Back to class, part 3: the Ruehlin Associates Career Transition Seminar

Here we go for a third time- back into the interesting realm of transition training and education.  As the title indicates this is the third post that specifically address the classes, symposia, and seminars that I attended as part of the formal transition process.

Today’s post is about the Ruehlin Associates Career Transition Seminar (called just “Ruehlin” for short) which I was very fortunate to be able to attend.  The reason that I say that I was fortunate to attend is because enrollment is limited to around 15 participants (with spouses encouraged to attend), and the target audience is the most senior of the courses that I attended.  Not strictly limited to military people, it is also designed for senior government employees from the civil service who are retiring.  Their target audience, as shown on their website, is centered on that select group of senior people:

‘Many activities offer the seminar to senior officers (O-5 and above), senior enlisted (E-8 and above) and senior civil service (GS-14 and above) who are within a year or two of retirement, or who are on a known countdown. Nearly everyone who attends the course says, “Should have had this five years ago!” That might be too early, but the point is valid…people make gross errors and waste a lot of time because they miss opportunities or find that they have been “shopping in the wrong mall.” We believe 12 to 18 months out is a good target.’

The blurb on their website was on the money.  I wish that I had been able to attend the course at least a year earlier than the short seven months remaining to my separation date.  Even though I attended the session relatively late in the proposed timeline it was still worth every minute that I spent in the course. The Ruehlin course is a little different from the TAP/TAMP and 25+ Pre-Retirement courses, however.  The course is not offered through the base education or career center, but instead is a special opportunity offered by larger units and commands.  It is not a government or military symposium, but instead a private enterprise that specializes on assisting with the transition of senior military and civilian government servants.  In short, it is a professional course put on by a top-notch company that specializes in transitioning senior people.  It is a job that Ruehlin and Associates are very good at.

My personal opportunity to participate in the seminar came up as I made my plans to depart the service known.  I had heard about many of the educational opportunities available during transition, but the Ruehlin was a new one to me.  I had heard about it, but in typical hard charger fashion I didn’t pay any attention and as a result was ignorant of the great opportunity that the course presented.  At any rate, I made it onto an email list of interested parties (i.e., those on the way out or those smart enough to ask if they could get on the list well ahead of their retirement date) and was soon assured a spot at the table for the next course.  Since it is only offered a couple of times per year in my command I considered myself very fortunate to have made the list.  As I would learn, my good fortune was truly immense- as with the other courses I learned lessons that paid off immediately in addition to those that I will be putting to use for the rest of my life.

The focus of the Ruehlin course is identical to all of the other courses in one regard; that being that it is designed to prepare people like me who are leaving the service for life after we hang up our uniforms.  Ruehlin is very different, however, in its fine tuned focus and rigorous execution.  Where TAP/TAMP focused on the mechanics of transition and the 25+ centered on what the business world is like, Ruehlin pinpoints the process of getting a job.  The other two courses did fantastic work on more of a macro level, which dovetails nicely with Ruehlin’s laser-tight emphasis on the employment process.

Soon after I was selected to attend the course a plain brown envelope arrived in my mailbox.  A little puzzled, I opened it up and out fell a green booklet and a letter.  The letter was an introduction and welcome aboard for the upcoming session, and the book was a little homework exercise that proclaimed in bold capital letters:




That got my attention.  Very authoritative!  So did the last bit at at the bottom of the page:




What I found inside was a series of assignments unlike any I had seen in a long time.  There were about a dozen sections in the book and each contained a worksheet of sorts.  They weren’t like calculus word problems or anything really difficult, but instead were simple exercises designed to pull a little bit of information from the respondent (me!) about him or her self.  They all had a common theme, though, which quickly became evident.  One section focused on my career- not just what I had been doing in the military, but what would I like to do next?  Another section delved into education, and another looked at organizations and affiliations that I may be partial to.  It also had a memo for the spouse, which was not just a nice touch.  It brought into distinct focus that transition is not a solitary activity; everything that I would do from now on would be inextricably linked to my spouse.  A great and sometimes forgotten point.  So, with a little trepidation and a couple of sharp pencils, I sat down to fill out the blanks and learn a little about myself.

