“If you’re lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down”
It was our first day in the hallowed precincts of India’s premier management institute – the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA). Only 99 percentiles from the rigorous Indian education system make it to this institute each year, most of them from elite Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) and reputed colleges of India.
Disenchanted with the blistering race of marks and merit that precedes selection to such institutes, I ‘ran away’ almost 25 years ago to join the Naval Academy. Now through some cosmic design, I found myself in IIMA with 63 other officers from the Indian Armed Forces. We were to undergo a 6-month, fully residential program in Business Management before stepping out on to the civil street.
It was opening day. We awaited Professor Pradyuman Khokle’s opening address with excitement and hope. Leaving one hallowed institution and standing at the threshold of another.
His opening line set the tone for what lay ahead. ‘Ladies and gentlemen”, he started, “I know all of you have come from distinguished careers. You have led troops into battle and faced numerous challenges and adversities. However, it is now time to ‘unlearn’ some things while honing others that will prepare you for the next journey – the civil street. Travel light, shed some excess baggage”.
There was palpable discomfort and scattered murmurs of disapproval. What is this ‘unlearning’ business? What have we learnt incorrectly that now needs to be unlearnt? What excess baggage is he talking about?
Gangways that stood at rapt attention to receive you, sailors in sparkling whites who piped the side as you walked up the ramp, dog fights that you aced several thousand feet up in the air, battle cries of men who were ready to lay down their lives for ‘Izzat’ of the ‘Palton’ – all flashed by in our minds as we took in the full import of the professor’s words.
Honeymoon week was soon over as IIMA pushed us into overdrive. Our life became a mess of 5Ps, 3Cs, excel workbooks, balance sheets and an unbalanced routine (including tea at the ‘Tapri’ in middle watch as you worked on case studies!).
Military: The Best Finishing School
Serving in the armed forces is not a job; not even a career. It is a way of life. It makes men out of boys and heroes out of ordinary soldiers. Some call it the best finishing school. I would never exchange my two and half decades in uniform for anything else. But it is a steep pyramid and there’s only room for one at the top.
‘Appointments’ and ‘disappointments’ are but natural in a system that is selection-based. It will have its ‘blue eyed boys’ and ‘also rans’. Soon the day of reckoning may be upon you and you will have to take that ‘call’. When the list is out, some make it. Most don’t. Then what? Some smoke the peace pipe, some decide to strike out, even as others remain undecided for years. My advice – don’t fall into the third group.
To those of you who are in it for the long haul, good luck! For others, what is the right time to make that transition? What should be your strategy? Where do you start? How to ensure a positive outcome? How to help and be helped? Let’s deal with some of these questions.
Gentle reminder. What follows is purely my opinion and meant for ordinary defence personnel standing at that crossroad. If you are a John Boyd or some exceptional candidate with fire in your belly, you might as well skip further reading. You don’t need my counsel.
When is the Right Time?
For a person who put in his papers two years shy of pensionable service, I have no reason to be taking the lectern on this one. But in hindsight, maybe you should guard against taking the decision of ‘premature retirement’ (PR) on emotional reasons alone. Like all hasty decisions, this too may come back to haunt you. I remember the sober words of an Admiral as I stood grimly before him, holding my file for PR at 18 years of service when the 2008 global recession was looming. His words still ring in my ears – “Don’t be selfish. You and your family have made many sacrifices to get here. If you want to commit professional suicide, that’s your choice. But don’t cut them out of the security of pension and lifelong benefits that are just round the corner. They deserve it no less than you do. In any case, the time to leave is when you have stabilised the boat, not when there is a storm brewing. Think again.”
This decision may be a no-brainer, but sometimes rational thinking escapes you when circumstances push you into a corner. You may feel wronged or compelled to stomp out in a huff. But remember, no institution can take care of you when the chips are down like the Service does. Corporate life is about top lines and bottom lines. If you arrive at their doorstep with a bag of personal or medical problems, be prepared to get disappointed.
