Case study 2 – Transitioning out of the army as a Physical Training Instructor

In this second case study we meet Joe who, similarly to the previous interviewee, was not only leaving the army but also the world of sport.

In January 2015, my main client was the charity Soldier On! where I received a call one morning from a quietly spoken soldier. He wasn’t sure that I would be able to help him as he had not been wounded in combat and was sure that there were more deserving people in need of the services offered by the many armed forces charities. When the British Tommy emerged from sixty odd years in the shade of semi-peace to fight overseas and defend our nation, cupped cheeks were warmed by the touch of fingered rays of a grateful nation’s sons and daughters. An early morning warmth, enough to renew one’s hope in the day ahead but never quite strong enough to see off the cold night’s dew still lingering amongst the blades of grass. ‘For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an` Chuck him out, the brute! “But it’s ” Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;’

I have the utmost respect for all the work that has been done in the UK over the last decade or so to enhance the support we offer to service personnel, but it could be argued that the impact has been made disproportionally through the attention given to ‘war wounded’ from recent conflicts than that given to the 2,000 people medically discharged annually through other forms of ill health or injuries, or, indeed, to the thousands of people who leave every year, or the five million or so veterans. I am concerned that, in the respect of support often existing so long as it is trendy to do so, very little has actually changed in attitude since Kipling’s poem was written in 1890. In a very short space of time legions of ‘heroes’ throughout the ages have been elevated swiftly to a position akin to celebrity culture only to find the lengthier way back to normality can be a rocky and isolated road indeed. Sadly, this phenomenon extends even further into our past than Kipling as we learn from a church in Pennsylvania where written on the wall in 1776 were the words “In times of war, and not before, God and the soldier men adore; When the war is o’er and all things righted, The Lord’s forgot and the soldier slighted.” (I understand these words now lie hidden behind a fresco and are understood to have originally been written even earlier in the seventeenth century by an English poet, Francis Charles). How closely lie the words ‘cynical’ and ‘cyclical’. ‘Shame’ is the word I would use for such an occasion when a man feels that he is somehow lower down the food chain because he hadn’t lost a limb in combat. Joe had a brain tumour.

After our first chat where he made it clear that he wanted help to find a civilian job he sent me a copy of his CV. I wasn’t surprised to read about another dynamic leader who thrives on challenges and is highly motivated. If any readers of this paper have been involved with the recruitment of ex-service personnel, I hope you recognise the familiarity. When we spoke again I asked Joe if I could wave a magic wand and find him a job tomorrow what would it be or what would it look like? He replied that he wanted to be a policeman but he would never pass the medical to operate on the front line. With this confirmed, it was clear to me that in order to help Joe I would need to understand his motivations for joining the police. Once this was discovered we could potentially find alternative areas of work that would give him satisfaction. I was helping someone who had pursued a career with the same employer for over 12 years, who only had plans to continue in this career and then all of a sudden was told that his chosen career, through no fault of his own was over. He had never thought about life outside of the army. The civilian world was alien to him. I suggested to Joe that if we could appreciate his capabilities and aspirations in his life as a whole entity, as with a Gestalt philosophy, to stop looking at careers in isolation, we might be able to gain clarity on his ‘purpose’ and discover what ‘life-mission’ would allow him to fulfil that purpose. I feel very strongly that because career management is not something that is universally taught the result is that too many job-seekers are unaware of their authentic abilities, are unable to differentiate between the skills they have learnt and the abilities they have been born with and cannot explain to an employer with any level of clarity what it is they do. This makes a transition from one place to another more difficult than it needs be. Our very essence should no longer be something we self-consciously acknowledge during gloomy, anxiety ridden, sleepless nights but should be something that is projected before us bringing light to every step we take into the future.

I gave Joe some homework to do to help him to start to identify his natural abilities and to look at how he utilizes these talents in different situations where he gives both the best and worst account of himself. One of the key things is to understand not only the individual talents but also the where, when, why, and how the talents are used and what results we can see. When we spoke again Joe was energized. He said:

“Its really spooky, you said on the phone when we first spoke that I needed to find my purpose and that’s the very word that’s come up over and over again in the homework. Everything I do needs to have a purpose to it”.
“That’s interesting” I replied, “and are the things that you are doing aligned to a purpose or is that they just have a purpose?”

