I left the armed forces around three years ago. Having moved straight into a Project Management role, much as many other soldiers and officers had done, I found it to be an ideal role for someone from a military background.
Covering R&D and National Infrastructure Roll-outs in a Telecommunications firm, an industry I hadn’t any prior experience in could have been problematic. As it turned out, having a new approach to some fairly persistent problems proved to be a significant advantage. I got the opportunity to dive into project finances and budget control, a weakness that many leaving the military are acutely aware of, and at the same time worked in a large organisation that was able to support in my adjustment back into the civilian world of work.
Despite this, I didn’t see myself in the role long-term. Frustrations around the competency of some of my peers, the inflexibility of such a large organisation along with a lack of variety in my work, which had been the hallmark of my military career, all contributed to me finding many tasks mundane. And so I started to consider other careers.
Throughout my search, people were mentioning management consultancy in its various forms and had explained the benefits such as flexibility, challenge and variety – 3 key criteria for my future role. On top of this were the learning and development opportunities in working with different clients to work on a broad range of issues, providing the diverse and intellectually demanding environment in which I hoped to flourish.
One of my significant hang ups from the Army and the larger organisations I found myself in subsequently was that whilst everyone knew what the biggest problems were in delivering results, few were prepared to take the sizeable efforts to fix the truly underlying issues. Working as a consultant, I found I would have the opportunity to tackle the problems that are so endemic in every organisation, and so have a significant impact on the people and ultimately the bottom line.
As a result, I decided to take the leap, and I thought it might be helpful for other prospective or recent Forces leavers to see the kind of qualities that they could bring to the management consulting industry:
- Flexibility – The majority of military folk have found themselves in a wide variety of unfamiliar environments, often at short notice, all whilst receiving what can be best described as unclear instructions. Whilst the instructions are generally fairly clear (contractual obligations help fix that particular problem) you’ll be surprised in your move to civilian employment at how many people are uncomfortable with this degree of uncertainty. The flexibility to act in a way that optimises the results and not be anchored down by a fixed plan is truly an asset.
- The ability to interact with people at all levels – At many points in your military career you would have worked with an incredibly wide range of abilities and seniorities, possibly amongst the same group, definitely within a single setting. The ability to move from strategic thinking, back down to the lower levels and then work out the impact of each on the other is something that others will struggle with.
- Travel – For many, leaving the military means the opportunity to stop spending so much time away from home, and this can be a total deal breaker in searching for your next career. Spending up to four nights a week away from home brings variety and many of the learning opportunities that consultancy offers, along with the commercial opportunities too. On top of this, unlike in the military, your weekends are your own, along with opportunities to plan leave well in advance.
- Getting things done – The phrase ‘a good plan in time is vastly better than a perfect plan too late’ is one that is drilled into you in the military. This can be a rarity in the civilian world, and an unwillingness to get something done is a serious problem in commercial organisations. From a reluctance to take responsibility to an aversion to acting without every single piece of information, having someone come in and take charge can almost be a relief to many managers. This is particularly true when covering something new or when changing an established norm within the business. The disposition to taking action is a characteristic that is in high demand.
- Key stakeholder management – This is not just keeping your senior sponsor in the business happy, but managing conflicting interests and people. The willingness to hold someone accountable, making sure they’re not pulling off in a different direction that doesn’t serve your client is again, something many people struggle with. Being able to do this with sensitivity but firmness is a quality that most military personnel possess, and is something that many firms rely on consultants to do.
- Constant Training – Learning new and refreshing the old skills is something that is ingrained in military life. It is a mentality that is present in all of the consultants that I have met thus far. Having a sense of enthusiasm to learn and being able to develop this outlook in your client’s personnel is, in my opinion, integral to being a successful consultant. If you don’t transfer this mind-set to your client teams, they will never be in a position to take on board what skills and ways of working that you have to offer. As a result, you will only be returning to the client site to redo the work that you had already put in place.
- Adversity – Clients bring consultants in for numerous reasons, be they to compliment a project by providing a missing skill amongst their own staff, to providing external validation for their plans within the business. But commonly it is to make changes or to see through improvements that they know will be difficult. Typically, military personnel have seen their fair share of adversity, and the ability to tackle problems and still see through the project or achieve the end result is something that is highly valued in the commercial environment.
These are just a few of the skills that many military people possess and can bring to the consultancy world, and this list is by no means exhaustive. Certainly not every skill taught in the military is useful in the consulting domain, but between a willingness to conduct high level thinking, getting down in the weeds, flexibility and the ability to diffuse conflict and bring a team together, ex-Forces personnel could have much to offer the consulting industry.
Written by Alex Fitzgerald, Coriolis Ltd