Not long after completing my exercise with the green book it was time to go to class.  It began at 0730 on Monday morning, and was scheduled through Friday.  The dress code was listed as Business Casual, which may as well have been top hats and tails for all I knew.  After a quick search on the internet, I found that the expectation was a collared shirt and slacks with jacket and tie optional.  Sweet!  Not a problem, since I had all of those things.  Thanks to my friends from the 25+ Pre-Retirement seminar, they even matched.  A sharp dressed man indeed!

I arrived at the class which was being held at conference room on base.  I stepped into what I supposed to be a business meeting of short-haired professionals approaching middle age; everyone seemed to be in their forties.  We all were dressed pretty similarly in the uniform yet non-uniformity of “business casual”, with business suits, sports coats, and button down collared shirts as far as the eye could see.  There was a lady with us as well, and she was as smartly dressed as the men.  I saw a few faces that looked familiar, and we chatted a bit as we waited for the class to start.

Promptly at 0730 a thoroughly professional gentleman closed the door and we began our shared journey through the seminar.  He was our facilitator, and like us had completed a full career in the military, retiring as a Navy Captain (which in the Navy is the senior paygrade of O-6, whereas in the Army and Marine Corps a captain is a much more junior O-3) after about three decades of service.  He shared that he worked in a large corporation in an industry that was related to his military background, but that he found transition to be a bit daunting.  He joined Ruehlin and Associates in the mid 1990’s, and had been leading seminars actively since then.  He was very experienced and a thoroughly smooth and professional facilitator.  He was aided in the course by a very good powerpoint slide package that he very professionally and smoothly presented.  In addition, he handed each of a large red book titled What’s Next?  This would be our notebook, hymnal, and Rosetta Stone all rolled into one; it was a comprehensive, well written, and very useful book that took the information presented in the daily seminar to the next level.  In fact, it is such a useful reference that I still keep it on my desk at home and refer to it often as I work on my resume or pursue job opportunities.

One of the first things he shared was John Ruehlin’s story.  He retired from the navy as a Rear Admiral, which is no small feat!  What he found upon retirement, however, was that the lofty office of admiralship did not seamlessly transfer to civilian employment.  Despite his impressive accomplishments and mountains of experience he had garnered through his successful career he couldn’t find a job.  He was unprepared to enter the private sector, and went through a very humbling period of months and months as the impact of transition fully settled in.  After many months of failing to find a job, he had a chance encounter with with a fellow beach-goer while he was attending a cocktail party.  They chatted, and the result of the conversation was a phone number that John could call- his new found friend knew somebody who was looking for somebody like John.  After mulling it for a while, John followed up and called the number he received from his beach encounter, and as a result ended up in a very senior position with a multi-billion dollar bank.

The story is important, because it frames the the entire course.  John Ruehlin learned several things in his troubled transition, and those things became the central themes that we would be learning about and focusing on for the week:

– First and foremost nobody in the private sector really cares what you did in the military.  They care about what you can do for them in the business world.

– Transition is just that- it is transition from one phase of life to the other.  To be successful at it you must be fully prepared to move on.

– Getting a job or starting a new career takes a lot of work, and the best way to be successful is to treat it that way.

The course did an exceptional job of addressing each of those themes.  They were not presented as blocks of instruction, but instead where more like strands of a rope that were woven together through the weeklong course.  Each of the themes deserves a much more detailed explanation, so here goes….

– First and foremost nobody in the private sector really cares what you did in the military.  They care about what you can do for them in the business world.  That seems like a pretty brash statement, but it is true.  While in uniform we are all in a very homogeneous environment where we are surrounded by people just like us.  In the civilian world, that is simply not the case.  Civvie street can be broadly broken  down into two groups of people: social people and corporate people. Social people are friends, acquaintances, or pretty much anyone you meet outside a work context, while corporate people are those who can either offer you a job or know someone who can.  Social people will be interested in your service and will love to hear your sea stories, but corporate people are listening through different ears.  Corporate people want to know two things about you- can you make them money or can your save them money?  If the answer to one or both of those questions is yes, then there is job with them in your future.  If not, then you are just another military dude or dudette with a bunch of stories to tell.

