Army Major Laura Blair, Director of Employment at the OA, outlines how to take that next career step.
You haven’t yet gained commercial experience, so when the time comes to leave the Armed Forces, how do you use what you have learned to maximise your value to business and make yourself that ‘sought-after’ candidate?
Amongst Service leavers, there appears to be a myth around a lack of ‘commercial skills’ and ‘business acumen’. Just because you have not yet worked in a business environment doesn’t mean that you don’t have the skills to thrive in a commercial organisation. Does delivering operationally within a military environment differ significantly from developing new services for the civilian market or managing a team within a company?
You may have heard terms such as ‘commercially astute’ and ‘commercial know-how’ but what do they actually mean? Often, when people use these terms, they refer to an ability to recognise an opportunity to fulfil a need or provide a service, and usually for profit.
There is no big secret to being commercially aware, says Clive Lowe, OA’s Deputy Director of Employment and former Royal Engineer; it is simply a mindset and it can be practised, especially before an interview. “It is helpful to broaden your knowledge and reflect on your own experiences to help learn from them.” Clive advises Service leavers to keep up to date with the news - check social media for company updates and plans and read through annual reports to understand how organisations operate in a post-Brexit, post-Covid world.
Ben Farrell MBE, former Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion Irish Guards and now Head of Operational Support & Stock Flow at Waitrose and John Lewis, reveals that he undertook a career consultation with the OA before interviewing with John Lewis. It was his Career Consultant who “...suggested I read their Annual Report and Accounts. I am glad I followed her advice as the person who wrote them subsequently interviewed me and ultimately offered me the job."
How do you get commercial experience? If you entered military life in your teens or early 20’s, then the chances are you have never set foot in a commercial organisation. Yet employers recognise the value of military training and what you’re able to deliver. They actively recruit ex-Service personnel on this basis. However, your entry point into an organisation might be lower than anticipated, primarily to give you time to get up to speed with how that organisation works. View this as a positive and take a longer-term perspective on what you want to achieve, rather than seeing this as a short-term demotion.
Large organisations like Barclays, BT, Deloitte and Amazon run dedicated military recruitment programmes and often have former military personnel at the helm who recognise the skills and potential you bring and therefore plan on getting you up to speed quickly. Former Army Captain Chris Recchia, a Senior Partner at Deloitte, leads their Military Transition and Talent Programme and believes a career in the armed forces forges transferable skills that are more critical for business than ever.
Chris is the driving force behind Veteran’s Work, a consortium of partners including the OA and Forces in Mind Trust (FiMT), publishing employer-led research highlighting the skills and value Service leavers offer civilian employers. Chris points out that employers who hire veterans rarely hesitate to recommend them, as they are more likely to provide an immediate return on investment than their civilian counterparts.
While larger organisations have bought into the benefits of hiring former Service personnel, where does that leave those looking for work with smaller organisations?
When applying for a civilian job, it is essential to read the job description carefully and identify the competencies highlighted. Clive Lowe states: “A lack of direct commercial experience doesn’t stop you from applying as long as you can clearly highlight why you are a suitable candidate for the role and how your military skills can benefit the business” The onus is on you, as the applicant, to demonstrate your fit for the job.
As a former Career Consultant, Clive recommends Service leavers and veterans take advantage of the employment services on offer through The Careers Transition Partnership (CTP), RFEA (The Forces Employment Charity) and of course, the OA. They can help you frame your military skills and experience within your CV and LinkedIn profile. Their expertise will help you focus not just on what you did but also on how you did it and the personal qualities you drew upon to achieve it.
Many organisations offer work placements to serving personnel, for example, Openreach, Barclays and BNY Melon run Civilian Work Attachments (sometimes known as Trial Attachments). This is a great way of securing first-hand work experience whilst still being paid in the Armed Forces, and in return, the employer benefits from access to military skills. As a first step, speak to your Resettlement officer or register with the OA to find out which organisations are offering work attachments.
If you have more than 15 years military experience, you will naturally be looking to enter the workforce at a more senior level. One organisation that supports the transfer of senior-level skills to the commercial boardroom is Onboarding Offices. Their founder and Chief Executive, Jo Haigh, has identified how officers already possess the attributes required for Non-Executive Director roles and run courses to help officers familiarise themselves with business language and operational needs.
Jo is clear-sighted about the value of military skills,” Onboarding Officers aims to increase the diversity of British boardrooms and who better than our senior military personnel to bring this further dimension to boardroom executive teams.”
Looking at the future of work, it might be tempting to conclude that those with razor-sharp commercial skills will be most in-demand, yet recent research from Deloitte suggests otherwise. A current podcast series exploring what the future means for organisations and their workforce concluded that the main focus would be on human skills to create a competitive edge.
Authors Jonathan Eighteen and Aoife Kilduff believe it is those essential human skills of curiosity, insight, empathy and resilience that will help organisations develop a more agile approach to delivering value for customers. They cite as an example resilience in overcoming the limitations of technology – where the computer says no, the human mind applies a more critical analysis. Good news for Service leavers who can evidence human skills at their finest.
Key steps to working in a commercial environment.
Understand the market sector your new employer operates within. Research the industry, access information to help shape your knowledge of what ‘commercial’ means and boost your confidence about what you can achieve.
Gain an understanding of the commercial model and strategies that underpin the business, product or service your new employer provides.
At an interview, make sure you give examples of your transferable skills in action so that the interviewer understands the cross-over between military and civilian life.
Remember, you have enjoyed the quality and breadth of training that civilians rarely receive, so utilise what you have learnt. For example, when given an opportunity to lead a project, acknowledge that civilian co-workers are not under your command and will need the best of your ‘soft’ skills to guide them and the project to completion.
Ensure qualifications you gain while serving are of value in the civilian world. Don’t forget, the Armed Forces lead the way in technology and cyber, so employers will be clamouring for your services if you’ve gained qualifications in these fields.