Getting out of Uniform: The Dance of Learning and Unlearning — 3 things you need to forget

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Getting out of Uniform

Abhishek Deo retired as a Major from the Indian Army (Rajput Regiment) in 2006 and has had two, successful post-military careers: as a Director in Deloitte Consulting where he managed global projects working from US and India and as the MD of an international Oil & Gas Company where he manages an Oil Block in Nigeria.

Abhishek is an alumnus of the National Defence Academy (94/November), Indian Military Academy (104/Alamein), and Johnson School, Cornell University (MBA, Class of 2008).

He has penned down his journey as an Army man and the life that followed.

“The two most common questions that a veteran must answer once s/he transitions out of the uniform are:

1. What are the skills you learnt in the army that you can leverage here?

2. How will you deal with the change from a strict, hierarchical environment where all orders were laid out so neatly for you to the unstructured, unpredictable corporate world?

I have been asked these questions, consistently, all throughout my 11 years of post-Army life — during my B-School admissions process, during ALL my job interviews, and even during promotion process.

What veterans bring to the table is something that doesn’t come naturally to people who haven’t gone through the rigors of a military academy and/or haven’t had the honor of making split second life or death decisions. Veteran’s bring leadership, an innate understanding of people, and the ability to work seamlessly under high-pressure situations to the table. They have the ability to be successful in the most unpredictable scenarios where even the “best laid plans don’t survive first enemy contact”. What we learn in our military lives CANNOT be replicated in any other profession.

The reality and challenge, however, of having a successful post-Military career lie somewhere within the spectrum of what we learn after getting out of the uniform (formally and informally), how we apply what we learnt during our military careers, and how quickly and completely we can UNLEARN some of the things that define our military careers.

Lessons Unlearnt #1: what will I do after leaving the army?

There are one of three options that a majority of veterans consider: Logistics, HR, Security/Admin. While these options are legitimate, they aren’t the universe of options awaiting a veteran on the other side — the number of veteran CEOs (past and present) of Fortune 500 companies is a great indicator of the types of careers the corporate world has to offer. From Partners in Big Four Consulting firms, to entrepreneurs, to industry leaders, there are numerous examples of Indian veterans going against the grain and being successful.

Military lessons that matter: the strongest aspect of a military skill-set is adaptability — the military trains us to be successful in any environment and that translates to the type of job we take up after our military careers as well. Make this decision with an open mind, don’t restrict yourself, talk to experts and people who know you outside of work — you will find your passion.

Lessons Unlearnt #2: “Naam, Namak, Nishaan”, the things that make people tick.

“Loyalty” looks good on award citations and in storybooks — it has zero bearing on how the world outside functions. People do not work for organizations, they work for themselves and here’s the twist — money and rank are NOT the biggest driver of people’s behavior. Business leaders must constantly think about “what’s in it for her/him?” and individual motivations are as varied as fingerprints and snowflakes. Voluntary workforce turnovers, on an average, have increased across the world and the reasons have very little to do with how much money people make. Most people are worried about doing things that excite them, how organizations invest in individuals for their personal and professional growth, balancing work and life, etc.

Military lessons that matter: the ability to connect emotionally with our troops and being a part of the team, despite “being the boss”, is what helps veterans be successful leaders outside. The trick lies in changing the parameters that resulted in strong emotional connects back when you were in the military. “Welfare” oriented conversations need to change from family, kids, village, annual leave, etc. to where do you want to be in the next three years?, what do you want from this next role/project?, what opportunities can I give you to improve some of your development needs?, etc. Be open to catering for a plethora of individual needs, don’t templatize or standardized solutions to human issues — you will be followed.

Lessons Unlearnt #3: “CO Sahab ka hukum hai”, Rule #1: Boss is always right; Rule #2: in case of doubt, refer to Rule #1.

This was probably the biggest hurdle I had to cross as I went through B-school and, later, started my consulting career. We are naturally wired to not question orders, and this can prove to be a huge hurdle to our intellectual growth and performance. While different job profiles have different levels of “question everything” approach, the ability to question the status quo is a highly sought-after quality in business leaders. It is also expected that we train our junior colleagues in a manner that they, in turn, question our own decisions.

Military lessons that matter: by training and experience, military personnel are some of the best “fault finders” — we even have formal squad post classes on fault finding! Use that instinct and start speaking up — opinions matter and, often, result in better decisions, better planning, better execution. Encourage questions from those who work with you, respect their opinions — you will be indispensable.

Doing what we do best comes naturally to all of us and it is the safest course of action we always tend to take. Our military experience when applied in a thoughtful manner to corporate environment makes us some of the most potent business leaders no matter where we are. How quickly we realize this potential and make it sustainable depends on identifying our biases, understanding where we need to improve, breaking certain aspects of our military mold, and adapting relentlessly.”

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