Veterans are severely underrepresented in executive leadership positions, especially in industries and cities that have little to do with defense contracting. That’s why Derek Imig wants companies to know they might be missing out on a world of executive talent just waiting to be drafted, trained and put to work.
Imig is the Director of Operations, West for CarParts.com, a top ecommerce retailer for replacement auto parts. His job is to ensure deliveries for the entire U.S. West Coast. In his military life, he spent 23 years as an Army officer, with tours leading soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait.
After going through his own transition and working his way up the corporate ladder, he has some advice for military members who want to become corporate executives.
1. Tell the truth — but stick up for yourself.
When Imig was up for such a high-level position for a national brand, he knew his work experience wasn’t going to check every box. When it came time to talk about taking on his current job, he told the truth.
“I told them there are some things about this operation that you’re going to have to teach me,” Imig says. “But you’re not going to find someone better able to make sure the job gets done and done right. I’ve made sure that critical supplies get where they need to go in a war zone at the tactical and operational level… Every time I figured it out because I had to.”
2. Recognize your advantages and sell them.
Imig believes veterans need to be able to sell their biggest attributes: getting the job done, working independently and recognizing how to do a job well. CarParts.com is “snapping up” veterans as much as it can, according to Imig, and it’s because of these qualities.
“This isn’t a feel-good initiative,” he says. “We do this because vets are incredibly valuable employees. They can innovate around problems. Every single one has a degree of inherent leadership. They have an unmatched work ethic. They have a natural sense of responsibility to their coworkers. They’re easy to train because they listen and they want to learn. These are the skills every company wants to hire.”
3. Be coachable.
While talking up the qualities he believes are inherent in every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine, Imig also stresses the fact that veterans are not necessarily always the perfect employee right out of the gate. But those who take instruction can be incredibly valuable over time.
“They sometimes need help translating how things were done in the military to how things are done at a company or in the private sector as a whole,” Imig says. “They’re likely to flounder at a company that does not have an overarching mission, set of real company values, or a commitment to teamwork. Still, when I’m hiring for a position with a lot of responsibility, where doing a mediocre job isn’t an option, I want a vet. Other companies should, too.”
4. Take a breath.
For Imig, “taking a breath” doesn’t mean taking a lot of time off between the military and the civilian world. It means taking a moment to consider what they know, where they want to go and what assets they currently have going for them.
“They should take a deep, honest look at their skill set,” he says. “They need to ask themselves ‘What am I good at?’ ‘What has my training taught me?’ ‘What skills have I developed that people need in the civilian world?’ and ‘What do I want to do?’ For some people, the answer is going to be simple… for others, it will be more complicated.”
For Imig, it wasn’t a big leap from “Brigade Operations Officer” in the U.S. Army to “Director of Operations” at a large CarParts.com distribution center in Las Vegas. But he believes this period of time is where more formal, organized mentorship is needed.
“Transitioning vets might not have a great sense of civilian career options,” he says. “Someone who has been in both the military and civilian worlds can help them think through their skills and where they apply.”
5. Don’t be modest.
The modesty you show in the military can hurt you in business. The military makes team-oriented individuals who focus more on the good of the whole at all times. In the business world, this is neither expected nor rewarded.
“Vets are used to successes being the result of a team effort,” Imig says. “That’s not how it works in business. The person who brags on their own work in the military will be ostracized. That same person in the business world is going to get promoted.”
6. Own the Job.
Imig believes we all must stop talking about hiring vets as an act of charity. No one, he says, is going to give a charity case much responsibility, so if a veteran is going to succeed in a workplace they need to bring the full force of their valuable skill sets to work with them, showcasing their leadership and solution-finding capabilities.
“We need to start talking about vets as people with invaluable experience that companies cannot replicate, no matter how large their training budgets,” says Imig. “The cultural view needs to change. Business leaders, reporters, sports stars — everyone with a megaphone needs to say, whenever they are asked about veteran employment, that hiring a veteran is a smart investment. It is not charity.”
7. Keep your civilian resume fresh.
Even while in uniform, it’s smart to keep a civilian resume updated, translating any earned and learned military skills into civilian parlance. Even as coworkers and friends leave the military, it’s important to keep in touch and talk about their experiences as they transition.
“Even people not eying the exit should have some focus on how what they’re doing in the service translates to the civilian world. Think through what skills you’re developing in your current role and how they translate,” Imig says. “Keep in close touch with the people you serve with who transition out. Get their advice and cultivate them as a mentor for when you transition.”
8. Understand that you are misunderstood.
The military is kind of a black hole of understanding for many civilians who have never met anyone in the military nor had any interactions with the U.S. military. This has an important effect on how they view veterans and servicemembers.
“It’s hard to overstate the extent to which people in the civilian world do not understand what people in the military do all day. Most people respect the military but don’t know much about it,” Imig says.
9. Loosen up.
No matter how smart and capable a veteran is or how great his or her work ethic, at the end of the day, companies do want to hire people who are good to work with. Professionalism is great but being personable will land you the job.
“When you get to the interview portion, know that this is not a promotion or Soldier of the Year board!” says Imig. “You get no extra points for not being dynamic or not showing that you are a people person.”
10. You can’t walk into the most important roles.
According to Imig, leadership and industry experience are the most important things on the resume of a would-be corporate executive. Touting personal achievements over group achievements is just the beginning.
“Vets need to show they have led groups to achieve challenging, common missions,” Imig says. “They need to show they can deal with every aspect of leadership — everything from motivation and clear communication to ‘mundane’ but critical things like budgets, timelines and logistics. Technical skills can be taught in a few training courses. Leadership takes years and years to develop.”
Imig stresses that high-level individual performers move up faster on the corporate ladder and that it’s critical to get comfortable with touting individual achievements as soon as possible.
11. Keep moving up.
There’s no single trajectory to the corporate C-suite, according to Imig. But to ultimately get there requires upward movement at all times. Keep taking on more responsibilities and new tasks. Staying in the same title and position for four years might start to look like a problem.
“There’s a lot that vets can do to make themselves ready to succeed in the C-suite and to get there in the first place,” Imig says. “They can hone their leadership abilities and sell their leadership and vision. They can learn to translate their skills, keep up with their networks and think deeply about what they’re good at and what they want to do. But in the executive world — as in life — there isn’t a silver bullet.
There’s just hard work. Luckily, no one works harder than a soldier.”
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