He wasn’t sure about this yet, but he was truly enthused about finding out more about himself. He was born in Hemel Hempstead, “Its NOT London, its Hemel”, and left school at 16 with a C, E and two Ds at GCSE level. Joe joined the army in 2001 and like so many soldiers I have worked with he knew the exact day and month. Having passed the first training courses where he learned the basics of soldiering he completed driver training to HGV level before joining his regiment, The Royal Logistics Corps. Having served in Iraq where his role was to oversee the loading and unloading of military ships with everything from tanks to ammunition, medicine to food and everything in between he returned to the UK to take part in the highly demanding physical training course to become an instructor. Joe chuckles when he says, “I was voluntold”. His level of fitness was naturally that little bit higher than his contemporaries, always coming in the top three for any fitness test, a talent that was spotted early in his career by the army and a talent they were not going to leave untapped.

Having duly passed the course his role was to promote the physical personal development, health, well-being, nutrition and run the gymnasium for over 300 soldiers. He was responsible for nutrition and injury prevention, ensuring the soldiers used the right kit, warmed up correctly etc. Soldiers are not allowed to wear trainers if running with weight for example and it was up to Joe to maintain the required health and safety levels were met. In addition, he could wear a blue tracksuit top with a crossed sword logo on his right arm, unintentionally causing fear and knotted stomachs amongst the younger recruits and those with slightly rounded tummies. Indeed, the phrase ‘track suit soldier’ was commonly used to describe people like Joe and together with the ‘rugby troop’ the feeling amongst other soldiers was often one of animosity. As a result of sport activities, ‘normal’ soldiers could often be undermanned by as much as 20%. Joe’s father had been a soldier for 25 years, his brother was serving and so it was that Joe too joined. But it was more than something to do for Joe, there was an underlying desire to support his country and he derived much joy in waking up every day to dress himself in his uniform adorned with its Union Flag motif.

“Nearly every morning I would wake and as I put on my uniform I felt pride. The job carries a lot of responsibility and I enjoyed that”.

Before we delved deeper together into understanding exactly who Joe is, spending several weeks speaking together followed by him disappearing to think more about relevance, asking himself over and over again “So what?”, we managed to make a quick life-changing breakthrough. Joe was convinced that he was unable to drive due to his having had seizures brought on by epilepsy in-turn a result of the brain tumour. I remembered reading somewhere recently that changes had been made to this law and, enthusiastically, persuaded Joe to do some research and see what the facts were. Proving the value of research, he called me back later that same day full of beans. The laws had indeed changed recently and if you had not suffered a seizure for a certain period of time you could apply to have your driving licence reinstated. This was liberating for Joe, to have his freedom back, but also to know that when the time came to find a specific employer in his chosen sector of work he could massively broaden his commute and thus opportunities. I genuinely believe that this gentle prod to not just accept his lot and to find things out for himself, to explore, additionally made a difference to not only his sense of well-being but also his belief in himself. He was incredibly depressed when his medical discharge came through. This was a man who, in addition to having two certificates of meritorious service, when overseeing a run and knew he was about to suffer an epileptic episode, would turn to his recruits, saying, “Catch me if you can”, would then burst off ahead of them, have his seizure and by the time it was over, red-cheeked, puffing soldiers would have eventually caught him up. No one knew anything was out of the ordinary. Having someone else tell him that he couldn’t soldier was heart-breaking.

“Not knowing what my next chapter would be, my next job, was a scary place to be in. I felt institutionalized and all of a sudden my world as I knew it, the one I derived so much comfort and stability from, was taken away from me”.

We looked at how Joe operates and we looked at the talents that he identified, for himself, that kept cropping up. Commanding, serving, presenting, organizing, instructing, accepting challenges, planning and executing tasks, leading and motivating, just some of the themes emerging. Now, the easy thing to do is to look at these words and either accept them at face value or understand them according to the experiences of the listener, in this case me. This is an approach clients have told me they have experienced by many careers advisers, for example, “You like digging holes do you Joe? OK, I am sure we can get you job with a digger company”. Its like the guy I worked with a couple of years ago who was fascinated with watching aeroplanes land and take off aircraft carriers and was getting increasingly frustrated because careers advisers at the job centre had said, “So, you’re an ex-squaddie and have a fascination for aircraft carriers, let’s try and see what vacancies there are for security guards at the ship-builders yard”. But his fascination was not with the ship, neither was it with the aircraft, the missing bit found only after digging deeper was also knowing that whenever this person entered a building he would question why furniture and electronic systems were placed where they were and he was trying mentally to re-arrange the room to make things more fluid. This was exactly what the aeroplane was all about. He had said it himself, but was unable to explain it, the joy for him, the necessary aspect was not the plane, it was not the ship, it was the fluidity of movement, the ‘flow’. This was what we needed to achieve with Joe. We needed to strip apart the role of a policeman, as he understood it, together with the environment and standards and values, and to see what aspects of the role, as opposed to the role itself, were aligned to his purpose. In addition, we needed to analyse the ‘meaning’ to Joe of these words. If we could do this, if we could understand what its all about for Joe then we were on the road to identifying what other jobs could give him satisfaction.

