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Beyond the False Summit: Unseen Challenges of NCO's and Officers Transitioning from Service



When it was time for me to move on from Defence, long before reaching retirement or climbing the ranks, uncertainty loomed. Armed with a Certificate IV in Aeroskills, I set my sights on the Aircraft Maintenance Industry. The snag – my qualifications weren't universally acknowledged. Despite being a certified Trade Supervisor and Self-Certifying Maintainer, my credentials carried little weight beyond RAAF boundaries. While I could secure a tradesperson role, aiming for a supervisor position, especially as a Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineer (LAME), felt like an impossible goal. This dilemma lingered for years as I pondered the leap into civilian life. Unable to wait any longer, I made the decision, and that's when it hit me – I was standing at a false summit. There was so much I didn't know.

Throughout my career my section commander’s didn't really back me going to a transition seminar, and the operational tempo of the squadrons I worked at never quite aligned. Yet, reaching a point where waiting was no longer an option, I took the leap.

I see numerous NCOs and Officers encountering comparable challenges – particularly those without high-ranking positions, extensive qualifications, or immediately transferable skills on the outside.


How can they thrive in a world seemingly stacked against them? I found a way, and so have a few of my friends.


Now, the question is, how can I share their stories? How can I share mine to support those yet to take the leap?


Introduction:

Transitioning from the structured world of Defence to the uncertainty of civilian life is a journey filled with both challenges and opportunity. As former serving members, we’re equipped with adaptable skills like leadership, teamwork, and communication, yet we often face a pivotal moment when deciding to leave the familiar structures of Defence (Forbes, 2023). However, this journey is not just a change of scenery; it's a major shift that feels like reaching a false summit, where what appears to be the pinnacle of a decision is merely a checkpoint on a more intricate path.


A Positive Turning Point:

Joining the ranks in some cases is a positive turning point for those seeking a broader sense of purpose, structure, and camaraderie (MacLean, A., 2008). The decision to wear the uniform becomes a defining moment, creating a foundation for qualities supposedly sought after in the civilian job market. The unique environment of Defence instills attributes such as leadership, work ethic, and communication, setting the stage for a career characterised by service and commitment. However, this turning point, while invaluable, also sets us up for challenges later in life that won’t necessarily align with the dynamics of civilian workplaces.

As NCO’s, we’re forged into becoming high-functioning members of cohesive teams, fostering a strong sense of identity and service to our country. The commitment to a shared mission becomes ingrained, and the camaraderie built under service conditions shapes a deep bond between team members. These qualities are undeniable assets, yet the transition to a civilian career later in life requires a delicate navigation for how these attributes translate into a new context. The sense of mission accomplishment, deeply embedded in military culture, can sometimes clash with the often fluid and less structured nature of civilian workplaces.


Culture Built for High Achievers:

Transitioning from a culture designed for high achievers in team environments, where mission accomplishment is paramount, can be a formidable challenge (Parsons & Pascale, Harvard Business Review, 2007). The disciplined environment and structured nature of Defence life, may not always find direct parallels in the diverse and sometimes unstructured civilian landscape. The challenge becomes not just a change of profession but a re-orientation of values and expectations.


In Defence life, success is often measured by the achievement of clearly defined objectives. The hierarchical nature provides an organisational structure to go by, and decisions are often made in alignment with deep-rooted understanding of the wider organisational goals. By contrast, in the civilian landscape, directions given sometimes come across as laissez-faire and are not always well-defined or understood (Indeed, 2023). Its not to say we can’t ‘figure it out’ and we’re certainly accustomed to problem solving, but the message sent is just not always well received. As a former serving member, this may sometimes lead to a clash in how we approach our work, since we’re used to having more direct communication.


Employment Challenges During Transition:

Finding and maintaining employment also emerge as a significant challenge during the first year of transition, posing a risk to well-being (Sokol et al., 2021). This period becomes a critical hurdle to overcome, often characterised by the false summit concept, where the expected peak of achievement is accompanied by unexpected challenges with a new starting point.


The transition from Defence to civilian employment is not just a change of job but a shift in lifestyle and identity. The skills honed in Defence, while valuable, may not always be immediately recognisable or fully understood by civilian employers. The civilian employment market is also very competitive, which can be unfamiliar territory for some. From crafting resumes that translate Defence experience into civilian language, through to assimilating into different workplaces, the challenges are varied based on the individual (Berry & Sam, 2010). The mismatch between expectations and reality during this transitional phase can give further rise to the feeling of reaching a false summit, where anticipated success is met with many unanticipated hurdles. Even in the case where civilian employment is secured, there are many unknowns to learn and navigate.


