What they don't tell you about the transition...one veteran's (mis)adventures in the civilian world.
We’ve all been the new kid and had to pay our dues. That doesn’t change in the private sector. What does change is one’s tolerance for petty rites of initiation. And whether you choose to abide by such rites will have much to do with your success, or lack thereof, in an organization.
It could have been worse. I could have been the guy in the frog suit.
It was late-May in Orlando and about a thousand degrees on the golf course. My job was to drive a cart from hole to hole, so Freddy the Frog, seated next to me, could wave at the golfers. It was also my job to provide John, the guy wearing the Freddy costume, a sufficient supply of water and Gatorade to ward off heat exhaustion. Out on the golf course, riding around in a full-body, polyester frog suit provided the same benefit as wearing a snowmobile suit on a forced march through an Ecuadorian jungle.
Freddy was the mascot some Colonel had dreamt up for the Pentagon directorate he led. John and I worked for the public-sector consulting firm that provided various administrative support services to that directorate. Somehow, those services included John’s and my trolling a Central Florida golf course to provide entertainment for the hundred or so midgrade officers who’d traveled there for the directorate’s annual convention. The golf tournament was one of the marquee events, and the Colonel wanted Freddy everywhere, strutting and waving, inviting every possible photo op. And there were surprisingly many. I couldn’t believe the number of people who wanted their picture taken with that frog. I was embarrassed for them.
I was 34 years old, a Naval Academy graduate, a former Naval Aviator, and a Harvard MBA. John was in his late-twenties, a Georgetown graduate, and had just been accepted to The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. One would be hard pressed to find two people more over-qualified for a given task. John had been with the consulting firm a year longer than I, and only because I was four inches taller and didn’t fit into the frog suit were our roles not reversed. We endured the heat, frog suit, and absurdity of the whole affair, because a.) It was better than sitting behind a desk in the Pentagon, and b.) We were both only days away from leaving the firm. John was departing to enjoy some time off before starting medical school. I was leaving, because I’d had it. Recent events had led me to conclude driving Freddy the Frog around was not a one-off event. This was to be my lot in the organization.
For the record, I know what it is to pay one’s dues. In my time in the Navy, I had played the role of recruit, plebe, pollywog, nugget, second pilot, FNG, and about a dozen other new-kid, bottom-of-the-pile bits that required I shut up, swallow my pride, and take a beating. I had scrubbed toilets, swabbed decks, and chipped paint. I had been made to wallow in a kiddie pool full of Crisco, paraded around in my underwear to the amusement of various audiences, and jogged the length of an Oahu beach in an under-sized Speedo and Tina Turner wig. I’d been arbitrarily given mind-numbingly boring jobs, devoid of any interest or challenge, which I never would have chosen for myself. I’d had to accept that in order to advance, I would have to pass through the Navy’s mandatory wickets and wait my turn to be given an opportunity. I’d endured all this, because I believed deeply in the goodness of the organization, the tremendous quality of its people, and the nobility of the purpose they served. Plus, on many occasions, there may have been more than a little alcohol involved.
Given my distinguished body of work in this area, one may wonder why I was so put out to have to pay my dues this time around. It had to do with a conversation I’d overheard the week before. I had joined a conference call a couple minutes late. Not wanting to interrupt the discussion, I didn’t bother announcing myself. As such, neither Jill, my immediate boss, nor Andrew, the overall lead for the engagement, knew I was listening. At the end of the call, Andrew asked Jill to remain on the line. He wanted to talk to her about me.
Jill and I had gotten along fairly well. I had done everything she’d asked of me and enjoyed a terrific rapport with each of our Pentagon clients, including a Deputy Assistant Secretary. That was good for her, good for me, and good for the firm. My duties weren’t terribly strenuous, but I thought I’d done respectable work for Jill to that point. Andrew was the up-and-coming engagement manager with whom I’d been teamed to ensure my early experience with the firm was positive. He was considered one of the firm’s best; definite partner material. Andrew wasn’t a terrible guy, but I found him a touch self-important. Once, while running 30 minutes late for a meeting he had scheduled, he remarked, with notable satisfaction, “I don’t mind having people wait on me.”
While the others who’d been on the conference call checked off, I took a moment to weigh the risks of eavesdropping on a private conversation between my two superiors. On the one hand, if ever I were discovered to have been on the line, I’d most certainly be fired. On the other, I’d already had the rug pulled out from underneath me by a previous employer, and there had been immediate, negative financial consequences for my family and me. There was no way I was about to let that happen again. Thus, if my eavesdropping produced actionable intelligence on my future employment with the organization, it was a risk worth taking. So I did.
Andrew began, “So what is up with Dan?”
“I know!” Jill immediately replied.
He went on, “I mean, who does he think he is? He acts all important, because he spends all his time with Clark.”
Mr. Clark was the aforementioned Deputy Assistant Secretary. He was a former Army Officer, and we’d hit it off immediately.
“Meanwhile, he hasn’t done a thing with the virtual PMO.”