When you want to call time is your choice. But make sure you have at least a Plan A and Plan B. Maybe a Plan C as well. It takes anything from six months to one year maybe more to finalise a respectable position. Start working backwards from that goalpost. Time it well so that you can give your 100% to launching your second innings. Remember those lyrics from ABBA – “When I know the time is right for me, I’ll cross the stream” (the song also says quite aptly ‘I believe in angels’; maybe you should!).
The Right Attitude
The Service gives you a rich, multi-dimensional experience. Yet when they decide to move on, veterans are often besieged by self-doubt. A strange kind of ‘us & them’ syndrome weakens battle-hardened soldiers when poised at the transition. Don’t worry; it is a natural fear of the unknown! Maybe it is the lack of information about this animal called ‘corporate’, hype around corporate careers, or enemies in our own camp who overstate the challenges. Success in service and outside of it depends to a large extent on attitude. Attitude can be your biggest strength or your biggest weakness, you choose it. If you break it down to nuts and bolts, the basic ingredients of success in Service or outside of it are but the same.
Look at the transition as a mission which needs certain key skills to be learnt / re-learnt, put your best foot forward, go with a positive ‘can do’ attitude and be prepared to learn some new tricks. For example, in the Service, one can get away without being too number savvy, but in corporates it is mostly ‘management by numbers’. Especially at the higher managerial levels, you will find an increasing emphasis on balance sheets and quantitative metrics. Just keep your head down and learn some new concepts. Don’t let anyone tell you it is something complex or esoteric because it is not. At the same time, don’t flaunt the ‘I have seen it all’ attitude either – because you haven’t.
In my experience as Placement Coordinator for our batch at IIMA, we dealt with three different age groups in our placement campaign. The Short Service Commission (SSC) officers in the age group of 28-34 years of age (6-14 years of service), pensionable officers in age group 41-45 years (20+ years of service) and superannuating officers in age group 54 years and beyond (30+years of service). The effort required to garner suitable employment opportunities was in direct proportion to the years of service. Not surprising in an age of ‘start-ups’ and 30-year old CEOs. Age, unless matched with years of corporate experience or an exclusive skill set, does not make you particularly attractive to potential recruiters. This is no commentary on your capability or calibre. It is simply the way things are. Companies have to wager their bets between veterans with 20 years of military experience, civilians with same years of corporate experience and ‘young blood’ coming out of B-Schools with corporate experience and Executive MBAs. It’s not exactly a level playing field.
Short Service Commission Officers
For those of you who sign up for a short stint in the armed forces, there is good news and bad news. The service will groom you into well-rounded personalities, give you a rich leadership experience, equip you with some transferable skills, make you feel like family and then let you out to pasture when you are newly married or about to start a family. Don’t wince. You signed up for it. The good news is that you are in hot demand today.
Keep an eye on the future. Be in touch with your colleagues from the other side. Use every opportunity to upskill and stay in touch with academics. Perhaps, get a good GMAT score. Build up your reserves if you want to take a sabbatical for pursuing a management degree. If you do not waste your time and do your homework well, you will find the best of opportunities await you. You bring to the table a rare and potent mix of personality, military leadership experience, age and ability to outlast the competition in sheer capacity for hardwork. Provided, of course, you don’t ruin everything with the wrong attitude. Remember, it’s a small and connected world and reputation carries farther than you think.
Officers who hold a permanent commission usually do not prepare for this eventuality until late into their second decade of service. The decision is either forced upon you due to impending supercession or personal reasons. In any case, if you have stuck around till pensionable service, you will be pushing forty. Give or take (give, rather than take) a few years to make up your mind and you will be staring at mid or late forties. By this time, children are in university or high school and EMIs and educational expenses are mounting. In most cases, you’ll have to hit the ground running. But if you have planned your finances well, you could look at a management degree. It will set you back by 30+ lacs (about USD 45K), not including family expenses during the unpaid duration of the course. ISB and all IIMs offer these courses. So do institutes abroad but the investment is much steeper. Also, all management degrees are not equal. Select carefully, if you will.