This approach was no different to countless people I have helped over the years. Indeed, it follows similar principles to those who do know what they want to do. Invariably, in my experience, those people will find it equally hard to detail what capabilities they have and how they are suitable for a specific role, this work is not just for those people who do not know what it is they wish to do. There are three steps to the journey we follow, ‘Who am I? Where do I want to go and how am I going to get there?’. Self-‘realisation’, in this context, is a more useful word than Maslow’s ‘actualization’. Besides, I am not convinced that his ‘Hierarchy of needs’ should enjoy such a position of definitive acceptance in today’s society.

As Joe took his first step on the journey his other leg was already poised to be placed in a new direction. The only thing stopping him loosing his balance now was an ability to deflect helpful advisers who would tempt him with job vacancies by telling them that he was not ready to commit to anything just yet as he was taking time to understand exactly what it is he wanted to do.

The second step allowed Joseph to ‘explore’. With a greater knowledge about his abilities and environmental needs he could now take a look at potentially suitable sectors and roles. Without going into the details of each and every conversation we had, this exploration phase, coupled with useful networking and presentation of the self, has resulted in Joe now working for a recruitment company where daily he utilizes those natural and authentic talents that were given him at birth. He plans, for the candidates, the routes they need to take to get to their appointments ensuring they are aware of the transport options. His highly tuned talent for oral communication, both in fully briefing the candidates as well as updating the clients, unified with the administrative skills he learned in the military operations rooms have contributed to his promotion from trainee recruitment consultant to regional manager within eight months. Joe is adamant that our time together helped to,

“Pick me up at a time when I was at my lowest and to show me a whole new set of skills and abilities I had but had never realised before”.

Above all he feels that,

“The time we spent together also allowed me to understand what it was about a career in the police that attracted me and has helped me to appreciate what aspects of policing I was naturally suited to and how to find out what other jobs could offer me an outflow for my purpose. In short, I was allowed to massively increase the opportunities available to me”.

I would have liked to have spent more time with Joe. As often happens the exploration phase led to his securing an offer of employment and he took it. I would have liked to have seen things through all the stages in a more systematic fashion as one never knows if the outcomes would have been different than those of a living, real-time, approach. I would also like to have met him… Perhaps that leaves you speechless, but is a blind person less aware of themselves than someone with clear vision? I cannot always meet clients as often they live at the other end of the country but I take great comfort from reading one of my favourite books, ‘A sense of the world’ about James Holman (1786-1857) who having lost his sight in his mid-twenties still managed to travel extensively throughout the world relying on his other senses and helpers to clear a pathway for him.

Tom, who we met before, and Joe are just two people amongst an average of, we are told but it seems a high number, 24,000 people who leave the UK armed forces every year. They both have experience of two careers as high level sportsmen and soldiers, and in that last sentence is where the danger lies when it comes to career transition, to finding the right role, ‘as sportsmen and soldiers’. I would like however now to turn briefly to military and sports resettlement as it is carried out in the UK mainstream. Since 1998 the UK MoD has contracted its outsourcing to a private company in a partnership called, ‘The Career Transition Partnership’ (CTP). No government programme exists to cater for the needs of transitioning/retiring sportsmen and women who rely on a handful of privately run recruitment companies focusing on this target market or what is available to us all. Like most people, my guilt lies in my ignorance, a reflection merely of my own life experiences, however, off the top of my head I would genuinely struggle to think of a professional sports personality who has made a name for themselves within an alternative career other than motivational speaking, leadership coaching, commentating or clothing and for many current sportsmen and women these remain are the futures that many aspire to achieve.

