Transitioning from Active Duty to the Private Sector: Setting Yourself Up for Creativity and Success!

Transitioning from Active Duty to the Private Sector: Setting Yourself Up for Creativity and Success!

A Respectful Welcome To You!

People who are transitioning out of a military or law enforcement career into the private sector ask us if we are hiring all the time. They also ask for tips on making their transition off of Active Duty. I have personally mentored a handful of people from the most elite units in the US Military arsenal in their transition off of Active Duty military careers. I've interviewed numerous candidates and had hundreds of conversations with friends and friends of friends looking to make the transition from Active Duty or Full-Time Sworn LEO to the private sector (Firefighters appear to be differentially great at setting up Crossfit Gyms while they are still working as a full-time professional Firefighter, so this article may not be as useful for our Thin Red Line brethren). It can be done, but there is a way to set yourself up for success. 

Above: Swearing-in ceremony for Qore Performance Co-Founder and CEO Justin Li with the San Diego Sheriff's Department 

We are super humbled and grateful that so many customers and friends of ours wish to work for Qore Performance. Unfortunately, of the dozens of impressive folks -- people of wonderful character who have done great things to protect our country and our communities -- few have the exact technical skill set we need right now and the core Qore Performance team (see what we did there) is way too tiny to train (we are just 12 strong, but growing with a need to fill about a dozen more positions ASAP). Still, as a mark of respect let me share a few tips as to what will make for your most smooth and successful transition into the civilian sector.

I was in law enforcement for 7+ years. None of us were military. I can only write from my own experience and that of my many friends and colleagues who have made this transition. Think of this article more as “tips from the start-up front line” rather than “tips from someone who has walked a mile in your shoes."  

If that's still useful for you, read on. If not, well, God invented the "delete" key for a reason. Live long and prosper.

Innovation, Accomplishment and Why

This article is a composite of my own experiences as an entrepreneur as well as hundreds of conversations I've had with my friends and colleagues still on Active Duty in some capacity about this issue. One piece of feedback they gave me is how startups present a unique chance to operate freely, unconstrained from the limits of bureaucracy and politics while doing work that matters, where you get to see the fruits of your labor, often in extremely short periods of time. Your actions generate results and you know why you are doing the work you are doing. The only limit to your accomplishments in the private sector (especially in startup world) is your own ability. I completely overlooked this aspect of working in startup land, almost as if I've taken it for granted. 

At Qore Performance, we often take a concept to market in as little as eight weeks from initial identification. Just imagine working on a project that starts as nothing in January and by March it is live and in the hands of end-users, helping keep them safer on the job. This type of impact is difficult to quantify, but the feeling is unbelievable. 

Skills

D-TAC, CQB, MARCH, ABCs, LTL, EVOC, Land Nav, marksmanship, hot stops, weapon manipulation, small unit tactics, vehicle interdiction, etc. are not skills we use in everyday tech start-up life. These capabilities speak extremely well of you -- especially your character, your ability to be a great team player, and your ability to operate under stress. However, while necessary these qualities aren't sufficient.

What we are looking for right now is fulfillment, fabrication, production, digital marketing (video production, UX/UI, SEO specialists), and creative writers who know PR. You have demonstrated your competence in using gear that is similar to the innovations we create. Right now what we most need are people to build, ship, and sell that gear to get it into the hands of those who need it most.

So, using us as your guinea pig, here's a list of the kind of technical skills that we are looking for in people to walk in having mastered as of Day One.  (If this describes you, email me immediately!)

  1. Software: Excel/Sheets, HTML5, CSS, Adobe Suite (in order: InDesign, Illustrator, Premier Pro, Lightroom, Photoshop, After Effects), digital photography/videography, Social Media Platforms (YouTube, Rumble), GSuite, Accounting Software (Quickbooks, Xero, etc.), Google Analytics, Shopify (or other e-commerce platform), Fusion360, Solidworks, Blender, Keyshot, Rhino, Adobe XD, and many, many more.
  2. Fabrication: building actual things and the fingertip touch to manage those people who are building our products right here at our headquarters (we do almost all of our own manufacturing). For example: sewing, pattern making, nesting, mold flow analysis, CNC machining, tooling, plastics, 3D printing, welding, carpentry, electronics, Arduino Boards, servos, welding (ultrasonic, RF), laser cutting, soldering, blow molding, injection molding, and much more.
  3. Accounting/Finance/Supply Chain Management: do you know basic accounting? This would be useful in many job situations and we value these skills in our prospective recruits very highly. If you can balance a checkbook you can learn these skills, and quickly, in almost any community college or online university. We can't afford to provide on-the-job training but mastery of this stuff will make you a more valued -- meaning more highly compensated -- asset.
  4. Government Contracting: do you know how to navigate the world of government contracting, especially for the Defense Department agencies? Most importantly, have you had deep experience with it. You don’t need to have memorized the thousands of pages of the Federal Acquisition Regulation or Defense Acquisition Regulations system. Or their state or municipal equivalent. That said, in having this proficiency you possess greater value to prospective employers. If you are interested in participating in sales to the government, having these skills down cold is a must.
  5. Sales Skills: do you know how to generate your own leads and close them? If you do, this is one of the most valuable skills anyone can have in any business. If you can do this and prove it, email me!