Forty-plus may seem a tough age to be hitting books but I have observed that officers who do, enjoy a distinct advantage. A good blend of relevant experience, leadership qualities, networking and management education helps break down age barriers and launch a successful second career. If you do not have one of these ingredients in abundance, you just have to work harder with the other three. Those who come from non-technical backgrounds may particularly like to upgrade their skills as the service has a tendency to promote ‘jack of all trades’ qualities among its executive officers.
There are many officers who leave upon superannuation. If you belong to the exclusive ‘Flag Officers Club’, good for you. Please enjoy a well-deserved retirement and play golf! If you still ‘have it in you’, the field is open, as some high ranking officers who went on to become Union Ministers, Governors and Chairmen of shipyards etc have shown!
Others who continue till superannuation may face a different set of challenges. It is a kind of zero sum game. What you gain in terms of continued employment or better pension from an extended tenure may leave you that much disadvantaged when you seek employment in the twilight of your service years. During our placement campaign at IIMA, some companies politely declined interviews with officers above 45 years of age. Be prepared for the eventuality if you are on this path. Plan to be financially independent, obtain some exclusive transferable skills, take up consultancy or try entrepreneurship. At an age when your loans are all paid up and children are married, your risk-taking capacity is ideally suited for entrepreneurship! If all this doesn’t interest you, you still have the option of enjoying ‘pension coma’!
The Directorate General of Resettlement (DGR) runs a bevy of courses to help officers and men transition smoothly into their second innings. The courses for officers are generally certificate courses in business management, while for PBORs several mid-level managerial and skill-building courses are available. These courses are sponsored and part funded by DGR and candidates are nominated by respective service headquarters. Many top-notch institutes such as IIMs, MDI (Gurgaon), XLRI etc. run ‘Armed Forces Programme‘ – a six month business management course for officers. Some obvious advantages of availing these courses are:
- It is highly affordable (about INR 2.5 lacs, USD 3.75k) and offers excellent value for your investment (time & money).
- It equips you with basic tools of business management through a short, rigorous course.
- Healthy networking opportunities with companies through self-help placement campaigns.
- A sabbatical from military routine so that you can focus on your second career.
- Access to alumni associations and incubation centres for innovation & entrepreneurship.
- Valuable insights into corporate administration and management through case studies.
While the courses are rich in content, it guarantees no job at the end of it. The placement process is purely a self-help activity with some assistance from the institute. Please relieve yourselves of the notion that such courses will automatically launch your second career. The focus during the course is, and should remain maximization of learning. Potential recruiters have often checked the knowledge level of candidates during placement interviews and any ‘aura’ that you feel the institute bestows on you will quickly vanish if one is found wanting in basics. IIMA recently introduced an entrance test to weed out casual volunteers from serious contenders. Who knows, other institutes may follow too.
This is understandably a grey area when it comes to armed forces personnel. They never had to make a resume; neither to apply for the military nor while serving in uniform. However, various tools and support services are available for this purpose. You can also get by with a little help from your friends. The AFP courses in IIMs conduct a specific capsule on resume building that is very useful. Here are some generic tips:
- Get the biggest impediment out of the way – start the exercise now.
- Ideally, the resume should either be arranged functionally (in order of functions / responsibilities) or chronologically (ascending / descending). But for a veteran with zero corporate experience, a blend of both types may be better suited.
- There’s no single resume that can suit all requirements. Tailor them separately based on the role applied for.
- Ensure contact details remain valid throughout the period of job hunt.
- Guard against portraying yourself as a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ by listing a whole lot of core competencies and areas of expertise.
- Make a short, content-rich, attractive and appealing document, cutting flab and military jargon wherever necessary. People tend to go overboard and make it a mini-biography of sorts. The biggest challenge is to keep it within 400 words / 2-pages max. Anything more and it will not encourage reading.
- If you are applying for a cockpit role, it is perhaps a good idea to add an appendix tabulating various types and experience, while keeping the main resume at one page.
- More than anything else, it is ‘relevant experience’ and your reputation that counts.
- Don’t overstate your qualifications and capabilities. Good companies run their background checks. Be prepared to defend each and every word in your resume. If you can’t, remove it.
- Run the draft through your friends in corporates if you can. If it takes immense patience to read through your resume and collect information of interest, it is no good. When such a resume reaches a potential recruiter (for whom you are a face among thousands), it will not escape the trash bin.
