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CH A P T E R 6



CH A P T E R 6

Get Your Head in the Game

“The biggestwall you have to climb is the one you build in your mind: Never let your mind talk you out of your dreams, trick you into giving up. Never let your mind become the greatest obstacle to success.To get your mind on the right track, the rest will follow.”
~ Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

My transition to Amazon is more of a story of leading through change than finding a new job. Anyone can find a job. The problem is that no one really wants a job. Jobs don’t fulfill us. They certainly don’t challenge us. They don’t help us grow into the people we are destined to be at this stage of life. Jobs hardly ever pay us what we are worth or give us the quality of life we desire. What I wanted was a career, just as I had enjoyed a career in the military.

My military service extracted from me the best I had to give in that arena. I learned discipline, leadership, teamwork, and respect. I learned to push myself far beyond anything I thought was possible. But I reached the point where I would have to embark on a new career inside the military or leave altogether. There was nothing more I could give or learn from where I was. I decided to transition away.

I did so successfully, landing a position with Amazon and moving up the ranks skillfully. As I surveyed others in my position, however, I realized that I had acquired some skills that made pursuing a second career palatable, and I had sidestepped many of the roadblocks people encounter along the path to starting over.

Some pretend that making such a significant shift is not on their plate. They insist that they have no intention of starting over in a regular job someplace. They are planning to face the night, they say, and get a simple job. Who hasn’t heard of senior NCOs or Officers in the unit stating that all they want to do when they retire is be a “door greeter” at the local big box store or work in a place where there is no responsibility or personnel to charge? This sentiment is probably true at the time it was spoken because they were imagining a life without stress and duty. But in the long run, no person who has held command or worked in a position where they really mattered wants to now fade into the distance, stocking shelves or flipping burgers (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Ultimately, they usually find that their brains demand a challenge similar to the one they left.

Ultimately, retirement comes for us all, beckoning us away from a scheduled life to one that doesn’t get written down on a day planner or logged into a smartphone. Retirement calls us to travel the world and see places that once only existed on the pages of brochures. And your golf game could certainly use a lot more of your time and attention. But more and more people are retiring later and later, opting to work as long as they are able, keeping their minds sharp and their bodies active.

The mind is a machine that craves work, problems, and puzzles. It never truly sleeps. Even when we lay our heads to rest at night, the brain continues operating the factory, working out issues, developing strategies, creating, imagining, and making neural connections. People refer to the fulfillment of having a job that lacks the time commitment that we may have experienced for many years. But that doesn’t mean that we are ever really done playing our part in the world.

There are some physical downsides to slowing down as well. The research is pretty firm, showing that people are more likely to experience adverse physical effects from retirement, including heart attacks and depression.

I would posit that the meaning and gratification that we find in military service and the chance to directly make a difference in the lives of others is a more alluring aspiration, as is the test of matching your skills against the toughest challenges you can find. That is what we are uniquely designed to do. Since early man, we have been solving the world’s most difficult problems and making our individual marks on the planet—even in the smallest ways.

I found my challenge at Amazon. You may find yours at HEB, my other favorite company, or in an entrepreneurial venture. These are companies I highly endorse and believe in. Honestly, this is nothing against “door greeters.” I would not have found happiness checking receipts.

This is all the more true for people whose work calls upon them to lead others. Leaders have to lead. It is in their DNA. They eat, sleep, and breathe it. You can set them in the middle of the jungle where they don’t speak the language, and if they survive, they will be hosting some sort of meeting in no time. It’s what they do. It’s what they love.

To ask a leader to stop leading is is like asking a bird never to take to the air again. Sure, birds are cute, hopping along the ground on their little feet. But when we see that bird take to the air, soaring majestically above us, “cute” is not the word that springs to mind. When the bird does what it is designed to do, it is glorious. The same is true for you. It may be noble to flip burgers and feed hungry people, but it would be a travesty to do so if your destiny is to own the burger joint.

I don’t know what your next career is going to be. And, chances are, if you bought this book, you don’t know either. But I know a few things about your transition because they are common to transitions in general:

You will need to convince people about who you are and what you know.

You will need to be willing to share your unique experiences, bringing them to bear in the new place.

You will need to be a student of the new industry or marketplace you enter.

You will need to trust that you already have everything it takes to land that new career.

Age is not the factor it once was for people who are changing careers (more on this in the next chapter).

For those who are transitioning into a new corporate environment, you should know that the business landscape has changed more in the last two decades, I think, than it has in the last ten. So much is new about how companies hire, what they are looking for, how they onboard new employees, and the career path you might take.

Here are some considerations you may have to think about as you weed through the hundreds or thousands of possibilities that lie ahead:

Clear missions and values

Today, companies write mission and value statements that help clarify who they are as an organization and what they prioritize. These statements are meant to shape the culture of the business and, in the best companies, are posted everywhere for all to see. These missions and values are lived out in the corporate expression every day and inform the company’s decisions on everything from human resources to sales and customer relations.

Other companies simply give lip service to mission statements and values. They create them because it is the norm. But nothing about their corporate structure suggests that they believe them or operate by them. These were companies I avoided like the plague. They amount to little more than mini-bureaucracies where middle management crushes the worker to meet a quota that was imposed upon them by upper management. It’s a flesh-eating organization where you are likely to be miserable and will not want to plan for a long second career there.

Find out if your prospective company has a mission or values that they are bold enough to put in writing. Can each person with whom you interview recite the mission statement or value statement by heart?

Culture is everything. Truly everything.

One thing that has probably contributed to the positive adjustment is that I went from one strong culture in the Army to another strong culture at Amazon. Ways of doing things, idiosyncrasies, and even rules are not foreign to me, so the transition has been relatively seamless. One thing that I have found, though, is that Amazon likes its managers to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Metrics that are just beyond reach, self and group scrutiny, and daily competition using measurable analytics are just a few ways that you are tested.

