Tepper Take: Translating Military Skills To An MBA World

M1A2 Bradley Crew when Scott Mentzer (Center) was a First Lieutenant

“Thank you for your service…we’re going to move on to the behavioral questions.”

That’s what an HR Recruiter told me right after I walked her through my resume. As a veteran in an MBA program, there is a feeling of dread that runs down my spine when I hear this. That’s because I know I’m not likely to get the position. “Thank you for your service” is usually a sign that recruiters understood so little of what you said, they just want to say something nice and get the interview over with.

Still, I’ll play their game. I’ll look at the clock knowing that the next 28 minutes are going to be more grueling than any ruck march or field training exercise I’ve ever done. I’m going to have to explain and translate building a military defense in the middle of the desert into Fortune 500 speak and hope they think that somehow qualifies me to be a consultant.

Scott Mentzer and his platoon when he was promoted out of the position and giving him a going away award.

The bottom line is it is hard to switch careers. For veterans, it can be even more challenging. The business world and the military world have different skillsets, cultures, and purposes. Success in business is generally measured is profit, while military success is based on its ability to protect the nation and win its wars. My stressful day in the military makes look losing money look fun — and my trips to Vegas confirm this fact. So, the challenge for me has been this: How do I take my experiences where money wasn’t a priority, and show employers they should trust me with their bottom line? This is where the discomfort starts because this leads to imposter syndrome. Despite my successes in business school, I can sometimes feel more at home planning the clearing of a minefield than building a business plan.

There are many skills I gained as a veteran that translate extremely well to the business world. I just needed to learn how to better position them to prospective employers. Bridging this gap wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination. However, there were some key things I did along the way that made it a lot easier, ultimately helping recruiters to understand my worth as a former Army Engineer and enabling me to get some offers.

Pathfinder School: Scott directing a helicopter to pick up equipment

Find Veteran Mentorship: There are many veterans who have successfully made the switch to careers in business, and they know how hard it is to transition. Most are willing to talk to other veterans to help them avoid the mistakes they made and take advantage of the lessons they learned. There are two easy ways that I’ve found to get in touch with these veterans. First, Linkedin is your best friend; it makes it incredibly easy to find veterans already in your network or at schools and companies where you are interested in going. You can qualify for a free year of Linkedin Premium as a veteran and learn how to leverage its search tools by clicking here. Second, there are veterans’ clubs or affinity groups at almost every company or MBA program. Reach out to and network with them. I am one of my Veterans Club admissions officers and talk to prospective veteran students all the time about how to apply and get admitted.

Here’s the great thing about reaching out to these veterans: if you’re like me, you can get so many of your “dumb” questions and mistakes out of your system. For example, at the start of the process, I would ask myself, “What’s the point of coffee chats? Do they even matter?”. Sure enough, I showed up without any prepared questions and just suffered through the awkward zoom calls with people I’d never met. Often, when these moments arose, I would see a glint in a veteran’s eye, and he or she would then just start imparting knowledge, telling me what people are looking for and why I should have questions prepared. Clearly, most veteran’s have been in my shoes and knew how to help me understand what pieces of the puzzle I was missing. Whether it was learning what a referral for an interview was or how the interview processes work at different companies, I soon started to realize how little I knew about getting a “real” job outside of the military. I owe a lot of my success to networking with veterans who broke things down into very simple terms, or “Barney-style” as we say in the Army, so I could gain the wisdom they wanted to impart.

Scott jumping out of a helicopter at Pathfinder School.

Find Your Data Experiences: Recruiters, in my experience, typically want to hear two types of stories in an interview: Leadership and Data stories. Leadership stories are a walk in the park for veterans; we live and breathe that in the service. However, data stories are going to be more difficult to formulate. It isn’t that veterans don’t use data, it’s that the data is called something different most of the time. When training, we have a variety of different intel reports, equipment details and capabilities, topographical maps, and logistics information. Those are all different data sources that can easily be used to create data stories to go with leadership stories.

