A former submarine skipper on how to make the transition to post-military success

Too many veterans fail to thrive after they leave the military. It's called employment instability. Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with an expert on militar...

Too many veterans fail to thrive after they leave the military. It’s called employment instability. Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with an expert on military transitioning. Bill Toti is a highly decorated former Navy captain, who, among other things, skippered a submarine. Later he found success in high-ranking positions at technology companies. Now, he’s the author of a new book, “From CO to CEO.” The book is full of ideas for how to transition successfully out the military.

Interview Transcript:

Tom Temin And what prompted this book? Basically?

Bill Toti Failure prompted the book. First, it was my own failure, almost in industry. Happily, my first employer decided I was worth saving and invested time and effort in me to try to correct my head as it pertained to civilian employment. But then, over the next decade and a half, I noticed other guys and gals were out of the military, were failing, just like I had. And so, you know, after some analysis, realizing that I couldn’t mentor one on one the hundreds of veteran employees I was hiring. I decided I needed to write all of these lessons down that kind of try to address the problem. Why greater than 50% of transitioning veterans fail in their first civilian position?

Tom Temin That’s a little bit surprising because someone who has been a flag officer such as you were, or a high ranking enlisted person or just a, you know, colonel level, captain level, you know, in the other armed services, they have led large groups of people. They have handled programs for millions and billions of dollars. What’s the gap there when they go to the private sector?

Bill Toti Well, there’s a paradox, Tom. It’s very well described by a book that I did not write called “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” And with that book . . .

Tom Temin That’s a great title.

Bill Toti It is a great title. And what that book talks about is the more successful you were in your prior life, the more likely you are to fail under a set of changing circumstances. So, you know, the fact that you found success leads you to, in many cases erroneously believe that the same attributes that allowed you to succeed in a prior life will similarly work in a future life. But it’s different circumstances with different people requiring different skills. And the past success can actually set you up for failure. And I noticed exactly that phenomenon happening with many of my highly successful transitioning veteran employees. In fact, I coined an expression to my especially senior officer friends while they’re still in active duty, where I we tell them, you know what, leadership is hard, but it’s even harder when you’re leading people who can actually quit. Because they didn’t think that way. Right. And so then, that aspect was leading them to fail in ways they had not anticipated.

Tom Temin Right. In other words, there’s a fundamental cultural difference between business and the military in this case, because there is a command and control structure. And there’s other cultural norms that people may not understand unless they’ve been close to it. And then when you get into business, you’re not close to the unspoken rules there, in other words.

Bill Toti Absolutely. And, you know, 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. I thought I had to, like, get checks in the block like I did on the joint staff when I was at the Pentagon, where everybody had to agree with a course of action before I could move forward. And one day my boss pulled me into his office and he said, you are screwing this up. You know, I’m going to use your expression. Our competitors are going to get inside our OODA loop because it’s taking you too long to get to any decision. You need to learn to live with ambiguity. And that’s something I couldn’t get my head around. What do you mean I need to learn to live with ambiguity? It’s not all going to be written down for you here. The processes, the procedures, you’re going to be measured on your success, not whether you’ve checked all the right blocks.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with retired Navy Captain Bill Toti, and he is the author of From CO, that is commanding officer, to CEO. Well, let me just play devil’s advocate for a minute, because in an actual battle or engagement situation, you know, what’s the old saying? No plan survives the first encounter with the enemy. And those are largely improvised situations in reality, after all the planning and so forth. So shouldn’t that kind of help? Or is it simply that the United States engagements have not produced that many people with that kind of situational background.

Bill Toti Which should help? But there’s two deficiencies in the statement. The first is a small minority of military officers have actually experienced that kind of combat where, you know, most God help me is the truth. 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. So that’s kind of point number one. And point number two, the only time that kind of behavior is accepted in the military is in the heat of battle. The 98% of the time you’re not in battle. You’re expected to perform in accordance with your tactics, techniques and procedures. Your TTP. They don’t exist in industry. Right. You basically you write your own processes as you go. In many cases, except for things like quality assurance. That’s a different matter. But as far as competing and winning in corporate life, there are no TTP, as it were.

