Shutdown countdown on your mind? Tired of congressional vilification? You might be thinking of how great a private sector job would be.
Think twice. Many civilian public servants and military people do have great post-government careers. But the private sector offers no guarantees either, and a government or military career may not necessarily have prepared you for work outside of government.
I want to focus on the Defense Department, which has been formally trying to help service members transition to civilian life for decades. What if the advice it regularly gives officers is all wrong?
It actually is wrong, at least according to Bill Toti, a highly decorated former submarine skipper. He’s also author of a book for helping military officers succeed in the private sector, “From CO to CEO.” Toti, in my interview which aired yesterday, takes exception to how transition counselors advise outgoing officers that industry will most value their leadership skills. And he warned, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” citing the title of another book, by Marshall Goldsmith.
Toti is on to something. Yes, leadership is something people not only learn, but have drilled into them, so to speak, by exigencies of how the military operates. Think about that for a moment, and you realize that business, too, often confers leadership positions on its new recruits. Every organization by definition has “leaders.” Leadership then, the topic of 10,000 mostly bad new books a year, is a fairly cheap commodity. And not one of which the military has a monopoly.
One basic difference in dealing with subordinates in the private sector versus the military, Toti pointed out, is people in the private sector can quit if they don’t like it. In today’s Gen X culture, they may even answer like the fictional Jets street gang: “Gee, Officer Krupke, Krup you!”
Again, I emphasize Toti was highly successful in the Navy. Schlubs don’t get command of subs or commodore slots for a squadron of them. He later received the Legion of Merit for his actions at the Pentagon when it was bombed with an airliner on 9/11.
Yet, he told me and describes in detail in his book, he nearly failed in his first industry job.
“One of the things I was screwing up in my very first job was, I was treating the organizational chart for the company like a chain of command.” Each little block had to be checked with before deciding on a course of action. But decision-making occurred much differently in the company than it had in the military, more fluidly and with more ambiguity. Luckily, Toti had a boss that set him straight. Essentially, he found, “you’re going to be measured on your success, not whether you’ve checked all the right blocks.”
I asked, but haven’t military officers dealt with the ambiguity of battle? Naive question.
Toti pointed out that at this stage of history, “a small minority of military officers have actually experienced that kind of combat. Most military officers succeeded and were promoted because of their staff performance, not because of their combat performance. Whether that’s good or bad is irrelevant. It just is.”
Outside of battle, everyone has to work according to standard “tactics, techniques and procedures. Your TTP — they don’t exist in industry,” Toti said. And yet, everyone is told how much industry will treasure their leadership skills.
The transition assisters tell “what I call the Great Lie,” Toti said. “I wanted to believe. I think we all want to believe when we’re leaving the military. And it turns out, it’s 100% wrong.”
In fact, Toti said, “good leadership isn’t even enough in the military.” He said specific skills and training are often more important. What you need to know to command a group of nuclear-powered submarines is vastly different than what you need to know to command a B-52 squadron, he said.
“You actually need to know something about those submarines you’re intended to lead. And that’s no less true in industry,” Toti said. “In order to succeed in industry, you actually need to know something about the company, the product, the performance, the customers.”
Of course, capable people can find success anywhere within reason. Success in another sector, though, is likely more dependent on how you can adapt and what you can learn and whether you can discard the old blueprints.