From Military Heroes to Security Assets
Military personnel have been selected, trained, and formed in an environment not found anywhere else. They come away from that environment with unique skills and experiences. Their personal traits vary, from relentless, front-line warriors to highly skilled analysts working behind the scenes in complex joint operations.
Given this training, ex-military personnel are an invaluable resource for virtually all facets of the security industry. But organizational leaders need to determine which asset—that is, which type of military-trained professional—would serve their company the best. This article is aimed at giving security managers a head start when recruiting ex-military personnel for specific security positions.
What an organization needs, what it wants, and what it possibly could get—these are all different things. Hiring managers need to know the difference among them. Security managers must understand how various military careers correspond to positions in the civilian world.
Usually, commissioned officers are trained in management and leadership. Noncommissioned officers also receive management and leadership training but in another way. Enlisted personnel usually have limited management training, or none at all.
If an organization is looking for a strategic planner, then a commissioned officer may be the best fit. If a company is looking for a manager with practical experience in the field, a noncommissioned officer may be the best choice. And if a firm has an entry-level opening, an enlisted soldier may be the most appropriate.
In all cases, though, potential employers should always make sure to check the applicant’s military record and credentials. Potential pitfalls await those who fail to conduct a proper check. For example, just as with a civilian candidate, there is the possibility that the military candidate’s top-notch credentials are not actually real. More commonly, the lack of a proper check may result in a hiring manager misunderstanding, and possibly overestimating, a candidates’ true abilities, leading to the hire of someone who is not a good fit for the job.
Fields of experience and expertise should also be a match. Say, for example, that the job in question is a security position in the construction and building industry. A good candidate may be a former military engineer who has experience building secure camps in Afghanistan with living quarters, office space, and communication facilities. Such a candidate may be preferable to a former infantryman who was checking IDs and vehicles at the gate to the camp.
Alternatively, if a company is looking for someone to safeguard its information from competitors, a former counterintelligence officer who worked in a military unit’s security cell might be a good fit. Such a candidate would likely be a better match than a former rescue officer, tasked with jumping out of airplanes to rescue downed pilots. The rescue officer, in turn, may be perfect for a close protection detail.
Age can also be a factor. Security companies that offer security personnel to clients might benefit most from hiring younger ex-military staffers—people who are still highly adaptive to a new professional environment and have the physical stamina to maintain vigilance on long shifts. And, of course, they are also trained in weapons handling, if the position requires it.
Of course, such clear-cut matches may not always be available at the time an organization is hiring. That’s not necessarily a deal breaker—different kinds of military experience, which may not seem like a perfect fit on first blush, may still be excellent preparation for success in your organization. In these situations, however, hiring managers need to be careful in asking the right questions during the interview, and in understanding the implications of certain experience.
For example, let’s say an organization finds a former company commander who has successfully led a ranger surveillance and reconnaissance unit for the last five years in his or her military career, and loved it. He or she could be a fine fit for a senior management position in a complex environment. If it is not such an environment, then the hiring manager should be careful, because this former commander most probably needs quite some challenge to thrive as a civilian.
In general, military personnel, regardless of rank or specialization, have a greater understanding of both safety and security than the average citizen. And in some countries, spending a certain amount of time in the military will entitle the serviceperson to subsidized study at college or university. If the degree was completed, this gives the potential employer two competencies, and it is also evidence that the candidate is achievement-oriented.
In addition, working for the government in general, and the military in particular, often involves good employee benefits. This may mean paid vacation, insurance, childcare, tuition, and more; the package differs from nation to nation. Potential employers should consider how the company’s benefit package stacks up against the benefits the former military applicant may have received in the past. It may be a factor for the candidate come hiring time.
Managers should focus on a few items when interviewing ex-military candidates. First, it is important to try to ascertain why the candidate is leaving the military. In particular, the purpose of these kinds of questions is to find an indication of the applicant’s motivation for a change in working environment, and to get a sense of the applicant’s willingness to stay with a new employer.
One reason for a desired change in environment could be a change in family life. Another reason could be an ambition to develop professionally in a direction that is not available in the military. In a military career, salary increases are often achieved by advancing in rank and taking on more administrative tasks—a path that not all military staff are interested in, even if they currently love what they are doing.
Managers should also ask about the applicant’s skills. Does military training give the applicant a knowledge base that is equal to civil standards? If not, is his or her military knowledge base easily translatable to the civilian world? For example, an applicant could have six weeks military security management training and thereby be certified to work with military security management. This could be equal to some civilian security management courses, but it would still not be the equivalent of a more comprehensive certification, like a Certified Protection Professional or Physical Security Professional.
The manager should also inquire about the applicant’s military credentials. The purpose here is to find out if the individual accomplishments that resulted in these outstanding military credentials will benefit the organization.
For example, an applicant may be a former U.S. Navy SEAL sniper with great qualifications in his area of expertise and several combat-related decorations. His accomplishments might include working in a hostile environment. These tasks usually demand a certain personality, and such an individual may not be suitable as a patrol officer.
However, such talents may be perfect for a more active security position, such as a close protection operative or a field security advisor in Somalia. The manager must ensure that the new recruit fully understands the differences between his former field service and whatever duties his new position will entail.
When recruiting management staff, the hiring manager should pose a few questions regarding the applicant’s views on management and leadership. This holds true whether you are interviewing a commissioned or noncommissioned officer. In a military setting, officers give orders to personnel—clear and concise commands explaining what problem needs to be solved and by what resources. This mode of communication saves time. In the civilian world, however, this firm and straightforward way of communication, while effective, is not always appreciated.
