By Kimberly Smith, FACHE, Senior Partner
For military officers, the decision as to when to transition into civilian life is tough to say the least. Family, logistics, raw emotion, and trepidation about the unknown come into play. If you’ve been a soldier for 10, 20, or even 30 years, it’s hard to leave the ranks.
But most officers, at some point, exit the services for civilian roles — they want something different for themselves or their families, or have reached a career plateau in the military. The question then becomes how best to do it. How does someone transition into a suitable, productive career in civilian life after so many years on so many military bases around the world?
The question is especially poignant for military medical officers. Whether trained as physicians or as healthcare administrators, these officers clearly have valuable skills and abilities to contribute to non-military hospitals and health systems.
There are hurdles to jump in making the transition. There are differences in how healthcare is done, run, and talked about in the military compared with civilian facilities, and the basic priorities are different. The primary objective of the Military Health System (MHS) is to ensure that troops are ready to fight, while a non-military hospital prioritizes more general patient and community health needs.
One of the greatest hurdles that these officers face, however, is convincing search committees and healthcare employers that they can succeed as executives in a non-military environment. In my experience, search committees often have preconceived “myths” that limit their openness to hiring transitioning military officers. Let’s look at a few:
- Military medical officers don’t speak the same language as civilian healthcare leaders. There is some truth to this, as military medical personnel tend to use different terminology (and frequently a lot of acronyms!) to describe themselves and their work. Rather than a different language, however, it is more like a different dialect of the same language. Put in civilian roles, most former military officers quickly pick up the vocabulary and inflections of those around them. Most of them already regularly attend industry conferences and network with civilian leaders. The greater challenge is just getting the opportunity to perform in a civilian leadership position.
- They are not comfortable with a “competitive medicine” environment. While military medical centers are not necessarily in heated competition with other providers in their areas, they are expected to grow their patient populations (e.g., to reach out to veterans and families in their areas) and certainly to compete on key metrics such as safety and patient satisfaction. Competitiveness is usually not an issue with soldiers, and for medical officers it is a matter of time in a new environment before their competitive nature kicks in.
- They have “military” medical and leadership credentials. As a matter of fact, most military physicians went to medical school and/or spent their residencies at non-military institutions. Even non-physician officers are encouraged to take leadership training at outside institutions, and most do at some point in their careers.
- They don’t focus on the bottom line. As noted, the primary responsibility of military healthcare administrators is to ensure the health and readiness of troops. Yet each administrator has a budget and clear financial expectations for cost control, innovative pay models, and so forth. One might say that the military health and insurance system is similar to a very large HMO. The pressures to perform from a budgeting standpoint have only been compounded with recent Congressional budget cuts for military facilities.
- Their leadership style is directive. Cadets and soldiers do learn a more direct leadership style in training for combat, but this changes as the environment changes. In military medical facilities, many if not most employees are civilians, for whom a commanding leadership style will not necessarily resonate. Good leaders stick to their principles but also know how to adapt to their surroundings and connect with their charges. This leads to another myth . . .
- Military medical leaders are not adaptable. Adaptability is a core competency of military leadership. Adaptability to people, places, and new ideas is critical, especially when one considers a military leader may typically change roles and locales every few years. This includes foreign locations, and it is not uncommon for a U.S. military commander to have spent tours in Germany, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea, or various other countries, with family in tow. In combat, adaptability to circumstances can literally be a matter of life or death.
- Officers who leave the military have “something wrong” with them. After all, why else would they leave? Search committees can have a hard time understanding that most military officers move into civilian careers at some point by choice, and not because they have had any issues in their military employment. The decision for an officer to leave has serious family, career, and emotional implications, and so is never made in haste.
Because the transition is such a big change, many officers, upon exiting the services, are essentially “unemployed.” They take time to move, reconnect with their immediate and distant family members, and breathe a little. They may not immediately seek out a civilian role. Rather than being a red flag, taking time to navigate a major life transition can be viewed as a normal, healthy approach to the future.
There are a lot of great military medical officers who are not taken seriously as candidates for civilian healthcare roles. I would like to see this change, for the benefit of these officers as well as the industry, which can always use a few more good leaders.
Kimberly Smith, FACHE, is a senior partner with Witt/Kieffer as well as vice chair of its board of directors.