BTU #105 - Nathan Smith: Marines to COO at Hire Heroes USA

“If you don't have a narrow vision of what you want so that you can focus, if you're open to everything - which is the infamous line we get from most of the people we work with: 'I'll move anywhere and do anything' - they think that makes it easier to help them find a job, whereas it's actually the exact opposite. What we need is for you to narrow down and focus. Align with mentors, align with organizations like [Hire Heroes USA], and together we can overcome this structural divide between an all-volunteer force and society that less and less knows what the all-volunteer force goes through." - Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is the Chief Operating Officer at Hire Heroes USA - which provides free, expert career coaching and job sourcing to hundreds of transitioning U.S. military members, veterans and military spouses each week, and over 16k veterans and spouses since 2007. He started out at the Virginia Military Institute, after which he served in the Marine Corps for seven years as an Infantry Officer. After his transition from the Marine Corps, he started at Hire Heroes USA as a Deputy Director, and was subsequently promoted to Executive Director and then most recently, Chief Operating Officer

The top 2 reasons to listen to this episode is:

  1. Great Resource for AllVeterans: Hire Heroes USA is a free organization for veterans and their families. They pair you with a mentor and work with you until you find what you're looking for. He has great thoughts on using volunteering as a way to gain momentum and connection as you may your transition
  2. Operations & non-profits: both of these are great fields for veterans. Non-profits seem to provide the camaraderie, small community, and purpose-driven organization that appeals to veterans. Operation is also highly suited to most veterans. Nathan talks about his experience as Chief Operations Officer, as well as non-profits, and why veterans may love each of these.

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Show Notes

Note: I've typed these notes during my interview, so they may not completely represent a verbatim version of our conversation, and likely contain spelling and grammar errors. My intention is to provide veterans with a quick reference to see the gist of our conversation, along with timestamps to hear the interviewees actual advice in their own words within the interview.