The virtual PMO, or Project Management Office, was Andrew’s brainchild. Most engagements required a dedicated, junior analyst to track project hours and expenses, prepare client billing, and perform other, low-level administrative tasks. In this case, the client had refused to pay for what it viewed as unnecessary overhead, so we had no junior analyst. The various duties were spread among the other consultants. Andrew wanted to build an online, shareable database to serve as a repository for hours and expenses, which would then be fed back to the central office for client billing. This would serve as his “virtual” project manager.
I thought the whole thing redundant and a complete waste of time. The firm already had a system that performed exactly the functions Andrew desired for his virtual PMO. He nonetheless wanted his own system and had decided I was to be its architect. And until it was up and running, I was also to assume the duties of the junior analyst. This had all shaken out my first week on the project, and I’d done only the minimum necessary to give the appearance I was making any progress. I thought my time was better spent doing quality work for clients.
Andrew continued, “He just refuses to step up and do what a new kid’s supposed to do.” He was pretty mad. It was clear his frustration with my apparent insubordination had been building for some time.
Jill was in complete agreement. In a sinister tone, she replied, “Well . . . we can fix that.”
Andrew and Jill then decided that every petty, menial, mundane, entry-level task they could possibly come up with would be given to me. It was to be a test. Either I would get the message, check my huge ego, and fall in line, or I’d leave the firm. Preferably, they both agreed, I would do the latter.
When the call ended, I just sat there for a while, hands shaking, completely bewildered. I had never heard anyone talk that way about me. Never. Especially a boss. I couldn’t have imagined a more appalling scenario. The partner who’d hired me, Andrew’s boss, had said she was thrilled to have a former military officer and MBA join the firm. She’d said my intelligence, communication skills, and highly polished, professional demeanor would enable Andrew to put me in front of the firm’s most important clients right away. She’d said my military background would give me credibility other consultants lacked. She’d said my experience working closely with senior officers would make me an immediate, high-demand asset. She’d said . . . She’d said . . . She’d said . . .
Andrew didn’t subscribe to any of that. I was the new kid, and I was going to pay my dues. It was just that simple.
The call had taken place on a Friday afternoon. First thing Monday morning, Jill paid me a visit. She’d always been cordial with me. Not any more. She curtly dumped half dozen tasks in my lap and directed that I check in with her at various points throughout the day to inform her of my progress with them. The Run-Dan-Out-Of-The-Firm plan was in full effect.
Unbeknownst to Andrew and Jill, I was doing everything I could to ensure their plan’s success. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing salvageable in this situation. Even if matters improved with Andrew and Jill, I’d lost all respect for them. Likewise, I’d lost all faith in the organization that had chosen to elevate such people to positions of leadership. I didn’t believe in the work, and I could see all the promises I’d been made by the partner who’d hired me were completely empty. Thus, I’d already spoken to a headhunter and expected to have interviews lined up by the following week. In the mean time, I would happily accept my new tasks, report promptly and thoroughly on their completion, and dive eagerly into the virtual PMO. I would give every appearance I was a fully committed team player. I would be the model new kid, cheerfully paying my dues, just as Andrew wanted.
The headhunter moved even faster than I’d anticipated. I took a vacation day the following Monday to fly out for an interview. That Wednesday, I received an offer. Two days later, I was on the Orlando golf course, driving around Freddy the Frog. Rather than give Jill or Andrew the satisfaction of receiving my two weeks’ notice, I instead called the partner who’d hired me to inform her I was leaving. Regardless of how or when they received the news, I’m sure Andrew and Jill were thrilled.
This was easily the most bizarre episode of my entire civilian transition experience. What did I take from it?
Dues paid in the military count for nothing in the private sector. Civilians don’t understand or care about your
foundational experiences or the skills and judgement you gained from them. Therefore, they are highly reluctant to give you any real responsibility right out of the gate. Whereas my best
military bosses had the confidence in both themselves and me to throw me right in the deep end, my civilian bosses have consistently put me in swim diapers, given me water wings, and
threatened to take away my fudgesicle if I left the shallow end. Whatever you think of the metaphor, heed the message: You have to start over again as a civilian. You have to pay your dues.
Whether you choose to or not is up to you.
- As a new kid, you don’t get to decide what’s important. That’s a difficult adjustment. In a resource-constrained, highly fluid, operational environment, a military leader knows how to figure
out what is and is not important, focus fully on what is, and set aside the rest. That’s how bombs get dropped, doors get kicked in, and bad guys get killed. CEOs, looking out across their
organizations from on high, know they lack, and desperately need, exactly that sort of focused, decisive leadership. However, that doesn’t mean managers farther down the org chart have arrived at
the same conclusion. Try to ignore what you deem unimportant, especially when new to an organization, and there will be consequences. Even though you may be hard-wired to make such calls, in the
eyes of the mid-level manager, your ability to do so is not a right, but a privilege to be earned.
- While the headhunter provided me a convenient exit, I know that won’t always be the case. Had this episode occurred a year later, with the country in the throes of The Great Recession, I would have been stuck. Or fired. Don’t put yourself in a similar situation. Perform your due diligence. While you can’t fully understand an organization until you’re in it, there are numerous, common-sense things a person can do to make an informed judgement as to potential fit. I didn’t do any of that, and I deserved to live with the consequences.
The author is a veteran who has had stints in various positions and industries in corporate. His advice to transitioning veterans: Lower your expectations.