How the VetXecutive program helped start conversations — and relationships — between local veterans and business leaders
Most of us don't know what it's like to spend months, or years, overseas in combat situations. But for the thousands of military personnel that do know what it's like, they find themselves facing a different type of unknown upon arriving home—employment. While veterans possess an array of valuable skills gained from serving in the military, ranging from teamwork to change management, it can often be a challenge for veterans and hiring managers alike to translate such abilities into a business role.
Recognizing the communication gap, a pair of Minnesota business leaders—Andrew Borene, director and counsel at ReconRobotics, and Morgan Kinross-Wright, executive director of corporate and alumni relations at the Carlson School of Management—wanted to help foster a conversation. That's where the idea for the VetXecutive Veterans' Pilot Mentorship Program was born. The program paired 12 veterans in different age groups and from different walks of life with business mentors around the Twin Cities.
Borene served as a U.S. Marine intelligence officer in Iraq, was an early advisor to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and is a former Associate Deputy General Counsel at the U.S. Department of Defense. Morgan Kinross-Wright, a military spouse, has become passionate about services for veterans—and the complex issue of veterans' employment in particular. So when the pair discovered their mutual affinity for helping veterans join the workforce, the idea for the program became a natural next step. In April 2012, they kicked off the six-month VetXecutive pilot program.
"For recent conflict veterans, unemployment rates have been up to 1.5 times higher than their age-group peers," says Borene, also chairman of Robotics Alley. "We thought this may have to do with corporate culture. There are a lot of services out there for homeless vets and vets in crisis. But there's not a lot out there for vets who want to be business leaders."
Borene and Kinross-Wright designed the program to assist area veterans seeking a career in business leadership with networking and career guidance. The program facilitated one-on-one relationships between veterans and area business leaders in an effort to have a meaningful impact upon both the veteran's career search process and the executive's leadership development.
"Both [Andrew and I] thought connecting people to people was the best thing we could do," Kinross-Wright says.
The two started by recruiting. In search of mentors, they started reaching out to friends and social contacts. To find mentees, they looked for recent conflict veterans that wanted to get into a business career of some sort. After meeting with all of the mentees and mentors individually, they made mentorship pairs based on interests and experience.
In addition to the meetings between the mentors and veterans, Borene and Kinross-Wright also organized a number of group events. One featured chaplain John Morris from the National Guard, who spoke to business mentors about the characteristics of a veteran. He also helped dispel some of the myths about veterans and provided helpful ways for mentors to ask veterans about their experience. Program participants also gathered periodically in groups to share what was going on, best practices they had discovered, and what they were learning through their meetings with one another.
"Opening up the communication was really important," Kinross-Wright says. "I also think connecting individuals that can help mentor or guide is so helpful—that's truly the way the world works. As a career professional, that's the most powerful thing I can do for someone."
Mentors were asked to respond to the veterans' questions, provide advice on networking, and help connect the veterans as appropriate, as well as give feedback on job search skills. And on the other side, the hope was that the veterans would bring significant value to business leaders through sharing about their experience in the military, as well as their unique perspectives on decision-making, change management, leadership, and planning.
After meeting Borene at a White House business conference and seeing his energy for the VetXecutive program, Joan Humes—deputy general counsel for investigations and litigations at Medtronic—was on board to be a mentor. "[Andrew's message] is around that it's a huge benefit for the business community to deploy these resources of people who have been in stressful situations and have a disciplined way of problem-solving," Humes says. "And why would that not translate into the success of business?"
Humes was paired with Mike Conroy, who served as a U.S. Marine from 1991 to 1995 and is a recent MBA graduate of the U of M's Carlson School of Management. Conroy joined the VetXecutive program to meet more business contacts and help educate people in the business world on what veterans have to offer.
After serving with the Marines and working in law enforcement, Conroy decided to change careers and started pursuing his MBA. Through meetings with Humes, Conroy was able to understand his career path better by taking a more detailed look at things like the market size, career path options, salary, and competition in career areas he was interested in. Humes also helped him rule out some areas of business and look at others that he hadn't considered before.
The benefits of the mentorship went both ways. Through working previously with the Department of Justice, Humes had become familiar with military personnel. But through meeting with Conroy, the fact that great maturity gets developed in the military was reaffirmed for her. "As a manger, it's a great relief to work with people who are low-maintenance because they are problem-solvers and know when to come to you with a problem."
