by Nori Gale
Why We Celebrate Veterans Day
There are currently 17.4 million veterans in the United States, according to a recent US Census report, and we’ve been celebrating Veterans Day in this country for over 100 years. While the day has had different names and taken different shapes, the overall purpose has remained the same: to honor Veterans who have fought for our country.
The purpose of Veterans Day as stated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is as follows: “A celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”
Here at WEX, we are writing on this day to express the high esteem in which we hold our veterans, the many things we can learn from them, and the ways they add value to our community.
Veterans At WEX And Our Employee Resource Group (ERG)
At WEX, we have an employee resource group, WEXVets, which was founded a little over a year ago. The current board chair is Matthew Williams, Global Program Manager, Legal, Finance, and Strategic Projects for WEX. WEXVets’ vision includes a commitment to diversity and inclusion and ensuring that the Veteran population is represented proportionately, at all levels of the organization, and in areas such as development, advancement, and work-life balance.
The mission of WEXVets is multi-faceted and includes a goal to provide support for WEX veterans, ensuring their professional development, and giving them a place to gather with others who have a shared experience.
As Williams puts it, “It’s really about giving veterans a place to find a sense of community, expanding our veteran support and helping provide mentorship opportunities for veterans.” Cathy McGowan, Senior Compensation Analyst for WEX, agrees with Williams and adds that WEXVets “is about development and opportunities and making sure that all our WEX leadership understands what a veteran brings to the company but also on the flip side its a place where veterans can come for support if they need it and have a mentor that’s been through it. When you walk in the room for the first time that’s all civilians it’s a little intimidating – it’s hard, and having someone with whom you can talk through those kinds of issues is an important service we can provide with an ERG.”
“Hiring Our Heroes” Partnership with U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
One way that WEXVets is carrying out its mission is through a unique partnership it has developed with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation in conjunction with WEX’s Talent Acquisition Team. “Hiring Our Heroes” is a national initiative launched in March 2011 to connect veterans and their spouses with employment opportunities. Using the well-established network the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has in many different sectors, the goal is to create a situation where veterans and their families can be supported to find work in their local communities. The chamber partners with businesses like WEX who engage with veterans in their communities and potentially provide them with employment.
“Hiring Our Heroes” at WEX is currently in a beta testing phase. When WEX is partnered with a veteran, they join WEX in a fellowship position that lasts for 12 weeks. If at the end of 12 weeks there is synergy on both sides, WEX has the opportunity to hire the fellow to become a WEX employee. The program is open to active-duty members and spouses anywhere in the country across all branches and WEX is currently planning on administering three cohorts per year.
Williams describes the fellowship as an opportunity for WEX to partner with the military in creating a mutually supporting pipeline for service members to transition from a Military to a Civilian Career: “Bringing them in for a fellowship with the opportunity to convert at the end of the fellowship program is a great way for WEX to recruit highly sought after and skilled former military members, and more importantly provides an opportunity for service members that they wouldn’t necessarily identify on their own.”
Transitioning From Military To Civilian Work Is Challenging: Mentoring Can Help
Both Williams and McGowan describe the difficulties veterans face when they leave the military and enter the civilian workforce for the first time. “Serving as a mentor for those who are joining the civilian workforce for the first time is another important part of our mission,” says Williams. “It’s not an easy thing to all of a sudden lay your whole support system down and start something new. There are many small challenges involved in the move from military to civilian life.” For Williams and McGowan it goes beyond a loss of camaraderie and the companionship of like-minded peers; it’s also the systems and order of the military that you must leave behind and that can be difficult and provides a great opportunity for an ERG like WEXVets to step in and provide relief. It’s Williams’ vision that WEXVets will mentor veterans as they’re coming into WEX and partner with them to help provide a smooth transition.
McGowan’s first experience with the military was during a two-month internship at West Point while obtaining her undergraduate degree in physical therapy. McGowan’s clinical instructor invited her to the Army/Air Force football game, where his Air Force brother was in attendance. The brother jokingly gave her the advice of, “Whatever you do, don’t join the Army!” So she took his advice and became a physical therapist for the U.S. Air Force.