Whilst, in the military case, I do not envy the task of handling such high numbers of people, in effect job-seeking, I am openly somewhat critical of the way this partnership’s method of operation holds the monopoly. I do not take up the sword for those who just want a job, any job, they don’t care what it is neither do I do so for those who wish to be ‘told’ what to do incessantly. No, my battle is for those who wish to do something that isn’t run of the mill, those who swim against the tide who wish to find something within the world of work that truly satisfies them. My plan was never to cut and thrust on their behalf but to hand over the sword, teach them how to use it, and allow them to fight their own battles. Much advice sadly continues to follow a processing approach where those embarking upon a career change are compelled to look from the outside in rather than the other way around. It’s a little like taking yourself off to a cookery school for the day and learning how to cook a specific first course, main course and pudding. When you return home you will be able to replicate what you have learned to produce the same meal for your friends, but you will only be able to produce this meal and most likely the recipes were chosen for you by the cookery school. What I believe to be of more use to anyone, certainly in terms of choice, personal circumstance, aims, the long-term and generally of more value is to find a cookery school that will tech you the science of cooking; to learn the basic constructions and chemistry of foods will leave you free to satisfy your evolving culinary desires, for one thing we know for a fact is that people’s needs, desires, plans, characters, it all changes. If you recall the journey following who I am, where I want to go and how I will get there, any course that leads with CV writing is jumping straight in to the final steps. Any course that concentrates on interview training will be too generic. Of course the basics of good manners, time-keeping and arriving at the right location are of use but there is no such thing as a ‘generic’ interview. Each one will have a specific relevance to a particular employer, role and culture. When I started writing this, admittedly some months ago, the UK government had announced the launch of employment boot camps that young, unemployed people will have to attend in order to secure their welfare benefits. The course will include lessons on how to fill in a job application and interview techniques. God help these poor youngsters for whom we are incapable of addressing their real needs. The problem is that these sort of courses are cheap to run and can address high numbers of people in one go so are highly attractive to five year term governments. Besides not helping individuals to find the right role for them, these courses do nothing to encourage employers to look at their resourcing operations and ask themselves maybe if an on-line application form with tick boxes offers someone the best platform to sell themselves.

Finding the right ‘fit’ between an employer’s needs and the abilities of the job-seeker is what makes a successful hire and this should be no different when sourcing candidates from the armed forces or high flight sport. Within the military institution there exist common traits amongst many of its staff, including courage, integrity, determination, high standards of work in extremely challenging situations, an ability to be trained, to adapt to changing circumstances, to increase team spirit and inspire and motivate others. Equally, you may also see complete opposites such as introverts, people who prefer to work alone and some who cannot operate in highly pressurised environments. In addition, many have significant skills and qualifications with transferable benefits for business that do not conform to stereotyping, that although I hear little broadcast, my own experiences have let me see in many people. Many service personnel I meet are wonderful administrators allowing them to manage their accounting for example in civilian life in a way that I could only dream of. I have met many army officers who, again are glibly sold as being great leaders and communicators, who posses a talent for understanding people, character insight and perception. Yes, this could be described as being a part of leadership, or is it management, but it is vital that we actually understand what sort of a leader we are and not use the word without being more specific. At the same time however I have met army officers who have no great ability in this department and again the point has to be stressed that we need to move away from army officers, sportsmen and women and again look at the individual. ‘Labelling’ both within sport and the military creates an often unassailable hurdle. I asked Joe what his views were of this and his reply made me smile:

“The public see the Infantry stuff, but its not all about this. If we think of where most military, civilian interface occurs in the UK its through ceremonial stuff or on the news. On the news its mainly major contacts or IED strikes being reported and with ceremony it gets rather boring being told over and over again that those chaps in the funny hats also fight. But the public don’t hear about the different trades on offer and different roles. You think I’m a hero ‘cos I went to Iraq? I unloaded ships for six months, the bloke at P&O does that!”

When the time comes for our ‘heroes’ to find civilian employment they are universally sold as being loyal, trust-worthy, good time-keepers and hard-working. Does this catch-all approach devalue their other significant individual capabilities? Is this ‘heroic’ status, so valued in society, combined with a moral obligation to help, confusing the issue and putting some people into the wrong jobs causing mental trauma and a bad experience to both
candidate and employer? Within ex-military recruitment, where sympathy continues to overshadow opportunity, the
‘hero’ label has increasingly become a problem. Service personnel are popular. We fête, applaud, and honour these two groups and yet, as the military has become increasingly ‘fashionable’, we could be doing them a very great disservice. I am increasingly approached for advice by former soldiers re-engaging with the job search
having got it wrong the first time. Resettlement is stressful enough and made worse by being placed into the wrong job where their obligation to persevere within an unsuitable role leaves them under-performing. In a survey I carried out in 2016 it was interesting to note that at the same time as a very high number said their first job was the wrong job, a similar number had stayed in that first job for longer than a year, perhaps demonstrating their drive and determination to see it through.

