Last month ClearanceJobs read Mission: Career Transition as a part of its monthly book club. At the end of the month, we sat down with author, CIA veteran, and career coach Alison Bouwmeester to discuss the book, how she navigated her career transition, and why she decided to write it. Here’s our conversation:
Interested in learning more? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to receive your free eBook copy of Mission: Career Transition.
Allison: Well, Lindy, thank you so much for inviting me to join you. It’s really an honor to be here and to talk with you a little bit about my pandemic project plus this book. I wrote this book because when I left my agency at the end of 2011, there really were no resources other than our own career transition program and a course that my agency has called Horizons that kind of do thinking about life after. When I left the agency, I didn’t really understand what marketable skills I had. So it was a really scary time. I had never worked in private industry. I came to CIA right out of college, and so you spend a career in intelligence or military or national security and you have kind of a very specific skillset and it’s hard to understand which of those skills might be most marketable outside of your government sector.
I really wrote the book to try to convey the lessons that I learned about that and also to share the wisdom of 33 other professionals who successfully transitioned. That was kind of the genesis of the book.
Lindy: Walk me through that. I thought that was one of the really useful parts about it is obviously you have your area of expertise and you are kind of an expert on the human resources realm and have that breadth of knowledge, but you also brought in individual responses and quotes from other people who you maybe worked with in the past or encountered. How did you kind of curate a list of professionals that provided their feedback and input into the book?
Alison: I wanted to have a pretty diverse agency representation. I started out focusing just on the intelligence community and as I went on, I realized that there was more value to making it broader than that. So I started out by reaching out to people I had worked with but then also asking them for recommendations of colleagues in other government agencies. Some of them were people that I had worked with overseas from other government agencies. I basically sent out 50 invitations to participate, and a couple people weren’t comfortable with it. A couple of people were in the middle of geographic moves to take new jobs. A couple of them just weren’t interested or felt that they didn’t have anything that they could contribute. So I was really happy with the level of participation that I had.
Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now
Lindy: What are maybe the things that are universal though for folks as they transition out? Common questions that people had, common takeaways ,or threads that you’re like, “Oh, I really wish I had known this before I transitioned or in that critical first six months?”
Alison: I think there were a couple of things that I wish I had known. One would be that who you are is not what you do. So you’ve just spent the last 30 years thinking that who you are is an FBI agent, right? Or who you are is a state department foreign service officer. That isn’t really who you are. You are a whole person with other interests, with family, with hobbies, with dreams, with emotions, and so you need to kind of make the mental shift and realize that your professional position doesn’t define who you are and your value doesn’t come from that. That was one thing that I wish I had been told to focus on.
Another is that you have really wide range of emotions when you’re getting ready to leave government. Whether you’re leaving at mid career or whether you’re leaving at the end of a full career of service. You’re going to be nervous, you’re going to be excited. I was anxious. You’re going to feel proud of your service because what you did was really important. It’s overwhelming. You’ll be eager to figure out what’s next. It’s exhausting. You might feel intellectually curious about exploring other areas. I felt unqualified, but I felt liberated leaving. There’s all this crazy range of emotions and all of that is perfectly natural. Nobody walks out the door and says, “Huh, I got this.” It is totally normal to feel all kinds of things and you just need to give yourself the grace to be tolerant of the fact that it’s an adjustment period.
Another thing that I wish that I had been told is that career transition is an opportunity. You shift your frame of mind to a positive outlook, that it is a chance to explore new things, to remake yourself, to learn things, to explore. It’s whatever you make out of it and you could either spend the time kind of lamenting the sense of loss and the things that you’re leaving behind or you can grasp it and go for it and develop new capabilities and interests and explore your broader self. I think also, I wish that people had told me to do a fair amount of self assessment up front. Really look at yourself. Think about what motivates you, what skills you have that you would like to use in your next job and which ones you don’t want to use. All that assessment up front will keep you maybe from making a wrong fit move. People make wrong fit moves all the time and then you just end up having to move again but the more time you spend looking at yourself and what you really want and what you enjoy and don’t enjoy and what matters to you, the chances are higher if you do that of having a good fit next step.
Really look at yourself. Think about what motivates you, what skills you have that you would like to use in your next job and which ones you don’t want to use. All that assessment up front will keep you maybe from making a wrong fit move.