  • 3:20 - Nathan's bio
  • Hire Heroes
    • 4:26 - What would you want listeners to know about Hire Heroes USA?
      • This is a best in class organization in the country, working with transition veterans and families. There are bigger organizations but none better. They individually assign people who come to them to a transition specialist; they are with them until they have a great outcome - education, fulltime job, etc.
      • 5:28 - If someone listening is on active duty, how would they get involved with Hire Heroes?
        • 90% of what they do is virtual - it's the most cost efficient and effective way to help people. So they can help people in ANY geographic location. As a result, the main way that people come to the program is through their website. If you click on the Services tab and sign up online, you'll start in the queue to get involved with a transition process. There are also workshops throughout the US (50-60 per year) on or near military bases.
        • 6:54 - If someone listening is a few years out of active duty, how could they get involved?
          • Whether it's pre-separation or post-separation; looking to help other veterans or get advice, there's a LOT of resources - interview skills, resume help. They have over 600 volunteers as well who are mentors for their clients, so there is a way to get involved here.
          • 8:20 - What are some common challenges you see veterans face in their transition?
            • The #1 challenge across all services is a lack of knowledge. No active duty member has made the transition before so there's a lot of fear and anxiety about this. The military does a great job of teaching people to operate in a dangerous environment and trains them in a step-by-step way with accountability, professional development, and knowledgable workers alongside them. But this isn't the case in the civilian sector. So many veterans don't understand what is out there and how to tell their story on the outside.
            • 10:25 - What are some common misconceptions you see veterans have when they approach their transition?
              • Veterans are more heavily represented in the government than any demographic in the United States. Disable veterans are even more represented than other veterans in the government. Often this is because these organizations recruit from the military and it is a familiar path for veterans. But this might not be the best fit for each veteran.
              • A lot of veterans also go into contract jobs, and there's a lot of recruitment around this. There are great opportunities here. however, if you're going to be offered $100k+ to do security in Afghanistan, you need to consider why the pay is 3X higher than when you were in the military, often due to increased risk. Large $ doesn't always translate into great job opportunities.
              • Do you need to take a step down for income and responsibility when you leave? It depends. It's situationally dependent. There are many people who transition out and are far better off than when in the military. There are also an equal number who had to take a significant step back when they transitioned out. It depends on what your personal financial situation is- you may not be able to take that step back or step down. Or you may not have an earning opportunity that meets your financial requirements - you'll need to live lean and make the most of things in the meantime.
              • Unlike the military, that has antiquated personnel stations and promotions systems, most civillian environments are not this way. Positions open up and you'll likely find more flexibility.
              • Formal education with a degree at the end of it tends to be a great option for most people. He encourages people not to use the GI bill to delay a career decision - it helps you figure out things, but most people benefit from making a decision soon. Many career paths do require a degree. To be competitive you'll need this so it's good to plan - talk to people on the outside, talk to Hire Heroes people and they can help with these sorts
              • Hire Heroes demographics resembles the US Militaries - they are over represented in the federal government. Healthcare and IT are always in the top 5 for people they work with; security is also up there, but they also find that veterans go into client facing or customer service facing roles in any type of job (not just service industries) since they get along with a lot of people.
              • Another area to consider is teaching and non-profits. It's an alternative to working in government that is mission driven and a way of given back and very value driven. There are often veterans who are coaches, teachers, and non-profit executives. It can be very rewarding and very flexible, but you also get exposure into other sections of the US that you might not get in Oil&Gas for instance.
              • 21:37 - This is from a friend of mine, but if there is a veteran in our life who is facing challenges in their career (let’s say over a year of unemployment), what are ways that their friends can be most helpful?
                • It's a big challenge - this is his full-time job is to help other veterans. What people don't need is a lot of "do this" and "don't do this" they need faith, coaching and someone on their side. But they're also advocates of tough love. They love to hire veterans because they understand the situation of other veterans. There's a big role to coaching, and an understanding that there are things going on beyond just the professional situation. There are almost certainly other factors if someone is long-term unemployed. To get some early wins you could suggest volunteer opprotutnies - rather than the pressure of finding the right job, think of what the person enjoys and try to find that in a volunteer capacity. coaching and helping at high schools; volunteer in way that gets them engaged, builds their confidence and gets them past the momentary lapse.
                • As a reminder, Hire Heroes is completely free, no charge whatsoever. They're not in receipt of government funding - they are funded through donations and foundations who believe in the value of what they are doing.
                • Nathan
                  • 27:02 - How would you describe what you do as COO to someone on active duty?
                    • He allocates scarce resources to accomplish goals
                    • A lot of what he does is bread and butter leadership - he enjoys it and learned it in the Marine Corps. He has other managers reporting to him, and half of a given day is working with a manager to solve personnel issues, discuss ideas for a new program, figuring out adjustments to make and problems to solve. IT's being done in conjunction with other highly capable individuals. It's a neat environment of collaboratively environment. Always focused on the clients.
                    • Other parts are related to developing products, reviewing marketing material, reviewing the budget, formalizing job descriptions. One thing nice about working about a company with less than 100 people is that the COO is involved in everything.
                    • 31:09 - How did you make the decision to leave the Marine Corps?
                      • There were a number of factors. he did his initial four years, and was coming off a difficult deployment in Iraq in the summer of 2006-2007; there was one casualty per week on average. Fortunately things changed on the cusp of the surge, but it was a very difficult experience. At the time, he felt like he was not going to do a full career. But he also knew he didn't have anything setup to do next. So he signed up to do three more years doing security in the Seattle area. It was great to continue service and also have time - he didn't find a wife or a career, but he DID stay in contact with the president of Hire Heroes. Nathan asked him - what should I look to do, and that's when he found out about Hire Heroes and the opportunity there.
                      • 33:30 - What was your first job search like, and how did you end up at Hire Heroes USA?
                        • It was a very stressful year - even though I intended to get out at the end of 3 years and had a set date, I didn't plan well and focused on my current role. Some was fear based, and some was not knowing what to do. He waited for something to come up and it was an ineffective way to move towards a transition. He lost about 10 lbs in his last year in the Marine Corps and realized it was all due to stress.
                        • So he started reaching out to friends and fellow Marines, shared his resume and got direct (though harsh) feedback. And this is how he found his current role. He had another offer of working on base, and he went with the one he knew and trusted and was inspired by the mission.
                        • 36:30 - What are some signs that a veteran may like working at a non-profit, and that they may like a COO role?
                          • He was fortunate to do both. There are plenty of operational roles outside of non-profits, and operational roles outside of COO. If you're going to a large company, they won't hire a COO straight out of the military. you need to know your skills and where it fits in. For him it was a perfect fit - joining a 7 person non-profit, and grow it to over 90 full time employees over 7 years. He was able to grow alongside the organization.
                          • That said, most NCOs and officers will have the leadership experience - you just have to marry it with some skill sets. Budgeting, quickbooks, salesforce CRM or something like that... these are good and important technical skills.
                          • It was appealing to me to be able ot be nimble like a startup and constantly improve but also be on the non-profit side. We work with scarce resources and solve tough problems for people,.
                          • 39:45 - What resources - books, programs, conferences, etc - have you found helpful in your civilian career that you would recommend to veteran listeners?
                            • he was fortunate leaving the Marine Corps that the University Of Georgia had a great program of a Master's of Public Adminitration as a 3 year program (instead of 2) while working full time. It was mutaully beneficial between employement and educaiton. What he learned on the job he shared with classmates; what he learned in school he used to help the non profit. This helped a lot with non-prfit budgeting and grant writing. You can read books on this but he was more comforable being taught it.
                            • The second was learning from people who are doing. He put his head down for Quickbooks and bugeting and having people beteter than him around him. He realized none of it is complex - there are things that are very complex, but most non-profits you need to be able to learn and the himilty to know you don't know everything.
                            • 43:17 - Final words of wisdom?
                              • He would recommend a book that is co-authored by General Mattis - Warriors and Citizens. Is there a gap between the miltiary and teh civiilan sector. There are structural challenges related to transition -it's not jsut that companies don't appreciate the military. There are a lot more structural elements taht won't be solved by governement transition programs or even non-profits. There are plenty of resources out ther eand people on your side, but ifyou don't have a narrow vision of what you want so you can focus - if you're open to everything - you need to be focused to find what you want.