The problem is that you really can’t tell the two groups apart most of the time.  So what do you do?  Stop telling sea stories?  No, because that has been your life for decades.  What we learned to do was to leverage our experiences and desires into any conversation with the goal of connecting with the corporate people.  This is known as networking, and networking is the most likely way that you will get a job!  Research shows that well over 75% of jobs are found interpersonal contacts, and that a tiny proportion are found in the classified ads in the newspaper.  Networking was a central and constant theme throughout the course, and it proved to be very effectively taught.

We worked on our ability to network through a series of academic exercises and roleplaying, we developed short sales-type pitches that we could use when when the opportunity presented itself.  Up to this point, most of us responded to the question “What are you going to do when you get out?” with “Get a real job…”  While that sounds witty, we learned that it was probably the dumbest thing we could say- it instantly discounted us as viable employees to corporate people, and that was certainly no way to get a job!  To overcome this, we crafted a “thirty second sound bite”, which is referred to as an “elevator introduction”, and it is intended to be used when you have a brief amount of time, for example the interval it takes an elevator to move between floors, to introduce yourself, present your credentials, and articulate what line of work you would like to go into.  A more in-depth version is the “two-minute opener”, which expands on the three components of the elevator introduction.  This one is used at job interviews when you are asked about yourself or when you have a conversation with someone and they would like to know more about you.

– Transition is just that- it is transition from one phase of life to the other.  To be successful at it you must be fully prepared to move on.  This is a bit more philosophical, but it is critically important.  Our facilitator told us anecdote after anecdote about people who were just like us that had a miserable time because they never could fully transition.  Examples are the hard charger who cannot let go of the lingo; dropping the “F” bomb in every other sentence at a job interview is a guaranteed way to remain unemployed.  Another is refusing to embrace little things like fashion by wearing horribly outdated or inappropriate attire to an interview or networking opportunity.  You don’t have to look like you stepped out of GQ or Glamour, but you shouldn’t wear the polyester leisure suit you wore to your senior prom either.  One of the most common problem, however, is clinging to the past.  Your career was a great one, but you will be hired for what you can do in the future for the company, not what you did in the military.  The course does a remarkable job of putting your career into a context that it can be a positive and integral part of building your future career instead of having it be the anchor that keeps you from moving forward.

– Getting a job or starting a new career takes a lot of work, and the best way to be successful is to treat it that way.  In the first morning of class we were all introduced to our newest job title: each and every one of us became the Director of Marketing for the company that was ourselves.  We learned that in order to get a job or start a new career we needed to be able to let the world know we were available and potential assets to businesses, and that nobody besides ourselves was going to make that happen.  Ruehlin has an incredibly organized and effective program to teach us how to accomplish this in a few short days, and I what I learned fundamentally changed how I viewed life after the Marine Corps.  We learned to critically assess ourselves in order to learn what our strengths and weaknesses are.  Based on those, we analyzed what we would be good at, and more importantly, what we wanted to do (that was an epiphany for me- I was so used to doing the same line of work that I had never seriously considered anything else!) in the future.  We learned the ins and outs of building a network, including little things like what our business card should look like (don’t hand out your old military card!), the aforementioned introductions, and tips such as what to do when somebody give you their business card (write down a little about them so that you will remember who they are and why they gave you the card).

The meat of the course was spent on resumes.  We learned how terrible ours were (and mine was really bad!) and how to write effective ones that would result in a job offer.  We learned how to write the many types of business correspondence, such as cover letters, thank you notes, references, and responses to job offers as well.  We learned how to write the three basic types of resumes – chronological, functional, and combination – but focused mainly on the combination style (I will be posting extensively in the future about resumes- don’t worry!)  Writing a good resume is a lot harder than I had thought.  It requires a lot of introspection, a lot of research, and a lot of analysis.  Anybody can write a love letter to themselves that says how great they are, but that won’t land them a job.