Mindset

Most businesses in America have fewer than 500 employees. That means that there just isn’t the same level of staff support in companies today as there is in government agencies (or used to be back in the far more hierarchical corporate structures of our parents' and grandparents' era). The private sector tends to have a far leaner and meaner "tooth to tail ratio" than Uncle Sam. In the longer run -- since you are coming in from a warrior culture and can be presumed to prefer to be tooth instead of tail -- this is a great thing for you. In the short run, though, expect a culture shock. 

In the private sector, rarely is there a “specialist” for something outside your job function. Collateral duties are the name of the game. You don’t have a JAG or Union Lawyer handy for professional and personal legal matters. There is no travel agency to book your trip for you and the guidelines might be far less restrictive than you are used to while also demanding total accountability.

We at Qore Performance have intentionally created a culture that minimizes infrastructure/bureaucracy. Nobody is going to do the admin or logistics for you. I am the CEO and I read and answer my own email. I book my own travel. I don't have a secretary or assistant or whatnot to handle my administrative chores. And guess what.  Around here, you wouldn't either. That's not everybody's cuppa joe.

Relationships matter. This is more true in the private sector than it is in government. Positional authority has no place in our company and we make every effort to run our company as an idea meritocracy. Respect will be earned by everybody, from everybody, everyday. You have to know how to get people to want to do things for you.

It demands high agency from you. If that's your idea of a good time, great. That said, it's neither sin nor character flaw to prefer a more comprehensive external structure. Just...save yourself time. Focus your job search on big corporations, not tiny little "everybody's gotta do everything" tech startups like us.

Expectations

One of the most common misconceptions I see in transitioning prospects is their expectations. Many people leaving government service think that everybody in the private sector is making bank. Not so, and unrealistic expectations can lead to awkward conversations for both you and your prospective employer. Many government jobs pay better than their private sector equivalents. However!

Government jobs aren't ever a ladder to real wealth. In the private sector you can, if you choose right and get lucky, move up to much higher levels much faster than in a government agency. You can even get rich.  That said, unlimited earning potential is far from a sure thing. To thrive you need to be comfortable with assuming a much higher level of career risk than is typical in government service, which is much more of a "sure thing." Being subject to the competitive pressures of the marketplace, which is mainly how your salary and promotions are determined, is a rude awakening for some people. Successful people in the private sector can easily jump a decade or two's worth of GS pay scales in a single year. Yes, you read that correctly: you could go from E-1 to making more than the Commander-in-Chief in a single year in the right position with the right performance year under your belt. In government, that jump could take your entire lifetime.

To be clear, this is far from a sure thing. But, it is possible. In the government, this is impossible. It literally can't happen (well...not without committing a major crime or two...).

Network

A common myth among people leaving government service is that as soon as they get out, their network has long term value. We often hear “Oh, I know all the guys over at that shop, I can get you in there easy.” Sometimes, true. Usually, in my observation, this turns out to be wishful thinking for the vast majority of transitioning professionals. "Contacts" are usually good for less than 3 years after separation from service. 

That gives you a thousand days, or less, to get the basic skills your new position will need you to have on Day One. After that, your existing network will only have social, not professional, value. So waste no time in developing those skills and deciding which employers offer a culture where you will make a good fit.

Conclusion

This post is not meant to discourage you.  It's meant to reveal some candid facts that aren't often discussed. It's meant to point you in the right direction and save you both the waste of time and discouragement of barking up the wrong trees. It is designed to help you get to your destination faster and with less heartache. It is designed to respect both your time and your contributions to your country as well as the role businesses play in keeping our economic engine operating at peak performance.

And it's meant to tell you to add the right technical skills to your already sterling character traits of courage, service, leadership. Then combine -- shaken, not stirred! -- all of these elements with good detection and shrewd judgment as to what companies have the right culture for you.

It is also designed to help you plot a path to post-service success while you are still on Active Duty or similar. You can create value for your future employer (setting yourself up for great success in the process) as a side gig while still on the job. Then, hustle.  Looking for a job is kind of like dating. It's a numbers game and the more prospects you swipe right on, the more likely you will find one who will swipe right back at you.

So follow these simple rules of thumb and welcome to private sector.

Here lies fun, purpose and the ability to actually have an immediate impact!

Huge thanks to all who helped/contributed to this article! You know who you are!
Dakota 901, The Farming Bureau, Roberts Court, Dallas crew, SD homies 


3 comments


  • Buck

    This is good. Really good. Walking through the rest of your life focusing on a constantly shrinking past (in terms of relevancy) is a sure way to get nowhere….as is attaching yourself to the titles that we borrow while serving.

    Thank you for your service. Now…what can you do today?


  • Dan Keyes

    Great article! I am a firefighter that is transitioning, we started a UAV (drone) business that specialises in mapping and aerial data acquisition for governments and business!! We don’t all CrossFit.


  • Nicolas di Leonardo

    Sage advice. Treat your career transition as you would any other campaign. Identify lines of operation, lines of effort, critical enablers, knowledge / skills / abilities. Justin has outlined them all for you. Step 2: execute.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published