Knowing What You Want in a Network: Lessons Learned for Transitioning Veterans
There is no shortage of advice for military veterans who are transitioning from the armed forces into the civilian world about the need to develop a network in the cities and professions they’re moving into. From helping to get their first job to meeting people with specialized skills or who have information about opportunities, the benefits of having a well-developed network are easy to grasp, yet many of the transitioning veterans I talk with struggle to get this process started. The problem, I’ve learned, is that questions about what you should be looking for in your network are often ill-defined, and the need to “have a network” gets replaced by the “act of networking and network building.” These are two very different things. As a result, veterans (and many civilians for that matter) attempt to build their network inside organizations that aren’t likely to result in long-term relationships, making the transition from the military to business much harder than it needs to be. However, by knowing what type of experiences you are looking for an organization to provide, you can develop relationships with people who can do more than open doors or help you solve a problem, but can be people who you learn to trust.
You Don’t Really Network in the Military
Building a network during my time as a Marine Corps officer was never really a priority for me. Military units are designed to be self-sustaining, so there was never a need to go find the person who is the best at “x” because you likely already have someone filling that role in your unit. Even if you do need to reach outside of your unit for something, perhaps the assistance of an artillery unit for an operation, you don’t get to choose which artillery unit you want. It doesn’t matter if you know the commander, know how well their unit is trained, have worked with them before and prefer to work with them again. Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen don’t prioritize networking because, even if you did request a specific unit to support you, the one that you are going to get is the one who is closest to you and who is able to provide a good-enough level of support. Talking about the reasons why networking isn’t something you often see in the military isn’t a critique of the system. It is what it takes to provide decisive military power in combat. Yet this is the reality that forms the experiences that veterans often take with them from their days in uniform to the business world.
Even though many people in the military have friends and buddies in other units, these relationships aren’t the same as intentionally building a network in the civilian world. At least that’s what I thought as I left active duty. What I’ve learned in the five years since I got out of the military is that what I was actually searching for as I built my network were a group of close friends who I could trust and who had connections of their own that could be tapped into for help when needed
My Initial Misguided Approach to Networking
When I left the military, I also left San Diego to move just outside of New York City to start my company. I didn’t have many connections in the area, and I also didn’t really know what I wanted or needed in a network, so I simply started with what I figured to be a “ready – fire – aim” approach to making connections. In more formal terms, what I was doing was going through what Eric Ries describes in the book The Lean Startup as the “build – measure – learn” cycle, where I started networking with an organization right away, assessed how well it was working, learned from those experiences, and then started a new iteration applying those lessons.
My first iteration of network building was joining the local chamber of commerce. While I’m sure that not every chamber of commerce is exactly the same, my time as a member taught me that there is a difference between having a network and the act of networking itself. At these networking events, I had no problem meeting new people. People were constantly introducing themselves to me, but it was because I was always on the receiving end of a sales pitch.
“Hi, I’m Bob. Do you need a new accountant?” No.
“Hi, I’m Rachel. Do you have any need for a financial planner?” No.
“Hi, my name is Stephanie. I don’t think we’ve met before, do you need a marketing consultant?” No.
I was looking to get to know people at these meetings, and that wasn’t possible when every interaction appeared to be transactional from the very beginning. It seemed that relationships were only seen as a means to an end, and that wasn’t what I was looking for in my network.
Applying what I learned from the chamber of commerce, I decided to then join a security industry professional organization. I figured that I would have more in common with the former military and police officers that make up a large chunk of the security industry, so this seemed like a logical second attempt at networking and made sense for what I was building with The CP Journal. At the first networking-focused event I attended, I saw people laughing, asking people about their families, and finding times to get together for a drink, leading me think this was promising.
However, after a few events, I started to notice a trend that confused me. At the events where I wore a Marine Corps flag lapel pin (security professionals love lapel pins) people would introduce themselves and comment about being a former Marine themselves. At the events where I didn’t wear the Marine lapel pin, meeting people took a lot more effort. Conversations tended to focus on what you had done in the past and were based on the organization represented on the pin, not what you were doing right now. The military veterans were talking to other military veterans about their military days despite being out of the service for years. The former police officers were talking to other former police officers about what it was like at their precinct back in the day. While these conversations were at least personal in nature and not just a sales pitch, they also weren’t the conversations that were going to help me develop the relationships I was seeking in my network either.
Don’t get me wrong, I love sharing war stories from time to time over a beer with friends, but that wasn’t why I had joined this group. Because the only shared experiences between people in this organization were things that had happened in the past and not what was happening today, the conversations rarely got beyond a shallow and superficial level. The organization was focused mostly on the social element of networking, which is a critical component to meeting new people, but that isn’t always good enough if your goal is to develop new relationships.
I came away from my time in the security industry organization with the realization that I wanted to be a part of a group that provided some sort of event before the social time. This would provide common ground and shared experiences between people and allow for conversations about the present, not just the past. This led me to my third group, which was a small organization that hosted bi-monthly events that were centered on a presentation and then was followed by some scheduled “networking time.” I assumed that having a presentation at the beginning of each meeting would provide context for meaningful networking afterwards, but that wasn’t the case.
