TAO Self-help

Title:Critical thinking: The secret weapon for today's veterans

Author:Patrick Lefler

Date:October 2011


A few years ago, as a first-year student at The Wharton School and less than a year removed from active duty as a Marine Corps officer, I went through round after round of interviews for summer intern positions. I was the only former Marine in my class, and no one had more self-confidence than I as I eagerly waited to show the awaiting interviewers my stuff — the right stuff, as far as I was concerned, given that I had spent the previous six years as a Marine Corps pilot. But a surprising thing happened on the way to what I thought would be an easy waltz through the summer hiring process: I couldn't land an offer. Not one offer! Zero! To use a baseball analogy, I was riding a 40-game hitless streak while many of my classmates were hitting doubles, triples and even home runs, landing summer offers from some of America's most prestigious firms — McKinsey, Proctor & Gamble and General Electric, just to name a few. At first I dismissed my failure simply as bad luck. When that excuse began to lose traction, I turned to blaming the interviewers. I rationalized to myself (and anyone else who would put up with my whining) that because most of these interviewers had never served a day in the military, it was impossible for them to appreciate the skills that I could bring to the table.

As it turns out, I was partially right on that second excuse. The interviewers weren't getting a good sense of what I could bring to the organization, but it wasn't because of their lack of military experience. It was because I did a poor job in explaining how the skill set I had used previously as a pilot could directly translate into a benefit for their organization. I focused way too much on the pilot aspect of my military experience at the expense of what really mattered to the prospective employer back then (and what still matters today): the development of superior critical thinking skills that allowed me to become a really good pilot and leader of Marines.

And from what I've observed today (based on interactions with veterans as both a conversant and a mentor), many veterans fall down the same way I did years ago. When engaging with potential employers or school admissions officers, they naturally focus on the tasks that they performed while in the military, whereas they need to focus on translating how the critical thinking skills behind their military experiences can directly benefit future employers or the college of their choice.

So what are these critical thinking skills? And, more important, why do they matter? In this case, critical thinking can be broken down into two distinct skills: (1) problem solving and (2) decision making.

Problem Solving

Veterans appreciate more so than most the adage that "a problem clearly stated is already half solved." Their combat experience, with its constantly changing conditions, has made them experts in being able to quickly understand and effectively articulate what the problem is and what its critical dimensions are. They understand the difference between pinning down a problem and going on a blind hunt for facts. And they also are acutely aware of the need to find cause before prescribing solutions. These skills are developed not in the classroom, but through real-life experiences where critical problems arise on a daily basis. Having the ability to quickly ascertain changing conditions and knowing the difference between what matters to the mission and what doesn't are highly desirable skills in today's business world.

Decision Making

The average combat solder or Marine probably makes more critical decisions in a single day than his or her peers in the civilian world do in a month. These decisions all focus on selecting the action that gets the most done at the least cost, all while minimizing risk. Today's veteran knows the difference between interim, adaptive, corrective, preventive and contingency actions — distinctions valued in the modern business world but not completely understood by the majority of their civilian peers. They also understand the importance of prioritizing decision-making objectives. Distinguishing between "necessary musts" and "nice-to-have wants" helps prevent poor decisions in which essential requirements are sacrificed for the sake of meeting less important criteria.

More so than perhaps any other time in recent history, latter-day veterans bring to the table a rich inventory of these critical thinking skills. The problem, again, is that sometimes neither the veteran nor the prospective employer or college admissions officer has a good grasp of what these skills really are — or, more importantly, how they will benefit the organization. This is where the veteran needs to take the offensive and always frame the conversation in a way that highlights how these critical thinking skills can benefit the organization. Having experience as a combat engineer or an explosive ordinance demolition expert has no real value to most organizations outside of the military, but bringing in new personnel with highly refined critical thinking skills is one of the top goals for those organizations that need to stay competitive in a rapidly changing business environment. When I finally landed that hard-to-get summer job at Wharton, I was hired because of my problem-solving skills, not because I had been previously trained as a pilot. A year later, when I was offered a full-time position at Goldman, Sachs & Co., it was because my employer valued my decision-making skills. It just took me a while to figure out what really mattered to them and other employers — my skill set, not experience per se.

Anytime you speak to someone about your unique military experience, direct the conversation in terms of highlighting the critical thinking skills behind it. Again, years ago, when I was going through the process, I waited far too long during the interview (or many times never even got started) before I tried to explicate, making the connection that the same skills that served me extremely well as a pilot could also be a huge benefit to the organization I was speaking to. Don't make the same mistake I did, and don't think that most interviewers will be able to connect the dots in terms of understanding the benefit of these skills. Every so often during the conversation, pause and then say something to the effect of, "...and this is why it matters." You have to do this at least once or twice in the discussion to ensure that this important point is understood.

Making a good impression in what may be your only chance to speak to a particular organization is just too important to leave anything to chance. Remember, it's the skill set behind the experience that matters most to corporate America, small businesses — or even start-ups.

Patrick Lefler is the founder of The Spruance Group; a management consulting firm that helps growing companies grow dramatically faster. He is a former Marine Corps officer and a graduate of both Annapolis and The Wharton School. For more information, visit www.spruancegroup.com, or contact Patrick at: plefler@spruancegroup.com.

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