We are hearing much in the news these days about returning soldiers and their challenges related to civilian employment. The question of how to accommodate wounded warriors in the workplace is alive in the legal and HR communities at large. There is another subject, however, that does not seem to be getting much coverage: the challenges faced by retiring military officers transitioning into civilian roles. Internal training organizations can positively impact bottom-line business by positioning these individuals for long-term success.
Thousands of military officers retire and enter the civilian market every year, and they are elite and highly sought after by organizations that need their unique skills or do business with the Department of Defense. Officers bring a lot to the table: tremendous leadership experience, domain expertise, and potential as developers of government business. A recent survey of recruiting managers in the Washington, D.C., market estimated the average base salary for a recently retired officer to be between $110,000 and $175,000. This dollar amount often constitutes a strategic investment for the hiring organizations.
In a 2007 King Street Associates, LLC survey of Lieutenant Colonels, Lieutenant Commanders, full Colonels, and Commanders, respondents described their first civilian work experience as everything from challenging to traumatic. Some 80 percent said they received some type of transition training prior to leaving the military, but, despite this high level of participation, the training did little to provide them with answers, reduce anxiety, clarify the transition process, or prepare them for what lay ahead. More than 60 percent of respondents reported making more than two job changes since leaving military service. The top two reasons for leaving were "lack of fit with culture" and "got a better offer somewhere else."
Based on findings from our survey, we identified three key ways in which a hiring company's ROI is impacted. First is the small window of opportunity a hiring company has to recoup its investment and begin to realize net contribution. Recruiting professionals reported former officers generally leave their first civilian employer within 36 months. In addition, they estimated turnover among this group as being 20 percent to 60 percent higher than turnover in the general employee population.
In his 2003 book entitled, "The First 90 Days," Michael Watkins estimated a company's breakeven point at six months for executives. Surveyed recruiting managers in the Washington, D.C., market offer an interesting contrast. They estimate ramp-up time of former military officers at six to 12 months longer than new hires in the general population. If they indeed tend to leave in the first 36 months of employment, their startup time could be as much as half their total tenure.
The second impact to hiring organizations is the affiliation gap that makes former officers vulnerable to poaching by competitors. The community of retired officers remains connected through personal networks and associations. Through these channels they communicate their experiences with civilian employers. A company that invests in tailored onboarding at the front end benefits in two ways: higher retention and good press in the community of retired officers.
The third impact we identified is the high cost of replacing these leaders. Surveyed recruiters estimated this to be 3 times base salary, which, in the D.C. market, equates to $330,000 to $525,000 for each former officer who walks away from a civilian employer. (Cost per hire includes base salary plus the operational cost of recruiting such as advertising and sourcing—e.g., employment fairs, job boards, association memberships—collateral, etc.)
How do organizations justify these numbers? Is it simply the cost of doing business?
No. It is the cost of doing nothing.
In 15 years in training and organizational development I have never seen a more compelling case for strategic onboarding. Performance issues among this group are traceable back to the earliest days and months of employment. This connection is not so easily made among other groups except, perhaps, new college graduates. In this context, we view onboarding as more than the administrative aspect of getting a new employee set up with a desk and computer but, rather, the heavily nuanced aspect of getting that person on track to be as productive as possible, as quickly as possible.
As a result of many years of work with former officers transitioning to civilian employment, King Street Associates, LLC, has compiled a database of common derailers and success factors. For example, in the category of general business acumen, the concept of profit versus mission has far-reaching implications for how officer new hires allocate and place a value on time. Another example is the matrixed structure commonly used in organizations today. To a leader with decades of military experience, this is foreign and overly complex compared to the hierarchical structure they are accustomed to operating in. We have seen this impact morale among staff who need clearer role definition, direction, and information about how their performance is measured and rewarded in a matrix structure.
In the category of cultural fit, the challenges are too many to mention. One common example is shifting out of a deeply entrenched command-and-control leadership style and into a more consensus-based style. We have seen this negatively impact staff performance, satisfaction, and retention if not addressed with the leader at the front end of his or her employment. We often are called in to coach leaders who, after a terrible first year, are in an urgent position to get themselves and their working relationships on track.
From a training standpoint, there is a set of skills military new hires do not know how to apply coming into a civilian work context. Examples are internal and external observation of culture, managing stress related to the ambiguity, and translating their leadership skills and accomplishments into assets that are valuable to their new employer.
The great thing about predictable patterns such as these is they lend themselves to formalized learning solutions such as training or group coaching. Just as we can roughly gauge what new college graduates will need in their first days and months of professional employment, it is possible to gauge what former officers will need. Based on this wealth of intelligence, we have been able to show a direct, positive impact on the retention of military leaders in civilian organizations. Companies need to work smarter, though. Tackling basic transition challenges after a year of mistakes and missteps is too late; so many performance and management issues can be anticipated and avoided.
Organizations that do anticipate the unique needs of former military personnel and officers by putting infrastructure around the onboarding process avoid opportunity and other costs during the first 36 months of an officer's employment. Providing senior new hires with the right tools accelerates their learning and cultural integration, which, in turn, reduces time-to-performance, improves return on investment (ROI), and increases probability of retention because the new leader feels supported and
successful. Also, a coordinated onboarding program for former military leaders and personnel differentiates an employer from its hiring competitors that don't have such a program.
By implementing proactive interventions such as tailored onboarding and group or individual coaching in the early days and weeks of a service member's civilian employment, you can show measurable impact on retention and performance of among this elite pool of talent.
For more on this topic, visit www.mymilitarytransition.com.