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Understanding How Military and Civilian Cultures Differ

By Diane Hudson

Understanding How Military and Civilian Cultures DifferUnderstanding how to operate in a strong, hierarchial, command and control organization is required for success in the military.

That background often provides veterans with an intuitive understanding of how many large corporations, and even many small ones, function.

However, some corporate employers actually function very differently from the military structure, even when they look the same.

The different functions, expectations, and responses can cause miscommunication for both parties.

Military vs. Civilian Operational Models

Here is a basic description of the structure differences. Of course, exceptions to every rule do exists, but these describe the basics:

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Military: Command & Control Operations Model

You are familiar with the consistent military method and structure for consistent operation:

  • Hierarchical/vertical structure
  • More exact rules of conduct
  • Defined roles, rank & status (defined/assigned military occupational career fields)
  • Consistency across units/organizations
  • Clearly defined career progression
  • Additionally, veterans share a bond in beliefs, traditions, values,  and the importance of rank and structure

Unfortunately, civilians rarely wear their rank on their shoulders or collars.

Corporate/Non-military: Collaborative Model

Civilian corporate structures are considerably less consistent than the military, normally including these elements:

  • Matrix structure
  • More implied or "understood" rules of conduct
  • Flexible/ambiguous roles & status
  • Variations across teams/divisions
  • Less defined career progression / opportunity for lateral assignments
  • Corporate culture imposes corporate values on the organization

Quite different from the orderly military structure.

Military vs. Civilian Career Progression

The progression in a career differs greatly between military and civilian:

The Military Ladder

Typically, a military member rises to the top, based on a career ladder (from enlisted one to enlisted seven through nine within a 20-year career; or junior officer to senior officer) within the same service.

Most often that rise is in the same career field, i.e., intelligence, logistics, aviation, infantry, medical, administration, and such. The Army, for example, does provide opportunities for enlisted soldiers to become Warrant Officers, through a board and selection process.

In addition, some enlisted members will leave the military, attain a college degree, and rejoin as an officer.

The Corporate Matrix

The "chain of command" in the civilian world may not be clear. In many organizations, you will have more than one boss -- known as a "matrix." So, if you work in security, you could report both to a "captain" of your shift/department and also to a manager in the legal department.

On the non-military side, the opportunities are much less defined, both inside a company, and -- when reaching for the top ladder-rungs -- when changing companies.

For example, during nine years, one of my clients:

  • Left the military as an enlisted soldier (Army, E-5).
  • He applied for and received a position as a GS-13 in the federal government (supervisory).
  • From there he left the federal government and joined a Department of Defense contractor as a Director.
  • He left the first DoD contractor for another DoD contractor, where he set up the contract parameters, and was hired as an executive Vice President.

    He is currently applying for more senior-level federal positions, as he wants to relocate. He also provides contract work for a large non-profit humanitarian organization and other small-business-owned companies for stock options.

Moreover, within a company, employees can jump from low-level to management, simply based on merit or networking.

Many companies have career field codes. However, typically, they are much more flexible in allowing employees to transfer into new positions, provide the appropriate training, and expect success. (Federal employment is a cross between Command and Control and Collaborative.)

Therefore, you can see that the opportunities are boundless in the corporate side.

On the Job

On the job, the non-military companies are also less structured, in many cases. These culture differences can cause difficulties for both parties on the job.

Not all veterans adapt well to the more ambiguous work environment of non-military employers -- and they simply need to learn the new culture: ask questions, and absorb the differences. Others adapt quickly and easily, by observing the new culture and learning to speak the new language (non-military language).

Some employers prefer not to hire veterans, simply because they have preconceived notions of their "rigidness."

For example, one of my clients was asked, during a job interview for a director position of an association, "Since you are so accustomed to shouting orders to your subordinates, how do you think you can motivate volunteers?"

My client was able enlighten the employer about his operational style by describing many years of managing volunteers on military installations around the world as volunteers are often the backbone of military bases, providing community services, Red Cross, faith-based organizations, and much more. He educated the interviewer (gently) that he only gave a few direct orders during his entire leadership career, and, when he did, it was in a war zone.  

Military-Friendly Employers

To locate military friendly employers, check out the Top 100 Defense Contractors (especially the ones with the largest dollar volume of prime contract awards), or look for lists of military friendly employers.

Some companies actually have created internal programs to educate military to the collaborative culture and assist them in making the integration to the corporate culture.

For example, Alphabet/Google and Booze Allen Hamilton have such programs because they value the knowledge, experience, and credentials of veterans, but they also recognize that the mindset of a war-fighter is a bit different from that of a business consultant.

To further identify military-friendly employers, type in search words on job boards and search for the following:

  • Government / Department of Defense Contractors
  • Companies & Contractors Requiring a Security Clearance
  • Security & Law Enforcement Organizations
  • The Federal Government
  • Intelligence & Intelligence Training Organizations
  • Communications-oriented Companies
  • Companies seeking military experience and discipline: Home Depot, NGOs, Telecommunications
  • Schools (Troops to Teachers)

Some non-DoD companies include Sprint-Nextel, Merrill Lynch, Troops to Teacher program, Bank of America, WalMart, Lowes, Southern California Edison, Sodexo, and T-Mobile, to name a few.

Bottom Line

Understanding that the culture in many civilian organizations can be dramatically different from military organizations, even when hierarchial, is critical. So, research potential employers and carefully ask questions during the interview process to understand your fit with the corporate culture before pursuing or accepting the job.


About the author...

Job-Hunt's Job Search Expert for Veterans, Diane Hudson is a military transition job-search strategist and career coach. She designs and composes military conversion resumes and helps position service members for employment in corporate or Federal America. Diane holds eight industry credentials including Certified Leadership & Talent Management Coach and Federal Job Search Trainer & Counselor and owns Career Marketing Techniques.