The Three Most Important Steps for a Successful Military to Civilian Transition You Will Read Today

(and Other Unsolicited Thoughts)

By Christopher Banks ’96
I transitioned from the Navy after 20 years of service in the early summer of 2016. After four months of full-time employment in the private sector and one twenty-year class reunion (full of questions on transition), I wanted to write down some of what I consider the most salient points about making a successful transition as a means of giving back to my shipmates (as a civilian, “shipmate” still ranks as one of my favorite terms of affection and respect) following me, regardless of service.

By no means do I hold a monopoly on good ideas or think that these apply to every single personal situation. However, after considerable self-reflection, I think these steps impacted my relatively smooth (self-assessed) transition the most.

Step One. Get busy (early) thinking about what you want to be when you grow up (the most obvious step and also the most challenging)

Sooner or later, either the service you work for will no longer offer anything you, or you will no longer offer anything to it. This result is as inevitable as death and taxes. Sometimes separation chooses you rather than the other way around. So think long and hard about what your next dream job will be, and get busy preparing for it. I would argue that any point past “halfway” to retirement makes you due to begin this step, even if you think you want serve forever and can’t fathom life on the outside.

While I retired in 2016, I knew from 2009 (for various reasons) that I would make the leap at my first opportunity crossing 20 years (hanging around for an extra seven years might seem crazy, but obligated service took me so close to retirement that an earlier exit would have been financially crazier given the proximity to a pension and lifetime health care). I weighed staying longer to raise my pension, but perceived myself to be far more marketable in my early 40s than at an older age. The clarity provided by my career arc created urgency for me to prepare for 2016. I did not know exactly what might interest me, so I studied for my masters in business in my (very little) spare time, hoping that lightning might strike me. Fortunately, my coursework interested me more than I considered possible. For example, I loved my course on supply chain management, despite a career spent sitting in the wardroom of an aircraft carrier complaining about the supply officers who always failed to keep the cereal in stock (I can hear them now… “because you aviators will eat it if we put it out”).  After my masters, I found myself very interested and determined to forge a path in entrepreneurship. As a side note, the Navy paid for my MBA, so take *early* advantage of all the great tuition assistance and educational programs the military offers so to best avoid extended service time past your planned transition date.

In a casual survey, my peers who exited the service at a similar time convinced me this step is by far the hardest, requiring the most effort and the most thought. So … get busy thinking … early.

Step Two. After step one, get busy qualifying for your next dream job.

The military typically does a pretty decent job training you following your commissioning or enlistment, especially for the more technically demanding positions. Your second career will demand that you write your own training plan. The bigger the leap from your current experience, the more developed that training plan needs to be and the earlier you need to start. Get busy writing it shipmate, because no one else will do it for you. Hoping that your “Transition-GPS” class two years prior (or far less) to your separation will prepare you for your exit will leave you wanting. “Hope” is not a strategy!

I finished my MBA about three years prior to my planned retirement date. In my three remaining years on active duty, I needed practical business experience to burnish my resume and needed to avoid forgetting my coursework like I did my engineering undergraduate degree. So, I did three things:

1. Sought orders to an acquisition/program management billet for my final tour in the Navy. It prepared me surprisingly well for my current (new) career as the business manager for two small businesses.
2. Volunteered to serve on the board of a non-profit organization. They got free labor, while I got experience managing someone else’s balance sheet, profit and loss statement, budget and policies. I never wanted to be looking at critical financial statements for the first time in my own company with my own money on the line. So I practiced with other people’s money.
3. I read a lot. I consumed everything educational I could find on my iPad (most of the time for free). I also spent a lot of time commuting to work listening to podcasts. I would like to think this approach made me more conversant in the language that civilians speak (they speak English, by the way, and use far less acronyms and abbreviations) and made it far easier to comfortably interview well.

I luckily stumbled into orders to a job directly applicable to my planned path, but the second two steps I took required no luck whatsoever. If you find yourself reading this saying “I’m so busy, I have too many family or work demands, I have no time for this” and thinking that your shortage of free time makes you unique, think again. Everyone is busy. Everyone works a lot. Employers will not care about why your resume lacks the education or relevant experience to their needs. Get busy becoming more qualified and prepared.

Step Three. Build a great emergency fund as insurance for your family.

While prudent financial planning demands a great emergency fund at all times, many of us go our entire military career without them because of the relatively good job security we experience. That said, I do not think I can overemphasize this point enough. You might complete steps 1 and 2 perfectly and then just stumble on bad luck, bad timing or both. You might not find that perfect fit, perfect compensation, or both immediately on your terms. A great emergency fund (6-12 months) of cold, hard, liquid cash will sustain your family and enable you to pass on bad opportunities until the right one materializes. Think of it as an insurance policy on your stress level and your family’s happiness. If you find your dream job immediately and on your terms, you now have the best problem in the world—too much cash. Take a nice vacation or use it for some other financial priority. By the way, I do not recommend convincing yourself that your retirement check will sustain you. It most likely will not, especially after the civilian world cruelly teaches you the relative merits of your tax-advantaged military paycheck.

This step demands early action unfortunately. Building the fund adequately might take you five to eight years depending on your cash flow, aggressiveness, and perhaps your willingness to starve your family. So … get busy saving!

And this means what? Get to the point, Shipmate.

This list is by no means comprehensive—these steps merely struck me as the most critical elements of my transition. In fact, the reader might have already checked off all three steps to some degree or found them not applicable. If you are one of these people, I salute you. I did not start to figure it out until my career path forced me to. Looking back, I started probably a touch late, and I started seven years prior. By no means do I think I did this without mistakes along the way.

I think, upon reflection, that eagerness for continuous self-improvement and learning offers the best path for success when the time comes to hang up the uniform. The determination to embark on a path of continuous and focused self-improvement can start at anytime regardless of age. I do not think any of us can responsibly wait to make the decision to transition before beginning preparation for our second dream job. Worse yet, your military branch could decide to unexpectedly accelerate your transition, leaving you in a lurch. So, I urge you … your transition starts now. Get busy preparing, learning and saving for the transition that awaits us all.

Chris Banks is a 1996 US Naval Academy graduate who served 20 years as a Naval Flight Officer flying the EA-6B Prowler. He now manages business operations for two small businesses in New Jersey.


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