Humes hopes that more businesspeople continue to participate in relationships with veterans, noting that they are a very skilled group of people who often don't have ways to connect directly and end up getting buried in a pile of resumes.
Darick Leach, a 13-year Marine veteran, joined the VetXecutive program to meet other business-minded people. Leach was paired with Paul Wagner, owner and CEO of Minnesota Wire, a small St. Paul–based manufacturing company. "I wanted to give back," Wagner says. "A lot of these guys come back and don't have jobs, but have leadership skills and great training."
Leach already had an idea of where he wanted to head in his career, but he still saw the value in building relationships with established business leaders. So, he often took the opportunity to extend the experience to other veterans by introducing them to Wagner.
Wagner also sees the value in such relationships. In fact, he's hired 15 veterans in the past four years, noting that their extreme life experiences and responsibility are assets to the work environment.
Leach adds that programs like VetXecutive are especially beneficial for veterans who are returning home for the first time. "They need that support," he says. "They left their home for multiple years and came back, and they don't have those relationships or a support network."
Although the VetXecutive program is over, Borene and Kinross-Wright hope that veterans and business leaders will continue building relationships and bridging the communication gap between the two worlds. Borene sees the disparities in terminology between the military and business worlds as one of the challenges for veterans seeking employment. For example, someone in the military might be trained and certified to perform a certain service, but that same service might not transfer over to the civilian world in the same way.
There is also, he says, a lack of knowledge of what military leadership is and what it brings to businesses. A hiring manager knows what an MBA is; however, he or she likely doesn't know how to assess the skills of someone who has military experience in bringing people together to accomplish a challenging mission. "They don't catch or understand the value that they're going to get by hiring a captain in the U.S. Army," Borene says.
Borene thinks that a big piece of the fix for challenges like this is going to be a shift in culture and leadership in the private sector, not necessarily a commitment to hire a certain number of veterans. It's important for business leaders to understand veterans and the ways in which they can help develop their skills for a certain industry.
And as a former Marine, Borene believes there are a number of transferrable skills that veterans can contribute to business leadership roles. "First of all, you have a batch of people who have proven that they are willing to volunteer and have no shortage of initiative," he says.
Borene also notes that veterans have the ability to organize tasks with cross-functional teams. They have had to adapt to changing situations very quickly, so many veterans have become good at improvising and adapting. They also have the ability to integrate into teams and take on new mission sets without waiting for orders.
But for many veterans, self-promotion in the workplace runs counter-intuitive to what they're used to, Borene explains. By talking to people who are embedded in the business world, the mentees were able to look at ways to handle the difficult aspects of self-promotion and marketing themselves—not something encouraged in the military.
Through the program, Borene also saw the challenges veterans have with converting their experience into a language that's meaningful for someone in the business sector. "It's hard to read bullet points written in a military perspective," he explains. "Trying to cross the template becomes difficult."
By opening the lines of communication between veterans and business executives, the VetXecutive program was able to raise awareness about the value that veterans can bring to a business situation. And at the same time, veterans were able to get advice and feedback about how to transition into the civilian workforce.
"For me, [the program] validated that connecting people to other people was a good idea," Kinross-Wright says. "Some of our mentors and mentees have made connections for life because of their affinity for the military."
With the VetXecutive pilot program complete, Kinross-Wright and Borene are directing interested people to another organization, American Corporate Partners (ACP). Founded in 2008, the nonprofit connects veterans with business executives as a way to help them join the civilian workforce. Headquartered in New York, ACP works with 50 participating institutions and has 2,000 veterans paired up in mentoring relationships around the country. One of ACP's hubs is in the Twin Cities, where it administers mentorships between veterans and about 100 business executives from General Mills, Cargill, and Best Buy.
"Our staff takes great care to have a personal phone call with each applicant," says ACP operations associate Ginna Baker. "We make all of the pairings by hand, and our staff takes the time to think about who would be the best fit."
To get involved with ACP, visit acp-usa.org to fill out an application. And for those business professionals not employed at one of the three participating Twin Cities corporations, visit advisornet.org to join ACP's online community for veterans and business professionals.