Tom Temin All right. Good point. And let me ask you this. What about the distinction? And your book is basically focused at people coming out of a fairly high ranking level that would go into business at the managerial or executive levels. Do you have any advice or any thoughts for people that are coming out of the military in their programs to convert, say, and this happens to be a big one truck driving. There’s a need and national need for truck drivers. People have operated in logistics in the military and they can do that kind of thing. That’s not managerial, but nevertheless, you’ve got to manage a career and make a living when you do come out.

Bill Toti I do talk a lot about the different mindsets, military versus industry, and the need to kind of adapt to the new culture of your company. And I do give some clues on how to understand what that culture may be, and that would apply to anybody, whether they’re a manager or not. I also give some survival skills and, you know, kind of reading the tea leaves. It’s a different set of tea leaves when you’re in private industry than it was when you were in military. And the fact that people don’t, maybe for the first time in your life, be honest with you as it pertains to your performance. Whereas in the military, we don’t want people to leave. So we kind of gloss over negative performance. We’re always very upbeat. And we also, the military services as well, are also guilty when you’re transitioning out of the military of trying to make you feel good about your military service, even when the advice that they’re giving you is inappropriate for the civilian world. In essence, you’re being set up to fail by the military when you leave. So I try to sensitize folks in the book, whether they’re managers or not, with all these various trap lines.

Tom Temin It’s almost as if someone leaving would have to go back to their induction days where, you know, you were not given great performance if you couldn’t do the whatever it is required in basic training, the different types of activities that are designed to mentally challenge you as well as physically challenge you. If you could get back to that mindset, you might do better than the mindset you have at the conclusion of your career, sounds like.

Bill Toti There are a lot of things that I think you need to unlearn when you transition to private industry. And yeah, it’s almost like going back to your induction days. The difference is there’s no boot camp for civilian life. The Transition Assistance program the military pretends is your boot camp for civilian life is completely wrong. People that are giving that training have not really succeeded in industry. They’re reading from a training guide that somebody else wrote who probably also didn’t succeed in industry. So it becomes the blind leading the blind. And it worse than sets you up. It beguiles you into believing that you have skills that you don’t really have. And that gets to your point about having to unlearn a bunch of things that you might have been learning for decades. We have to set that all aside.

Tom Temin What do they tell you in the transition planning?

Bill Toti Oh, they’re telling, what I call the Great Lie, was one of the things that I wanted to believe. I think we all want to believe when we’re leaving the military. And it turns out its 100% wrong. And the great lie is, was told to me, was all your future civilian employer wants from you is good leadership. We want to believe that because we all think we’re good leaders. And it turns out when you give a 20 seconds of thought, good leadership isn’t even enough in the military. If it was, you could take a B-52 wing commander and put them in command of a submarine squadron, and they would do just fine. But that doesn’t work. You actually need to know something about those submarines you’re intended to lead. And that’s no less true in industry. In order to succeed in industry, you actually need to know something about the company, the product, the performance, the customers. And no amount of good leadership is going to obviate the need to learn all of that stuff. So it was a great lie. It made us feel really good about the skills we’re bringing to our civilian jobs. And it turns out that could accelerate your crash and burn.

Tom Temin In other words, you would not be approaching a business with the right humility. Really, the fact that you would understand, I don’t know anything about this. I do have leadership skills, but maybe the emphasis should be then on my adaptability, and my ability to acquire new skills, which one should never set aside in life.

Bill Toti Absolutely right. In fact, in the book, I make the point that it doesn’t matter if you were a two star general when you joined that company, you you’re a second lieutenant all over again. And you need to understand that. And you need to put aside all of that window dressing of being a general officer or flag officer, and understand that your best attribute is your ability to learn. And if you don’t develop that humility really quickly to understand that that 24 year old in the desk next to you knows more about this new environment than you do, then you’re going to fail.

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