What they don't tell you about the transition...one veteran's (mis)adventures in the civilian world.
You often hear well-intentioned CEOs and HR-types talk about how much they value veterans’ leadership experience. Such expressions may be genuine. But don’t assume the same is true of the person
who ultimately becomes your boss, provided he or she even knows you have any leadership experience in the first place.
I was a media advisor and corporate spokesman for a large, Midwestern manufacturing company. There were four of us in my group, including Tom, our Chief Corporate Spokesman. Tom had been a local newscaster and was the envy of every corporate “communicator” within a five-state area. He got to hang out with the CEO, fly around on the corporate jet, talk to reporters from the Wall Street Journal, and make an occasional on-camera appearance. The rest of us were left to give soundbites to reporters from the local NPR affiliate at factory grand openings and write press releases. It was far from challenging work.
Lauren was our boss. As Media Director, she was at the zenith of her corporate career, evidenced by the fact she had four direct reports and an office instead of a cubicle. I didn’t know Lauren well, but I knew one thing for certain: She didn’t think much of me. I had a bad habit of telling her what little work she gave me was a complete waste of my time. Bosses tend not to appreciate such feedback.
One day, I got a call from my wife. She was at the doctor’s office with our six-year-old daughter, who was fighting off what we thought was an upper-respiratory infection. The doctor ran some tests and discovered our daughter had actually developed asthma, causing her difficulty breathing. She went on to explain the combination of asthma and illness could cause our daughter to stop breathing in the middle of the night. Not good. The doctor thus directed our daughter be admitted to the hospital for overnight observation.
My wife spent the night with our daughter in the hospital, and I went home. The next morning, I went to work, as usual, and walked past Lauren’s office on my way to the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee. My plan was to put in a normal day’s work and then catch up with my wife and daughter at the hospital that evening.
“Hey, Dan . . .” Lauren was motioning me into her office. Dammit, I thought. I hated going into that office, having to feign interest in whatever she had to say.
“Yes, ma’am? What can I do for you?” I put on my usual, fake smile.
“Isn’t your daughter in the hospital?” she asked, seeming genuinely concerned.
“Yes,” I said, “but my wife is with her. She had a good night and is doing much better.” Thanks for asking. Now let me go get my flippin’ coffee.
“Well, don’t hang around here,” Lauren replied. “You should go to the hospital to be with your little girl.”
Never one to disobey a lawful order, I promptly departed for the hospital. I found my way to my daughter’s room, where she was sitting up in bed, coloring, while my wife flipped through a magazine on an adjacent couch. Upon noticing me, my daughter pointed to the small table next to her bed and said, “Look what your work sent me, Daddy!”
On the table sat an enormous cookie bouquet. About a dozen, very large sugar cookies sat on sticks, arranged to look like a bundle of flowers. I noticed a card stuck between the stems. On it was written, “We hope you get well soon! Love, Your friends at . . .” The handwriting was unmistakably Lauren’s.
I have to admit, I was touched. What an incredibly kind gesture. I had no idea how Lauren had even found out my daughter was sick, but anyone who could put a smile on her face while in the hospital had my gratitude. Maybe I’d misjudged Lauren. We all have our shortcomings. Maybe she deserved to be forgiven for hers. And maybe I owed it to her to be a decent employee for a change.
The next morning, I went straight to Lauren’s office. I wanted her to know just how grateful I was that she’d brightened my kid’s day. And even though I’d never say the words, I wanted to somehow communicate to Lauren that I’d resolved to be better. I wasn’t entirely sure how, given how little I had to do, but I would figure it out. I would write the best damn press releases she’d ever seen. Things were going to be different.
“Lauren, may I interrupt you?” Good opening, I thought. Show her a little deference. That will set the right tone.
“Sure, Dan. Come on in.” Lauren was at her desk, scribbling notes in a day planner.
“Lauren, I want to thank you very sincerely for the cookie bouquet you sent my daughter. She loved it. It was the first thing she showed me when I got to the hospital yesterday. And she wanted you to have this.”
I presented Lauren the finger-painted thank-you card my daughter had made her in the pediatric ward’s craft room.
“Oh, how cute,” she said, examining the misshapen ponies my kid had drawn. “It was no trouble at all.”
“No, really, Lauren . . . you put a big smile on her face. My wife and I were grateful for that. Thank you.” For once, I was being sincere.
Lauren looked up from the card and gazed at me for a moment. Her expression suggested she was mulling some deep, philosophical truth.
“Well, Dan . . . Someday, you’ll be a leader. You’ll remember this, and you’ll know how to take care of your people.”
I felt my face go flush. Excuse me? Someday, I’ll be a leader? Someday? Was she being serious?
Apparently, yes. The look on her face made obvious her tremendous pride in having just provided me a “teachable moment.”
Lauren’s comment illustrated perfectly the chasm that existed between us. She had no idea who I was, where I’d been, or what I was capable of doing. I’d had nearly two decades of experience leading men and women in the United States Navy and had been responsible for more people and hard assets by the time I was 25 than Lauren would in three lifetimes. Yet, she was going to lecture me on leadership? This lady sends a kid some cookies, and suddenly she thinks she’s Joshua Chamberlain at Little Round Top.
Laurens are everywhere, so how can they best be managed? Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Do not try to fix a Lauren. I did, and it blew up in my face. For some time after the cookie bouquet conversation,
I tried to gently inform Lauren of my leadership experience through witty, highly engaging sea stories. That’s the way I saw it, at least. She found the whole thing condescending, and things
got even worse. It’s entirely possible I was, in fact, being condescending, but I would nevertheless strongly caution against any attempt to convert or educate a Lauren.
Placate Lauren. Many Laurens have waited their entire careers to have a single subordinate to “lead,” and there’s no way in
hell they’re going to let you ruin the experience. So let them have it. Say what they want you to say. Do what they want you to do. They’ll eventually convince themselves they’re doing a
terrific job of leading and just leave you alone.
- Get the hell out of there. As mentioned, you’re not going to fix a Lauren, and placating one over a long period is mentally exhausting. So start planning your exit. The good news is, it’s highly likely Lauren wants you gone, just as a much as you want to be gone. In my case, I was able to co-opt Lauren into creating my exit opportunity. She wrote the recommendation letters that led to the promotion that moved me out of her group. (I’d heard that one way to get rid of a poorly performing employee was to promote him, but I never believed it until it happened to me.) A word of caution: Before attempting the strategy just described, ensure you have adequate support among leaders senior to Lauren. Executed poorly, it could completely backfire, and you could get yourself canned.
The author is a veteran who has had stints in various positions and industries in corporate. His advice to transitioning veterans: Lower your expectations.