Hiring a Vet part 3: Leading Veterans in the Workplace

By: Peter Sessum
Military HandshakeMany companies like the good press that comes from saying they like to hire veterans. Some companies even follow through with that. Unfortunately, many civilian supervisors do not understand how to lead veterans. Mostly it is due to the differences between the military and civilian cultures. Understanding that veterans have a different value system and adapting management styles will be a rewarding experience and help get the most out of the newly employed vet.

Don’t talk about the military in the beginning

This one can be difficult because anyone that specifically hires vets might be interested in the military experience. Unless you have military experience yourself, it is usually not good to talk too much about the military to the veteran. While swapping stories is commonplace in the military, vets usually don’t feel comfortable talking about some experiences to people that won’t understand or be able to relate.

This goes back to that favorite interview question, “What is your most stressful day on the job?” After multiple deployments it is difficult to relate to someone that has a meltdown when the copier breaks. Vets usually feel most comfortable telling stories to people they know. Expect for the people trying to get attention and those people should not be trusted. Remember, there is a reason a veteran is not in the military anymore and except for retirement it might be a touchy subject.

In fact, being too eager to talk about military experiences could be a red flag. A veteran relating a story from time in the military that is relevant to the situation at hand is normal. A veteran that wants to talk about firefights and crazy missions right off the bat is a red flag. Even if he isn’t lying this is going to be an employee that is going to be constantly desperate for attention and will be a drain on time and resources and disruptive to team dynamic especially if he sees someone that can call him out or has better stories.

Let it go

Once a mistake is pointed out, drop it. If there is some corrective action that must be done the incident should be dropped right after that. Unless it is a habitual problem it should be set aside. In the military soldiers make mistakes, they might get yelled t or have to do some pushups and then move on. It is the poor leader that keeps bringing up a mistake over and over. Especially if there is a long time between mistakes or they are unrelated.

Mistakes can be learning experiences and the lesson should not be to never make mistakes. The only way to never make mistakes is to never try and that is not what any employer should want from his employees. High performing employees should earn some slack when it comes to verbal correction. It is far better to have subordinates work hard so they can afford to make mistakes than to have them work just hard enough to not get fired.

Be careful of the precedent you set

This is one that people in both civilian and military leadership positions screw up. If a subordinate is late 10 minutes one day and then six months later is late again a supervisor should look at the big picture before saying anything.  If that vet is the top producer and doubles quotas every month but is told he has a “history of tardiness” the message he will receive is that punctuality is what the job is based on. From that moment on he will never be late again, but he will also never deliver more than is required.

Military members have to navigate a very delicate system and the last thing any employer would want to do is shoot himself in the foot by sending the message not to work hard. A good leader will see that 10 minutes late every six months is a small price to pay for greater productivity. If it is clear that the supervisor doesn’t respect the hard work the vet is putting out it may cause the vet to lose respect in the boss.

Respect is earned, not given

Leaders inspire respect, managers demand it. No one joins the military for the money. If your authority is based on the fact that you sign the paychecks and remind your subordinates of that fact you will be seen as a poor manager. A paycheck is compensation for work completed, not a favor bestowed by the company.

Lives are literally on the line in the military and a poor leader will get people killed. Military members are constantly asked to do uncomfortable and unpleasant things and for the right leader they will do those things willingly. Every veteran can name a leader that they would follow into the depths of hell without question because they trust that leader’s ability to get them out. Or, and this is even more important, they trust that they wouldn’t be led into hell without a good reason. Every employer should strive to be that kind of leader. The loyalty of a true warrior is something that doesn’t come easy, but when you have it you can accomplish great things. When you don’t have it, your success is limited.

Attitude reflects leadership, not the other way around

One of Murphy’s Laws of Combat is “Inept leaders always say they have inept soldiers.” It is not a coincidence that the best leaders always have the best soldiers and that the worst NCOs have the dirtbags. If a soldier, or an employee, performs poorly no matter the supervisor it is him. If he performs well under a different supervisor then it is you.

I have seen soldiers that were considered dirtbags with bad attitudes by one squad leader do a 180 and be one of the best soldiers with great attitudes in another squad. Every poor performing employee is just a poorly motivated employee and that is the fault of the leadership. If a manager can’t figure out a way to get the most productivity out of each individual, maybe he shouldn’t be a manager anymore.

Recognition goes down credit goes up

This is a very military thing. Each supervisor should give credit to subordinates when the task is complete but take credit for the team when talking to their supervisor. When a team performs well, the team leader should give credit to the people that worked hard. Then, he can say to his boss, “Look what my team accomplished.” She can congratulate him on a job well done, gather up what the other teams completed and then tell her boss, “Look what my division did.”