She joined the Air Force through a direct commission as a Second Lieutenant and spent the next eight years working in physical therapy for the Air Force. From there she transferred to the Line of the Air Force and became a Force Support Officer (Human Resources and Morale, Welfare and Recreation) and over her 21 years in the Air Force, she did her fair share of travel, living in places such as Alaska, Hawaii, Alabama, Washington D.C., Delaware, and Italy. Travel was a huge draw for McGowan when she weighed her options and chose to join the military. “To see and go places that I never would have been afforded the opportunity to visit was a huge draw to joining the military. I lived in Italy for four years which provided me the opportunity to travel all over Europe, visiting Croatia, Slovenia, England, Ireland, France, Belgium, and Poland. And the education I could pursue as a member of the military was also a huge draw.” She achieved two master’s degrees (an MS, Strategic Studies and MS, Military Arts and Sciences) while serving.
McGowan retired from the Air Force in 2014 after 21 years of service. When she got her first civilian job working for G.E. in Auburn, Maine, McGowan described the challenges she faced making that transition. “As I transitioned from the Air Force, I had a really hard time translating my military HR experience into the private sector. I had a hard time convincing people that it’s really not very different!”
This lack of clarity of what her career path with the military represented in the civilian world was a frustration for McGowan and made the transition difficult. “People want to understand what veterans bring but they don’t really get it.” The experiences McGowan had and the depth of her knowledge are not easily translatable to the parallel world she knows exists in the private sector. Had she come from one civilian job to another it would be abundantly clear what she’d done based on her resume. But the military has its own language and way of describing things which many hiring managers don’t believe translates to their positions. So while McGowan knows that her 21 years of work in the Air Force equate to high-level achievement she does not believe that those in civilian life know or appreciate what she has accomplished. She’s hoping the ERG will highlight Veteran skill sets and bridge these gaps in understanding.
Military Skills That Translate Well To A Civilian Workplace
According to a study conducted by Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, the four top reasons to hire a military veteran are that they are trainable, they are leaders, they know how to take constructive criticism, and they have learned selflessness. One of the things both Williams and McGowan spoke about when enumerating the skills that veterans bring to a civilian job was leadership.
Transformational Leadership Comes With Military Experience
As Williams describes it, “One of the biggest selling points that makes a veteran a good source for recruiting can be looked at from a leadership perspective.” McGowan concurs, saying “Anyone who has spent more than four years in the military has been asked to take on leadership responsibilities.” For Williams, these skills were evident regardless of what rank a person was, “Everybody even at the lowest level that I worked with when I was serving was empowered to make decisions and to be a leader at their level. You had to follow a chain of command and you deferred when there was somebody else there that was in a position of authority but in the absence of someone higher ranking, even the lowest ranking person that I worked with was capable of making a decision and executing on it.” Williams describes this as the concept of “leadership at every level” and asserted that those who come from a military background are more apt to have been trained on being a leader at every level. “That mindset of adapting and overcoming a problem in the absence of leadership – – that’s what we’re faced with every day in a civilian job.” When you hire a veteran, you bring on an employee who doesn’t need to be told what to do at every turn. As Williams puts it, “They’re going to find a way to get it done and employing people well-versed in that kind of thinking provides an advantage in company operations.”
The other thing recruiters will find is that people who do well in the military are inherently more transformational in how they lead. Williams defines it this way: “Transactional is this or that. Transformational is how do I get people who don’t understand, are afraid, have never done something a certain way, need to find a way to adapt to a changing business environment – to follow my lead. How do I find a way to lead those people in such a way that they feel empowered to take action themselves, drive that change, own that change, and be successful. That’s transformational.”
Williams uses the example of WEX CEO Melissa Smith to illustrate this concept: “If you look at Melissa Smith – she’s transformational in how she leads. Smith is able to bring people to the table who don’t necessarily have the same vision, present her ideas, and have the meeting result in everyone choosing to move in the direction she has presented. This happens because she succeeded in selling her idea to them. She’s been able to articulate her vision and communicate it in such a way that people are uplifted and want to move in a new way. That’s transformational.”
