UK: Demob (un)happy.

UK: Demob (un)happy. - It isn't always easy for service leavers to find job satisfaction in Civvy Street. Five ex-officers tell Management Today their story.

by Fiona Jebb and Robert Redmond.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It isn't always easy for service leavers to find job satisfaction in Civvy Street. Five ex-officers tell Management Today their story.

According to professor Leo Murray of Cranfield School of Management, officer-level staff from the army, navy and air force demonstrate 'a good range of management skills from financial through to planning and people'.

Yet British business leaders are hardly rushing to Chelsea Barracks in search of managerial talent. Not that long ago it was very different.

Then, an ex-officer was a 'good sort of chap' - possibly with regimental or brigade connections - who could rub along well in the company. But those were the days when companies were organised in conventionally hierarchical ways. Indeed, many companies were organised along military lines.

In today's flatter, less conventional structures such command-and-control methods are outmoded.

So although some businesses see benefits in hiring ex-officers as managers, many are less than convinced that the armed forces provide a training or set of skills relevant to commercial organisations.

Nor is this just a one-way experience. For those leaving their uniformed days behind, Civvy Street's promise of opportunity can all too often turn to disillusionment.

Nonetheless, since the armed forces no longer offer a permanent career structure, there are a lot of ex-officers and servicemen and women around.

Since the end of the cold war the total strength of the armed forces has shrunk by more than 25% - and even before then some 25,000 men and women moved into civilian life every year.

It is thus vital that service people are able to find second careers where qualities will be recognised and used to the full.

This is where the Tri-Services Resettlement Organisation (TSRO), its allied Services Employment Network and older organisations such as Regular Forces Employment Association and The Officers' Association come in.

With the help of all four resettlement bodies, 84% of those leaving the services today are in full-or part-time work within three months of their discharge. Although such figures are impressive, the level of career satisfaction often disappoints.

Then there is the question of prejudice. Service leavers have had to contend with the perception that they were lacking in commercial sense.

Gradually, some employers have come to realise that those with the rank of sergeant or above usually have training in budgetary control. Higher up the ladder in the armed forces, responsibility for multi-million pound budgets is not unusual. Many have been impressed by the forces' emphasis on continuous training for their people, whatever their age or rank.

Although some argue that it is still easier for those trained in the forces to find employment in the public sector, service leavers are now also working in commercial environments. Ironically, where some employers remain sceptical of the private sector management skills that a career in the forces can hone, some service leavers are disappointed at the lack of management ability and training they perceive in the civilian world.

The only way to get a real impression of the lot of ex-service personnel is to ask them. Thus, with the help of the TSRO and feedback from readers through our One-Minute Phone Box, here are five tales, as told to Management Today, of life after the services.

LEARNING TO ADJUST TO A TASK-BASED ENVIRONMENT

The snag Major David Lawson encountered when looking for a senior job in Civvy Street was the IT recruitment consultancies which seemed happy to place him anywhere, no matter how unsuitable, so long as they earned their commission. In his dealings with them, he confesses to a certain naivete which took five or six weeks to shake off. 'Apart from that the process was fairly painless.'

Within three months of looking for a civilian job Lawson, who had been in the Royal Signals for 25 years, working in IT, telecommunications, radios, satellites - 'anything that goes bleep' - was hired as European IT customer services manager with BOC in Guildford. There he was involved in running the change management programme required, as the company switched from a mainframe to a PC-based system. The customers whom Lawson had to manage were internal ones and often more than a little disgruntled at seeing the systems they had set up over the last 20 to 30 years being dismantled. 'Moving from mainframe into PCs causes a fundamental change in the way you run an IT department,' says Lawson. 'It's a huge change management problem. With a lot of firms, senior managers don't understand that level of change and you have to get that across.'

Although Lawson had acquired IT skills aplenty in the army, it was, he says, principally for his managerial know-how that he was hired: 'With IT, people don't want their managers getting down to too technical a level.' Key here was the process-based approach he acquired within the military rather than what he sees as the more task-based structure of commercial life.

'The army is a can-do business,' says Lawson, who also emphasises the military's strengths in 'cradle-to-grave' planning. 'It's a process-based organisation where you work to help each other in genuine teams. The attitude when an organisation is not process-based is very narrow. So long as the particular job that you were asked to do is done, the attitude by and large is one of disinterest - probably because not enough attention is given by line and middle managers to the way in which the operation is managed. There is very little thought given about what is good for the organisation.'

