02 April 2013

NETWORK BEYOND YOUR MILITARY CIRCLES – AND START NOW BY LT BEN KOHLMANN

Combat-tested military personnel are good at a lot of things – running complex organizations and adapting to unforeseen circumstances immediately come to mind. But networking outside military circles is generally not one of them. And yet, that is one of the most vital skills an agile war fighter can possess.
Whether you are a boot private on your first tour, or a four-star general on your last, you have to leave the service eventually, and it’s never too early to start building your personal brand. 
A close friend of mine, who happens to be an accomplished author in addition to his duties as a Marine Corps officer, is leaving the service after 16 years of service. While he has some time before he leaves, he is hitting the civilian job-hunt full bore – and has realized that while the outside world appreciates his contributions, they have a hard time making relevant connections to the work he hopes to do. He feels as if he is playing catch up, and lost many years of networking opportunities by not engaging beyond his military peers. 

This is a common occurrence, especially for those transitioning directly into the non-contractor civilian sector.  Part of the difficulty is generational, and part is being ensconced in a culture that neither encourages nor even allows broad engagement opportunities.
Anecdotally, it seems that the current generation raised on Facebook and LinkedIn are more closely connected to their civilian peers, even if deployments have separated them for years. There is an inherent ability by these “digital natives” to stay in touch while removed from physical contact. This can pay large dividends even within the military service.
We recently undertook an innovative project at my current command trying to experiment with cutting edge augmented reality technology.  The senior officers in our office went through standard military comms channels to get information – while the junior leaders tapped into non-military and informal personal networks. Within hours, the latter technique got us in touch with a senior vice president at one of the world’s largest companies. The “tried and true method” yielded nothing.
The loosely-tied resources of Facebook and Twitter create on-demand networks that can be activated at a moment’s notice, even if latent for long periods of time. This ready-made social rolodex is also easily accessible.


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There is, however, more than just utilizing social media websites to engage military professionals with their civilian counterparts.  Part of the solution is creating a culture of external networking not readily encouraged in our military circles.
In nearly every duty station I’ve been, the military folks tended to hang out with each other, no matter the size of the city.  Part of this is the comfort of the known and familiar. The other is the simplicity of becoming friends with those you work with. Yet, for me, this seemed unnatural – and limited the serendipity that comes from broad relational engagements.
Being a NROTC graduate, during college, the military was merely an extracurricular for me.  Every night, I had dinner with fraternity brothers who would become doctors, lawyers, engineers, who were liberal, conservative and libertarian.  We exchanged ideas, and the thought of sticking to a particular part of society in our social interactions never crossed our minds.  These networks, inadvertently created, have paid enormous dividends throughout my military career and beyond.
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While some networking occurs among military professionals, the promotion system is, all things considered, blind to specific persons and data-driven.  This creates a generally fair system, but removes incentives for relationship building for the purposes of exploring avenues outside particular silos.  
Even transition classes from the military are still skills focused as opposed to helping veterans navigate a landscape that often requires personal connections more than a stellar resume.  At the end of the day, there is little institutional support for pushing forward a skill overlooked by rank and file service members. 
So, what’s the solution?  If you don’t see something you wish existed, create it yourself. Take charge of your personal brand, even within the military, and leverage existing social media tools to create relationships, especially with those outside the military profession.   
No one cares about your career, military or otherwise, as much as you do. So find ways to meet people you don’t normally associate with – the resulting opportunities will surprise and amaze you.
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About the author
Ben is a naval officer who often wonders how the world would look if the status quo wasn’t the status quo.  He is an F/A-18 pilot, and currently works as a founding member of the Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell within the Navy Warfare Development Command.

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