As active duty Navy and a UT alumnus, I’m thrilled with the decision by the University of Texas to (soon) appoint ADM McCraven as chancellor. He’ll be a great leader at the university and will make UT alumni proud. If you aren’t familiar with the Admiral or his work, UT did a great piece here. There are a number of reasons I could point out as to why ADM McCraven is a great choice, but I’d rather focus on how other employers can do the same. So here are five tips for employers on how to hire superb senior leaders from the military. Although it’s in my standard disclaimer, I must point out these are my opinions and not the government’s.
1. Ask questions about their military assignments. Specifically, you’ll want to know what their positions were, and how they showed leadership. What you’re looking for here is variety and leadership progression. If you read up on ADM McCraven, you’ll see he’s been a number of places and held all different levels of responsibility. You should expect the same out of people you want to hold top leadership positions. You’ll notice that ADM McCraven doesn’t have a lot of higher education experience. He has a lot of experience. Consider the same thing when looking at your candidates. What you’ll want in a high level candidate is the ability to absorb information and make decisions. You’ll want a candidate who can lead others. These are the strongest characteristics of military leaders, so look for them.
2. Ask for information on their performance. The military makes a lot of effort to document performance of its personnel. For the Navy, this comes in the form of evaluations, or fitness reports. Fitness reports do not have a lot to do with physical prowess, but more about the individual’s performance of their job. Individual job applicants may have different opinions about sharing this information with a prospective employer, but it doesn’t hurt to invite them to share it with you.
I definitely would not hold it against a candidate who refuses to share their previous evaluations. Sometimes these reports are not reflective of the candidate because their leadership didn’t invest the appropriate time. Additionally, if your candidate is super cool, like ADM McCraven, there’s probably some stuff you’re not allowed to know. If you do see the reports, focus on the narrative, which explains the level of leadership the candidate had at a particular job. It could also provide some insight on projects they’ve worked on in the past. If nothing else, those are great conversation starters for learning about your candidate.
3. Don’t be embarrassed that you don’t know the military lingo. Chances are your candidate has made an effort to translate his/her resume into a civilian friendly style. Unfortunately, some things don’t translate well. I see this as the biggest barrier for military applying for high level jobs. Take my linkedin profile for example. Here’s a line from one of my positions. “Superior leadership led to hospital’s recognition as the top pharmacy in the Department of Defense with the 2008 Military Health System Excellence in Pharmacy Operations award.” As a civilian this is difficult to quantify or understand. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of my readers didn’t know military pharmacies existed. (In fact there are hundreds.) Similarly, there are individuals in the military who serve on “committees” that have greater leadership impact than a civilian board of directors. When interpreting a resume or interviewing, try to nail down the impact, rather than the title.
4. Respect why the person is leaving the military. I’m undecided if it’s valuable to ask why a person is leaving the military. Sometimes it will be clear (e.g. retirement), but sometimes it will put the candidate in a bad position. Maybe they weren’t challenged by the military, or were frustrated by operating under a structured chain of command. These answers might help a prospective employer in evaluating the candidate, but you also risk misinterpreting them. This is particularly the case if you’ve never served on active duty personally. If a candidate replies, “I was tired of the bureaucracy,” it could be interpreted as they don’t like systems or rules, when what they were implying, in fact, is that they didn’t like accounting for their presence at all times.
Bottom line: Be careful with this question if you ask it. The military wasn’t just a job they left. It was a complete life. The candidate may have had “coworkers” who saved the candidates life. They almost certainly didn’t make the decision hastily. One final note on this: I only am referring to candidates who left the military under honorable conditions. Other than honorable or dishonorable discharges require a different level of scrutiny.
5. Thank them for their service. You may not hire them, but they have done a service for their country. Most people will humbly accept the thanks, but it means more than you think. If they were a decorated hero like ADM McCraven, or a technician that has never been to a war zone, they have given up some of their freedom for yours.
Bonus point: If a Medal of Honor hero applies for a job with you: hire them. They deserve the job just for what they’ve done. President Bush said in posthumous presentation of the Medal of Honor to LT Michael Murphy, “With this medal we acknowledge a debt that will not diminish with time and can never be repaid.” Remember you can’t do a favor for these heroes. They’ve earned all they receive.