In my own words:

Reflecting on my personal journey, it's evident that there is a lack of framework and support for former serving members during this critical transition in life. The absence of structured systems and processes designed around achievement can leave us feeling a bit lost at times, searching for a path forward. In Defence, there's a clear roadmap for career progression, with each rank and role defined by specific responsibilities and expectations. There are pathways which lead to the next career progression, and if you want to change, simply put in the paperwork and supporting material, and you’re into a new career. It’s not that simple when committing to take the leap and that was perhaps my first realisation that I was at a false summit.


Moreover, the transition to civilian life brought not only a blurred career path but also a loss of the security and purpose that came with being in Defence. This left me in unfamiliar territory without a clear guide. The absence of a tailored plan for myself lead to feelings of uncertainty and frustration, as I grappled with decisions about education, career choices, and personal development without a roadmap to follow. Recognising and addressing this gap became crucial for me. Over time, I crafted my own support system to navigate the complexities of civilian life successfully. As the actual summit came into reach, I rediscovered a sense of meaning. It wasn't just about the absence of systems; it was about not having my own system. Unaware of what I didn't know, the journey to understanding the 'system' of civilian life led to the development of my own approach.


The Critical Alpha Methodology:

Addressing this identified gap led to the creation of the Critical Alpha Methodology, designed to offer support to individuals in similar circumstances. If you're wondering if this is suitable for you, I've tailored it mainly for 'junior in rank’ Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) facing career crossroads, but either Senior Enlisted or Commissioned Ranks may also find it helpful. If you've served in Defence for 10-15 years, feel dissatisfied with your current career trajectory, or find yourself compelled to leave due to various reasons, consider giving the Critical Alpha Method a try.


Our accompanying podcast, offered as a free resource, delves into the nuanced aspects of transitioning, sharing insights and experiences to aid listeners with navigating the complexities of this unique journey. The App, also a free download, embodies the A.L.P.H.A. framework – a structured approach to self-awareness, continuous learning, goal-setting, harnessing strengths, and adapting to new environments. The term ‘Alpha’ is also known as Angle-of-Attack in aviation speak (NASA, 2009), so you can guess we’ve taken some inspiration from aviation into the development of our frameworks.


The A.L.P.H.A. Framework:

1. Awareness: Deepen your understanding of personal strengths, values, and aspirations.

2. Learning: Acquire new skills and knowledge tailored to your desired path.

3. Performance: Set achievable goals, translating aspirations into tangible outcomes.

4. Harnessing: Leverage your unique skills and experiences for success.

5. Adapting: Embrace adaptability, a trait honed in Defence, to navigate changing environments.


Call to Action - Take FLIGHT in Your Next Career Move:

Reflecting on my own experiences and challenges, I'm also in the process of writing a book titled, "Take FLIGHT in your next career move." This resource, primarily targeted for Junior NCOs but also helpful for Senior Enlisted and Commissioned Officers, seeks to provide not just guidance but a companion for those embarking on this uncharted journey. The book will offer real-world experiences, reflective insights, strategies, and a comprehensive guide, acknowledging that the transition isn't a linear process but a mosaic of experiences pieced together based on your own life experiences.


Conclusion:

The journey beyond Defence is indeed uncharted, and we deserve comprehensive support during this critical phase of life. Navigating the false summit is about sharing experiences, acknowledging challenges, and offering genuine assistance. With the right resources and support systems, I hope that those reading can find their unique path to success in the civilian job market. The transition is not the end; it's a new beginning, and together, we can navigate the uncharted with meaning and purpose.


References:

Forbes. (2023). How Veterans Are Uniquely Equipped to Help Solve the Skills Gap. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/markcperna/2023/09/05/how-veterans-are-uniquely-equipped-to-help-solve-the-skills-gap/?sh=29c7aabe5aba 



MacLean A. (2008). The Cold War and Modern Memory: Veterans Reflect on Military Service. Journal of Political and Military Socialogy. 36(1):103-130. PMID: 25328253; PMCID: PMC4201380. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4201380/ 


NASA. (2009)F-18 High Alpha Research Vehicle (HARV)Retrieved from: https://www.nasa.gov/reference/f-18-harv/ 


Parsons G.D., Pascale R.T. (2007). Crisis at the summit. Harvard Business Review. 85(3):80-9, 142. PMID: 17348172. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17348172/ 


Sam D.L., Berry J.W. (2010). Acculturation: When Individuals and Groups of Different Cultural Backgrounds Meet. Perspective Psychology Science. 5(4):472-81. doi: 10.1177/1745691610373075. PMID: 26162193. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26162193/ 


Sokol Y., Gromatsky M., Edwards E.R., Greene AL, Geraci J.C., Harris R.E., Goodman M. (2021). The deadly gap: Understanding suicide among veterans transitioning out of the military. Psychiatry Research. 300:113875. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2021.113875. Epub 2021 Mar 16. PMID: 33901974. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165178121001724

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