It takes more than just “hard work” or “taking initiative” to succeed in your first job out of the military. I reached out to veterans who had been there, done that for specific, actionable advice. Here’s what they had to say.

What does it take to impress the boss at your first job out of the military? If you answered “dependability”, “taking initiative” or even “showing up on time” you’re not wrong. Work ethic, integrity, and reliability are essentials for success in all aspects of life. But I wanted to dig deeper. I’ve helped hundreds of people make the transition from active duty to the civilian world in the last decade, and I know the process is not easy. Rather than just telling folks to “take initiative”, I wanted to know what actual initiatives veterans had taken to impress the boss.

As an executive recruiter specializing in military transition, I’m privileged to have helped place an incredibly talented and successful group of veterans. I reached out to these veterans to better understand how they succeeded in their first jobs out of the military. Here’s what they had to say:

1. Don’t wait for the annual review to get feedback.
Nearly everyone I spoke with told me his or her biggest piece of advice was this: proactively seek feedback. Why? Most corporate jobs are structured to provide annual feedback in the form of a performance review. The military is different: officers receive regular feedback throughout their time in the service– and they thrive when they get this level of consistent feedback in the corporate world. Don’t tie your feedback to fixed reporting periods. Instead, after you finish a project, ask for constructive criticism. What could you do to improve the process next time? How can you strengthen your contribution? Proactively asking for feedback not only impresses the boss, but also helps you to enhance your own performance.

2. Improve a process.
As an “outsider”, you bring a fresh, valuable perspective to your new company. Use this to your advantage to identifying processes that could be streamlined or enhanced– and take the initiative to do just this. For example, a veteran who joined a software company as a trainer told me that the corporate training he was required to teach needed significant improvement. Worse, the training assessment tool was a mess and actually hindered a trainee’s ability to provide constructive feedback. So he threw out the assessment tool and started from scratch, asking trainees, “How can we create a better assessment tool?” Improving the assessment tool made it easier to identify the curriculum problems and ultimately build a better curriculum– a win-win for his trainees and his boss.

3. Establish a corporate DONSA.
Active duty military have regularly scheduled DONSAs (“Day of No Schedule Activities”) for team building and community service. DONSAs are valuable in the corporate world, too. A Marine Corps veteran at a Fortune 100 manufacturing company told me how he initially struggled to build a strong rapport with his fellow employees during regular office hours. Everyone was so busy on individual projects that there was little time to actually get to know people and build a cohesive team. His solution: established a “corporate DONSA”, turning it into a monthly Habitat for Humanity build day. Not only did he impress his boss by setting up the event, but he also built a much stronger corporate team, improving internal project performance. Ask your HR department if there’s a regular community service event planned. If you don’t have one, start one.

4. Connect with fellow veterans.
While large companies like PepsiCo have veteran groups for networking and mentoring, many smaller companies do not. At times it can feel as if you’re the only veteran at the company. Chances are good, however, that other veterans are there too– you just don’t realize it. Case in point: an Air Force NCO told me how he started a small veterans lunch group at his new company. The five people he invited to participate did not realize the other members were veterans, too, even though some had been working together for several years. You’re never alone. Take the imitative to connect with fellow veterans and build an internal support community for sharing best practices.

Bonus: Make a vocabulary list. This comes from my own personal transition experience from the Army to a software company. When I started at the tech firm, I couldn’t follow half the lingo. It’s pretty tough to impress your boss if you don’t know what your boss is asking you to do! I started making a list of any term or phrase I didn’t understand and then asking my co-workers for an explanation. My personal list ultimately evolved into a company-wide “cheat sheet” to help new hires quickly get up to speed. Transferring institutional knowledge to a new hire can be tough. An internal cheat sheet of company and industry lingo helps new hires feel like they’re part of the process from day one– rather than feeling like foreigners without a translator.


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