Over the last 15 years post military service, I have encountered many Army Public Affairs professionals (officer and enlisted) transitioning into a new chapter in their careers. There are a few traits I found in common with those who were most successful, including self-reflection, selflessness and curiosity. I had the good fortune to work alongside a number of former military communications professionals who joined the ranks of the management consulting firm. Those who seem to thrive are those who want to learn new things, be part of a team, and, who sincerely want to improve where they can. However, those too focused on leading teams and managing projects and maintaining their leader status rather than learning how to improve their own techniques will struggle in the often highly matrixed world of consulting.
As a consultant, you are part leader, innovator and technical expert at any given time. It is truly different from corporate or government communications because most of the time your role is not narrowly defined. You may be asked to support a client, write papers on innovative ideas, and, support business operations or development. At times, you may fill a role for six to 12 months or longer, based on your company’s model. My former company mostly hired employees based less on a specific job, and more on how the new employee’s multiple skills and experiences should be used to support various clients.
Over time, I found those candidates who truly know how to hunt down a good story using a well-tooled network and eking out the most juicy bits are often those who are most successful finding balance between guiding a client and setting appropriate expectations, seeking creative solutions, and, using the experience gained to produce quality products. This is not an unusual requirement for a public affairs professional, however. It is those who are people not afraid to ask what they can do differently, who listen one moment, then, roll up their sleeves the next minute to really dig into what the client needs and wants who are the most successful. Of course, the other critical element was their ability to leave their egos and previous rank at the door, the latter often being the most challenging for some.
For example, I worked closely with a former senior officer who made the leap into consulting but struggled to seek or accept feedback. Often their frustration with client decisions brought negativity to the team. No matter the situation, there was rarely any thought given to what they could have done differently. Because of years of following the lead of his military boss, it was hard for him to step back, listen and view the problem and situation holistically. His first reaction was to simply produce whatever the client asked for, without drilling deeper to find out what the actual goals were and how they would know if they had been successful. He was skilled and simply a product of the military culture in many ways. Ultimately, he left consulting within the first year and moved into a government position, which was a better fit. As a peer, I appreciated the experience and true talent this person brought to the organization. But, his inability to be agile and selfless in the new environment was a fatal flaw.
However, one of the greatest success stories I observed over the years was how a 30-year military career retiree quickly adjusted to the management consulting world by actively listening each day, seeking feedback about her performance, and, looking to her peers for perspective and context behind various situations. She sought relationships not just with senior leaders, but, with her peers at all levels of the organization. She probed them for ideas on how to solve client problems, and to learn techniques they used. When asked by her leaders to take on short-term projects that did not appear to showcase all of her talents, she was open and dove into it without hesitating. Her agility and ability to engage employees at all levels of the organization and truly listen to the problem and challenge and think creatively about solutions eased what could have been a challenging transition for such an experienced veteran.
While management consulting is not a fit for everyone, it can be a great place for the experienced public affairs professional to broaden their skill set, use their tactical and strategic thinking skills, and, to be innovative in solving client problems without resource and policy limitations. The most critical element I found for those making the decision post military to pursue a career in consulting is to take a realistic look at who you are, what you want, what you are willing to change in your behavior or approach, and, how agile can you be. If you struggle with self-reflection, need straight-forward hierarchy or are not innovative in nature, consulting may not be a good fit for you or for the potential organization. This is a question only you can answer. As I have said to many candidates over the years, if you struggle living in gray, management consulting can be painful. But if that sounds like an adventure you want to pursue, it may be just be the place for you.
— Amee Roberson
(Amee is the Chairman of the Army Public Affairs Association. She has 30 years of change management, communications, employee engagement, facilitation and strategic planning experience serving in Army Public Affairs in uniform and as a federal civilian for the Department of Veterans Affairs along with working as a management consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton. Currently, she is the director of communications for NextEra Energy’s Nuclear Division.)