I’ll give an example from my own career and specialty. I specialized in combat engineering in the military. In its simplest terms, this is getting your forces where they need to go while denying the opposing force the same capability. So, whether it’s building a bridge or creating obstacles (which could involve blowing up said bridge or building ditches big enough to stop tanks) I was the expert in how to plan, manage, and teach it. At times, as a combat trainer in the Mojave Desert, I had over a hundred soldiers and multiple bulldozers building defensive obstacles spread across a 25 square mile area, using only a radio, map, and notebook to coordinate and track work progress. With these basic tools, inputs, and a little historical data on construction work rates, I could create efficiency metrics which gave me the wherewithal to coach commanders and ensure they were ready for when the training forces rolled over the desert mountains to bear down on their positions.

When I got to business school, I had no idea this would be my big data story, but that was simply due to never thinking about it as a data story or anything groundbreaking. I was simply doing what I was trained to do, which was to be smart and disciplined to achieve a complex mission. That story alone, though, has multiple data types that include geospatial, time and communications and a detailed analysis to create efficiency metrics. Is it regression or AI? No, but framed in the right way with the right language, employers could take away that I could use data from many sources and make tools that in turn enable decision-making. It takes time to go back through these memories and reframe them with data in mind, but it will pay dividends in the future. The next challenge is making sure you’re understood during the interview.

ROTC cadre at Purdue with Scott’s championship-winning group at a military skills competition

Find Someone Clueless About The Military: Once you’ve developed those stories, practice your responses in conditions that best replicate the situation you’ll be in during an interview. Most times, you are going to be interviewing with someone who knows little about the military. Worse, what they do know is probably from playing Call of Duty or the movies (which aren’t known for their realistic depictions of the military). So, when you practice interviewing, find the person you know with the least military experience possible and walk through your resume and practice interview questions with them. Then ask for their feedback and what they understood about your experience. If their understanding is way off from what you thought you were saying, you need to continue to work hard to translate and simplify until they understand the big points you are trying to convey. Once you have that, it’s more likely that a recruiter is going to understand what you are saying and will give you a fighting chance in the interview.

There are a couple common misunderstandings you should be on the look out for from my experiences. First, there is almost always going to be confusion about what level of responsibility I had and how it lined up with a civilian equivalent management position. I came to find out most people don’t know how many people are in a platoon or a company or what the responsibilities of being a leader of either of those entail. I personally could not tell you what the Air Force or Naval equivalents of those are, so this translation is imperative for every veteran to do. I often explain that a platoon is 30-40 people and when I led one, I was responsible for everything: their schedules and how they trained, their workout routines, what equipment they used, and (at times) even when they slept and what they ate. When I break it down like that, it is generally understood that I can manage a lot of things for a lot of people.

Scott Mentzer

Another misunderstanding I ran into commonly was people thought I had very little to do with my own success. This comes from the habit that I and many military leaders are taught: give credit to others. This is a great thing to do as a leader, but not so great to do in an interview. As a result, the interviewer might get the impression that you didn’t do much to achieve your career success, which rarely is the case. So, when you answer a practice interview question, it might be good to ask the other person to repeat back what they thought your actions were in the story you gave. This way, you can get a sense of whether you are taking the right amount of credit or not during an interview. While most of us veterans had great units, it doesn’t mean we didn’t work hard to lead or be part of that team; it pays to really think through what we contributed to the mission’s success. Conveying this could be what gets you the offer at your dream firm at the end of the day.

Keep up the hard work and more tips to come There is so much to dive into when it comes to transitioning to an MBA and business career from the military. Stay tuned for more articles on Poets & Quants about that (and many more topics) in the future. Feel free to follow me at Linkedin for future articles and updates.

Bio: I’m just a kid from Youngstown, Ohio who’s trying to make it in the world as part of full-time MBA Class of 2022 in the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. I’m an aspiring consultant and U.S. Army Reserve Commander who spent 8 years as an active duty engineer officer following my graduation from West Point in 2012. My professional interests are leadership, marketing, technology, entertainment, and finance. I also love the outdoors whether that’s hiking, running, or mountain biking. The rest of my spare time is spent watching football and hockey or finding the next great restaurant or dive bar in Pittsburgh. 

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