Commissioned officers who have ended their careers in an honorable way may meet resistance if they attempt to manage a nonmilitary workforce in the same way they would manage a platoon of infantry soldiers. They should have an understanding of this when changing careers; even better if they also have a plan for coping with it.
Such a plan could have several components. First, the exit from the military has to be planned. Candidates can do this by engaging themselves in study or civilian certifications in the security field; most successful ex-military staffers have at least some kind of certification or a bachelor’s degree relevant to their current position.
Second, the military idiom should be replaced with a civilian one in conversation. For example, “roger” would be replaced with something like “understood” or “OK.” Third, efforts must be made to build a professional network.
Fourth, the habit of maintaining a pristine appearance, which the military usually demands, should be retained. This is a distinctive trait that will always help distinguish an ex-military officer in his or her career.
A company could support the transition by using an apprentice-mentor or trainee program, depending on available resources. For example, an organization could offer entry-level positions with benefits that include extended on-the-job training with in-house mentors.
Instead of a high salary, the candidates will gain invaluable experience while performing needed tasks. Later on, they will either continue their career with the company or join another employer and become an impromptu ambassador for the excellent training received at the first organization. Such a mentoring system could work for management positions as well.
Once on board, it still takes some time for an ex-military employee to transition to a civil organization. Everyone who has succeeded in this journey has overcome the differences in the two environments. How long the journey takes, however, depends on the personality of the individual, as well as the level of similarity between the new position and the former military role.
So, if a candidate has spent 20 years as an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) specialist serving countless tours overseas looking for roadside bombs, he or she will need time to get comfortable wearing a jacket and tie. On the other hand, if the former EOD specialist goes to work for a private security company, training local nationals to do his or her former job in the hills of eastern Afghanistan, then that transition can be a much quicker one, because the roles are similar.
But even in the cases of slow transitions, it is important to keep the end result in mind. Most military personnel value commitment and loyalty. These attributes can be helpful in a security setting. In addition, most ex-military personnel are task oriented, straightforward, and pragmatic, with their highest priority being the assignment at hand. The combination of proven abilities and a dedicated approach can be powerful.
In a security setting, ex-military personnel make excellent team leaders. The experiences they gain in the field are invaluable as training, and the military’s values of collaboration and merit-based career advancement enhance their chances for success within an organization.
In the military, officers have to work their way up, be they a soldier, a noncommissioned officer, or a commissioned officer. Everyone has had the experience of being led by someone else before they have the opportunity to lead others. Progress in a military career is directly related to one’s ability to perform when completing different tasks.
Graduates from officers’ academies have already shown an interest in management, and their management skills have already been well-tested.
For soldiers, the most important common aspect of working life is that they always work in a team. Each soldier is part of a squad and has a buddy system comprising two soldiers within the squad. Soldiers never work alone. So, they are used to always having someone who is checking up on them, and they are used to having someone to always check up on.
Imagine, if you will, being wounded and trapped in a riot in the Balkans. Hundreds of agitated people surround your armored personnel carrier. The only people who can help get you out of there are your team members. You will understand the benefit of working in teams and solving problems together.
Commanders, too, gain invaluable and irreplaceable experience in the field. Imagine a situation involving a commander of an infantry company north of Baghdad, whose company is tasked with seizing and controlling a building that is occupied by well-equipped and highly motivated insurgents. With the assets at hand, the commander will maneuver different squads to support and attack positions to achieve that goal, by employing appropriate tactics.
Let’s say that, a few years later, that company commander now works as the head of a security department. He or she could easily manage different functions within the department to achieve company goals; the methodologies of planning and managing are the same.
AFFECTED BY EXPERIENCES
Military veterans have experienced situations that are unique. As stated before, many of these experiences may serve as training and developing skills that can be used in later careers. Unfortunately, not all of these experiences are positive.
Getting shot at, losing comrades, and continuously living under threat will negatively affect a soldier. But reactions to trauma, and the timing of those reactions, vary widely. Most people exposed to these kind of ordeals are still able to manage well later in life.
But some are not able to manage, and they may experience post-traumatic stress, depression, or other psychological challenges. Most of these cases are treatable, but they need to be addressed by professionals with support by members of the immediate community, including colleagues and friends. Rejection of someone who is ill is a recipe for catastrophe, and it does a disservice to someone who has sacrificed so much for a greater good.
For an employer of ex-military staffers, it may be a challenging task to find the signs of a potential problem. This can be especially difficult when recruiting or working with applicants who, for whatever reason, may not be forthcoming in discussing their mental health and general state of well-being. This reluctance may be due to their individual personalities, or it may stem from the organizational culture of the military unit for which they served. Generally, the easiest way to find these signs is to be personally engaged with staff members and frequently check up on their well-being.
In the end, it is important to remember when recruiting ex-military staff that the actual risk of hiring someone with an untreatable problem is low. The U.S Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 11 percent of Afghan war veterans and 20 percent of Iraq war veterans may be afflicted by post-traumatic stress. But, of those, the pool of former soldiers who suffer from an untreatable and unmanageable disorder is small. With the help and support of an understanding manager, those who suffer from psychological difficulties can get treatment while continuing to be a productive member of the security team.
Andreas Poppius is a course manager with the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency and teaches courses in crisis management and critical infrastructure protection. He has more than 10 years of prior military experience and served as a captain in the Swedish Armed Forces.