Translating your Military Experience in an Interview

For any professional career candidate, prepping for a job interview can be complicated. But for my clients—military officers transitioning from the service to the business world—the obstacles can be even greater. For these professionals, there is added challenge of translation.

The vast majority of the veterans I work with are high-achieving people who will become powerful assets to the civilian economy. They have the skills, the work ethic, and the ability to thrive under pressure. I know that. My candidates know that. Potential employers need to know that too.

To make the most of every interview opportunity, military professionals should never assume that potential employers can decipher military codes and references. Prep for an interview like you would prep for any other mission. Understand your situation. Know your goals. Recognize your challenges and be prepared to engage your strengths.

I recently wrote a white paper about this topic, sharing advice I’ve gathered over 20+ years of helping military professionals launch rewarding civilian careers. Here are eight top tips all candidates should consider when transitioning to the business world:

Interviewing is the art of storytelling. Your career is your story. It’s who you are, and stories are an excellent way to translate your military experiences into tangible business skills.

Don’t get too detailed. While a good story is memorable: too many details are not. Provide pertinent details to answer questions but don’t be so thorough that you lose your interviewer’s attention.

Answer the question, “So what?” Why should your interviewer be intrigued by what you’ve accomplished? It’s a critically important question and your answers should reflect what makes you compelling.

Take ownership of your achievements. Don’t shy away from your achievements. They are important indicators of what you offer a prospective employer.

Ditch the “No, Sir” and “Yes, Ma’am”. Be polite, not subordinate, in an interview. Addressing your interviewer as a superior and not a peer sends a subtle signal that you don’t belong in the same room…and you do.

Talk about what you did in the Military in civilian terms. Avoid military acronyms at all costs. Use business language to discuss military accomplishments.

Quantify and use data as much possible. The business world is driven by performance metrics. So is the military. Punctuate your stories of zero equipment loss or enhancements to operational readiness with data.

Summarize your accomplishments in the context of goal-setting and achievement. Explain your goals using the business concepts of goal-setting and achievement.

When paired with thoughtful research and intentional planning, these interview tips can help you translate your valuable skills and experiences into a successful, fulfilling career.

What are you doing to ensure you make the most of every interview?

I welcome your comments as you prepare to transition from the service into your next career. Join the conversation.


Great article! What I find particularly vexing as I consider the mil-civ transition is this;
What do I want to do? As I am quite sure I can translate my experiences from not knowing what an aileron was, then two years later in the seat of an F18! Am I trainable, adaptable and capable, clearly. But what do I want to do, what industry do I find wherein I don’t start off at the bottom floor, equal footing to that of a recent college grad?
I don’t agree with the argument that if the tides were shifted and a civilian wanted to jump into a senior officer position we would not be able to comprehend. We are comparing a life and death warfighter training pipeline to who can sell the most widgets or lead a corporate organization, wherein a poor decision made result in loss of life or assets, paid for by the taxpayers. There is no reason I can’t translate my experience directly into a senior executive role. Your thoughts?

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