Transition Story: Networking and helping others along the way

Sophy Gardner served in the Royal Air Force for 20 years. Having made the decision to leave in 2011, she started her own business and has since worked on a variety of contracts, mainly with military charities, such as on the Bomber Command Memorial Project, doing PR, media and communications.

Alongside running her own business, she currently works with the RAF Club to deliver careers seminars which are supported by the Officers’ Association; and is just about to start a PHD on the military and politics at the University of Exeter. Her goal is to move into more think tank academic work to complement the media communications that she currently delivers.

We spoke to Sophy about what prompted her transition from the Royal Air Force and how networking has helped her to succeed in business.

“There were several reasons that prompted me to leave and seek a civilian career. I was in a branch called Flight Operations which didn’t have structured promotion opportunities beyond Wing Commander, which was the rank that I had already achieved. I had always thought that I’d like a second career so after serving for 20 years I felt it was the right time to leave. I also wanted to have a more stable family life.

“A lot of my business has been based around networking. As soon as I left the military I was put in touch with the Officers’ Association and the various other transition services that are available for leavers. I went to several seminars and networking events as well as applying for one permanent role with the Royal Household. However, whilst I was attending these networking events, I was getting asked to do more and more freelance work – that is how I ended up starting my business.

The key for me was branching out to other networking events where I could meet people who were more aligned with the type of business that I was trying to find.

Sophy Gardner

“In my view, the only barrier to networking is that you can get compartmentalised into only doing military resettlement networking. Whilst we all have the military in common, we have come from very different roles and backgrounds which mean we don’t actually always have shared goals. Of course, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for military service leavers. The key for me was branching out to other networking events where I could meet people who were more aligned with the type of business that I was trying to find.

“One thing I found was very useful was to ask to meet up with people even if I didn’t think they had a particular opportunity relevant to me. The idea was that they could introduce me to their contacts which would then grow my network further and potentially put me in front of someone who could help more directly. Of course, I have done the same for others since then. The other approach is to always bear in mind your own friends and colleagues who are going through transition and to be generous with your contacts. If you put someone you know forward for relevant opportunities you’ll be surprised how many people will do the same for you.

“For example, just before I left the military I saw an opportunity which I knew would suit a friend of mine, who had left a couple of years earlier than me, really well. I sent her the advert that she wouldn’t have otherwise seen and she got the job. She has since gone on to share her contacts with me, which has helped generate new opportunities for my business. Networking shouldn’t just be about you but those you can help along your journey too.

“Another piece of advice I was given when I attended my first networking event that has helped me on several occasions, and is particularly useful if you don’t feel very comfortable at networking events, is to go with somebody else. It’s always much easier to talk about someone else than yourself. If you begin a conversation about how great your friend is, the conversation will eventually come round to what you do and it’s a much smoother transition to being able to talk about yourself rather than simply launching into what you do. For people who lack confidence at these kinds of events, it’s a really useful tip and one that I employed during my careers transition period on several occasions.”