While I found the talks to be incredibly interesting, from a networking perspective, the events fell a bit short. Because the presentation itself was often given a specific times in the agenda, most people would show up to the room five minutes before it started and would leave the moment it ended, minimizing the networking prospects of the group. And even for those who stay for the scheduled networking time, conversations were hard to start and maintain because everyone other than the speaker themselves was a passive participant. While these events were great for staying current on what was happening in my field, I learned that in order to meet people at an event, it often requires active participation from everyone involved.
The Connections I Was Seeking
Around this point in time, my wife and I were getting ready to move from New York to Colorado and, as I thought about how I would apply the lessons that I learned to get to know the community and people in an area where we had no connections at all, I knew I needed a better definition of the type of people I wanted to meet. In the clarity that comes only from conversations during a three-day cross-country drive in a radio-less moving van, I finally found the words: I was looking to meet people that I could trust. Trust as business connections, trust as partners, and trust as friends.
In The Trusted Advisor (a book that security-industry legend Tony Scotti recommended I read) the authors define trust as, “If person A trusts that person B will do something, it means that person B (1) could do something different, (2) conceivably might do something different, but (3) because of the relationship, most likely won’t do something different.” With this definition, I finally realized that my time in the military had done more to prepare me to network as a civilian than I had originally thought.
In the military, you quickly learn a lot about whether you can trust the people in your team and unit through tough training, deployments, exhaustion, and often choking down really awful food. You learn who thrives under stress and who breaks down. You learn who puts the team before themselves and those who turn inward once something becomes hard. You learn who you can trust when times get tough. The only place I had seen the opportunity to develop that level of trust with people as a civilian was while I was serving with Team Rubicon after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012.
Why I Now Spend My Time With Team Rubicon
Team Rubicon is a veteran-led disaster response organization made up of nearly 50,000 volunteers around the country, and they have offered me the chance to develop trusting relationships with the people that I had been looking for in all of the wrong places.
The chamber of commerce meetings in New York brought locals together with the purpose of finding new clients. Team Rubicon brings local volunteers together to help a homeowner or community impacted by a disaster. Your reason for meeting someone has nothing to do with either of you or your agendas other than the fact that you both raised your hand to help someone out who needed it.
In Team Rubicon, you might share a beer, coffee, or even Gatorade with another volunteer after the workday is done, but it’s not empty socializing. It’s something you’ve earned working side by side with someone for the last eight hours as you laugh or converse over the shared experience.
In Team Rubicon, while many of the volunteers come from the military, you have more to talk about than your past military experience when you meet someone new. After spending a day cutting down and removing trees burned in a wildfire, mucking out someone’s home after a flood, or cleaning up the wreckage from a tornado, everyone you meet has actively participated in the work. There is nothing passive about it, and that includes the photographers who only spend a portion of their time capturing the event and spend most of their time doing the work itself.
What I’ve found is that, while volunteering with Team Rubicon, the network I’ve discovered has been the result of building trusting relationships with other people. Networking isn’t a process in and of itself. It’s the by-product of serving others, something that not only resonates with me, but also with many of the other volunteers I’ve connected with.
Has my network grown through Team Rubicon? Without a doubt. I’ve gotten to know other CEOs and chiefs of police. I’ve met engineers and janitors, nurses and local storeowners. I’ve met consultants, college students, truck drivers, data scientists, elementary school teachers, real-estate investors, and entrepreneurs. But I haven’t met any of them because of what they do professionally, I’ve met them all because of what they’re doing for their community in what is often times grueling work that includes solving problems and tackling obstacles, all while sweating and smiling.
Through Team Rubicon I’ve been introduced to people I might not have met otherwise and happily introduced volunteers to other people I know. As a result of the expansiveness of the volunteers’ professions and careers, the number of second-degree connections I’ve been able to learn from has been astronomically larger than what I had in the other groups. None of the introductions were the result of that person’s resume or because of what they said they do, but because I’ve seen that person haul burned trees for eight hours to help a homeowner who had no other options and observed their character under challenging conditions. More importantly, I’ve met a lot of people who I now consider to be friends. Because Team Rubicon is volunteer-based, people who are driven by self-interest usually self-select themselves out of the group and stop showing up once they see how hard some of the work is, so you spend a lot of time around genuinely good people. Since I’ve never been on the receiving end of a sales pitch that I hadn’t asked for at a Team Rubicon event, I’ve gotten to shift my default setting from being skeptical and wary about why someone is there and can safely assume that their intentions are positive.
The lessons that I learned in my transition into the civilian world about what it takes to build a network of people that I can trust led me to blend my military and civilian experiences and, ultimately, led me to Team Rubicon. Each individual person undoubtedly has their own goals and needs as they start their post-military career and will have to find the organizations that can support where they want to go and what they want to do. Instead of focusing on the differences between military and civilian life, which can make the transition seem more daunting, veterans can look at the similarities between the two worlds and apply the lessons they’ve been learning and refining from their very first day at boot camp or officer candidate school when they get out. By surrounding yourself with people you can learn to trust and finding organizations that bring people together from a wide variety of professions and fields, the network that you need can come about in ways that you find familiar, not foreign.
If you’re interested in learning more about Team Rubicon, you can find a lot on their website here.