Thursday, February 2, 2017

POG to PM - Lessons for Veterans

created by Erin Morey
Recently I worked with PMI Houston to build a transition program for veterans, and many other Project Management Institute Chapters are doing the same. PMI Global identified that there are many reasons why veterans make fantastic project managers. In fact, there are many articles about why veterans make great project managers (here's one). A few of the points that most people have said:

1. Veterans are mission focused - They will put in the extra effort to accomplish goals, and know what it means to sacrifice to meet those mission objectives (milestones).

2. Veterans are typically experienced leaders - Most veterans above the rank of Private First Class have at least some leadership experience with small teams (5-10), and many veterans have experience with teams much larger (possibly in the hundreds).

3. Veterans know how to work in a high-stress environment - Working in combat environments is one thing, but all veterans have worked in high-stress environments, with some of the highest stakes a team can be responsible for. 

But this article isn't about why veterans makes good project managers. This article is about some of the lessons that most veterans should know before becoming a PM! After working with several classes of veterans, here are the lessons veterans may not realize:
1. We're not giving orders now - Many veterans leave the military and make the mistake of thinking they can still behave like a military team leader. In the civilian world, we can't just give orders and expect them to be followed. In fact that behavior will build resentment with your team. They may even comment about how "We aren't soldiers, how come he's giving orders?"

We need to learn to communicate and attempt to do it "civilian style." In a previous post I mentioned People Styles At Work, and I would still highly recommend it as a book worth reading and applying to anyone who wants to be a leader. Some people respond better to quick requests, others want all the facts; some want us to ask about their family and weekends, others want tasks that are engaging and rapid. How we approach each type of person is different, and none of them respond well to orders. 

One final note on this topic, just like in kindergarten, "please" and "thank you" go a long way.

2. Our very body language intimidates people - We've spent hours standing at attention and parade rest, not to mention at ease. Shoulders back, back straight, feet set are almost our default posture. Most people don't stand like the military. In fact most people slouch. We need to learn to relax. I'm not saying slouch, but maybe shake out your shoulders, sit down when talking individually, and (heaven forbid) put your hands in your pockets occasionally. 

That's great when your standing still, but what about your walk? I've been accused of marching around the halls, or sounding like I'm still wearing combat boots. We tend to move with purpose, and that can mean our very footsteps can echo in hallways. Be aware of this and perhaps try to step lightly?

3. No one understands our terminology - The military is masterful at inducting people into its culture. We learn how to talk, how to walk, and even what to say. But when less than 10% of the US population has served (more than half being WWII veterans, and less than 1% currently serve) how can we expect the civilian population to understand us? A movie (Rennaisance Man) starring Danny Devito shared the concept perfectly:

The term is Death By Acronym (DBA), but it isn't only acronyms. Most people aren't going to know that a commissary is a grocery store, or that a Joint Network Node is a communication platform. Even when we think we are speaking in plain English, the rest of the world wonders when we were deployed to Greece

We need to find a way to speak and write in words that the civilian population use. Most often, I tell my students to use words similar to what you would use when explaining something to your grandmother or a 4th grader. Now, don't talk like you are talking to those people, but use the words!

4. Our stories are greek tragedies, Shakespear plays, and Tom Hanks / Brad Pitt / Mark Wahlberg movies - In number 3 I identified that less than 10% of the US population has served. This means civilian US civilain population has little to no frame of reference for our stories unless they've seen it in Saving Private Ryan, Fury, or Lone Survivor. In fact, many people have a hard time believing the stories are actually real (heck I sometimes have a hard time believing I lived through my own stories!).  Without a legitimate frame of reference, people may not take your stories in the spirit that it was offered, and for that matter, our stories may not be appropriate for the audience or moment.

As project managers and leaders in the civilian world, we need to start defining new Rules of Engagement (ROE). In fact, these ROEs shouldn't be solely for project managers, but any veteran returning to the civilian world. For each of the lessons listed, I have specific examples that have caused me pain with my project teams. Thankfully I've learned to adjust, but we never let go entirely of the lessons learned in the military. One of my most recent teams endearingly calls me "Drill" (short for Drill Sergeant, even though I never was), and I received that tag within a month of working with them.  

Perhaps we can explore the ROEs together? What suggestions do you have for the new ROE? Do you have any lessons veterans should know? Share them below so that we can all grow!

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