Williams goes on to talk about how the military grows transformational leaders like weeds and he partly attributes this abundance of skilled leaders in the military to the fact that veterans are exposed to many different types of leadership. He also believes the plentitude of adept leaders is due to the diversity of the military population. “They know how to communicate to a broad audience. They have to find ways to communicate that are palatable to a larger audience because everybody’s so different in the military. You don’t run into those challenges on a day-to-day basis in the civilian world unless you’re running a company and that’s your job. In the military, you could be at a pretty low level and have to communicate with a diverse group and sell them on your idea of how to do things.”
Military Veterans Bring Integrity To The Job
McGowan describes how members of the military are expected to be able to lead in a VUCA environment, which stands for Volatile, Uncertainty, Complex, and Ambiguous. When recruiting specifically for veterans, the resultant pool will be a cohort of people with integrity, creativity, and innovation because they have been trained to lead in a VUCA environment. In McGowan’s experience, those were all highly valued qualities in her years in the military and were qualities that were cultivated and encouraged. Members of the Air Force during McGowan’s time were constantly being put in situations where they had to find creative ways to solve problems and were always asked to take any action with integrity. Those with military experience are also not hesitant to make decisions and won’t shy away from the decision-making process, according to McGowan, which is another plus when hiring a veteran.
Cross-training And A Multitude Of Different Experiences Breeds Vast Knowledge And Empathy
In McGowan’s experience, one of the key differences between a military career and a civilian career is the amount of cross-training and skill-building across organizations that happens in the military. One example of this is the Executive Assistant position in the military and McGowan describes this as one of the best developmental opportunities for a member of the military. “These positions are one- to two-year stints. Air Force officers are competitively selected for these positions and become the General Officer’s (Executive) right-hand, see how they prepare for their meetings, what was important, how they articulated the problems their team was facing, made executive decisions, and so forth.” By providing someone with the opportunity to see from the inside how things operate they are given a priceless lesson on what will be required of them when they themselves step into a leadership role.
The second example McGowan gives for how the military is more adept than the civilian world at preparing people for leadership roles was a developmental opportunity she herself was given when she worked in an HR position handling senior officer matters. She was given a close-up view of how the general she worked for looked at leadership and how he selected his leaders and to see who he was grooming and developing. McGowan was granted an intimate view of that process: what was considered when determining who would be promoted to the General ranks, etc.
In The Military You Trust The Leader Regardless Of Skill Level
What McGowan learned in her years in the Air Force is that the military puts you where they need you based on your ability to lead regardless of your depth of knowledge in the subject matter you will oversee. Their philosophy is that they’ve given you the tools to succeed and they’re going to push you to your limits. “I never would have had the confidence in the private sector to do what I did switching from PT to HR. To completely reinvent myself, to start a new job with zero experience and have leadership say ‘Get in there! Get ‘er done! We’ll support you.’ that was something else.” This experience was profoundly inspiring and confidence-building for McGowan. “I had to prove myself over and over again but that just opened doors time and time again.”
So an important thing the military taught her was that you don’t have to be experienced in some of the things that you lead. Those in the private sector are not as accommodating to that in McGowan’s experience. Part of the benefit to this philosophy is that when you allow people to lead in places where they are not necessarily an expert the end result is an employee who is vastly more knowledgeable about different parts of the organization and has cultivated leadership skills in an array of subject matter areas. “They’ll put a pilot in a leadership position in HR–someone who flies an F-16 on a normal day and who has never even been out of a cockpit. The pilot learns how to run HR and returns to their original career field with new knowledge and understanding of the Air Force HR policy and the HR community better understands the challenges facing operational leaders–it’s a win-win.”
So Much To Learn From Our Military Veterans
WEX, like most companies, can achieve great gains by recruiting and cultivating military veterans as employees. Both Matthew Williams and Cathy McGowan are working from within to shift the culture and understanding at WEX about just how much opportunity lies within that population, and for that we are grateful.
A Thank You To Veterans At WEX And Everywhere
On this Veterans Day, November 11, 2020, WEX thanks all members of our military, in all branches, past and present, for their service to our country.
Inspired by the World War I poem “In Flanders Fields,” in which the opening lines refer to poppies that were the first flowers to grow in the soil from soldiers’ graves in the Flanders region of Belgium, these small red flowers were adopted by the National American Legion as their official symbol of remembrance in 1920.