I was always proud of being an Inspector General for a time in the Army because I was directly responsible for holding the Army accountable to its espoused values. It was my job to constantly measure what we were doing and how we were executing against the values we decided were important. Every company needs someone for whom this is one of their roles.

If your new company falls short in pressing their missions and values, you should look around for the massive red flag that is flying somewhere just out of sight. It is one thing to lack focus on the missions and values; if they do not have any, that is altogether another story. In that case, I would tell you to run, not walk, to the nearest exit and shake the dust from their carpeting off your feet. This is a company that lacks focus, direction, and organization. No amount of money they offer will compensate for the hell you will experience there. Not only will you be unclear about your role, but so will everyone else.

If the company has clear missions and values, you must then carefully review them and ask lots of questions about them to determine how well they integrate with your personal mission and values (we will talk more about that later as well).

One of the reasons I chose Amazon was because it had 14 leadership principles (and has since added two more) that aligned very well with my own core values and gave me a reason to believe that they stood for something. I will share those values in the next chapter.

Respect for military service

If you are transitioning away from the military to a corporate position, uncover whether or not your chosen company has respect for your service. If they do, they may understand how strong military skills can translate into a strong corporate showing. They will entrust you more, ensure you are given more responsibility, and provide you with a track for advancement.

It is one thing to be hired for an entry-level position. But it is a whole other thing to work for a company that could care less about the fact that you have dedicated years of your life to defending the country and leading its sons and daughters in protecting and defending our homeland. Amazon takes on military interns, is tied in with Hire Our Heroes, and has a legit Pathways program and military recruiters that are actively looking for transitioning talent.

If you are not transitioning from the military but from other noteworthy professions, be sure that you are looking at companies with open hiring practices, including hiring people of all ages.

Development opportunities

Granted, you bring with you years of experience and knowledge. However, you will still need to learn some things you may not have been exposed to before. Like Amazon, the Ford Motor Company has its own online school for its employees, allowing them to earn certificates by taking classes and passing online tests. Many companies recognize that offering training, not just at the onboarding phase but all throughout their employees’ careers, increases their loyalty, spurs their confidence, and improves employee retention.

Find out what types of developmental opportunities the company offers. Many “transitioners” are willing to start from the ground up. There is no shame in doing so. But there is no point in starting at the bottom if you are doomed to remain there forever.

Of course, this begs the question, “Are you humble enough to start from the bottom?” If you have been accustomed to high-level management and being in charge, it may be difficult to be in a position where you have a manager who presumably lacks your credentials. Some of you will have managers that are younger, less experienced, and, in some cases, clearly lack the commitment you have. You might be tempted to look at them with disdain and treat them with disrespect. But be careful.

Just because your manager cannot match you in life experience does not mean that they cannot teach you how the business runs. They know drastically more about the company than you do. Be a sponge. Take the lessons that are available at any given time. Don’t concern yourself with rank at this point. In corporate America, the cream generally and eventually rises to the top.

If you cannot do this and you are not willing to prove the value that you bring to the company by working through its gates, then there are tens and maybe thousands of potential employees for whom you will not get a chance to show that you are the leader that they deserve and that they should aspire to be. Keep your future team in mind and think about all you will be able to do together because you will offer them the respect, motivation, and resources to excel.

Take it Easy

One major issue many people have, especially people who leave the military experience, is thinking they are right and everyone else is wrong. True, your experience should inform the decisions you make and the trajectory of your team. But it cannot be the single point of reference for why you are right and everyone else is wrong. The company was there before you and, in all likelihood, will be there after you.

Business doesn’t move in a linear fashion anymore. There are many factors that interrupt a company’s success and others that send news of the company viral. Some of it is completely out of the control of anyone working in your building. It could come down to a mention by a celebrity or politician or an ad or meme showing your product that goes viral. Lots of forces are at play in modern business. Don’t take how much you still have to learn for granted; remember how much you have to offer.

Add Value to the Present

You have worked as part of a team for years. True. But why does your new company have to put up with and hear about the time when you and your idea saved the world? Be careful not to “date yourself” by launching into war stories or old stories about your past success. Once you are past the interview and hiring phase, all that matters is what you can bring to the table today. Focus on adding value to your company. Your old stories of success are your silent fuel to help you bring value to your new experience.

“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.”
~ Jon Krakauer, mountaineer and bestselling author

I share these stumbling blocks because they are issues that I saw my fellow veterans tumble over while at Amazon. The fact is that I believe you were a hero for what you did in the military. Much like police officers and firefighters, military people put their lives on the line by virtue of their work. But unlike those other professions, they give their lives to their unit, allowing themselves to be transferred at any time. Many people are not willing to have their destinies controlled by someone else, even for the short term. I applaud you for your service.

You were probably the smartest person in your unit. Hell, you may even be an actual hero. But even heroes need jobs. If you are not a veteran, I have to assume (since you are reading this book) that you were among the best of the best. Only the brightest people would buy a book like this and actually read it up to this point!

Give your new peers a chance to recognize and appreciate your excellence. In the military, you can tell a person’s rank and many of their achievements on sight. They have stripes, badges, ribbons, and hardware that let you know you are in the presence of greatness. There is no ribbon for badass at your new company. Worse, many of your earlier wins may go unnoticed, or at least unannounced. But that does not mean you aren’t a valuable member of the team. It just means you have to continue your ascent to the top. Do not sabotage yourself by expecting your new experience to look anything like your old one.

In the next chapter, we will explore the role age plays in the modern corporate environment.


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