From the barracks to the boardrooms: How my military experience equipped me for a career in business and tech
Special to Stars and Stripes December 22, 2022
After serving 12 years in the U.S. Army, I transitioned my career to work as a recruiter for business and tech companies such as Indeed.com, Facebook and TikTok. While this career pivot may seem counterintuitive, many may be surprised to learn that there are quite a few similarities between commanding military troops and recruiting software engineers. My uniform now includes a Seurat T-shirt, ThinkPad, and a Starbucks coffee, and my tool of choice changed from a M16 to everyone’s favorite networking site, LinkedIn. I still wake up at 6:30 a.m. with clear goals in mind to advance our team’s mission.
Once I made this shift, I quickly learned that veterans in business have an amazing opportunity to take lessons from the military into the next phase of their career. One constant cornerstone between both sectors is recognizing the power of people and empowering them to be the best versions of themselves.
Below are three key takeaways from this military veteran-turned-tech recruiter, and specifics about why I encourage more companies to hire veterans to continue pushing the boundaries of what’s possible:
Lesson #1: Foster an environment of trust
My first day of boot camp was on Sept. 11, 2001 — a jarring moment that quickly taught me that life-altering changes can happen at any time. I entered basic training thinking I’d be spending most of my time on army bases in the U.S., and I quickly found myself on my first deployment overseas. In light of these significant shifts, it was important more than ever to build a sense of purpose among the other soldiers and remain focused on the mission.
Soldiers are taught the importance of adapting to new environments rapidly, while remaining a united front. In particular, young adults, some just graduating high school, enlist into the Army and can be quickly sent to a new country or thrown into conflict. When constantly bombarded with the unknown and unfamiliar, soldiers rely on their sense of duty to trust others and follow them into battle.
This large sense of the unknown is also present in business. When it comes to recruiting, it’s important to create an environment of trust from the first minute a candidate engages with a company. As they consider joining our mission, I see my role as providing comfort to candidates and working to build trust by giving them all the facts — because a new job, relocation, and more are life-altering decisions.
While the scenarios and stakes in the military and business may be different, there remains the same sense of not knowing entirely what the next day, week, year may look like for your life. By fostering an environment of trust and transparency from the first conversation, candidates gain a better representation of what the company is seeking and can determine if a job is right for them.
Lesson #2: No BS, Just BLUF: Bottom Line Up Front
With every ounce of success there is rejection and adversity. I learned in the military it is best to offer the bottom line up front. In other words, no BS — just BLUF.
When I enlisted as a private, I had the most respect for those leaders who gave direct orders and offered transparency when appropriate. As I rose to commissioned officer captain and supervised a unit with more than 250 personnel, I strived to emulate this model of trust. What stuck out to me most is that to do a job well, soldiers do not need an elaborate description — they just need clear direction of what is expected of them. When you tell a soldier to move something from point A to point B, they will make sure that the task gets completed. Without the fluff, you allow them to be creative in their approach, and to fail and learn at the same time.
In recruiting, efficiency is key and beneficial for both sides of the relationship. Candidates should provide their deal breakers, and recruiters should respect their time and be honest as to whether the company is able to provide what candidates are looking for. I want to keep the best interests of the candidates in mind and to help them to have the most fulfilling career possible.
However, candidates must reciprocate. If they aren’t excited about the job description or don’t agree with compensation, they need to be up front about it. My goal as a recruiter is to ensure every position that gets filled is right for that new hire’s short-term and long-term goals. Throughout my recruiting career, I’ve found that candidates especially enjoy the hiring process when recruiters are direct in answering questions regarding company culture, pay, diversity, and more — transparency delivers the best “mission.”
Lesson #3: Listen to every voice — regardless of rank
Diversity of thought is critical to ensuring your environment is meaningful and productive. It is critical to the country and company’s success that everyone feels empowered to voice differing opinions, especially if they go against the status quo. To achieve this, we must each be unafraid to speak our opinions and advocate for the change we want to see.
The military proudly upholds structure and ranks — and rightfully so. But I still felt empowered to speak up when I saw something wrong. I once saw soldiers flicking cigarettes in front of the barracks where they shouldn’t have been. Despite not being a smoker myself, I was assigned to clean up their mistakes. I spoke up to my sergeant and told him that I didn’t think it was right — while I was reprimanded for disputing the task, I also wasn’t assigned that task again. This experience gave me the confidence to voice my opinions, regardless of my rank.
Similarly in recruiting, more companies need to attract talent by emphasizing that every member of their team is empowered to share their ideas and make important contributions to the team’s success. Candidates, especially those who are leaving their previous job due to lack of support, are looking for an environment that empowers them to make a difference for themselves and their company’s mission.
To achieve success, we need diversity of thoughts and opinions. This is especially true when building a team and finding business leaders.
From the barracks to the boardrooms, my career has taken me around the world and taught me the power of people. I encourage more veterans to pursue a career in recruiting because they already understand the criticality of people powering the larger mission at hand. As we build forward, more companies should look to hire veterans because we are Swiss Army knives — adaptable in any mission to get the job done. I am excited to tackle the next big thing and connect with more veterans in business.
Gary Bowman, a former U.S. Army captain, is director of hiring for Porsche/GM/Xerox-backed Seurat Technologies. He served in the military for 12 years and has worked as a recruiter for Meta, Indeed.com, TikTok and other firms.