and project calm in the face of adversity. They provide counsel to those above them, influence their peers, and serve as role models to those more junior.

Indeed, the military offered more, but these four were key:

  1. “One team, one fight.”
  2. Attitude is everything.
  3. Find (and be) a mentor and coach.
  4. Leadership is not about rank or title.

These lessons shaped my career and have profoundly affected my success as a recruiter, a communicator, a leader, and a coach. These lessons apply to nearly every profession, and, as recruiters, we have a great opportunity to recognize how these qualities can apply not only to us, but also to the veterans we interview and place.

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