Also, whatever you do next is not a forever decision. This was reassuring after talking to all these other people. Most of us have moved several times. I would say discounting those people who just retired, all those who went on to do something else, I can only think of one or two people who are still in that same first position at a government. It’s okay to do something for a little while and then do something else. In my case, I went to the defense contracting industry because it was familiar, and I wanted to learn about business – how it worked. But I was not comfortable enough to go completely out on my own. I didn’t know what I had to market. So taking that kind of interim step and working in the defense contracting industry allowed me to stay close to the flagpole and still learn about private industry and how it supported government in my case. Then, after I developed some business savvy and a new set of skills, I had more confidence to go out on my own.
Why Your Career Transition Needs a Budget
Lindy: There are self assessments throughout the book which is one of the most useful things. Walk through how you decided what kind of self assessment questions to include in the book and why is that self assessment so important for folks transitioning out? Taking that time to kind of think through their career transition?
Alison: I selected the worksheets that I used because after spending seven years in the defense contracting industry, I sort of had this epiphany and came to realize that what I was really passionate about was helping people find their way. I had an experience working with a young man who was recently out of college and was kind of struggling to find what he wanted to do next and by kind of mentoring him and guiding him and helping him think about what his skills were, it had a lot of impact on me personally to see him succeed, to see him find his way. It was so gratifying to me that I decided to pursue a certification as a career coach. That’s kind of my third career and that’s what I’m doing now. In career coaching you get exposed to a lot of different assessments.
I came up with my worksheets based upon my coaching practice. So a key component of that is your financial readiness to leave the job that you’re in. A lot of us reach a point where you’re not necessarily living paycheck to paycheck and you start to not have a sense of how much you’re spending on different things each month, but if you’re going to walk out the door from a pretty stable government job, you really need to think about what your salary expectations should be in whatever you do next and so to do that you need to calculate how much you’re spending, how much you’re taking in, if you’re getting a pension or if you have investments that you’ve been using to live on.
So financial readiness I think was an important part of any discussion with somebody who wants to leave. Also, kind of thinking about what level of ambition that you want to have in the next thing that you do. Do you want to be an alpha dog and become a CEO of some big corporation? If you do, what’s driving you to do that? How important is that to you? How important is it to have a big title? How important is it to have a big salary? If those things don’t matter so much to you, what does matter? What kind of work environment matters? What are your priorities? The people that I interviewed, the most important thing to them in their first step out of government was the mission of their employer.
It really was brought home to me that people who work for the government are not necessarily driven by the money. Some of them are but some of them are not driven by power. A lot of them really want to make a difference in protecting our country and in national security, and so, they wanted to look for a new employer that had a mission that they could get behind. That mission might be building tractors, as long as you’re building the very best tractors and you can get behind it, then that’s a great next step for you. Mission of the employer was the number one selection criteria for people that I interviewed leaving government.
The second one was compensation. Proximity to home and commute was pretty important. The flexibility to work from home which now like we all have to do but at the time I did the interviews that was important to a lot of people but they didn’t necessarily have to do it.
Lindy: Research shows it’s fairly common for military retirees, in particular, to land in a post-military job but then leave within the first year. Are there things that people could do to keep that from happening or is that just kind of what’s going to happen because it’s your first time experiencing a different employer and you’re going to learn a lot regardless?
Alison: I think it’s very common. I think the average time is probably 18 months in the first job, and I put no judgment on that anymore. I stayed three years at my first employer because I enjoyed it, and I liked the team I was working with but there’s nothing wrong with leaving that first job out of government. I think especially for service members who leave, they’re used to working in a very structured environment and to go into a world that’s less structured, where you don’t wear your rank and your title on your sleeve anymore, that’s a significant adjustment period that a lot of people struggle with. So it takes a little time to kind of find your way and figure out how you fit. Several of the service members that I interviewed struggled with that a little bit because they had a built in network and once you’re out, it’s harder to stay connected with those people.
Selling the Soft Skills and Why a Skills-Based Resume Reigns for Career Government Pros
Lindy: A lot of people come out with a ton of different skills that all apply to their agency or their occupation, but it can almost fall under a ‘jack of all trades’ problem. One of the hardest things is consolidating a 20 year career into a two to three page resume and actually narrowing down a specific job that you want to do. How important is that, and are there steps to take to make that easier?
Alison: My recommendation is really that resumes be skills based. When I get, particularly military resumes, it’s this chronological list of acronyms and bases and budgets, and it doesn’t translate to a private sector experience. If you think about the skills, particularly the soft skills that you have that are in demand in the private sector, part of my book research was to try to narrow down what the most marketable skills were from those people who had left. I asked them to give me, “What were your 10 most marketable skills when you left based upon the job that you got next?” It was really useful. I was able to put those skills into five bins and then in each of those bins, there’s a bunch of skills that fit.
