Retired Army Lt. Col. John W. Phillips made a relatively seamless transition to the private sector when he left the military in 1999. He immediately started a new career with Coca-Cola and is now a finance executive with the Fortune 500 company (and USO President’s Circle partner).
He’s also the author of Boots to Loafers: Finding Your New True North, a book he wrote to help troops successfully transition from the military into the civilian workforce.
On Patrol recently spoke with Phillips to find out the three things transitioning troops need to know before starting a civilian career. The former field artillery officer said understanding the differences in communication and workplace culture were crucial and that “situational awareness” – the ability to understand those differences – was also vital.
“There is a big difference in how you communicate in corporate America,” Phillips said. “In the military, you’re very direct, you’re to the point and most of the time there is no question what someone is telling you what needs to happen.”
He warned transitioning troops, who are used to straight talk, could be seen as too direct if they don’t adjust the way they communicate.
“All of a sudden, you start hurting people’s feelings because they feel like you’re being a little too confrontational,” he said.
It’s no secret that the military has a culture all its own, and it’s one that differs greatly from a corporate setting. When a senior leader walks into a meeting at Coca-Cola, Phillips still rises to his feet out of respect – and because the gesture was ingrained into him during his Army career.
“I’m automatically on my feet,” he said. “It’s been pounded into my head when a senior person comes in the room, you get off your butt and you stand on your feet to pay respect.”
Standing at attention for the senior person in the room isn’t necessary the norm in the civilian workplace and Phillips said some people “look at me crazy because I do that.”
He also recalls a particular meeting with a manager early on in his new career. His supervisor gave him a task to complete, but then asked the former soldier how he felt about it to make sure he was comfortable with the situation. It was something Phillips had never heard before because that’s not how the military operates.
“I almost fell out of my chair, but he was very serious about it,” he said. “And now I’m attuned to that and I hear it all the time.”
The anecdote is a stark example of how Phillips adjusted to the then-unfamiliar corporate culture he is now a part of.
Phillips, who is also the founder and chairman of Coca-Cola’s annual Veterans Day program, said recognizing the differences and adjusting on the fly is also key to a veteran’s transition. Put simply, situational awareness is about understanding your environment.
“Sit back and just observe, and you will learn a lot,” he said. “What a people wearing? How are people talking? How are people interacting? Who are the movers and shakers?”
Throughout Boots to Loafers, Phillips emphasizes the importance of building a new professional network. He suggests that troops in transition seek out individuals who have been around the corporate block a few times and to use them as a source of knowledge.
“Hook up with someone in your company, pick their brain and learn from them.”
He explains that standard operating procedures – which play a massive role in day-to-day military life – are often absent in the civilian world. Sometimes you’ll have to cut your own path to get the job done, and that may seem daunting to people who are used to giving or following orders. Situational awareness will help them navigate their new terrain.
Phillips also advises veterans to not dwell on their military experiences.
“Set aside where you came from,” he said. “You may have been battalion commander … put all that stuff aside. No one really knows what you’re even talking about.
“Sooner or later, your military experience will catch up to you and people will get curious and they’ll ask you questions. Nine times out of 10 you’ll run into situations that you’ve dealt with before while you were in uniform. … And you can fix things very quickly and people will think you’re just unbelievable.
“You know more than you think you do. Never, ever sell yourself short.”