Sunday, September 2, 2012

Marching into civvie street: Military personnel who move from MINDEF/SAF's orbit into the corporate world

Like the military, the corporate world has its fair share of acronyms and industry-specific lingo.

Armed forces personnel who want to move to the corporate world would do well arming themselves with peculiarities of their new career as soon as practicable.

It will, admittedly, take time to settle down into a fresh work environment with new co-workers and unknown group dynamics that dictate the nature, pervasiveness and toxicity of office politics. The sooner one develops a mental mindmap of the group dynamics of the workplace and social norms, the easier the transition.

In this regard, expectations rise proportionately with one's military rank. These expectations encompass not just work performance but also the manner in which one conducts himself/herself at work.

Tongues will wag for even the most innocent slip up. Take, for instance, the following case:
The meeting between the former Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officer and his subordinates appeared to unfold well. It was one of first attended by the new head honcho. As his managers prattled on about a certain project and the part ATMs (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) have to play in this project, the former military man felt compelled to ask: What do ATMs (Automated Teller Machines) have to do with all this? Alas, he was thinking of the machine from which people perform financial transactions, most commonly cash withdrawals. The meeting stopped dead in its tracks to recalibrate when it was clear the ATM being discussed was not the kind of ATM head honcho had in mind.

It did not take long for that story to spread beyond the walls of that meeting room. It made delightful lunch time gossip, was a great conversation starter among colleagues looking for something to spice up an otherwise ordinary work day. Eventually, even people outside the organisation got to hear about it.

It had a happy conclusion as the SAF officer is said to have settled down in the organisation well and earned the respect of his subordinates. This was after he went through a steep learning curve to acquire and master the domain knowledge needed to steer executive decisions for his industry sector.[He is still there, by the way.]

Not all accounts turn out this way. There have been accounts of high ranking military men who waltz through the corporate hierarchy in the civilian world, expecting their former status and reputation to elicit kow tows from rank-and-file along the way. One example that a few pilots have recounted (on separate occasions) describes how a high flier in an airline assembled them for a chat session where the tone, language used and thrust of the session treated them like school boys being lectured for some grave transgression. It did not go down well with the audience.

Military personnel must be aware of the parties who will keep their career trajectory on their radar screen. Some will watch how the second career pans out for inspiration on what they themselves could achieve some day. Others will have less noble intentions, eager to pounce on wrong management calls by former military men as evidence of their unsuitability for the corporate sector.

Topping the list of interested parties are their brothers in arms. There are cliques in the defence ecosystem - just as in any social system - and not everyone will cheer your successes. Compatriots from roughly the same cohort who eyed that plump posting in the corporate sector might end up committing the sin of Envy and hate you for being there.

Secondly, career officers who grew up in the private sector or government body outside the military may loathe you for being parachuted into the system. A foreign service officer (FSO) once remarked that he felt his career runway was limited as top postings that FSOs aspire to earn - head of mission in an embassy or high commission - seemed the exclusive province of former SAF officers. He loved the foreign service and would give it his all while in service. At the same time, he would chart a second career as there was the impression of a glass ceiling.

With mindsets like that, can you blame the civil service for loss of talent?

Whether true or not, more should be done to address such mindsets. There ought to be more transparency in the manner in which former military personnel are moved to other government departments (OGDs) once they leave the orbit of the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF. There must be selection criteria because the new postings are not for flyweight candidates. How were they selected? Was the position open to internal candidates from that organisation?

Sharing the criteria would assure career officers who worked their way up the ranks that their performance and experience do count for something. It would also signal that there is no glass ceiling. As such, talented and committed individuals do stand a shot at key positions.

Thirdly, the lack of transparency has a knock-on effect on younger officers. Being new to the defence ecosystem, many 20-something officers would be none the wiser about how the system works. They see what you and I see - high ranking personnel moved to OGDs or the private sector by an invisible hand. In this regard, we must make a distinction between the private sector as in Temasek-linked companies and the private sector which encompasses other companies in which the Singapore government has no stake or influence.

With their future career at stake years downstream, it is a safe bet many young officers would tread on the side of caution. This could quite possibly result in individuals who do not rock the boat unnecessarily and make the extra effort never to step on toes or offend the system. Are you then surprised mavericks are so scarce in the SAF?

As a mature organisation, the SAF of today counts far more senior officers than the generation of officers who served the Singaporean military in the 1970s and 1980s. Expectations must be managed by informing high potentials that not everyone can secure a position in OGDs or TLCs.

Awareness of this fact may breed a situation where officers due for transition make special effort in cultivating relationships with future employers. While there is nothing inherently wrong or illegal about such a practice, it does raise a poser on the strength of the checks and balance that should, rightfully, exist between MINDEF/SAF and external parties, including OGDs and defence contractors. This relationship should be done at arms-length.

An official from the Defence Science & Technology Agency once related how a senior SAF officer made it known during a meeting (not an informal beer drinking session, mind you), that he was due for retirement "next year". It was a blatant pitch for his second career. He eventually got the job, which speaks credibly for his foresight and planning. But his arrival in DSTA stoked misgivings among career officers there, as described in point two above.

Given time, such relationships may morph into a localised version of Japan's gakubatsu or Britain's old school tie clique, where everyone is treated equal but some are more equal than others.

Related post:
GCE A Level Exams: Pivotal period for young Singaporean students and SAF Scholar aspirants. Please click here.


HSH said...

Just 3 comments:

1. Tan Tai Yong's "civil-military fusion" of CMR in Singapore. The SAF is part of Singapore Inc. It's the civil service in uniform. I don't like it, but that's the nature of the military profession here. Seems to work .... for now.

3. People are parachuted into senior management positions in the private sector too. The difference is military experience isn't considered "relevant job experience." But my argument is at the strategic level of leadership (ie. the top echelons), you don't need to know things at the tactical level to function. You must eventually, and with the exception of a few, many of these senior officers are actually very sharp and can pick these things up very quickly, but they don't need to know the jargon at the get go. They're hired to manage the big picture. The "relevant job exeperience" required at that level really is the ability to multi-task and conduct a mission, with vision, in an uncertain operating environment. Sounds like a military operation already. So maybe these retired senior officers already do have relevant job experience which they're not given sufficient credit for.

3. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work out as you've pointed out. If you can, read this gem of an article from 2006 which talks about these things in more detail: Straits Times, 16 Dec 2006, "Don't knock us, our rice bowls are not iron."

The said...

The TLCs are not strictly private sector companies - not by a long shot.

What we have is to copy the Japanese practice of amakudari. And we are sure to suffer its consequences as Japan has been for the past 2 decades. In fact, we have already seen some of the adverse effects. How not to? When someone who knows nuts about investments is put in charge.

Anonymous said...

This former military man going to join a transport co. lol.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with Comment 1, Point 2. Feeling one does not need to know the details of a business is a kind of hubris to avoid.

It would be disastrous in a business that relies on good customer service.

It is not such an issue in a business that people have no choice to use, such as a telco or a mass rapid transport system. Perhaps that is why with officers are often hired to lead there with their unshakeable "vision and mission".