Why Your Rank Doesn't Carry Over into the Private Sector and What to Do About It

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(U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan M. Breeden)

Question: I retired from the Army after 20 years as an O-5. I thought rank would earn me a higher position when I entered the civilian sector but am finding most employers don’t value my military status. How can I navigate this?

Answer: While your military rank is to be commended, it does not transfer directly across to the civilian sector, unfortunately. Some employers do not understand what it means to serve 20 years in the armed forces, the levels of responsibility, sacrifice and risk you were required to assume and the unique circumstances under which you served your country. 

Unless you’re speaking to employers with a keen understanding of military duty, it’s possible your expectations might require realignment.

Navigating this challenge means considering these questions:

1. Are you trying to go “straight across” into a lateral position in a private company? 

For example, are you assuming that 20 years’ experience in the Army is giving you the same credentials and clout as someone with 20 years in a similar civilian job?

Try reframing: Consider what someone at the level you’re pursuing brings to the position. Do they typically hold advanced degrees, have several years of proven experience in the role, have a wide network of valuable contacts and so on? 

When you can look at the specific requirements for someone pursuing the same position you are, you can compare their qualifications to your own and evaluate the level at which you might go into a new position.

2. Have you translated your previous experience? 

During your time in the Army, you led people, managed critical aspects of high-stress missions and became well-versed in complex systems and technologies. Have you emphasized this on your resume? 

Or, if your resume still reads like your military occupational specialty (MOS), you might be confusing hiring managers who do not see the parallels between what you did before and what you want to do next.

3. Are you looking at your career’s big picture? 

Private sector careers don’t map as cleanly and predictable as the military. Be open to accepting a lower-level position to advance faster and further in the company or industry. With your knowledge and then civilian experience, you can find yourself making more and greater leaps forward in your civilian career and authority.

There’s a kind of unwritten rule in the private sector that if your background, skills and experience don’t align perfectly with what’s needed for a role, then more on-the-job experience, skill-building and exposure can be valuable. 

For example, someone who led a large nonprofit organization as CEO might choose to work as a director of operations in a for-profit company to learn the differences and nuances of the two types of operations. This individual is then better poised to pursue CEO roles in a private company.

Rank doesn’t mean authority in the private sector.

In addition to rank, status and position being different between the military and private sector, there is often a difference between being a leader and manager in companies. 

The manager is accountable for tracking performance, directing their teams and reporting their progress to the company’s senior executives, and they watch for abuses of time, track progress toward deliverables and ensure projects are well-staffed, on time and on budget. 

Leaders bring people together and inspire, motivate and encourage others to find success. The leader may also be the manager, but it’s not assumed they always are. In some cases, the leader doesn’t have the title, but has the authority.

As you navigate your transition, consider what type of work and responsibility you are seeking. Beyond the job title, look at the influence you’d like to have, the kind of people you’d like to lead and the accountability you’re comfortable with. Then, let those guide you to seeking a position that aligns with your experience, skills and talents in an organization that values your character, passions and vision. 

The title may not line up exactly with what you had in mind, and sometimes that can be negotiated later, but if the work, people, mission and values of the company align, you’re off to a great start.

The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty” (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication and reputation risk management.

A contributing writer for Military.com, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.

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