You know that voice. The one that tells you to address a problem, confront a toxic boss, apologize. I have an internal voice. It sits somewhere between my heart and my stomach. When it needs to be heard, I’ll feel a disturbance in this area. For me its a sign. I need to reflect, ponder what just happened or is happening and do something about it. It takes bravery to not only hear this voice but act upon what it is telling you. Indeed, you do not always need to act upon what it says but you ought to mute your surroundings and give it a good listen. Great leaders do this.
Ahhh spring, the season when graduates take the stage for commencement exercises marking a new chapter in their lives. Like the budding trees and plants of the season, veterans and or their spouses will give birth to their post-military careers carrying expanded minds and diplomas as their new weapons of choice. Let me offer my congratulations on this achievement and provide a graduation speech you can listen to, or read I should say, at your leisure. Strip off that graduation robe and awkward hat, grab a beer and allow me to pay respect to this important milestone and offer some words of wisdom as you embark on your next journey.
It is a special moment. Special not only because it reflects your hard work and dedication but special because you are special. Thank you for serving. I’m proud to call myself your brother. We veteran’s share a special bond. A bond which is nearly impossible to explain to anyone who has not served. In the words of General Stanley McChrystal, it is a bond “stronger than marriage vows.” I cherish that. Unrelated in name yet related by service we can connect instantly, share stories and heal. I am an Army veteran of 27 years, shaped by service to my nation in peacetime and war. I’m approaching 3 years since my retirement and I still very much feel the Army’s influence on me. I still live by its values and code of conduct. I’m proud of that. You should be as well for the values and culture the military instilled in each of you. Keep it foremost as you navigate your next chapter. There are forces our there which will attempt to strip it away. I’ve two messages for you and I want to talk about a special group of people. First, stay with the tribe, second, stay true to your passion. First, to the tribe. I’ll need to assign you another book to read. Just when you thought all this was behind you! This book is a worthy purchase and you won’t want to sell it back to the campus book store upon completing it. It is Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe, On Homecoming and Belonging. Junger does a wonderful job describing what many of us and our spouses experience or are experiencing in our post-military lives. He talks about the power of the tribe, how we experienced it while in uniform and “while each of us were willing die for our country, we are not sure how to live for it.”
Like some of you perhaps, I turned my back on the military after I departed. This is not to say I fell out of love with the Army or was bitter in my transition. Quite the opposite. I adore the Army. I still do. I just needed to close a chapter and believed that trying to shut it out was the best option. As the months and years went by, I learned that I needed to return. I needed to take part in veteran events and even return to the Army to watch former soldiers of mine achieve milestones in their careers. While commanding a brigade in the 101st Airborne Division I invited one of our Vietnam veterans to speak to my officers about PTSD. He had experienced horror in Vietnam as an infantry lieutenant yet, this trauma never haunted him like it did when he retired from service. This is because he was surrounded by people like him who had experienced similar horror. Their days were not filled recanting battlefield stories, yet they spoke each other’s unspoken language. They bonded as veterans. Once away from that environment he suffered. That always stuck with me and I needed to listen to it closely as my time in uniform grew distant. Stay connected to the tribe. Bring your spouses along. My wife and I though happy to be retired miss the communities we belonged to and the healing effects which came with them, healing effects which you may not immediately recognize. You can do that as an alum of your academic institution. You can do it through social media. You can reconnect with those you served with. Find your own special way of bonding with other veterans or special solemn moments where you can remember and reflect on brothers and sisters lost. Stay with the tribe. Need a battle buddy or tribal member? Connect with me on LinkedIn at Rob Campbell Leadership.
Second, discover, if you have not, and stay true to your passion. My passion is making a difference in the lives of others through optimistic leadership. I’m living out that passion right now delivering this speech to you on your graduation and it is why I chose to write a book, coach and speak about leadership. I was lucky, the Army fed that passion for almost 3 decades and I get great fulfillment sharing all that I learned with others. One of the best questions I was asked when transitioning from service was “if money was not an issue and you did not have to worry about bills, a mortgage or putting food on the table and you could do anything you wanted, what would that be?” “What would motivate you to get out of bed in the morning and allow you to go to sleep fulfilled?” The answer to these questions should speak to you. I spent time contemplating this answer. Indeed, I still answer it and allow it to speak to me as the demands of life, shiny objects and job opportunities present themselves. Some of you may be saying, “ok Campbell, you are a retired Colonel with a big fat pension, I have a family to feed.” While that is true, if a paycheck is your only objective, I fear that unhappiness lies ahead for you. Living a passionate, authentic life is anything but easy especially in a polarized, isolated society where constant soundbites attempt to convince us that we can have it all and pay nothing for it. It’s a tough mission and it requires courage. The good news is you possess that courage. Don’t let it lie dormant. Use it and pursue something real. Of course most of us have to work, myself included. That is ok. It’s ok to get a job but to achieve true happiness, never take your eye of that true passionate goal. Make it your new mission. In uniform you dedicated your life to the missions you were given. Use that same extreme level of commitment in this next chapter of your life. Are you brave enough? I hope so. Moreover that person deep inside each of you is hoping you are brave enough.
