Every great manager or director has to start somewhere: Joe McFarland, executive vice president at Lowe's, began as a sales associate in the light bulb aisle of Home Depot. But before that, he spent six years in the Marine Corps as an aviation mechanic. When he left the military in August 1993, he knew that his technical skills were not relevant: “No one was looking for someone to fire a .50-cal out of a door. My technical skills weren't as important as my people skills.”

McFarland, who spent nine months as an aerial door gunner in Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield, explains what skills are important for transitioning veterans, and what veterans should consider when looking for that first job.

Tell us about your work experience after transitioning out of the military

I thought I wanted to stay in aviation. Many of my friends went into contract work, but without contracts, they would be out of work for months. When I left the Marines, I was married and had a 3-year-old, so I needed a steady job. A brand-new Home Depot store was opening near me. I applied and offered to work my first two weeks for free to show what I could offer. I started at Home Depot one hour after receiving my separation papers. I began as a sales associate, then held numerous manager positions in the years after that. I moved up to regional vice president, then spent eight years as division president. I retired after 22 years. In 2016, I got a phone call from Marvin Ellison, with a job opportunity to be the head of stores at J.C. Penney. Then, the executive vice president of stores position opened at Lowe's, and I jumped at the chance.

What military skills are most important for transitioning veterans?

First — leadership, defined as taking good care of your people and leading by example. This was something always instilled in me as a Marine. Drill instructors did everything they asked us to do. They could always demonstrate the desired behaviors. As you transition into a civilian role, you lead by example. Model the behaviors you expect from others. For example, if I want a clean parking lot, I demonstrate that by picking up any trash as I walk into a store. When I say customer service is important, I'll stop no matter what I'm doing to help and never walk past a customer.

Second – teamwork, the value of working with diverse teams. You are often in close quarters in the military: in boot camp, ships, deployments, etc. Being able to work closely with others while respecting the diversity of the team is so important. Everyone comes with different experiences. You learn to value people for their expertise and what they bring to the table. You make decisions to better the team, not to better yourself. It teaches you the value in being part of a team.

Jobs photo

Joe McFarland,(Courtesy of Joe McFarland)

Third – integrity, you live by the military code of honor. You never want to embarrass your unit, your team, the Marine Corps, your country. It's the same when you transition to a civilian career. Acting with integrity also brings forward qualities like dedication, adaptability and maturity. These are the skills that every company is looking for in someone they want to hire. The military makes you grow up fast, and many young men and women with military backgrounds bring the maturity to adapt and work in corporate America. Integrity and flexibility are something everyone is looking for. I've relocated 10 times now — in my corporatecareer, not my military one. The military really teaches you flexibility.

Finally – problem-solving. In the desert or on deployment, the resources may be limited, but the problems don't go away. You learn to work with what you have to solve problems. All these skills are key to success in any line of work, no matter where you begin.

I can teach someone technical skills for business and customer service, but I can't teach them the leadership that is developed in the military. When translating to a civilian job, you can be the most technically sound person, but if you lack leadership, flexibility and integrity, you won't be successful. When hiring someone, I value those leadership skills more so than their technical abilities, which we can teach.

Did you ever need to pursue a college degree?

I joined the Marines right out of high school. I never went to college or a trade school. A lot of the young men and women in the military choose the military because they aren't college-bound. I think the military prepares you for things that college can't prepare you for. Many of the skills you learn in the military you can't learn in college. Is college important? Sure! But you can rely on that military experience to take you to any role you desire in corporate America.

Do you notice a military-friendly culture at Lowe's? Tell us about their veteran programs

I'm proud to be a part of a company that values military service and celebrates our associates and customers who have served. We've created some pretty special ways to recognize our more than 18,000 veteran associates who work at Lowe's. In November 2018, our military associates were recognized with a special patch on their Red Vests, and later this year, we'll even give them the option to wear camouflage vests as a celebration of their service. We also feel that it's important that we create a military-friendly culture through the offerings we provide our military families, which include differential pay during service, employment opportunities for military personnel after their service ends and partnering with organizations to recruit military and military spouses.

Importantly, we support veteran-owned suppliers through our supplier diversity program and participate in programs like the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve and the Military Spouse Employee Partnership.

And this recognition of service extends to our customers. We offer a 10 percent discount to active duty, reservists and veterans every day on all purchases, and in 2018, Lowe's discount helped military families save $1 billion on home improvement projects. Additionally, at each store across the country, we provide four veteran and active duty reserved parking spaces and strive to be an active part of the military community.
I'm a true example of how Lowe's is a place to use your leadership skills learned from the military to and build a career — and be part of a family.