Keil Hubert: An Abridge Too Far
25 January 2016 |
Veterans' job titles usually don’t convey anything useful about what they’ve actually done – or what they’re capable of doing. That’s why Business Technology's resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert exhorts hiring managers to take a markedly different approach to screening and interviewing veterans for corporate positions.
Titles matter. I believe they matter too darned much. Titles are one of the reasons why it’s so bloody hard to match excellent candidates with critical vacancies – any misalignment between an applicant’s past job titles and the title of an open req that Human Resources has posted will result in darned good candidates getting incorrectly screened out of consideration. This is especially true for veterans trying to cross over into the private sector because our professional titles are almost exclusively proprietary to military service. They simply don’t translate into the corporate world, which means we don’t get the ‘credit’ that we deserve during pre-interview screening for the actual work that we’ve performed. This sometimes bites us during the interview as well, when the civilian conducting the interview can’t believe that we’ve actually done the things that the company wants done.
A painful example of this happened to me this morning. I’d applied for a program manager role in the marketing department of a local, manufacturing company. I’ve been a program manager. I’ve done all sorts of marketing work. I’ve worked in (and consulted for) very similar companies. I thought when I applied that I was a darned strong fit. Once we got to the first phone interview, though, the hiring manager asked what ‘marketing experience’ I actually had.
‘According to the posted description,’ I said, ‘the position requires three years of marketing experience. I have over ten years of experience.’ I explained some of the work that I’d done in military public affairs, such as publishing magazines designed to reinforce our brand cachet with our key stakeholders and making public appearances to calm public fears during the post-9/11 period. I described the brand evangelism that I’d engaged in as the head of IT, ‘selling’ our early data centre virtualization and disaster recovery solutions to military, civil service and political figures across the country. I described representing our unit ‘brand’ at conferences, hosting tours and lectures, making sales pitches, cementing alliances, publishing presentations and carefully maintaining the integrity of our brand. ‘Based on what you’ve said you’re looking for,’ I said, ‘I’m fully qualified.’ The gentleman heard me out, then dismissed everything that I’d said by stressing that I’d marketed an organisation rather than a product. So, it somehow didn’t ‘count’. If only I’d held the title at some point…
Doesn’t… count. More than triple the required amount of experience, and in twice as many functional disciplines. But it doesn’t qualify me because of the absence of an arbitrary appellation on my application. Oi!
This isn’t unusual. This is one example of dozens that I’ve experienced myself, and one of hundreds that I’ve heard about from my squaddies over the years. We veterans seem to spend the majority of our job-hunting time struggling to translate what-all we’ve done to a cynical audience that’s predisposed to discount us. Some days, it’s as frustrating as trying to explain particle physics to a brick wall; no matter what we say, our words don’t seem to have any meaningful impact.
Mostly, this happens because of three fundamental differences that separate the private sector and the military:
First, military culture has been around a lot longer than most modern businesses. The Industrial Revolution only kicked off 250 years ago. The modern corporation is (at best) only a century old. The entire concept of a ‘Human Resources’ function only came into existence in the late 1950s. Meanwhile, there are valuable lessons to be learned from studying battles, campaigns, politics and economics from 5,000 years ago. That’s why military organisations are quite comfortable using personnel terms and functional definitions for activities that are centuries old. If those terms don’t translate precisely into modern business terms, that’s the newcomers’ problem.
Second, the military creates functional roles (and, therefore, job titles) based on personnel divisions and abstractions that are unique to each organisation. My last professional designation, for example, was ‘C17D3B’. In the military, that refers to a fully-trained (-3 suffix) Commanding Officer (C-prefix) in the Air Force’s Cyberspace Operations career field (17D). Whereas in the corporate world, ‘C17D3B’ is a hexadecimal colour reference meaning 0 per cent cyan, 3.52 per cent magenta, 6.94 per cent yellow and 62 per cent black in the CMYK color space.  A squaddie and a print publisher can both use my old job code, but neither one is likely to have any idea what the other is talking about when they use it. Unless, that is, I apply for a job as a colour swatch.
