For as long as there have been soldiers there have been veterans, and thus discussions about how best to transition service members into civilian life once their time in the military is up. The concept of transitioning is especially challenging for military officers, as they seek civilian roles that are commensurate with their level of leadership experience, skills, and knowledge.
One former officer who has transitioned quite well into the corporate realm is John McFarland, a senior associate with Witt/Kieffer’s Healthcare practice, based in our Atlanta office. Following graduation from West Point, John spent eight years in the U.S. Army. His military leadership positions ranged from Platoon Leader to Company Commander to Division Budget Officer. He served two tours of duty in Iraq and left the military in 2012 at the rank of Captain. Prior to joining Witt/Kieffer, John also spent time as a senior consultant and project manager (working primarily in healthcare) for Ernst & Young.
Currently, John is working with others in our firm to explore ways to support veteran officers and military physicians in their own transition to healthcare executive leadership roles. He took time from his client service commitments to answer questions about his own military-to-civilian career transition and share lessons applicable to other veterans.
What advice do you have for veterans who are looking to transition into the private sector?
McFarland: As in any military tactical and/or operational situation, understanding the environment beforehand is critically important. Transitioning to the private sector is no different. To be successful, you need to know where you want go, what it takes to succeed in the environment, and what steps need to be taken to get there. So my advice to candidates is simple: do your research and make a plan to succeed.
Second, networking is key. Nobody ever succeeds on their own. We learn and grow through our own experiences and through those of others. Networking in the private sector prior to pursuing a formal transition will provide insight into trends going on in a specific industry space. Networking can align you with those who can be helpful mentors or sounding boards, and connect you with key individuals that can help you transition successfully.
Finally, military professionals need to continue to learn, grow and ask questions in a new role. No one expects you to have all the right answers – I found that out when I joined the corporate sector. But they do expect you to be able to ask the right questions when you don’t know the answers. That’s a life skill that is valuable for all professionals.
What valuable skills did you develop in service to the country that have translated to your professional career?
McFarland: There were many, but I think one of the most notable was leadership. By this, I mean not just leading others but also leading oneself each day in terms of being disciplined and accountable, prioritizing, and fighting through adversity. I think the hardest type of leadership is being accountable for how you perform and what you do. In the military you’re constantly held accountable for your performance and how it relates to your soldiers’ successes and failures. If you can lead yourself, you’re on the right track with leading others.
Then there’s prioritization. The military constantly focuses on prioritizing since it is such an essential skill in combat and other situations. As soldiers, we trained constantly to know, almost inherently, what is important at any given moment to be effective and move forward. This skill helps me daily in the professional world.
And I learned to fight through adversity. We all have to deal with adversity, and how we respond tells the story of our lives. In military training, I was often “broken down” so I could learn to get back up and keep going. All of the skills mentioned above have served me well.
Of course, there were many concrete on-the-job skills that I learned as well—for instance, through being a Company Commander and Division Budget Officer I learned a great deal about operational and financial management, which helps me greatly in recruiting healthcare leaders today. Military careers provide a tremendous amount of pure knowledge and expertise that are useful in any setting.
Is there someone from the military who stands out to you as a mentor and role model? What lessons did you learn and use today from this person?
McFarland: I was very fortunate to have a number of great superiors, mentors and role models over the course of my military career. One that stands out was my last direct boss in the military. I felt like I grew immensely under his leadership. I always thought that I performed well across the board, but he took the time to understand my strengths and weaknesses, gave me a flexible environment to work in and placed me in situations where I could continue my professional and personal growth. As a result, today I continuously evaluate and reflect on my performance, my strengths, and those areas in which I can improve.
He also helped me take ownership of my professional journey. When you know what you want in your career, you can articulate your hopes and ideas to people who work in those areas, offer your services, and receive opportunities you might otherwise not have learned about.
In executive recruiting in healthcare, what stands out about veterans as candidates? What might make them appealing to search committees or hiring managers?
McFarland: Veteran candidates are generally strong and usually bring a wide array of experiences and skill sets. Something that can make them even more appealing to future employers is making sure they articulate the outcomes they’ve helped drive and achieve. They should cite examples that are quantifiable and relatable to the healthcare space. Military veterans tend to have a lot of successes on their resumes, but the key is to explain to healthcare and other organizations how these types of successes can be replicated in a non-military environment.
By Paul Thomas, Strategic Communications Leader