BTU #182 - 21+ Year Air Force Veteran to Executive Director at the Pat Tillman Foundation (Killjan Anderson)

I eclipsed 20 years of service while at the Air Force Academy. And I viewed my transition out of the military as process rather than a single event. And that would be my advice to transitioning veterans. You really have to start thinking about what things will look like after you get out more broadly than just ‘I need a job’. So I started looking at cities I wanted to live in and the type of work that I wanted to. I let those drive the process.
— Killjan Anderson

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Killjan Anderson is the Executive Director at the Pat Tillman Foundation, an organization that unites and empowers remarkable military veterans and spouses as the next generation of public and private sector leaders committed to service beyond self. He started his career in the United States Air Force, where he served for over 21 years, retiring as a Command Chief Master Sergeant. He holds an MBA from the Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business, and a B.S. in Management from the University of Maryland University College.

Why Listen: 

Kill not only has an incredible story of his own transition from the Air Force, but he is also the Managing Director of one of the preeminent Veteran support organizations - the Pat Tillman Foundation. We discuss his advice on career, passion, approaching a transition as a process rather than an event, the Pat Tillman Foundation and much, much more.

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Selected Resources: 

Transcript & Time Stamps:


Joining me today from Chicago is Killian Anderson. He is the Executive Director at the Pat Tillman Foundation. He started his career in the Air Force where he served over 20 years. He holds an MBA from the Mendoza School of Business at the University of Notre Dame and an undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland University College.

I was introduced to Killjan by Tim Hsia, one of the co-founders of Service to School. Tim spoke about Killian saying he was one of the smartest veterans in all of the veteran landscape. Kill and I were also both in San Francisco for a workshop that was put on by Service to School. We were also on a panel together during this event.


You retired after over 20 years in the Air Force. Can you talk to us a little more about that?

Sure. I eclipsed 20 years of service while stationed at the Air Force Academy. And I viewed my transition out of the military as process rather than a single event. And that would be my advice to transitioning veterans. You really have to start thinking about what things will look like after you get out more broadly than just ‘I need a job’. So I started looking at cities I wanted to live in and the type of work that I wanted to. I let those drive the process. It really does take extensive planning in advance.


Was there anything that helped you get a sense for what work you wanted to go into?

I was a Security Forces guy so most of my career was spent as a patrolman and dispatcher and then eventually moved into more of a manager role as a senior enlisted member. At around my 16 year mark, I was exposed to the Pat Tillman Foundation and that really turned everything on its head for me. I wasn’t necessarily thinking specifically about what I wanted to do after the military. But I did think the organization did really interesting work in educating and helping the veteran community. So I just kind of stumbled upon it.

The reason I saw retirement is a process is that if you are willing to expose yourself to things on and off the military installation long before you transition out, you are going to be able to get a good idea of things that might be a good fit for you.


Prior to being exposed to the Pat Tillman Foundation, did you have a different idea of what you wanted to do after the military?

I spent my whole time in the military in law enforcement so I thought maybe I would go work for ATF or the FBI. But I really didn’t think too much about it and that was part of the problem. You have to make a conscious effort to think about what your life will be like after the military and what you want from a job.

For me I thought about where I wanted to be geographically and how much I would be making but I didn’t think as much about what my passions were and what I wanted my job to be like. So the sooner you can think about these things before your transition, I think the better you will be.


I love that you gained that first exposure to the Pat Tillman Foundation several years before you actually transitioned because it gave you that time to really think about your different job options and what you really wanted to be doing.

I think one of the challenges is “ROAD” - retired on active duty. These are people that are in the military and know that they’re getting out and they’re kind of lukewarm toward their commitment to their job. And I think a lot of people are afraid of being seen in this way. You have a job and you’re responsible for making sure that job is getting done. At the same time, if you know you’re getting out, you do need to do your research and think about what you want to do afterwards. So it can be a really tricky balance. All I’m suggesting is that you will separate at some point so it pays to think about that long before you actually separate.


What should people know about the Pat Tillman Foundation?

Most people know Pat’s story - he left a lucrative career with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army. But there’s a lot about Pat that people don’t know. Jon Krakauer wrote a great book called Where Men Win Glory. A lot of people don’t realize Pat graduated from Arizona State in three years with a 3.8 GPA. He loved to debate and loved to learn from other people.

Our core values at the Pat Tillman Foundation are humble leadership, scholarship, service, and impact. The way Pat lived his life is how we run the Foundation. When Pat was killed in 2004, people started mailing checks to Arizona State. So our Foundation was born in this way. In 2008, we launched the Tillman Scholars Program. Every year we convene a scholarship. This past year 2300 people applied and we selected 60 military members and spouses. The gates to hit in your application are events that have happened in your  military service or personal life that have compelled you toward the particular educational degree program that you are enrolled in. At the end of the day we’re a network and community builder. We bring these scholars together to learn and grow with each other. It’s really about human potential and service beyond yourself.


So how does that work - do people apply for the scholarship while enrolled in a program?

Yes that’s exactly right. Some of our scholars are still serving on active duty. To apply for the scholarship, you have to be enrolled in a degree program. And we have scholars in all kinds of different degree programs all across the country.


What is your role like as Executive Director?

When I first came to the foundation, I was in an Operations role and then moved into the Executive Director role about a year ago. Marie Tillman - Pat’s widow - is the President of the Foundation. My operations role was in direct support of her, managing the staff on a day-to-day basis. It was comparable to be a senior non-commissioned officer. There was a command-facing responsibility and then a team management responsibility. We used to joke that I was her First Sergeant.

