As an Air Force Academy football standout who spent time as a helicopter pilot, human intelligence specialist, business executive and now university president, retired Lt. Col. Christopher Howard knows a bit about changing jobs.
But when asked about the first key steps in a move from military to civilian life — whether employment or education, or both — Howard didn’t recommend a specific program, career path or strategy.
His advice: Just take a deep breath.
“The first thing I would tell them to do is relax,” said Howard, who took over the top job at Robert Morris University in 2016. “Seriously. Relax and breathe deeply, and just think that, ‘I’m going to be OK. I’m going to make this transition. Lots of people who I’m a heck of a lot smarter than did great.’
“One of the biggest things is that people rush. They get nervous. The clock starts ticking, and they take whatever. If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right? So they just jump on anything they see.”
Howard, 48, received his commission in 1991 and served on active duty for eight years before transitioning to the Reserve for a dozen more, including a 2003 deployment to Afghanistan. His corporate career included time with General Electric and Bristol-Myers Squibb. The Rhodes Scholar recipient would shift into the academic realm with leadership positions in the University of Oklahoma system, then a six-year stint as president of Hampden-Sydney College in Richmond, Virginia.
That led to RMU, a school with more than 5,000 students (traditional and online) and a campus 20 minutes outside Pittsburgh.
Aside from that first deep breath, Military Times asked Howard to draw from his military and educational background to provide some advice for transitioning service members; here are some highlights:
1. Weigh want vs. need. “Some people tell me what they need to do, not what they want to do,” Howard said. “You’re soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guard members — you’ll do what you need to do. We’re not gonna starve. But you owe yourself the opportunity to say, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
If self-reflection doesn’t come with an immediate answer, Howard suggests a path that leaves options open: Find a military-friendly business to learn basic leadership skills, for instance, or load up on entry-level college classes at a good school, so you can build your resume in multiple directions.
2. Be open. If veterans find a path that puts them back in a classroom, they need to engage with their civilian classmates and instructors, Howard said, or risk losing out on key networking benefits.
“When people are looking at you in the classroom, if your arms are crossed and your hat is pulled down over your head and you’re checked out — and I’m not talking about people who need help; that’s a different story — [think about] how you’re going to sway an opinion in your class if you sit down with your arms crossed?” he said.
“You have to be open to the enterprise. Try not to take it all so personally if you can, and realize that’s how you grow your brand.”
3. Stay after school. Whether you’re going to school at a brick-and-mortar campus or online, participate in activities outside of the classroom, Howard said. A football or basketball game can be a major network-builder, or students can join school groups to expand their college experience.
Perhaps most importantly, if veterans are in school to pursue a particular line of work, they should choose a school with internship programs that can help with placement and other networking.
“Being a military guy, being around special operations, pipelines are great,” Howard said. “The Navy SEAL pipeline, special operations pipeline, pilot pipeline, we want to create that [at Robert Morris University], and we’ve had success.”
4. Drop the snark. “We can be a cynical bunch, sometimes,” Howard said of fellow veterans. “No matter where you are in the organization, you’re making fun of somebody else in the organization because you’re sure they don’t have the right take on what’s really going on.”
The solution is to “try your best to check your ego at the door,” he said — tackle the transition with “healthy skepticism,” but don’t overdo it.
5. You’re new at this. “I’ve helped generals transition out,” Howard said, “and it’s always interesting to talk with them, because it’s the first time they’ve had to do their own health care in 25 years, 28 years. I had one person who just got an apartment in New York. It was really taxing; lots of, ‘I never had to do this before’ …
“You’re not going to be as good at something after one year [in civilian life] than you were after 27, 28 years [in uniform]. … It’s OK to be new, and then over time, you’re going to make the adjustment. That’s what soldiers, sailors, airman, Marines, Coast Guard members always do. They adapt. They’re like NFL defenses. They always adapt.”
(Howard’s a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee, and was the first recipient of the William V. Campbell Award, which recognizes college football’s top scholar-athlete, in 1990 as an Air Force senior.)
6. Get help. When Howard began at Bristol-Myers Squibb, he said, translating his military experience into the business world was a challenge. But because of the company’s military-welcoming culture, other veterans were there to assist.
And while transition resources were lacking when he left active service, he said, troops now have more options for resume assistance and other advice.
All that said, veterans must be willing to step away from the military-community comfort zone.
“You have a chance to create a network of individuals in your professional life, in your school life, in your personal life, that will help you going forward,” Howard said.
“If the person next to you is an active-duty veteran and to the right of you is an active-duty veteran, how much are you expanding your network?”