While it seems like grabbing credit, there is no reason for the CEO to know what each team member did unless it was one individual that did something great. It is important to recognize good performance, but there is an understanding that the team leader will get credit from higher up for the success of the team.

Break the communication barrier

This is one that civilian employers have a difficult time with. My friends and I didn’t even understand where the difficulty was for a long time. The communication barrier is more than just veterans using military speak that is chocked full of acronyms. There are simple sentences that mean something completely different to civilians.

When a mistake was pointed out I was taught to say, “No excuse.”

To the military mind that means, “I see the mistake I have made, I take full responsibility, I will correct the error and it won’t happen again.”

To the civilian boss it means, “I don’t care, I have a crappy attitude and I am too lazy to come up with a suitable bullcrap excuse.”

While the veteran might be taking full accountability the perception is that he has a bad attitude. This can be especially troublesome when working on a group project. The veteran will take accountability for his or her own actions and everyone else will point fingers. This means that everyone is in agreement that one person screwed up. For the boss that likes to place blame, these situations can be hell for veterans. Service members are taught that it is the lowest form of life to throw a coworker under the bus, even when they deserve it. Even if it is known that the vet didn’t make a mistake, he shouldn’t be pushed to call out a coworker. Doing so would set the precedent that honor is not valued and that blame is more important than fixing the problem and moving on.

This can be a red flag moment. If a vet is all too willing to throw coworkers under the bus (be a Blue Falcon in military speak) then he is a man without a code and should not be trusted. It means you have a dud vet.

Another communication problem seems to be what civilians think of as a veteran poker face. It too is often misunderstood as attitude. From the military perspective, it is maintaining professionalism. Getting compliments or criticism both require maintaining composure.

All one has to do is Google “Medal of Honor Ceremony” and click on images. The Medal of Honor is the highest military honor and most recipients are posthumously awarded. To survive to be awarded is a pretty big deal. In every image the service member is straight faced when the medal is being placed around his neck by the president. It is only after he is no longer at the position of attention does he smile.

And that is the problem of perception. When getting yelled at or awarded, a soldier can find himself at the position of attention. Ramrod straight body with an expressionless face. Civilian supervisors can misinterpret this professionalism as disrespect, attitude or disinterest in the job. I had a boss call me “passive aggressive” which made everyone that knew me laugh. It took me a long time that the reason he thought that is because I didn’t visibly react when good things happened or when he went on one of his famous crazy tirades. He needed a very expressive reaction to make him feel like he was reaching me or that we were effectively communicating. Instead, it cost him respect.

Results v process

This can be another breakdown in communication between the civilian employer and the veteran. Military members are used to trying to attain favorable results rather than following a process. This comes from working in a fluid environment. While missions are planned in fine detail there is a lot left open for adjustments on the scene. One of Murphy’s Laws of Combat states, “No plan survives the first contact intact.” Meaning once the bullets start flying, the plan goes out the window until someone puts a cap on the can of firefight.

This is not unusual in the civilian world, a quarterback reads the defense and adjust his plans on the fly. A cab driver sees an accident and changes his route. The result is what is important. Unless there are reasons for strict adherence of the rules, like major government regulations, the results are what are important. I had a boss that hated me because I didn’t follow the steps of the process but loved my results. I skipped steps because they were not all needed and I knew that in a five step process that I would hit a roadblock at step three and not be able to complete the mission.

This is why vets usually just need to be told the end state and let them take it from there. This is not a blanket policy because some troops need constant supervision. Any manager that doesn’t know the difference should not be managing people.

Leading vets is easier than you think

All of this might seem daunting for an employer but there is some good news. It will be difficult to be the worst boss a veteran has ever had. Doing the math I have had over 25 first line supervisors in my military career. Of all the bosses I have had, my worst civilian boss wouldn’t break the top five. Maybe not even top ten. I wouldn’t advise taking that as a challenge. It means that putting everything in perspective, civilian bosses are easier to work for. Plus, we can quit at any moment.

The bad news is this also means that a civilian boss might not be the best boss a vet has ever had either. Some of us have worked with true heroes and those are some huge boots to fill. But don’t worry, no one would expect that of you.

Veterans bring all those values and intangibles that many companies are looking for. They can be trained and set free to accomplish tasks like no other. Vets understand a different team dynamic than most civilians, but they won’t get bogged down in cliques or gossip. Most will be able to work effectively with people they do not like which is rare in the civilian world.  Being a little understanding and trying to work through communication issues will help lead to one of the most successful employees. Be a good leader and there is nothing vets won’t do for you. Be a bad manager and you won’t reap any of the benefits. It all starts with the leader.

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