When Scott Jensen, 52, retired as a Marine Corps colonel after 27 years in the military, he made a smooth transition into the nonprofit sector, taking on leadership roles in several organizations.
When Jensen decided recently to start a leadership consulting firm, however, he realized that he would need to adopt a different mindset than he had learned in either previous career. The life of an entrepreneur is much less structured, and there’s no training or preparation for the unexpected, as in the military.
“My entire adult life I had a plan, I had a job, everything was set up for me,” says Jensen, who lives in a bucolic town near Fredericksburg, Va. “I knew where my money was coming from, I had my medical insurance. Taking a leap and starting my own company can be frightening.”
What helped Jensen forge ahead with his business, Alpine Global Solutions, was a book called Beyond the Military by Jason Roncoroni, a retired Lieutenant Colonel who is founder of Ordinary Hero Coaching, and Shauna Springer, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and expert on initiatives that benefit the military community. The book, styled on the decision-making process taught in the military, addresses often undiscussed aspects of transitioning out of the service, such as health and wellness, economic stability and long-term professional development, using guided exercises to help veterans get clearer on what matters to them in their future career.
“It helped me think about what was important to me, beyond bringing in a weekly paycheck,” Jensen says.
Recently, I asked Roncoroni and Springer for their advice for other veterans looking to start a business. Here are some of their tips.
Know your options. When service members transition out of the military, they may not anticipate the sense of loss they will feel when leaving what functions almost as a family system.
“It’s an attachment wound of the highest order,” says Springer. “The transition is extremely stressful. Military members tell me it’s like a punch in the gut. Their life gets thrown into a blender.”
That can lead to hasty career decisions. “When psychologically stressed, they do the most expedient thing—take another job with structure,” says Springer. “They foreclose other options. It’s a matter of chance, rather than choice.”
Becoming aware of this tendency can help veterans step back from the situation and open their mind to other options, such as starting a business, so they can realize their full potential, the authors find.
“To start a business, you have to be inspired,” says Roncoroni. “You have to have a sense of positive energy to bring it to life. That means restructuring beliefs so you can see opportunities.”
Use your fitness reports as a resource. Military members who’ve served 10 years or more have a library of feedback that reveals their strengths in the form of the “fitness reports” they receive, say Ronconi and Springer. Fitness reports contain input from supervisors on how well they fulfill their position or rank.
“One thing we ask them to do in the handbook is to go through the fitness reports and pull out the words that point to their strengths,” says Roncoroni.
That exercise can bring valuable self-knowledge at a time when a veteran may be in the midst of an identity crisis. The strengths their past supervisors have seen often open a window to values they may not realize they have. “A strength is a value in action,” says Roncoroni.
This self-knowledge can help point transitioning military personnel to a type of business that will be personally meaningful—and inspire them to actually start it. “If you don’t know who you are and can’t identify your values, it’s really difficult to have faith you can create a business on your own,” Roncoroni says.
Unlock your potential. As Roncoroni and Springer note in Beyond the Military, it’s important to focus on “empowering beliefs” – like “I believe that I can grow a successful business on my own” instead of “limiting beliefs, like, “I cant’ start my own business because I don’t have the education or business acumen to be successful.”
One way for veterans to develop an emplowered mindset is to seek guidance from others, such as advisors in nonprofit entrepreneurship programs and successful entrepreneurs in the community, Roncoroni and Springer advise. “They have to get the right type of mentoring,” Springer says.Machin McHargue did just that. She will retire from a 23-year career in the Army in April, one she started 13 days after graduating from high school. She is already working on a business built around her passion for woodworking in her garage in Georgetown, Texas.
One thing that helped her ramp up quickly was hiring a business coach to help her plan for her transition. She also worked through the exercises in Beyond the Military. Those efforts gave Machin—who initially pondered the idea of a corporate career—the confidence that pursing her woodworking business, M&M Custom Woodcarving, was the right path.
To make the move possible financially, her wife, formerly a freelance writer, took a corporate job—they have two small children—and McHargue plans to stretch her startup resources as much as she can. “I’m not mortgaging my house to do this,” McHargue says. “I’m doing it out of my garage with the tools I already have, leveraging the talent I have.”
She also plans to start a carpet cleaning business, to supplement the woodworking business. The military offers a mandatory transition program with an entrepreneurship track, where she’s hoping she’ll soon have an opportunity to work on the business plan for that venture.
That program hasn’t started yet, but in the meantime, she’s diving into the woodworking business. “I woke up this morning at 5 am and was working in my garage,” she says.