Marie moved to go Chair the board and at that time I moved into the Executive Director role. The foundation staff is small - only about 12 people. The staff is remarkable and they do incredible work all the time. They’re really self-starters. A lot of my job is a project management role. It’s about delegating, supervising, and reporting progress. One of the things I’m most grateful to the Foundation for is that they hired me knowing I had some blind spots. I started in the Fall of 2014. We did an audit and Marie walked me through that. I realized that it was exactly the same as a military inspection. Once I did one, I realized that although there was a lot of work that went into it, it was definitely something I could do.


I love that idea of finding parallels between work you’ve already done in the military and work you’re doing on the outside.

And that’s not just unique to veterans leaving the military. For people that make career changes, they do the same thing. Being at the Pat Tillman Foundation, I hear a lot about things other veteran focused organizations are doing. Frequently I hear about companies wanting to hire veterans. The companies that I’ve seen do veteran hiring well are companies that know that veterans might have a technical blindspot but overall are going to be a valuable addition to the company.  

I think there’s a misperception out there by some companies that if they hire veterans, veterans are going to come in and be barking orders. But in order to be successful in the military, people have to develop soft skills, they’re dealing with there team’s family issues and other struggles members of their team might have. So that image of a rough and tumble veteran that’s just barking orders at everyone usually isn’t accurate. And companies that understand that do really well with veteran hiring.

And on the veteran side, be aware of your blind spots and ask the right questions during the process.


What does your typical day-to-day look like?

My typical hours are usually 9-5. Our organization has various employees at different positions. Some work remotely, some are permanently in Arizona. There are people spread throughout the departments of operations, fundraising, programming, and communication. when I get there in the morning, I check in with each Director to see what they all have going on. We’re in a shared workspace in Chicago so it’s nice to see everyone in the morning.

I usually check my email and catch up on that. And then operations change depending on what time of year it is. For example, we just came out of the Pat Tillman Run, a 35,000 person run in Arizona. We also just finished our selections for our new class of Tillman Scholars. Most of our efforts right now are in the branding and communications, as they publish information about the new scholars.

A lot of my job is just getting out of the way out of these extremely capable people. I try to make sure they have all the resources they need. I just try to clear a patch so that they can accomplish what they’re working on.


That must be nice to know that you have a consistent 9-5 schedule.

Yes. But don’t get me wrong - there’s always something to do, something to work on. Our development and fundraising teams end up going to a lot of different events. What I like is that it’s not so rigid as in the military. You have freedom and flexibility to create your own schedule as long as you're getting your work done. We have a holistic view of our people and encourage them to pursue interests and time with family outside of work.

I remember when I first started here. In the  military, I was used to a very defined schedule. So getting used to this schedule was a jolt. Throughout our 360 degree review process, I realized that I wasn’t saying “thank you” very much. There have been times when I wasn’t very aware. So during the transition, seek that feedback and be willing to be vulnerable. You can grow and develop through this.


How important do you think having an MBA has been in allowing you to develop your career?

When I retired in 2014, I had made some progress on a Project Management certification and was a few classes away from an MBA from an online school that targets veterans. I had a four year degree when I started in the Operations role at the Pat Tillman Foundation. Through my role, I was connecting with very high level, Fortune 500 type companies. People paid attention to where I went to school and I realized that mattered to people. I think in the military, people care that you have met the milestone of the degree but not so much about the caliber of the degree. I don’t want to sound like a degree snob but it can serve you very well.

When I got out and I was meeting people that had gone to Penn and Dartmouth and schools like that, I felt like I was at a disadvantage. So I started and Executive MBA program at the University of Notre Dame. It’s not everything but it does matter. I was not a disciplined student in high school and needed to military to give me that discipline. So going back to get my MBA was a big deal for me personally. I went back to school when my kids were high school age and I wanted them to see that I was driven to do that and go back to school in my mid-40s. I wanted to demonstrate being a lifelong learner. And the other thing was unfinished business. For me, I went back as a different person and prove to myself that I could do it.


And how did you finance your degree?

I was eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill. But I had transferred it to my wife. She sacrificed so much for our family and I wanted to give the GI Bill to her to use toward her degree. So I took out a $100,000 loan to finance the degree. But it was a necessary evil for what I wanted to accomplish.


What are some of the pressing challenges facing the veteran community?

The demographic that we deal with are high achievers that have a clear sense of what they want to go do. But for other veterans that I have come across, I have picked up on a tremendous angst surrounding separation from the military.

It’s a big transition - like I said before, it’s a process not an event. I see a lot of veterans that are lost in that initial transition. They take a job that they don't’ really want just to get an income. So for veterans I would say that you should be extremely mindful about what is important and meaningful to you. IF you don’t think about these things, you're probably going to end up in a job you’re not passionate about.

A lot of people use school as a buffer which I think can be a great opportunity to stop and think about what you want to do.

So I think the biggest issue facing veterans is anxiety surrounding the transition. I would recommend making connections with people that have already transitioned. They will have really helpful tips for you. Start asking questions of people that have already made the transition.


Do you have any thoughts on how to prepare for the unpredictability of life?

You don’t really realize how much the military is part of you when you’re in the midst of it. So it’s really important to find meaning after the military. David Lee works with Service to School and is Stanford Business School guy. He made the comment to me that you have to view your best years of service eas still ahead of you. I would challenge anyone to view your life like that. Just because you left the military, there are more chapters ahead and life happens.

You want to have a plan and be practical but then life also happens and you have to go along with that. So find your purpose and meaning and work towards that but also understand that there are going to be curveballs along the way.


Anything we haven’t covered that you would want to share with listeners?

I would just go back to the idea that your best years of service are ahead of you. Your podcast is a testament to the fact that there are veterans out there doing amazing things. Ask for help if you need it, build a network. There’s a lot of anxiety surrounding the transition but veterans can succeed in the civilian world. There’s nothing cosmic and it’s definitely doable.