Even when a military title is completely spelled out in English, it doesn’t always make sense to people outside the community. The title ‘Cyberspace Operations Officer (Commanding)’ conveys a huge amount of information to another Airman, but precious little to a civilian.  In corporate terms, I spent more than ten years as the senior leader of an IT support department. I had two senior managers working for me, who supervised eight shop managers in turn. In purely business terms, that equates to an IT director role. Unfortunately, I didn’t hold the title of ‘director’, so screeners are quick to discount my experience… even though it’s functionally identical.
Third (and most importantly), military service involves performing several simultaneous professional functions during each assignment. Just because a squaddie’s official job title referenced one specific organisational function, their actual range of implied, associated, and additional duties covered the equivalent of 2-12 different job functions – all performed at the same time! A squaddie’s career title (like ‘infantryman’ or ‘coxswain’) is often just a way to explain what sort of organisation the worker is assigned to, not what they’re actually doing. A squaddie’s assignment title (like ‘intelligence officer’ or ‘first sergeant’) tells you the primary function that they were expected to perform within that organisation. Then, the squaddie’s additional duty titles (like ‘key control officer’ or ‘family readiness liaison’) tell you something about the actual work they performed while they were there. Even if you know what a military title refers to, titles themselves never tell you the entirety of what you need to know about what the squaddie actually did, what she achieved or what she’s capable of.
That, then, brings me to the solution for all of this title malarkey: in order to successfully screen and understand a veteran’s qualifications to preform a corporate role, you have to understand the veteran’s experience. This involves a long and frank discussion, involving active listening and intelligent questions. If you actually want to understand what a squaddie can and cannot do for you, then you need to ignore the boilerplate interview questions. Instead, ask the veteran probing questions about what they’ve done in such a way that the military-unique language can be stripped away and actual, meaningful information can be conveyed.
To make this process as easy as possible, I teach my junior managers the following concepts to improve their efficacy when interviewing veterans:
Don’t ask a veteran what his or her title was; ask instead what his or her function was. What did they actually do? Accept that a veteran’s former professional titles are meaningless; they don’t translate directly to business roles. Instead, discuss what the veteran actually did day-to-day. Compare that to what people inside your company actually do and pencil in several equivalent working titles.
For example, a young sailor might say: ‘I supervised six people that performed maintenance and repair on radio equipment for an airfield.’ That makes much more sense than her title of ‘ATCALS maintainer’.  The type of work she did means that she understands the technologies underlying computer networks, radio systems, general electronics, electrical power systems, airfield operations and – most importantly – first-line management of technical workers.
Ask a veteran how his or her work contributed to the functioning of their parent organisation. Military personnel aren’t ‘individual contributors’ with only one function; each squaddie is a multifunctional cog in an impossibly complex machine. In order to understand the veteran’s accomplishments, you have to understand the operating context in-play where they were.
In the above example, the young sailor might clarify: ‘Our work ensured that airplanes’ navigation gear worked properly so that they could take off and land safely no matter the weather or time of day. If some of our components failed, planes might not be allowed to fly – which put people’s lives at risk, since our base supported an air ambulance service. Therefore, we focused on preventative maintenance – identifying faults before they impacted the larger operation.’ This element means that the sailor could serve with distinction in any role involving quality assurance, auditing, engineering safety or process control – all very important skills that aren’t obvious from her title.
Ask a veteran what his or her additional duties were, and treat each one of those as a job in and of itself. There is no such thing as a military unit large enough to have one worker for every required function; it’s normal for the military to assign the absolute minimum number of personnel to a unit needed to perform its primary function. Then, the bureaucracy overloads the workers with extra responsibilities that have to be accomplished, but aren’t important enough to earn another personnel allocation. This is important, since a squaddie’s title may not reflect what they actually did all day long – and it’s the work experience that qualifies them to perform a role.
For example, a young Army subaltern might have served as an Ordnance Officer. That’s a bloody meaningless term, and it doesn’t correspond to anything business-related. When asked about additional duties performed, however, he might respond: ‘I was our battalion’s Information Systems Security Officer. That meant that I was responsible for ensuring that all 200 PCs in our unit were kept patched and configured. I processed all new user account requests, and provided initial troubleshooting for network problems. I taught new users how to use our proprietary applications, and maintained our official equipment inventory.’ That experience would likely qualify the squaddie to serve in a Tier One technical support role, perhaps supervising a help desk or even running a small company’s IT department. The thing is, there’s no way to associate IT support skills with a career field that’s related to managing stockpiles of ammunition. You have to look past the candidate’s general function and assess his actual responsibilities.