We also spent no small amount of time on the the mechanics of getting hired.  Resumes will get you an audition, but it’s your performance gets you a spot in the band.  We learned about the etiquette of the interview (be early, but not too early; smell nice, but not like a gigolo on the prowl;  dress like you want to get a job- professionally, not like a surfer dude fresh off some tasty waves) and the importance of the little things, like sending a thank-you note to show appreciation to the interviewer for his or her time.  It helps to do some research on the company that you are interviewing with, too.  If you can show your interviewer that you know more about his company than he does good things will happen.

The course was not just lectures and powerpoint presentations, either.  The facilitator took us through a series of practical exercises where we practiced our elevator pitches and how to interview, and he capped the week off with an hourlong one-on-one session with each participant.  He had the same offer for each of us- an hour of his time to talk about anything we wanted.  In my case, he scrutinized my resume (which had greatly improved thanks to his instruction and mentorship) and we talked about my future.  He pointed out something which I had not really considered- why even go back to work at all?  I had an opportunity to pursue higher education, so why not pursue it?  After all, I was going to be receiving a pension, which wasn’t enough to live on forever, but the GI Bill and other benefits offer some fantastic opportunities outside the traditional career path.  His candor and professionalism made quite an impression, and thanks to him I was able to look at my future from a different perspective.

I  have been truly fortunate to be able to participate in three different transition courses, and each provided a different perspective on the same important subject.  Ruehlin’s seminar taught us in great detail how to go out and get a job, which is a skill that every one of us in the class needed to learn.  More importantly, though, the course demystified the job search process and provided us with the tools to go out into the next great adventure.  In the words of Colonel Mike Frazier, another recent graduate:

“[T]he Ruehlin course was like the end of the Wizard of Oz movie–it pulled back the curtain on retirement.  Now it’s not a mysterious scary thing–it’s just a short fat guy pulling levers–or more accurately, an old bald guy getting organized to do a bunch of planning and networking–which like all field grades, I’m pretty good at doing.  It’s still a challenge, but now I know what I need to do and am much better prepared to attack post-USMC life vice my previous level of uncertainty…”

Well said.  And right on the money!

Lessons learned-

– The Ruehlin course is not offered everywhere, nor is it offered by all commands.  You may have to do some sleuthing around to find where it is being offered, but if you can find it the course is absolutely worth the time and effort.

– This course is complimentary to the TAP/TAMP and 25+ Pre-Retirement courses.  Although they all teach the same basic subject, their differing perspectives and areas of focus make each one incredibly valuable.  You cannot take advantage of enough educational opportunities, and the Ruehlin seminar is a certainly a great one.  It is not the only one, however, so make sure to take it in conjunction with as many other programs as possible.

– The focus of the course is on landing a job, more specifically landing a job while you are still on active duty.  They introduce the concept of the “Hot Window” for employment, which is a few months before your last day in the service.  It is the hot window because employers are not looking to fill positions much farther out than that, and the closer you get to your last government paycheck the more desperate you are likely to become.  To land a job interview and a follow on job offer in that window requires a lot of work, and the course shows you how to do it.

– Successful transition requires a lot more than taking off one set of clothes and putting on another.  There is a significant change in perspective required as well, not to mention a ton of work.  Many separating military people take the first job that they are offered, and in many cases it proves to be disastrous, or at least unsatisfying and unfulfilling.  You have a golden opportunity as you prepare to leave active duty- you can actively prepare for your next career while being supported to do so by your current line of work.  It isn’t the same in the corporate sector- job hunting on the clock at a civilian company would likely get you fired.  You are crazy if you don’t take advantage of all the opportunities available to you, including the excellent Ruehlin seminar!


2 responses to “Back to class, part 3: the Ruehlin Associates Career Transition Seminar

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