This graduation speech, indeed any speech or event which lauds veterans is incomplete without recognizing their spouses. You won’t find a bigger fan of military spouses than I. In fact, I call our military spouses, American National Treasures. American National Treasures consist mostly of locations and structures our nation deems worthy of preservation and recognition. We recognize people, places or things as national treasures so we can pay special respect to them, admire their grandeur or contribution to an industry, field or society. This special deference should be paid to our military spouses as well. Overstating this perhaps? I don’t think so. I consider myself fortunate to be married to a military spouse and lucky to be the recipient of her love and support for over 27 years in uniform. I and my sons were direct beneficiaries of her care through thick and thin. So too were countless other people and communities in the 16 different places we called home and numerous units we served. She may not have defeated a terrorist organization, certainly does not wear a chest full of ribbons as I do but her contribution and that of spouses like her is profound and worthy of pause and admiration.
My wife endured months and years of separation while I trained away from home or served in combat zones. She lived out of suitcases, slept on blow up mattresses, served as mom and dad, wrestled with school transitions and thrust herself out of bed in the middle of the night to welcome soldiers home from combat. Her contributions speak to the contributions of numerous military spouses. These contributions should be better recognized by our society and by employers wishing to bring some of this magic into their own organization. I find this awareness and recognition to be a battle almost on a scale of the ones I fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. But fear not. I’m up to the task! I speak often about these national treasures and help businesses be ready, not just friendly to them and their veteran loved ones. Whether you are a military spouse donning cap and gown or you will return home to a military spouse who supported you once again in this milestone, please accept my utmost respect admiration and respect. Congratulations again for this outstanding achievement. I wish you blue skies and safe landing zones as you take on your next mission.
See my video on LinkedIn about the importance of including families when leading people in businesses. The military does not view service members as individuals. They see them as a family unit. The health and welfare of a service member who may deploy to war is vital. Families may experience trauma under the rigors of combat. Well, tragedy does not strike only on battlefields. It can happen on Main Street and when it does families will come together and get an organization through the trauma. It’s not hard to do yet many skip this part of leading a business.
Warning! Do not break out the party hats when hiring a veteran or their spouse. Certainly, the hiring of these people is worthy of mention and accolade, however, research indicates a troubled road ahead. I for one hate to spoil a party but the celebration may be short-lived. Many of them will find displeasure or misalignment with their new job. According to Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families, only one half of veterans will stay in their post military job over 1 year and 65% will leave that job within two years. Not much to celebrate there.
Veteran and military spouse hiring is gaining more attention and several organizations and companies have jumped on the bandwagon with programs that connect them to employment or educate them on entrepreneurship. I see many a social media post celebrating the hiring of a veteran and or their spouse or an organization or company promoting its veteran and spouse hiring cause. “Bravo!”, I say. “Bring it on!”, but let’s shift some attention to the ugly facts which surface shortly after the celebration of a job offer and acceptance.
Following the romance of a nice paycheck and a cool looking office building, many veterans and their spouses find that the extensive skills and experience they bring to organizations go unnoticed and untapped. Many find poor leadership, lack of family inclusion and a vision, mission and cause to inspire them each day. Few veterans and their spouses experience a recognition program, professional growth and performance counseling they became accustomed to while in service. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, they may find misalignment with their true passion. There are few, if any transition programs which help veterans and spouses discover this true passion or calling and align it with employment. Passion discovery is typically boiled down to a simple question, “what do you want to do next?” This question gets its answer for sure, but is it authentic? Perhaps the better question is “if money was not an issue and you could wake up tomorrow and do something truly fulfilling, what would that be?” This question, if pondered appropriately, gets to something far more authentic. I was fortunate in my Army leadership journey to have spent time on this question. Prior to commanding an Army brigade, I attended a course which helped me determine my core purpose and passions. I carried this discovery into my encore career. Even with this self-awareness I still needed to revisit job-passion alignment to ensure I was making the right decision. I got it wrong a few times. Too many veterans miss this and, coupled with unfulfilling and uninspiring work environments, contribute to the statistics mentioned above.
Those who assist veterans and their spouses in transition should view job-placement and hiring for what it is, a performance measure; an isolated event on a journey to achieve a greater effect. This effect is veteran and spouse fulfillment and growth in an encore life and career. Measuring and celebrating performance over effects happens to many organizations, including the military. In Iraq and Afghanistan many units equated success to performance measures such as number of enemies killed, artillery rounds fired or raids conducted. Not measured were the effects of creating a greater peace, the real purpose of waging war in the first place.
Those who serve veterans and their spouses deserve applause for their efforts. Their hearts are in the right place, yet they ought to spend more time and energy on passion discovery, job alignment, on-boarding and retention instead of cake and ice cream. They ought to see job-placement beyond the ‘job’ to personal fulfillment and a smooth take off on an authentic journey. Employers should view the hiring of a veteran and or their spouse as a journey which includes effective on-boarding, personal and professional growth, recognition, family inclusion and other programs and benefits veterans, indeed most people desire. Employers should meet the challenge of establishing the best work environment they can, one which retains and grows these amazing people. Let’s celebrate effects over performance and help these people discover their true ‘why’ before we rush them into jobs. Let’s bring real success to the “hired a veteran or a military spouse” celebration.