Lawson also claims that his military background has given him useful experience of excellent internal communications and a real open door policy.

'In the commercial sector there is almost a fear of going through the manager's door, so I always make a point of giving people a chance to talk to me informally,' he says.

FRUSTRATION WITH THE LACK OF CIVILIAN TEAM SPIRIT

By the time he left the Royal Navy in 1995 after 29 years of service, Commander Andy Lawrence was deputy in command of air station Yeovilton in Somerset, with control of a £10 million budget and 300 people directly reporting to him. In some respects, things didn't change much when he started as director of facilities and deputy chief executive of the East Hertfordshire NHS Trust: again he had a budget of £10 million although this time he had 400 people directly reporting to him. 'The activities were very similar,' he says. 'Cleaning is cleaning, catering is catering, estates management is estates management.

In the services I had to look after ammunition, and I hadn't come across medical photography or pharmacy before but ...'

It had taken him about four months of job hunting to land the post, and two other offers landed on his doormat at the same time: one as a school's bursar, the other a facilities management job in the private sector. 'I had more success with public organisations than with private companies,' says Lawrence. 'It was more difficult to convince people in the private sector - they didn't know this animal. Civilian organisations can be split into two: those who have known servicemen and recognise our strengths, and the others which have never employed servicemen - there one has to be much more persuasive.'

Lawrence was brought into the Trust to spearhead a two-year turnaround programme after which he planned to leave. 'I intended to work for a couple of years so they would get someone to turn around the organisation and I would get my civilian apprenticeship.' In the end two years shrank to 13 months as Lawrence tired of the distance between Welwyn Garden City and the family home in Somerset. In that time, however, he introduced a major programme of change, restructuring a large directorate and making some redundancies in the process; brought an overspent budget into balance; and renegotiated every single contract to the Trust's advantage. On the people front, Lawrence devolved budgetary responsibility to managers who had previously never seen the figures and introduced a system to improve internal communications.

He claims that the financial management, change management and people management skills such a task required are just part and parcel of any officer's training and development. 'Because of the dynamics of an organisation like the Royal Navy, you would fail unless you understood those techniques,' says Lawrence. Of the timescale, he simply comments, 'In the forces you've only got two to three years to make things happen before you move on to the next post.'

He expresses some disappointment with the civilian workforce in general, not least the lack of team spirit, the reluctance to invest and the absence of leadership. The latter, he says, comes down to a lack of confidence, a quality he appears to possess in abundance. Having left the Trust, Lawrence set himself up as a facilities management adviser and says the business is going 'extremely well'. 'I anticipate earning more than anyone in the armed forces after my first year,' he says.

'My accountant and bank manager are very pleased with me.'

WOEFULLY ILL-PREPARED FOR LIFE OUTSIDE THE ARMY

'I should have got off my backside and got a real job like everyone else,' is Captain Maggie Anderson's (whose name has been changed, and for security reasons cannot be photographed) verdict on her seven years in the army.

Seven years which she believes taught her little else than to recognise what she didn't want to do - with working for someone else a prime example.

'On leaving the army, I realised I had plenty of initiative, self-reliance and so on. These were very useful for dealing with the pressures of work but which certainly weren't instilled into me through the training I had in the military,' she says. 'On leaving I had little understanding of human nature and how to manage it properly, nothing at all about commercial issues and nothing at all really about the real world. What I went in with, I came out with.'

Anderson's disillusionment set in early, during the six-month training course at Sandhurst which followed on directly from her undergraduate studies. 'I was trained primarily by people who were were supposed to be the cream of the British army. They trained me in nothing but getting out of bed in the morning, and I could do that anyway.'

Anderson did get to control a budget when she was in the army but it was hardly the stuff of millions. A couple of years into her time in the forces, she was moved to Germany and given what she regards as menial operations to run. 'My budget was £30 for diaries for the year. Oh, and I did get to manage the coffee machine, making sure that enough coffee was ordered and enough soup. An 18-year-old could have done it. Most people think captains can run a war but there was I, just ordering cans of soup.'

As for people management, Anderson claims that the climate of fear which prevails in the military means one never has to get to grips with the finer points of the discipline.