Don’t ask a veteran why they left the service. It’s normal to ask a civilian why they left their former employer. After all, civilians can quit a job any time they like – and they can be terminated at the employer’s whim. Most interviewers just want to know if a candidate was fired, or if they had difficulty doing their job, or if they couldn’t get along with others. Those are issues that significantly affect the candidate’s suitability to perform in the interviewer’s organisation.
Military contracts are very different arrangements; squaddies can’t ‘quit’ when things get rough. More importantly, military life is considerably more intense than civilian life. Things happen in uniform that don’t happen most other places… things that may well shock or horrify the person asking.  Worse, military members tend to be blunt and direct about discussing unpleasant topics. Therefore, unless you’re prepared to hear something disturbing that you will never be able to get out of your head for as long as you live, it’s usually better to not ask the question at all. If asked, a seasoned squaddie will probably tell you. Good luck ever getting to sleep again.
Don’t ask a combat veteran what they did while deployed overseas. Unless the civilian job is with a defence contractor, combat experience isn’t relevant to the work. If there’s a professional link, the candidate will bring it up as an example. Otherwise, see above, re: learning things that cannot be un-learned.
Do ask a veteran about his or her formative leadership experiences. A veteran doesn’t have to have served in a formal leadership capacity in order to have learned valuable skills, techniques, and lessons. Ask them questions about how best to get results in chaotic situations. Ask them how to repair broken trust in a dysfunctional workgroup. Ask them how to employ constructive discipline. Ask them how to motivate a subordinate or peer to perform a scary task. Questions about leadership will tell you a lot about how perceptive and insightful the candidate is – which tells you a lot in turn about how well they learn by observing others.
Ask a veteran for examples of getting assigned a job that they were completely unprepared for, and how they handled it. This is another way to understand how quickly the candidate learns and adapts. Depending on the examples offered, the candidate might be worth talking a risk on ever if he or she is completely unqualified on paper. I did this with a former helicopter engine mechanic. The fellow had zero IT experience, but he possessed a keen mind, a hungry intellect, and a great work ethic. He became a stellar network engineer on our infrastructure team. He was utterly unqualified, but proved to be a great fit for the team dynamic.
Finally, give a veteran a fair fighting chance to pitch their case. Explain the job functions clearly, and then ask his or her how and when they performed those functions in the past – regardless of what title they held at the time. Don’t worry overmuch about whether or not the candidate has experience in all of the required tasks; focus instead on how well he or she did the work that’s close to what you need. Look for evidence of the candidate’s determination to succeed. If it’s there, then definitely consider him or her for an entry-level technical or managerial role – get the person on the team and work off their experience delta with training and mentoring. It might take a while, but you’ll have a much stronger, more loyal employee once all’s said and done.
To be fair, not all veterans are rock star performers; they’re people, after all. Some couldn’t hack it and quit the service at the end of their contract. Some got thrown out for misconduct. Some made it through an entire career coasting by on the power of relationships rather than accomplishments. There are just as many crappy veteran candidates as there are great ones. That’s the thing, though; there are fantastic candidates out there that deserve a fair chance to compete. Depriving your team of good people and strong performers because they don’t have the ‘right’ title is ludicrous. It’s bad business.
It’s also damned insulting to all of those people who sacrificed their health, their happiness, their family and their economic future in order to go perform an awful job that needed to be done so that you didn’t have to do it. You don’t need to say ‘thank you’ to help redress that imbalance; just ‘hello’ and ‘let’s talk’.
 This conversation really happened. Seriously.
 It’s sort of a dark bronze-y colour.
 Although it should be noted that COO(C) can be pronounced ‘kook’ when said aloud, which means ‘a strange or crazy person’. Not altogether inaccurate, given some of people I worked with.
 ATCALS = Air Traffic Control and Landing Systems. The military has initialisms for everything.
 Including, but not limited to, death, dismemberment, sexual assault, abuse, unimaginable pressure, lethal hazards, et al.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.