The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines transaction as an exchange or transfer of goods, services or funds or an exchange between people. In American foreign policy, our international relationships with some countries are transactional. For instance, in the early days of the Trump Administration, numerous foreign policy experts offered transactional to define our relationship with Russia. While we hold differing views and object to their behavior, there are things we can do for each other. I do this for you, you do this for me yet we can still hold each other in contempt. Transactions, though they can be mutually beneficial, are, at their core, acts void of any relationship. For example, you usually do not seek a mutually beneficial relationship with a car salesman. The objective is to get the car for the lowest price you can. Lower the car’s price, lose some of your commission and I’ll pay you that price and drive away with a car, simple as that. On the contrary, paying for the college education of your child is less of a transaction and more of a one-way act of love. You care for them and want to invest in them, therefore you pay for their education. You do not require repayment or for them to pursue a career of your choosing. You do what you do selflessly because they are family and their happiness is your happiness. This is the behavior of a good leader. Leadership is not transactional.
Leaders of organizations can miss this. I’ve seen some who view pay, benefits and even awards and recognition as transactions necessitating a return of loyalty and improved performance. They equate these transactions to leadership. Some are puzzled when they receive little or nothing in return. It’s because this leadership transactional approach is flawed. I give you something only because I am expecting something in return or I pay you or give you a performance bonus so now you owe me better performance and increased loyalty. Some leaders convince themselves that this transaction approach is the answer. On the contrary, this belief is grounded in selfishness, centered on what the leader wants instead of what the subordinate wants. To be fair, pay, benefits, awards and even performance bonuses are not bad things. They can be motivational offerings which foster loyalty and increased performance. However, it is the spirit in which these acts or transactions are conducted which is key. Indeed, we want our people to perform better and display loyalty in word and deed but that can be obtained in different ways.
Instead of transactions, focus on the environment you create in your organization. Do you have an inspiring vision to guide your people in all that they do? I’ve worked with several companies whose vision is centered on forming and nurturing relationships with their clients. The product they sell or service they provide is secondary to the relationship which they believe to be essential to business success. Their employees follow this vision vigorously and display extreme loyalty. They do so because this vision inspires them. Do your people have a vision to guide them through the fog and friction of the modern business environment? Do they serve a cause? These answers are important. Have you created an environment of belonging? When your people walk through the doors of your business, do they experience kinship as they do when they are with their own loved ones? Do they know that they have a voice and can be critical of what the organization is doing? Do they know that you love them and have their back? Do you listen intently when they speak? Do you take time to know them personally and professionally? My three decades of leadership taught me that the answer to these questions matters greatly. If I wanted my people to be at their best and my organization to thrive, it is these questions I spent time asking and answering. I do believe that pay, good benefits, awards and even performance bonuses are crucial elements to employee performance but I always viewed these secondary to the love and respect I held for my people. Establishing great organizational environments and knowing my people came first. I never once believed a simple transaction was the answer to my organizational woes. You shouldn’t either.
One of my Army mentors once said “If you want something done right once you have to say it 10 times.” While this may come off as rude, the point is we as leaders must emphasize that which is important. We must be repetitive or parrot-like. Investing in people was the most important thing to my organization. People were always foremost in my mind and I needed my leaders to espouse this. Therefore, I said “Investing in People” all the time, everyday. I must have said it thousands of times in my tenure as commander or CEO of a large organization. Moreover, I would spend time explaining what it meant and hold my leaders accountable for this investment. In the early days, many leaders failed to answer my question “what is most important in our organization?” Over time this phrase and more importantly, all it stood for became our norm. I started to hear this phrase from my leaders and watch it in action. I became a parrot, “Raaak, Investing in People!” It works. Check out my book for more on this topic and be the parrot in your organization. Make it Personal!
Nate Grimes and I fought together in Afghanistan 10 years ago. He was just an Army Specialist (E-4). He recognized me at the baggage claim in Las Vegas and approached me. I embraced him instantly. 10 years does not diminish the kinship of 2 people who served in a special organization during trying times. He is now a Sergeant First Class (E-7) in Army Special Operations. I was bursting with pride over his growth and success. It matters! See Post
Have you ever seen that list which gets posted on pages like LinkedIn and Instagram which outlines 10 activities which require zero talent. I’m not a fan. While it is factual, I feel offended by it, as if I need reminding that I must abide by these 10 rules. Moreover it is a horrible list to post in an organization as a reminder to people. I believe all you will accomplish is offending them. Indeed we want our subordinates to live by this list. Instead of drawing it out on a dry erase board or posting it in poster size in the break room, create an environment which motivates people to abide by these rules. Lead and care for them. Set a tone of inclusion and belonging and transparency and you’ll get all that and more.