'I always thought I was a good motivator until I came out,' she says somewhat ruefully.

Still, she adds, the confidence which got her into the army helped her make her way outside it. Three years ago she set herself up in business as a civilian trainer in everything from telephone techniques to year-long management courses. Although the management course is based on one run by the army, Anderson claims that the only experience military life afforded her was 'a roof over my head, someone to clean my room and a chance to boss people around'.

AGEISM COMPOUNDED BY LACK OF UNDERSTANDING

When times got hard, Lieutenant commander Ken Armitage took a leaf from Norman Tebbit's book: he got on his metaphorical bike and moved to East Anglia. He hoped that the area with the then lowest rate of unemployment in the country would yield a worthwhile job.

Armitage joined the Royal Navy at 18 and when he left in 1989, aged 45, he thought he had a decent career. Having first run a major defence communications centre of around 150 people and then been moved on to co-ordinate the day-to-day running of a naval shore telecommunications network involving around 1,000 people, he soon snapped up a job as director of operations with British Aerospace. At the time BAe was just moving into satellite communications for the private sector. 'I was hired more for my operational knowledge,' says Armitage, 'trying to ensure the systems provided met operational needs - but general management was also of paramount importance.'

The job didn't last, however. Having already found that 'some civilian technical people were a bunch of prima donnas', Armitage clashed with the MD who 'didn't like my fairly honest, open, forthright manner'. The new recruit emerged the loser and left the company in early 1990.

Then began a mammoth job search which has been hampered by his age, by the recession and by the sheer volume of redundancies being made in the defence industry at the time. He describes a phone call he made in response to an advert in the Daily Telegraph as typical: 'I was responding to an advert in the paper. They obviously liked my background but then I told them I was over 40 and down went the phone.' On other occasions, that familiar term 'too much experience' was bandied around. 'I tried all sorts of everything to get a job. It was appalling.'

Ageism was compounded by a lack of understanding about the experience gained in the forces, says Armitage. 'Many of the people at the top of UK plc have not served in the services. There is a lack of understanding of the abilities and specialisations and type of training. Some organisations still think that we're a load of Colonel Blimps and that all senior non-commissioned officers do is shout at each other.'

He speaks with some authority. Although he picked up a couple of consultancy contracts during his job search, it took him over four years and more than 2,000 job applications to find a permanent post. That was with the British Standards Institution where he works as a project manager, servicing a number of national committees on fibre optics and defending the UK's position on new standards. Even here, says Armitage, 'I'm employed for my administration and organisational skills. I have no responsibility for any department, and I'm not putting into use the skills I acquired in the navy.'

NOMINATED FOR WELSH BUSINESSMAN OF THE YEAR

Twenty-five years in the Royal Regiment of Wales had given Major Alun Davies little to equip him for his first job in civilian life other than 'a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed look about me'. Having approached a company speculatively, he got the job - as production manager with Race Electronics in Talbot Green - because the chairman liked his general demeanour and 'noticed that I had read a lot about the company and he thought he would find something for me'.

The initial post was 'something I didn't enjoy tremendously' but the company soon created the post of human resources director for Davies.

'Army officers are very good at administration, dealing with people very high up and very low down,' he says. 'An army officer will spend every two years in a different post after the age of 30. If you've been running housing in Hong Kong, intelligence in Central America and PR in London, your experience by the time you are 40 is quite wide.' He certainly had his successes: within one year he had negotiated catering costs in the 1,000-person plant down from £130,000 a year to nothing 'with no loss of service'; within four he had reduced total overheads from £13 million to £4 million.

In 1995, however, the parent company restructured and 'there was no job left for me'. With the support of his former chairman, Davies was soon picked up by Associated British Ports to become MD of their wholly-owned subsidiary, Grosvenor Waterside. Here Davies is responsible for the overall business plan, as well as for the company's financial performance.

A lack of financial skills is one of two areas where Davies believes an army background can be a disadvantage. Yet he had already set about rectifying his shortcomings with a management course at Bristol University before he left the army and with short finance courses while at Race. As for the other area of weakness - sales and marketing - one of the first things he did in his new job was sign up for a course at Henley.

Set against these omissions, his military background seems to have stood him in good stead. Davies has been nominated Businessman of the Year in Wales and the company recently won the bid to house the Welsh Assembly on Cardiff's waterfront.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today