- Mention specific cases backed by data, dates and quantified results rather than generic, long-winded sentences borrowed from cyberspace. Good recruiters keep a devil’s eye out for such details and discard generalisations.
- Give it several proof reads. For once, ZERO ERROR syndrome is good. Ensure NO mistakes whatsoever in the text.
- The best bet is to put yourself in the shoes of a recruiter with busy eyes and then read your resume from his/her perspective. If you cannot read your own resume at least 3 times back to back without getting bored – it will NEVER appeal to anybody outside. Then run it through your biggest critic – your wife!
Cockpit or Boardroom?
If you are a pilot retiring from the armed forces, you may in all probability not require any elaborate brief on preparing for the Civvy Street. However, I have known quite a few aviators who vacillated between cockpit and corporate with a result that they did neither and continued in the service. Nothing wrong with that. You may have your reasons. But if you are still young in the service and want to keep your options open, these tips may help:
- There are few, if any, promotions in a pilot’s job. Be prepared for a pay that remains flat for the most part. Your colleagues in boardrooms may start slow but for them, sky is the limit.
- Commercial flying is permitted till 65 years of age while most corporate executives retire at 60. This is of course subject to medical fitness.
- Don’t be shy of doing your pilots licence. The road to earning your CPL / ATP also helps you keep current with studies, aviation knowledge and contemporary regulations. The Service or circumstances may force your hand at any time. Keep your options open.
- Having obtained your CPL, start working towards the ATPL exams. The results are valid for 5 years.
- If you are a helicopter pilot, consider a Rotor Transition Program. There is a huge demand for airline Captains, even as the helicopter industry languishes.
- Maintain a summary of different types of flying experience such as offshore, mountain, long-line, NVG-aided, cross-country (day/night), instructional, etc. in as much detail as possible.
- Maintain an electronic logbook on MS Excel. It’s a good back up and allows easier computation of hours for various purposes.
- Be aware that a pilot’s job is largely dependent on maintaining good health. Best to get rid of habits that become a burden on your pilots licence.
Today, of all the prerequisites for making a lateral sidestep into the corporate world, networking sits somewhere right up there. The best of products will sit on the shelves if it was not visible to the consumer. I have seen many good guys who would have made excellent managers and CEOs but couldn’t get the right breaks because they just dropped off the radar (or were too stealthy 😉 ). While networking is not a substitute for core qualities, being an island of talent that is not on anybody’s map doesn’t help either. Today you are likely part of many social media groups, WhatsApp groups, alumni groups, old boys group etc. Ask yourselves, have I harnessed the power of all these networks? Have I helped others through my networks? What goes around comes around. If you are just engaged in exchanging jokes and forwards, you are wasting valuable time. It’s time to get serious.
Enemies in our Camp
This message goes out to a small minority among us. They are our biggest enemies sitting right here in our own camps – veterans who harm other veterans’ interests by either blocking access to opportunities or subverting those that come up in their sphere of influence. Even one word spoken against a potential candidate does great damage in an already overheated recruitment space. A few kind words spoken for a person or that gentle nudge can often make a difference between an offer letter or the veteran sitting it out on the bench. If you have nothing good to say, better say nothing at all. Narrow parochial interests (my unit type, ex-NDA, school-type, & so on) and prejudices against sister services, other arms and specializations must never be used to harm others. For those who torpedo others, may you soon be at the receiving end!
It has been a little over three years since I stepped out of the whites into the Civvy Street. A few golden stripes and a wing pinned up on a white shirt still remains part of my life, having chosen cockpit over boardroom. Many of you who don the uniform will have to make similar decisions in your lifetime. It is a decision that changes the course of your life as well as those of your family members. Here’s wishing you good luck and Godspeed!
I would love to hear feedback on what worked for you, what didn’t. Let us all send the elevator down again and ensure veterans get the respectable position in society they truly deserve. We are our best friends, we are our worst enemies.
© KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved.
Views expressed are personal and written with a view to share information of interest to officers and men in the retirement zone. Feel free to contribute to the discourse. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.