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Companies Are Racing to Hire Veterans–But Few Know the Secret To Help Them Succeed

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Companies Are Racing to Hire Veterans–But Few Know the Secret To Help Them Succeed

Veterans would seem to make ideal leaders in the civilian world. Their military training has equipped them with the special combination of leadership experience, entrepreneurial approach, dedication, can-do attitude, and technical skills that top companies prize. Indeed, a recent article in Forbes notes, “interest and participation in hiring military is at an all-time high.”

But their career paths too often belie their promise. Instead of becoming stars, veterans find they have become invisible. New research from the Center for Talent Innovation finds that nearly 40 percent (38%) of veterans surveyed believe that senior leaders are not capable of seeing their full potential.

Over the course of surveying 1,022 veterans, Mission Critical: Unlocking the Value of Veterans in the Workforce identified a key problem: Veterans lack sponsors.

The CTI research underpinning Forget A Mentor: Find A Sponsor shows that sponsors are senior leaders who get behind talent they feel have leadership potential and advocate for their advancement. Sponsors talk up their protgs with other senior leaders in closed-door meetings; they also defend their protgs from would-be detractors. With a sponsor, CTI research shows, a rising leader is more likely to ask for a raise, get a plum assignment, and be satisfied with his or her rate of advancement.

The sponsor effect is measurable: With a sponsor, men in the U.S. are 23 percent more likely than men without sponsors to be satisfied with their career progression; women with sponsors are 19 percent more likely than women without sponsors to be satisfied with their career progression; and people of color are an astounding 65 percent more likely than their counterparts without sponsors to be satisfied with their career progression.

If there’s a silver bullet to veterans’ career stalls, it’s sponsorship. But according to the CTI definition of sponsorship, a mere two percent of the veterans surveyed have sponsors.

Without sponsorship, veterans find themselves stuck in a vicious cycle. The skills that make these veterans such good leaders in a military context — and should make them attractive to corporate sponsors and put them on a fast track to promotion — get lost in translation. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the veterans surveyed for Mission Critical say they’re not using three or more of the skills they have that could be relevant in the corporate context.

These skills include managing the career development of others, transparent decision making, relationship management, and team building. In addition to these intangible attributes, many veterans possess such hard skills as language fluency, computer programming, facility with social media, and statistical analysis — a priceless combination that should shoot them into the career stratosphere.

But those skills are often overshadowed by behavioral traits which, while valuable in the military, rarely work well in a civilian setting. What veterans see as a straightforward approach can come across as harsh or abrupt, sparking resistance and defensiveness from colleagues and reports, thwarting results, and putting veterans on a collision course with their managers. “What employers see in front of them is not a person with skills,” says a former officer in the UK Royal Navy and now an executive at a multinational pharmaceutical company. “Instead, they see an ex-military guy who doesn’t fit in.”

Sponsorship can ease the transition between the two worlds and dramatically change this vicious cycle. The earlier the intervention, says the former officer, the better. In his estimation, managers simply aren’t candid enough, quickly enough.

Early intervention from a sponsor saved Kate’s career. A former officer, Kate was lauded in her first performance review for producing great results. But, she was told, how she produced those results was a problem. “I have to tell you, the way you dismiss others’ ideas sometimes makes me cringe,” her sponsor said. “This isn’t the military. And if you don’t address this, it will shut down your career.” Kate immediately set about modifying her leadership style and today is a marketing and communications specialist at a major pharmaceutical company.

Recent veterans are different from their civilian counterparts. But employers who understand the tune out/stall out phenomenon — and take steps to head it off early — are much better equipped to help veterans capitalize on, rather than suppress, their differences and enable them to win a different kind of fight.

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