Private sector hiring managers search for candidates who are not only technically skilled, but also strong leaders and great at problem solving – and most military veterans excel at both. Yet many veterans, despite their stellar qualifications, struggle to showcase their full potential during a job interview.

Recently, I sat down with Joe Allen, the manager for New Business Project Implementation at FedEx Supply Chain, to discuss why veterans under-perform on tough interview questions. The reason, according to Joe, comes down to a culture clash.

“In the military, the default mode is to follow procedure and obey command,” says Joe. “Unfortunately, if an interviewer asks how you’ll handle an unexpected situation and your answer is to ‘follow procedure’, you’ll come across as someone who lacks problem solving skills– even if that’s not the case.”

For example, Joe shared the story of a top candidate who stumbled when asked about a hypothetical problem. The candidate kept defaulting to the standard ‘follow procedure’ answer. Joe had to really push the candidate to finally say, “Oh, I know the procedure for that task and it sounds like these aspects would need to be modified to meet this problem. I can create a new process by pulling from past experiences and work around the problem like this.”

“We nearly had to disqualify the candidate because he couldn’t convey his problem solving skills,” says Joe.

Don’t let this happen to you. When it comes to job interviews, transitioning military veterans must make a conscious effort to demonstrate their leadership and problem solving capabilities. Here’s how:

1.Research the company and position. Do your reconnaissance work and know the answer to the following questions:

  • What does this company do?
  • What is the industry’s growth forecast?
  • Which of my skills or past experiences are most relevant to this job opening?
  • How can I better position the company to capitalize on new opportunities or protect against external threats?Don’t hesitate to tap into your veteran network for expert advice and company insights, either.

Don’t hesitate to tap into your veteran network for expert advice and company insights, either.

“I’ve been out of the Marines for 23 years and still know people all over the country from my service,” says Joe. “Fellow veterans are here to support your career transition– don’t hesitate to ask.”

By understanding a company’s needs and weaknesses, you’ll be prepared to position yourself as a solution provider, no matter what questions the interviewer throws at you.

2.Practice answering problem-solving questions using the STAR format.
“A lot of questions that we ask during an interview are problem-oriented,” says Joe. “We pose an example problem and see how the candidate reacts.”

If you’ve never faced this specific problem before, you might default to an answer like, “I don’t know” or “I would follow protocol.” Joe cautions against this approach. “The hiring manager wants to know how you’ll react to a new situation and is looking for insight into your problem solving skills. An answer like ‘follow protocol’ suggests you can’t think critically or independently.”

Instead, Joe advises following the “STAR” format in your answer: Situation, Task, Action, and Results. It’s also okay to acknowledge you’ve never faced this specific problem before and that you’re extrapolating based on other experiences. You could say, “I’ve never dealt with this specific problem, but it sounds like the issues is XYZ. ABC could address the immediate problem, and I’d follow up with DEF.”

Questions about how to polish up your interview skills or tackle tough questions? Please leave questions below and we will have a recruiter reach out to you.

 Please refer back to our first blog of this military transition series to learn more about common resume mistakes.

A special thanks to Joe Allen for sharing his military transition and veteran hiring insights with Lucas Group.