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It's All in Who You Know

Veterans Transition Interview: Ling Shao, UnitedHealth Group

Networking is an integral part of your job search process. Without it, you stand the chance of doubling the amount of time you spend looking for a job. And, the military has a unique and close-knit network. There are several veterans' resources, such as the Veterans Career Network, that can help service members find jobs after they transition out of the military.

Ling Shao, a former sergeant in the Army, used her network of former service members to help re-adjust to student life while she got her undergraduate degree from MIT. She also used the veteran community to find potential job opportunities after she graduated from Harvard Business School. She credits this mentor network with helping her find her current job at Uniprise, where she currently works as a strategic client executive.

According to Shao, she got the job because she heard that Uniprise -- a global health care benefits company and subsidiary of the UnitedHealth Group -- is a "military-friendly company" and was looking for "ex-military" from a fellow veteran.

In the following interview she discusses how networking helped her through her experiences in college, business school, and subsequently in the civilian workforce.

Military.com: What branch of the service were you in, and for how long?
Ling Shao: I was in the Army, for two years active duty and six in the reserves.

M: What was your highest rank when you transitioned out?
LS: I was a sergeant.

M: Did you start working as soon as you left the service?
LS: I did not; I transitioned out and went to college at MIT first.

M: Did you have any difficulties transitioning from military life to student life?
LS: Definitely. My husband went through the same thing - he went to Columbia University - and we were a lot older. I think higher education tends to be very liberal and idealistic. If you've had some military experience, your opinions tend to be more pragmatic. So it's difficult in the sense that you're not going to share the same views as your peers. Plus, I was already married so I was in a different place in my life as well.

M: How did you overcome these challenges?
LS: My husband's school had a military veterans group, so that actually helped a lot. It acted like a support group, and I think [as a result of joining this group] I got a lot more out of the college experience.

M: When you did enter the civilian workforce, what hiccups did you encounter?
LS: When you enter a civilian environment it's different in the sense that there is not as much structure. If you're used to having things explained to you in black and white, it's definitely a shock. I think people in some companies are not mission oriented. So you don't understand the purpose of what you're doing and most managers don't take the time to explain to you why you need to do something.

Also, there is less accountability among your peers, which is very frustrating -- especially if you're used to that strong sense of being responsible and being on time.

Additionally, civilian managers don't give you credit for managing through influence while you were in the military. One of the impressions I got during one of my interviews was that I only know how to lead through an official line of authority because all of my managing experience came from my time in the military. This isn't true. Although you can punish someone by taking away pay or rank or title, you can only exercise that power so much before you lose the respect of your troops, and subsequently your ability to effectively manage them. I think a lot of people don't articulate that very well in the interview process. I also think people don't give themselves credit for being able to motivate their teams without the ability to promote or pay very well. A common complaint that I hear a lot of civilian managers make is that we don't pay better than our competitors. A crutch a lot of managers rely on is the belief that if "we pay better, so we should get better people." And that's just not always true. And if you look at the military, it's one of the worst paying jobs out there considering the sacrifices you have to make. But the military manages to recruit phenomenal people and when you're a manager in the military, you learn to motivate people through means other than pay.

Another thing that's hard to adjust to is that in a lot of corporate structures, it's not clear what steps you need to take to get promoted. When you're in the military you're told that these are the five things that you need to check off in order to get ahead, and that's not true for most civilian jobs. That was frustrating for a lot of my peers.

M: What mistakes do you see other transitioning service members make?
LS: People don't write their resumes in a way that employers can understand. People just assume that employers will know what they're talking about and will be able to interpret the jargon. The reality is that [employers] only have 10 minutes to look at a resume ... if that. If it's too hard to understand or it's not clear how your experience in the military applies to the job you're applying for employers will just move onto the next resume.

M: How did you prepare to re-enter the civilian workforce?
LS: When I was in grad school the military vets' organization and the alumni were very good at coaching us about editing the wording on our resume so that employers could understand it. Additionally, the vets gave us interviewing advice. A lot of military folks talk about their military experience in a very technical way, but they don't give good personal interest stories about their experiences. It may sound dumb, but sometimes you have to make [military] movie references. Some employers relate to that better, because how else would they relate to what you're talking about?

