Corporate recruiters (a.k.a. headhunters) are an excellent means of job placement, because of their ready-made network of corporate clients and their inside information concerning job openings, interview preparation, and minimum-invested-time requirements. Unaware of civilian opportunities, I attended several popular junior officer headhunter conferences to learn about the career-placement process. The briefers provided excellent introductory information on opportunities in corporate America, general qualifications, and anticipated salary levels.
Most of them boasted of their success in preparing candidates for interviews during long weekends—paid for by the candidates. One headhunter, who was particularly proud of his firm's white-shoe reputation and screening process, told me that I had an outstanding resume and was qualified for any task. But he demanded I promise neither to pursue any openings through other firms or personal networking nor to express any geographic preferences.
His comments exposed the primary weakness of reliance on headhunters—the client clearly is not the job seeker; it is the company that foots the placement fees (typically 15-20% of starting salary). During this firm's career weekends, the headhunter actually selected companies he thought were a "good fit," based more on the likelihood of placement than the personal desires of the candidate.
Not all corporate recruiters operate by fiat. Through word of mouth, I met one who treated me like a valued friend instead of a commodity. This person listened to my requirements, and did his best to find opportunities that met my needs. Also, he did not ask for a sole-source guarantee, but encouraged me to use whatever means possible to identify the best job opportunities. He earned my trust and respect by being up front about his interests in placing me, and he remains a good friend today.
Any junior officer who is thinking of leaving the service should talk with a headhunter—if only to test the waters. Corporate recruiters are low-risk, ready-made job placement sources who have established track records with large companies. But don't feel pressured to commit exclusively. To own you, a headhunter should be prepared to guarantee a job in writing. The only professional obligation you have as an "employable body" is to notify the headhunter of any companies you contact independently, to avoid embarrassing overlap.
Remember, headhunters receive a fee only if they place you, and it is in their interest to place you where the fees are most readily available. Take advantage of the many corporate recruiting firms that specialize in military officers, but work to find a person you trust who will look after your own interest—and then take all advice with a grain of salt.
The Networked Search
The networked job search is something everyone should try because of its low cost (except perhaps in time) and potentially broader exposure than the headhunting experience. The networked search basically consists of two phases: information gathering and getting an interview. The key element in the process is relationship building. The networked search can be the best way to learn about various industries, meet interesting people, and polish presentation skills. Not all contacts lead to job offers, but many yield great career advice and gentle rudder orders. The following checklist outlines an outstanding way to contact companies not on corporate recruiters' lists:
Build your network : It is important to build a Rolodex of contacts who might help you in your job search. Many calls will yield nothing; but the systematic development of a database of contacts—searchable by categories such as friends from college, home, relatives, former shipmates—will greatly enhance your search. Understand that people you know also will know still other people, and that the initial goal of networking is getting more and more names.
Identify companies in a target industry or region : Once you have established a broad network, identify who has knowledge, or knows someone who has knowledge, in a targeted industry or region. There are many sources of information that can narrow your search, including:
- School alumni listings
- Alumni club events
- Former professors
- Former shipmates
- Periodicals including Fortune, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, etc.
- Career-search databases on the Internet
- Industry-specific directories and books
Establish a networking strategy : The key to successful networking is understanding your purpose-contacting someone for information or request for an interview. To do this, develop a list of contacts categorized into an A-list, B-list, and C-list, defined as:
- A-list: Sources that are positioned to influence your hire for a position you clearly want. You should present yourself as highly knowledgeable, focused, and unambivalent.
- B-list: Sources for specific information about a particular company about which you should already have general knowledge.
- C-list: Usually junior personnel, these people are sources of general information about an industry or company your chance to ask basic questions.
Grow your network : Once you have categorized your list of contacts, the goal is to establish a relationship, obtain information about a particular company or industry, and then grow your network. The ultimate goal is to generate an interview with someone from the A-list, who has the decision-making authority to offer you a job.
Work your contact : Sample questions to ask are:
- "Is there someone else with whom I should speak?"
- "Is there someone in that business unit who would be a good person to contact (for more information)?"
- "Who in your company is most knowledgeable about these issues?"
- "Is there someone outside your company whom you would recommend as well?"
Honor the networking rules of thumb :
- Respect your contact's time: Do your homework in learning about the company, and be friendly but professionally brisk.
- Send a resume and brief cover letter ahead.
- Be organized in your inquiry (prepare a script).
- Listen carefully.
- Thank your contact, and follow up immediately with a thank-you note.
Going Back to School
Going to graduate school to obtain a professional or technical degree is an option exercised by many junior officers. When exploring an advanced degree, carefully research the benefits, costs, and risks. Anecdotal evidence from my Naval Academy classmates suggests that technical degrees do not add significantly to starting salaries; rather, they tend to limit opportunities to a particular field or industry. The alternative, a professional degree such as a master of business administration or law degree, is the goal of many exiting officers. The actual information provided in various professional graduate programs may not differ significantly, but the opportunities and salary levels after graduation will vary widely from school to school.
Weigh carefully the real and opportunity costs of attending graduate school full time against the anticipated payoff upon graduation. I chose to take two years to get my MBA full-time, but several friends also have done very well attending graduate school at night while making a living and developing real-world skills. The choice is difficult, but any graduate degree will enhance a resume and help to develop marketable skills.
It must be noted that most graduate schools require standardized test results, so individuals interested in applying should plan ahead. In terms of applications, they are very similar to undergraduate applications, with essays, grade point average listings, and outlines of work experience. Contact individuals you know who recently attended the school or the school's armed forces alumni club for information on the school and best strategies for getting accepted. In most cases, officers have a rich bank of experience to bolster any application, and usually fare well against their civilian competition.
Transferring from the Navy to CivLant is not without risk or significant pain. Few companies offer the same camaraderie of the wardroom or the same sense of national commitment. The transition from being a respected player to apprentice novice also is difficult. It took me six months to feel comfortable in my new task and more than a year before I actually enjoyed the work. In addition, promising salaries seem to shrink rather quickly when exposed to higher housing, medical, and insurance costs.
In the determination of career choices, begin your research in time to make an educated decision. Should you decide to depart from the service, take pains to identify your personal goals, and use every resource available in order to make the transition to CivLant a positive experience. This process includes identifying long-term goals and plotting a career strategy that will most likely fulfill them. Do not worry too much—your first job out of the service probably will not be your last—and have confidence that your leadership experience will serve you well in whatever path you choose.
Mr. Kane is completing the MBA program at Harvard University in June. He graduated with distinction from the U.S. Naval Academy and holds an MA in National Security Studies from Georgetown University. He worked as an associate for a major northeast developer and as a senior consultant with KPMG Peat Marwick. His active duty assignments included a division officer tour on board the Kidd (DDG-963) and as Flag Lieutenant to Commander, Operational Test and Evaluation Force.