Three steps to Executive-Level Placement — Navigating a Military Career Transition to the Private Sector

I work with a number of military officers transitioning their careers to the private sector. After 20 years they have achieved a rank and reputation within their service for leadership and intellect. As they look toward their first retirement, they often do not know how to translate their military acumen to the boardroom or C-suite.

The advice I give these captains, colonels, generals and admirals is the same advice I give any executive making a career transition. It all starts with a honest assessment of where they are and where they want to be.

Step One—Getting Clear

Before beginning a search for the next great thing in your career, get clear. Getting clear means taking the time to assess the who, what and where of your career change. The assessment—either a self-assessment or a professional assessment—must be objective.

Use any of the analytic tools designed to identify your functional skills, domain expertise, and leadership style. The process will also help you define your value proposition and determine your search strategy and target market. For the officer transitioning to the public sector, it also translates your military successes to likely boardroom successes.

Without this exercise of self-discovery, you will lack clarity, value, and strategy, which impedes a successful transition. It is a difficult first step, so don’t be apprehensive seeking out professional career services. You may be surprised by what you find out about yourself and what skills carry from the battlefield to the boardroom.

Step Two—Understand the Recruiting Models

Military officers usually need a bit of guidance when navigating the executive search industry. The most important thing I tell them is to remember is 95 percent of the search industry does not work on your behalf. Executive search firms are compensated by the company you join, not you.

Recognize that executive recruiters will only invest their time when they have an immediate, open search to fill. Operating with any other mindset is a fallacy.

It also helps to understand the three traditional recruiting models: retained, contingent and hybrid. There are strategies and cautions associated with each corporate recruiting model.

– Retained—The executive search market includes hundreds of retained search firms, ranging from large, global firms to mid-size and boutique. Retained firms operate as a professional services firm and are typically organized by industry or function. Their fee is completely compensated by the company. Most search professionals handle 6 to 10 searches at a time, with a completion target of 90 to 120 days. Their fees are not based on success.

– Contingent—In my opinion, contingent firms are at the lower end of the market. There are thousands of contingent firms in the marketplace. Their fee is also compensated by the company, but only if they successfully place a candidate. Contingent firms typically focus on lower-level positions, which are not often of interest to a transitioning military officer.

– Hybrid—There is an array of new, disruptive models that range from coaching services, to those professing to handle the search on the executive’s behalf, and those who represent the executive as their agent (much like a sports agent represents an athlete). With these hybrid models, the recruiter is typically compensated by the individual executive.

Identify a firm that works in your area of expertise and learn the partners and associates in that area.  Through their website or LinkedIn, capture their email address.  Send an introductory email stating your interest and value proposition, attach your resume, and request a “courtesy interview.” After a few days, place a call requesting a meeting.  If there is no response, then move on.

Remember, they do not work for you.  If a firm contacts you, then promptly respond.  If you are a fit, you may become part of their search process, but only for that active search.  Visit regarding the “candidate bill of rights,” which outlines what you should experience in a search.

Given that contingent firms typically work at the lower end of the market, your time is better invested in retained firms. As for the hybrid firms, this greatly depends on the model, the level service and what you may personally require in terms of direct support or representation.
No matter the firm you choose, executive recruiters should be only one prong of many in your overall search.

Step Three—Targeting Your Search

There are three market segments to consider in your search: companies, investors and recruiters. Target key members of each as you develop your search strategy.

We have already covered recruiters. Now let’s cover the other two.

Companies—Identify companies where you have interest and know you can deliver value.  Capture contact details of the hiring executive for each company through the company website, LinkedIn, or your network. Use these same tools to find open positions, apply for them, and follow-up with an email to the hiring executive, followed by a phone call.  Use your network to help open doors.

Investors—Investors are an important part of your search.  Focus on mid-market private equity and growth equity firms and their portfolio companies. Replicating the process for companies, contact the partner investing in your area of expertise and follow the same research and outreach process.

Leveraging all of three steps in an efficient, focused and diligent manner will lead to success. Be patient, however. And move on when the fit isn’t right. If you feel frustrated, maintain your confidence. Look back to step one to remember the value you are actually bringing to the market. If you stick in there, you will see success on the other side.


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