7 Secrets of Post-Military Success by Combat Veteran and Entrepreneur

Spencer Coursen on the set of Zero Dark Thirty (Photo courtesy of Spencer Coursen).

Airborne Ranger combat veteran Spencer Coursen has had a colorful career, filled with unexpected plot turns, including an appearance in the movie Zero Dark Thirty. Coursen has since moved on to the OPSEC and PERSEC industry, where he has built his business, Coursen Security Group, as a premier threat management consultant to world leaders, celebrities, Fortune 500 titans, and organizations. Coursen has an exceptional record of success in the evaluation and resolution of threats, conflict resolution, protective operations, employee terminations, physical security assessments, policy authorship, and vulnerability reduction. In addition, he is a strong veteran advocate and mentor.

Serving my country in combat was an honor I’ll always hold close to my heart. Charles Dickens was right: “They were the best of times, they were the worst of times,” and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But all good things must end, and at some point during your years of service, the conversation will eventually turn to “What’s Next?”

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Here are the seven things I wish I had known before trading my spits and starches for suits and watches.

1. You Are Going Back To Basic

Remember when you completed basic training and you thought you knew everything? Then you got to your unit and you realized you knew nothing? That’s the feeling you’re going to have when you first step foot into the private sector. Don’t get discouraged. Your military experience has taught you to adapt and overcome, and that’s a skillset many of your civilian counterparts won’t have in their pocket. Stay the course. Learn a new set of skills. Build upon your knowledge base. Work your way up. After all, If you don’t like it, you can always quit. The private sector is wonderfully different from the military in that regard.

2. No One Is Going To Train You

The military has a taxpayer-funded training budget and a dedicated cadre of professionals whose sole function it is to train you, retrain you, then train you again. The private sector doesn’t have that.

Have a great idea? Fantastic! But ideas are easy. Come back when you’ve got a prototype, a business plan, and market research report for how it will make us money.

If you’re lucky, the next best thing you’ll find to a squared-away NCO to take you under their wing is what the private sector calls a "Mentor.” Here’s the catch, you don’t find your mentor, your mentor finds you. Again, don’t get discouraged. Do what the military taught you to do: learn the job above; teach the job below. You already have the traits a mentor is looking for. You just need to get yourself noticed. How? By improving yourself with knowledge as early and often as possible. Make every day a school day.

The same information people are paying an insane amount of money a year to learn at Wharton is being given away for free online. Educate yourself. Listen to podcasts. Read books. Download Audible. Subscribe to iTunes University. There are a million free resources waiting for you to empower yourself.

3. Hard Skills are Great, Soft Skills Are Better

You can do a hundred push-ups without breaking a sweat, you’ve got a six-minute mile average and you have a shot group that can fit inside a quarter. Impressive, but it means absolutely nothing if you can’t write a cohesive sentence and communicate a comprehensive thought.

When it comes to getting that first interview, your uniform will help get you in the door, but it’s your personality that will help keep you in the store.

Human Resources and recruiters are looking for candidates who are as well-read as they are well traveled; who are as emotionally intelligent as they are well-educated.

Just as you would recon an enemy camp before you initiated an attack, do the same for your interview. Learn about the company. Ask smart questions. Practice your “elevator pitch.”  A client once told me she hired someone on the spot after asking, "What makes you different than others I’m interviewing?" The candidate answered, “I’m a great storyteller.”

She hired him on the spot.

4. Your Professional Network Is More Important Than Your Resume

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” It’s an old but timely quote that may have more relevance in today’s recruitment game than ever before. DO NOT shotgun the same resume to every job announcement you find posted on Zip Recruiter. Tailor your message to your audience.

In fact, worry about your resume later. No one gets hired from what they put on their resume. Your resume is just a conversation starter for after you’ve gotten yourself through the door.  Instead, develop your professional network. Get on LinkedIn. Introduce yourself to head-hunters. Ask smart questions. Offer to buy a connection coffee and meet for an informational interview. Find a veteran at a place you’d like to work and see if you can audit the office for a day.  

DO NOT wait until you transition out of uniform to start looking for your next job. It’s always easier to find a job while you are still gainfully employed. Don’t let the ace up your sleeve go unused. You should 100% play up the “thank you for your service” advantage you have while you’re still in uniform. The answer to every question you don’t ask is No and you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

This is your future. Don’t bunt. Swing for the fences.

5. There Is No Such Thing As Trust

There is no “I” in team, but there is an “M” and “E” and that’s “ME.”

Beware the savage beasts of civilians. Remember this: There is no such thing as trust. There is only self-interest. A person’s morals are always at their highest when the situation is at its most hypothetical. People will defend you as long as it serves them financially or advances their own success. If blowing out your candle helps theirs to glow brighter…be prepared for that to happen. Protect yourself accordingly.

6. Protect Your Personal Brand

Your personal brand is comprised of three things: it is who you are; it is what you do; and it is how you are perceived.  

In today’s world of social media where everything is geo-tagged, Tweeted, Snap-chatted, Instagrammed, and Facebooked to the hilt, there is no difference in the eyes of a prospective employer between your online-presence and your real-life self. No one is going to invest in someone who doesn’t have the awareness, the mindfulness, or the willingness to protect themselves in today’s media market. If you demonstrate a flagrant disregard for the value of your own brand, why would someone make you the ambassador of a brand infinitely more valuable than your own? In short, they won’t.

Stop using social media as a medium of personal expression and start using it to promote your personal brand. Promote your value, your hard work, and your motivation. NOT your opinion.

7. Use spell check and grammar check

And if you can have a trusted friend who is a decent editor, have them give your LinkedIn profile, resume, and cover letter a read-through. A second set of eyes makes all the difference. Everyone needs a good editor. 

Life is a road march. Left foot. Right foot. Repeat as necessary. Some days are uphill, others are down, but the push never ends.

Onward / Upward

Spencer Coursen, Airborne Ranger veteran and founder of Coursen Security, is a nationally recognized threat management expert who has an exceptional record of success in the assessment, management, and resolution of threats, domestic and global security operations, investigations, policy authorship, and protective strategy. Follow him on Twitter at @spencercoursen.

-- Sean Mclain Brown can be reached at sean.brown@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @seanmclainbrown.