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5 Tips for a Transition From Military to L&D Pro

Tuesday, August 20, 2019
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When I transitioned out of the armed forces eight years ago after 13 years of service, I knew little about how to translate my skills to my desired “after the service” career. Like most veterans I have interacted with or coached, I struggled with challenges during my move into the civilian sector—finding employment, fitting in, understanding expectations, grasping the organizational culture change, and knowing where to start. There’s so much to take in during this time that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Here are my top five tips to make your transition into the L&D field a smoother one.

1. Understand the New Culture

Military careers are not only jobs but lifestyles ingrained into service members from the beginning. Organizations will hire us for the traits that the lifestyle sharpened—our adaptability, work ethic, leadership skills, and attention to detail. But we need to understand that we are no longer in the service. The civilian world does not move at the same speed as the military world and, at times, does not have the same resources to include policies and procedures. We need to use our adaptive nature to overcome our frustrations; we must understand that we need to fit into the culture, not expect the culture to change to fit us in. Our standards must remain the same, but our expectations need to reflect our reality. Understanding the expectations early is key to a smoother transition.

2. Find a Mentor

While the VA Transition Assistance Program (TAP) provides information, tools, and training to help service members prepare for civilian life, veterans need to further their knowledge to truly understand their upcoming challenges. Find a mentor! During my first eight months out of the service, I struggled to find my fit in the civilian world. It wasn’t until I found a mentor to guide me and provide direction through those hardships that I began getting calls for interviews. Find someone who relates to you, someone who demonstrates the success you want to achieve, someone you trust and who cares for your well-being. Keep in mind that a mentor does not have to be a veteran; civilians bring the perspective of the culture we are about to join.

3. Customize your Approach

Understanding the civilian culture is important; customizing our language and the way we handle situations to match that culture is important for our success. I was sometimes perceived as “too forward,” “challenging,” or “resistant” when I asked questions or tried to understand situations. In time I discovered that it was not usually what I said but how I said it that gave people that impression. In the service, we were used to speaking our minds, and others understood us because they spoke the same language. As you transition out, keep in mind that your thoughts might need to be translated for or explained in the new cultural language.

4. Get Certified

I get it—we trained a lot in the service. Keep in mind that some of those “certifications” can translate as experience, but you may need to get certified in the civilian version for other skills and specialty knowledge. I was a certified as an instructor and had served several years delivering instructor-led and on-the-job trainings, but those certifications didn’t mean anything other than experience. To prove myself in the civilian world, I had to get certified in the industry’s credentials. The ATD’s Master Trainer designation and Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLP) credential helped me validate my experience. Get certified before you leave or plan to do so early after transition.

5. Know Your Role

The thought of starting from scratch or at a lower rank is a hard pill to swallow. I left the service as an O-3 with prior enlisted service and found myself in a civilian job that did not reflect the same level of seniority. I knew it would take me a while to earn the credibility I desired and planned for a progressive growth in the L&D field. You will be validated for your experience, but you could still be a newbie in your new field. Remember, this is not the military, and you may not have the rank to be the leader in your organization. Continue to bring your problem-solving skills and proactive approach forward, but learn how to manage change in the new culture. Know the expectations, ask for guidance, and make things happen.

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It can take time to get used to how things are run outside of the military, especially when it comes to employment. As you advance your career and learn new strategies, your credibility will grow as will your skills. Here’s to your success!

To learn more about the field of training and talent development and hear from veterans on their transition from military service to training and talent development, join me September 25 for ATD Troops to Trainers.

About the Author

Nelson R. Santiago is a talent and leadership development leader with more than 20 years of experience working with all organizational levels creating, promoting, and delivering training solutions designed to enhance organizations’ business and strategic plans. Nelson is passionate about creating an interactive and authentic learning environment that supports development and employee engagement. Currently, Nelson is an internal ATD Faciliator. Prior to this role, Nelson served at several government agencies, including North Carolina Municipalities, the U.S. Coast Guard, the State of North Carolina Human Resources, and the Abu Dhabi government. Nelson has worked with multiple organizations in over 35 countries, designing and delivering programs in leadership and management development, team building, compliance, communications, customer service, change management, performance management, and many other topics. His work has always been focused on meeting the strategic needs of the organization. Nelson’s outstanding strengths include leadership, communication, facilitation, coaching, and emotional intelligence. Nelson currently holds certifications as ATD Master Trainer, DDI Certified Facilitator, and Gallup’s Certified Strengths Coach.

1 Comment
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Great article. I am a retired Navy Chief and was a Journalist in the Navy. I am currently a training manager at a company that repairs rail cars. As a Journalist, I expected to get a job in Public Relations or Marketing. My writing, photography, video, and most importantly interview skills (the ability to ask the right questions) made me a perfect fit for Instructional Design and I had never considered it. Joining ATD and taking a few courses taught me to apply those skills to Design.
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