HR professionals are eager to look to the armed forces as an opportunity to find high-calibre members of staff but only if given a tangible business case to do so. Recruitment is essentially not emotive but driven by the need for the candidate to meet the requirement; to judge them on their individual merit, not by their “label”. Many service personnel and sports people are disadvantaged as they find it hard to ‘sell’ themselves. So much of their worth remains only visible through a meeting or practical demonstration. They are unsure how they can benefit business given their lack of experience of this world. Employers too may be unsure and will only find their value by talking to them as an individual not a ‘hero’. Often they won’t talk about ‘I’ they talk about The Regiment, the unit, the team. This lets slip one of their core values which sadly is often lacking in many organisations – for service personnel and team sports players it’s about us as a group. For those who practise individual sports this may be different, and for many in the civilian world it’s about me, I, and them. This difference, having lived in a world where you underplay your achievements, often shocks them when they do make the move. The resettlement training they receive is often a process of ‘tell’ rather than ‘discuss’ and the high number of generic CVs, with little insight into the authentic candidate is testament to this fact. However, in this mass of paperwork and online application processes there are some real stars who, given a chance, will exceed expectations. This is a consistent message from organisations who have given them such an opportunity but sadly I feel we do not give these people the service they have earned and…the tide is turning.

In a survey conducted in June 2015 by Ipsos Mori and King’s College, London entitled ‘Hearts and Minds: Misconceptions and the Military.

• A large majority of the British public (65%) think that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is much more common among the armed forces than the general public – when in fact studies show the levels are similar. Only 6% guess correctly that it seems to be about the same among the general population and the armed forces

• The majority (53%) think that the suicide rate is higher among the armed forces than the general public – when in fact it is lower. Only 8% correctly identified that it is lower overall

• The public are more likely to think that homelessness is higher among the armed forces than the general public (40%), when in fact it is similar, which a lower proportion (32%) correctly identify

• 54% of the public think that former armed forces personnel are just as likely to be in prison (35%) or more likely to be in prison (19%) than the population as a whole – when actually they are less likely (which is correctly identified by 31%).

Stereotyping, yet again…

The fact remains that we, the human race, have found that as the squeaky wheel gets the oil so too do we tend to support things that involve high numbers of people suffering in the extreme. When it comes to former service personnel who are suffering as a result of their time in service we should really be discussing, not the breadth of the problem, but the depth for an individual and not fall into the trap of accepting statistics without question. It saddens me that whilst in the UK the media are eager to highlight the number of military suicides they do not tend to do the same for the number of people who have committed suicide within professional sport, most noticeably cricket. English cricketers are almost twice as likely to commit suicide than an average male and have a higher suicide rate of any sport, according to David Frith. In South Africa 4.12 per cent of players take their own lives. In New Zealand the rate is 3.92 per cent and in Australia 2.75 per cent. Yet again however, these statistics have now been questioned and although it is steering away from the concept of this paper we cannot be sure that these suicides resulted directly from cricket any more than we can say that all veterans who commit suicide do so as a result of their time in service.

Both Tom’s and Joe’s journey into civilian employment demonstrate some failure on the part of their parent sectors, sport and the military, on employers and on their own inability to understand who they as people really are. It is the lack of ‘authenticity’ that is the problem. Additionally, the normal way of doing things has also affected these two people, and many more besides. Labelling, stereotyping, and recruitment processes all have played a part in placing barriers in the path of progress. As much needs to be done by potential employers as needs to be done by employees to bridge the gap more smoothly between a company’s recruitment needs and the capabilities of the person.

I believe in the power of helping people to become the architects of their own futures. To leap from the back seat to take control of your own career is vital if you are to be able to live your life and not fulfil the ambitions of someone else or make decisions based on advice that has been sullied by other people’s experiences. If you live in the shadow of your forefathers the only prints you leave in this life are amongst the dust.

I will be updating this blog with more posts in the future but for now I am looking forward to delivering another two-day career transition workshop to six job-seekers which starts tomorrow. If you would like to find out more about how I can help you, your employees, or individuals you look after, to gain clarity and confidence in their abilities, goals and presentation please contact me on 07884 365 054.

Smith, A. (2014). Interdisciplinary Section Editorial. Journal of Applied Case Studies in Sport and Exercise Science. Issue 1 (INT) P. 8-12.

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