After serving nearly eight years as a Marine Corps Officer, I transitioned from active duty in March 2015. As the end of active service approached, my anxiety ramped up regarding the impending job search. Like many young military officers, I joined the military because of September 11th. My original goal was not to have a military career, but to simply serve my country and move on, so the fact that I stayed on active duty for eight years still sometimes surprises me. I was enjoying the challenges of being a Marine Officer and figured that taking a second assignment would set me up for a successful transition.
I majored in Criminal Justice before joining the military but soon realized that it was not a career field I was interested in long-term. Instead, I was attracted to the business world. I had seen many of my peers transition into business leadership roles and corporate leadership programs. I realized that the skill set I had attained as a Marine Officer had more applications in the business world because of the leadership, communication, and decision-making skills I was utilizing daily. These are skills that are not taught in a classroom but are forged by experience, pressure, and confidence.
Two months before I reached the end of my active service, I received an offer from the General Electric Junior Officer Leadership Program (JOLP). GE has a multitude of outstanding leadership programs designed for engineers, recent college grads, and even mid-career employees. However this program specifically seeks out transitioning Junior Military Officers for their leadership skills. I was initially intimidated because I myself am not an engineer. I pictured myself in a room full of engineers, my head spinning as they spoke in terms I did not understand while completing complicated math problems on white boards. However, I soon realized why every single person who interviewed me from GE said they were not concerned about my lack of a technical background. In my opinion (and, it turns out, in theirs as well), it all boils down to people skills. Specifically, it means treating people fairly, being able to function in tense situations, and being able to ask the right questions to help solve problems in unexpected situations. In fact, I have found that, in some ways, my lack of technical skills has actually helped me to ask questions that other people may not have considered.
By no means am I saying that after a year I have this whole business thing figured out. I’m a mile into a marathon. I still find myself sitting in rooms with engineers not completely understanding what they are saying. I work with some extremely intelligent folks who have skill sets I will never have, but I have found that I also have a set of skills they will never have thanks to my past eight years as a leader of Marines. The drive to learn, effective communication skills, and the ability to deal with and work with all kinds of people have helped me succeed so far. I still have a ton to learn, but the continued willingness to learn, adapt, and grow professionally is what business leaders expect from their employees.
My advice to anyone getting ready to transition from the military into the civilian world is to have confidence, but to also realize you have a lot to learn. Ask people to show you what they do and to teach you something new. Ask questions and take advantage of training opportunities. Communicate and legitimately care for those who work in your team and those who work around you. If you proactively seek out this advice, information, and networking, always eager to participate in new opportunities, you’ll soon find out that the great transition is not so intimidating after all.
Matt Smith is currently in the GE Junior Officer Leadership Program and former Active Duty Marine Officer.