A military career can sometimes leave one feeling powerless. Even when you’ve put in an all-star performance at your current position, it can feel like there’s not much you can do but wait for your next assignment.
Even within the DoD’s rigid personnel structure, there is still plenty that you can do to influence your both your next assignment and your overall career arc. Here are a few tried and true techniques you can implement today:
1. Find a mentor. Mentors are critical to any career. Seek one out, and when you’re in the position to do so, be one. You’d be surprised at how many senior officers and NCOs are willing to offer up their experience and advice; they’ve all hit roadblocks they wish they could have avoided and are happy to help others avoid the same pitfalls. All it takes is scheduling a meeting and asking some basic questions you have about your future in their unit. Even if you don’t feel senior enough to be doling out advice of your own, remember it’s all a matter of perspective. If you’ve completed boot camp, initial specialization/entry training, PCS’ed, or changed jobs just once, you have a wealth of knowledge to lend the new O-1 or E-1. Be on the lookout for our upcoming blog post with even more tips on how to approach a potential mentor.
2. Become an expert at something – anything – and share the wealth. You’ll be handed dozens of jobs throughout your military career. Some out of left field, some you’ll train your whole career for, some you will despise, and some seem like a gift from above. Whatever your job of the moment, own it and challenge yourself to be the very best at it. Some of your most valuable skills will be picked up during these quickly lived jobs or in boot camps and training courses. As military professionals, we have to rely on each other as a team of resident experts. A critical skill you’ll learn from the beginning of basic training is to discern who is good at what and learn to succeed with what you have. Networking for military professionals is no different. Identifying your skills first allows you to own them and offer them up to train others.
3. Maintain a positive attitude, no matter how bad your job seems to be. Being seen as likable and trustworthy is important for networking and career development, whether in the military or in the civilian job market. If you do your best at even the worst jobs, you’ll be surprised what good opportunities will come your way. I’ve seen commanders assign newly in-processed Lieutenants and Airman to ‘Snack-O’ duty just to see how they handled it. In some of my units, there were $700 million acquisition programs and complex orbital space missions handed down to young and fairly green Lieutenants. The filter our commander used was to see how a new troop would handle balancing a $30-45 budget consisting of Snickers and Coke. Those that kept the snack room stocked and cared about the wellbeing of their Squadron got the high profile programs with TDYs to Kauai. Those that didn’t got to count missile parts in unattractive temporary duty locations.
4. Take full advantage of Professional Military Education in residence.Not only is it a good way to beef up your resume and position yourself well for promotions, but it’s an excellent way to create breathing room while gathering information and thinking about the next stage of your career. Not to mention, you make valuable connections that will serve you for a long time to come. There isn’t a better melting pot of people excelling at their careers than at SOS, ACSC, and AWC. These have become highly competitive schools to get in-residence. While there, expose yourself to as many people and career fields as you can; you’ll run into them again in the field or civilian world.
5. Build your personal network, and don’t be afraid to use it. On active duty you are subjected to various deployment and permanent change of station cycles; there may even be job cycles or duties internal to your unit that rotate on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. The best way to get the most attractive jobs or duties is to ask the current job holders what they think about the position and how long they have left to fulfill their commitment. As soon as they PCS or move on from their job, you should be the first one volunteering for that open position. If you collect the right information on the best available jobs, you can be in the driver’s seat instead of waiting for something to get flowed down from personnel command. You’ll often have to look outside your unit to find the most complete information. RallyPoint, the private professional network for current US military personnel, can help you discover (and filter by PCS date) who you know through your own connections, across all branches of the DoD.
In short, the best way to shape your military career is leverage those with more knowledge and experience, while humbly offering up your skills and spare time to help make others stand out. It’s the best way to gain respect from your peers and commanding officers, and fits in with the military’s values of bettering your unit, because what’s ultimately best for the service and your country…and as it turns out, is also best for you.