I spent four hell-raising years in a Marine infantry battalion at Camp Pendleton, California. As a 26-year-old lieutenant, I would roll out of the battalion command post with 10 Humvees, 50 Marines, and enough water, chow, and gasoline to satisfy any green-faced grunt. After a few days of dropping high explosive mortars and racing across dark mountain roads, we’d return to garrison dirty, exhausted, and all too willing to broadcast our “just got out of the field” swagger. At that moment in my life, I had the perfect job because it matched my strengths (endurance and tactics) and almost entirely bypassed my weaknesses (administration and logistics).
A year later, the Marine Corps’ faceless bureaucracy, known as Manpower, pressed stop on my perfect job for one mind-boggling reason: My four-year tour had ended. And despite high performance marks from my battalion commander, plus my desire to stay in a position that matched my strengths, Manpower said “No” and ordered me to a new billet (not an infantry battalion) on the East Coast.
Though Manpower sometimes matches a Marine to his job preference, its purpose is to fill positions, not match someone’s strengths with those positions. As a result, there is little regard for who is best for what job.
Unfortunately, my strengths never quite matched my new position on the East Coast. I spent most of those three years allowing my weaknesses to drag down my performance to average, rather than utilizing my strengths to push my performance to exceptional. Not surprisingly, after that tour, I left the Marine Corps.
Upon my exit, I promised myself I would never again allow anyone or any bureaucracy to determine the direction of my professional life. I would find a career where I could foster my strengths, ignore my weaknesses, and create opportunities for myself that would benefit both my employer and my career.
A few years after I left the Corps, I realized how common my frustrations were when The Atlantic published Tim Kane’s article, “Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving.” This piece caused a social media frenzy among thousands of current and former military officers across the country. Citing multiple sources, including his own survey of 250 West Point graduates, Kane attacked military bureaucracy — particularly the Manpower and promotional system — as the reason for junior officers’ mass exodus from the military before retirement.
Just one in five of the West Point graduates Kane surveyed believe the Army is good at matching individual talents with jobs. This is because, Kane argues, the military Manpower system treats each officer as an “interchangeable commodity rather than a unique individual with skills that can be optimized.”
To fight Pentagon bureaucracy and recognize each officer’s distinctive talents, Kane offered this decentralized solution: Each commander should “have sole hiring authority over the people in his unit.” As a result, an officer could apply for job openings that match his or her strengths.
Why is this solution so radical? It is a proven practice in the private sector for a candidate to interview for the job best suited to his or her abilities. Rather than Manpower reading an officer’s career wish list from a distant corner of the Pentagon, it is common sense to offer the commanders of those units an opportunity to interview an officer interested in that job.
I am now a director at a private security and protection firm who interviews thousands and hires hundreds of candidates, including many veterans. In addition, I help match new associates to a specific security team at a specific location with a specific set of responsibilities. As such, it behooves me to ensure this match accentuates each new associate’s unique strengths and limits the impact of his or her weaknesses. In doing so, associates can go from good to great.
If you are a veteran and unsure of your direction after the military, I encourage you to assess yourself more than Manpower did. When you work, what gives you the most pleasure? Is it teaching and instructing? Reading and writing? Speaking and presenting? Assessing and fixing? Organizing and delivering?
When considering where to work, I encourage you to think less about the specific industry (i.e., manufacturing or security) and more about your role within any industry. In doing so, you can use your cultivated strengths and gain lasting success. Unlike in the military, you are now in full control of you. Enjoy it and be great as a result.