The top one was leadership and teamwork. I can go through the sort of sub list of skills under each of these, but leadership and teamwork, analytics and problem solving was the second skill area. Third one was communication and then soft skills or people skills, then the last one was specific technical expertise. If you’re a technical person working for the government, a lot of service members have specific technical skills that they’re using, like weapon systems, don’t necessarily have anything comparable on the outside. Or if you’re a science and technology officer for the CIA, you might have specific technologies that you work with but then you have to think about do you want to work with those same technical skills or do you want to branch out to something else?
Under leadership and teamwork, these were the things that my survey group said were their most marketable skills. Demonstrated proven leadership ability; managing change and uncertainty, so planned versus reactive response. Institutional leadership; understanding the mission faster than anyone else and how to stay focused on it; understanding of leadership in an organization; understanding and the ability to execute in the broader context of the national security enterprise. These are kind of bullets that they would use to sell themselves. Critical decision making skills; willingness to take calculated risks; risk identification and mitigation. These are things that companies need. Crisis management; risk management; working with others; teamwork; team building; collaboration; coordination; global perspective and experience.
Especially now, companies need a diversity of ideas and experiences and people. So if you have that global experience and perspective from having served all over the world, that is a commodity that you should be talking about. Analytic and problem solving skills, while you can’t talk specifically about classified problems that you solve, you can be general about it in giving examples. For example, analytics, so maybe you were serving in a place where there was a difficult bilateral relationship with another government. So diagnosing what the problems were in that relationship, finding the causes and trying to then come up with potential solutions to solve it. Or if you were working with technical equipment, identifying the causes for a technical failure and then finding solutions to resolving it. You don’t have to go into what specific classified technical area it was.
Recognizing research models that maybe aren’t valid. Those are the kinds of analytic skills that translate to the private sector. Critical thinking; gathering information; considering sourcing and gaps; drawing conclusions; assessing ability of materials. You need your corporate executives to be able to really deeply study a problem to solve it. Interpreting big events overseas and applying those skills to a broader set of issues; problem solving; gathering data; synthesizing it, distilling it, communicating the outcome to a leader who then has to make a decision on it. Those are intelligence skills, those are corporate senior executive skills. Just the problem set is different.
Communication skills. People who work in government tend to be very strong communicators verbally and in writing, so I’m not going to spend much time talking about that. Briefing. So the soft skills, if you can talk about your behavioral and communication style and working with a team, it will help a hiring manager think about how you fit onto their team. When a company has a vacancy, it’s because there’s a problem that they can’t solve and they need help solving it. So if you can do some research on the industry that you’re going into, figure out what their big problems are and then think about how you can contribute to solving those problems, that’s a value proposition that you can bring.
I found it a really valuable exercise to go through with the people I interviewed to come up with these lists. They’re using business terms to describe the skillsets that they had inside government.
Navigating Social Media As a Former Intelligence Professional
Lindy: How do you go from that transition of having no presence on social media to thinking about what a safe and healthy social media presence might look like? Especially knowing again that we have Russia, China and other foreign actors monitoring and exploiting social media platforms and looking for people with that skillset. You kind of have a target on your back to begin with.
Alison: Right, right and filtering through those requests that you get from people. A lot of us have gone from zero to a pretty high profile social media presence, and I would really encourage you to do it mindfully. Start out with very basic social media profile or presence for yourself. Be careful about the language that you use. You don’t have to be specific. You can start by saying, “US Government.” You’ll want to get approval from your agency in terms of what you put online. Once it’s out there, it’s out there so be careful when you put in your chronology of jobs – you can’t change it once it’s there. Once you say you’ve had a job somewhere you can’t just go, “Nope, no, nevermind.” So I would say be methodical about it. Look around at the social media presence of people who left before you and see what theirs look like. Talk with them about how they set theirs up. It’s good to use networking tools that are available to you.
More than 80% of jobs are filled through personal and professional networking. So blindly applying to a vacancy online has a very low chance of success. Through ClearanceJobs, it’s probably higher than that, but in general, I think probably hundreds and hundreds of people apply for the same position and you really have to think about how you’re going to distinguish yourself from dozens of equally qualified candidates. But don’t do it by putting sensational things out there. Perspective employers do check you out so not having a presence now is the exception. I personally feel like you need to have some sort of online profile so that you appear to be legitimate. It doesn’t have to be in a ton of detail. Try to use as much commercial terminology as you can.
And making sure you know that person or have some affiliation because that’s hard, too. When you’re starting from network zero, there is such a desire to build that up, especially if you’re a competitive person or a career oriented person, but there are people online that will be very quick to connect with you and probably for all of the wrong reasons.