M: How did you find your job at Uniprise?
LS: I had a couple jobs and went to grad school before I went to Uniprise. I got my job at Uniprise because one of the guys in my school's veterans groups told me that Uniprise is a military-friendly company.

M: Does Uniprise recruit former military to their workforce?
LS: In the management program, they seek out MBAs with military experience. They are looking for people who can cope with a fast-paced, somewhat stressful environment. [I also think it's] because the company pushes down responsibility to middle management, they're looking for people that won't shy away from responsibility. They want people who can think on their feet and operate well under stress.

M: How does the program work?
LS: It's a three year program after you graduate from graduate school. They help you navigate through the company for a few years, then, hopefully, by then you'll have the network and resources to continue on by yourself.

M: What has surprised you about the civilian workforce?
LS: Being able to push back. You don't have the choice in the military. Being able to manage your managers and say "no" if you get overwhelmed or end up going in a direction doesn't make sense. Helping your manager plan your work schedule or propose how to go about doing something was a new experience.

M: You work along side a lot of former military. Do you see them struggle with the transition?
LS: Not too much because I'm in a program with a lot of veterans and people can always find another veteran to mentor them. But in other companies, you may not be able to find a mentor, so they may struggle a bit more.

M: Do you use your military skills in your current job?
LS: All the time. One of the first things you learn when you become a non commissioned officer is your core leadership skills, such as the 11 principals of leadership or how to give an order that's easy to understand and simple to execute. It makes you a better manager, because living by these principals has been beaten into you. And I use that mental checklist all the time. I think people in the military are less passive aggressive because they're good at telling it like it is. They'll tell you what they want and what you're doing wrong. You don't want to be passive aggressive when you're managing a critical situation in a stressful environment.

M: How can other service members without degrees get a job?
LS: They really need to go out and complete their degrees or get civilian credentialing. Hopefully they'll be able to get credits for the training they did in the military. I think they'll find that a lot of schools like having ex-military. There are a lot of scholarships and military aid like the GI Bill. Many schools can help veterans fill out all that paperwork. And there is often a veterans' service counselor at the school that can assist them with applications and transferring credit.

M: Should former service members try to network to find jobs?
LS: I think veterans need to use their network. They should tap into the network of former service members that they have or seek out people in companies that you want to work in that have military experience. It depends on the job level, but if you're looking for a management job, there are a lot of mentors out there that are willing to help you.

M: How can service members access these networks?
LS: There are a lot of local military vet groups out there. They're usually in every city and have regular meetings ... particularly the service academies. Or if you can't find a formal group, just talk to other people who are still in the military or just got out, or even friends of friends about how they got their job.

M: Do you think it's necessary to continue to network, even after you have a job?
LS: Absolutely. That also has to do with how successful you are within your company. It's how you find out about other opportunities. And it's also important for you to help people who just got out of the military as well. Somebody else helped you, so it should be something you continue through life. And I think a lot of people do that and that's why the military network is so powerful.

M: Was TAP helpful in your transition?
LS: It was somewhat helpful. To be honest, I didn't use it a lot, because it was for people who didn't know how to write a resume at all. It's useful at a rudimentary level. But if you want something more involved you need to reach out to mentors or your military network.

M: Are there job opportunities at Uniprise for service members who do not have a degree?
LS: We employee more than 50,000 people so there are a lot of opportunities.

M: How can former service members find jobs at Uniprise?
LS: They should go to our website, but I would also advise them to reach to someone who's ex-military that works at UnitedHealthcare to see what jobs are available in their group and network their way into a position.

M: What's the best advice you can give transitioning service members?
LS: Customize your resume to the industry that you want to work in. Don't get frustrated. It's often a crap shoot and it could take a long time. Don't take it personally, it's not necessarily a reflection of your value or work or experience. It may be that you just have to customize your message to what the industry jargon.

To find mentors in the military community and to search for jobs with military-friendly companies, visit Military.com's Veteran Jobs section.

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