What I appreciate most about my conversation with Tom is his authenticity. After 30 years in the Army, it took Tom a while to find his new home in the civilian workforce. While he was able to land incredible opportunities - General Manager at Mercedes Benz USA, Senior Manager at Amazon, Academic Dean at St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy - each of these proved to be a poor fit for him. I respect Tom’s willingness to talk about what this process was like - the frustrations, the disappointments, the uncertainty - these are all challenges I’ve faced in my own career, and challenges other guests have experienced as well. Yet, Tom brings an openness to this conversation that I found refreshing. More importantly, the new home that he has found is incredible. Tom’s career journey has led him to work as the Financial Wellness Vice President at Wounded Warrior Project. I have to say, I was extremely fired up about learning more about the work that Wounded Warrior Project is doing. Not only are they providing an incredible support to the military community, but they’re also supporting other organizations in a way that is broadening their impact. Every Veteran would benefit from learning about Wounded Warrior Project and their mission, and I hope you check them out.
Tom Kastner is the Financial Wellness Vice President at Wounded Warrior Project. He started out at West Point and served for 30 years in the Army, including serving as the Director of the Dean’s Staff at West Point. His career since the Army has included time at Mercedes Benz USA, where he worked as the General Manager for Learning and Performance, Amazon, and St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy among others. He holds a Master of Arts in National Security Studies at the Naval War College, a PhD in Industrial Engineering at Georgia Tech, an MS in statistics from Georgia Tech and an MS in applied mathematics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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Transcript & Time Stamps:
Joining me from Jacksonville, FL is Tom Kastner. Tom Kastner is the Financial Wellness Vice President at Wounded Warrior Project. He started out at West Point and served for 30 years in the Army, including serving as the Director of the Dean’s Staff at West Point. His career since the Army has included time at Mercedes Benz USA, where he worked as the General Manager for Learning and Performance, Amazon, and St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy among others. He holds a Master of Arts in National Security Studies at the Naval War College, as well as a PhD in Industrial Engineering at Georgia Tech.
Is there anything else you’d like to add to that biography?
I spent the first part of my military career at very tactical units. At the end of that time, I had to make a decision about how I wanted to proceed with my career. I decided to focus on operations research and went into various billets that were much more focused on analytics.
How did you end up at Mercedes Benz after you left the military?
Previously on your show, you’ve interviewed Steve Cannon. He was the President of Mercedes Benz at the time that I worked there. As I was transitioning out of my role at West Point, I was looking for other education and training roles. Steve Cannon reached out to me about a role at Mercedes Benz in the learning and performance division. I ended up accepting that offer and ended up in that role.
What I learned there was that I was bringing a military training context to an organization that was focused on selling cars. That really didn’t work for me. It was a great company and a great organization but I was too impatient to put in the work to make myself a better fit for that position. As I reflect back on that role, I realize that I shouldn’t have been so worried about asking for help. I also shouldn’t have thought that I could just take various military training techniques and apply them to a corporate training environment.
Every organization has a different set of cultural norms. So be aware of that as your transitioning out of the military. Be very cognizant of cultural fit at the various companies you’re applying to.
After leaving Mercedes Benz, I really didn’t have a game plan. I was thinking that getting back into education could be a good fit. So that’s why I took the Superintendent position at New York Military Academy. Ultimately, there were some disconnects between me and my boss so it didn’t ended being a great fit for me. After that I took the position at Amazon and that was an amazing experience. It’s an intense and dynamic place to work. It was a great experience but I really wanted to get back into education so after two years at Amazon, I accepted a role as Academic Dean at St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy. I liked it but it really didn’t pan out in the way I thought it would. I took a step back at that point and realized that I wanted to get into the non-profit work. Eventually I ended up in my current role at Wounded Warrior Project.
I’ve moved around a lot and I feel like it’s just taken some time to figure out the fit and connection that I was really looking for. At times, I just had to take a step back and remind myself of what I was really passionate about and where I could fit into an organization to make an impact.
How would you describe the Wounded Warrior Project?
Our mission is simple - we provide programs and services for post-9/11ill or injured veterans across a whole breadth of areas that benefit them physically and mentally. All of our services are completely free for veterans.
What lead you to your current position?
Mostly it was the mission. My 30 year military career never put me in harms way. So I feel like this is my opportunity to serve those who gave up a lot more than I did during their military service.
What makes this position different from your previous civilian positions?
The Wounded Warrior Project is a non-profit that behaves almost like a for-profit organization. We have great policies, standardization, and organization. Our culture reinforces those values every day. We always stay focused on the recipients of our services and how we can improve how we reach these men and women. We’re also grateful to the tremendous donor base that we have all across the country.
You serve in the role of Financial Wellness Vice President. What does that entail?
There are three elements that fall under my umbrella. The first is the VA benefits team. We have a team that guides veterans through the process of filing disability claims.
The Warriors to Work team connects veterans to corporations and organization where there is a mutual fit. We also work with employers to develop their organization in a way that will attract veteran applications.
The third program that I oversee is our resource center. We have a call center that veterans can call into to find out more information about Wounded Warrior resources or other veteran resources in their community.
Are there any trends you’ve seen in veteran hiring across the country?
There’s a danger if we allow ourselves to get caught up in competing with other organizations to place the most veterans in jobs. We want to make sure we’re helping veterans find jobs but we also want to work with other veteran organizations to multiply the resources all of us are able to offer to veterans.
Veteran unemployment has gone down in recent years. I think a lot of that can be attributed to veteran resource organizations that are helping veterans getting connected with various organizations. I also think corporations are getting better at recognizing the skills veterans bring to the table.
Can you share a little more about the Warriors to Work program?
We’ve shifted the program in the past 18 months. Previously, we relied heavily on a warrior/mentor model. After working with the mentor over a period of time, the warrior would go out into his or her community to try to find a job. Over the past 18 months, we’ve shifted to a more direct model. We’ve gotten the mentors more involved in finding open positions in the community that could be filled by a veteran. We highly value creating strong connections between veterans and employers.
We also support veterans that are working to earn certifications that will allow them to make a greater impact in the workplace.
How can people support Wounded Warrior Project?
On our website you will find information regarding all of the programs we are involved in. You’ll also find information about volunteering in various parts of our organization. There are all kinds of Wounded Warrior events happening all across the country. We do a lot of 5K road races that bring awareness to the work that we do.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about the Wounded Warrior Project?
I’d love to share more about our physical and mental health portfolio. We are very focused on improving the physical and mental health of our nation’s warriors. That could be everything from providing adaptive equipment to helping a veteran lose weight. We also have metrics that measure how well our programs are working.
On the mental health side, we partner with medical centers across the country to provide aggressive outpatient care to wounded warriors. They’re also helping us with research and data analysis surrounding these issues.
Our alumni team plans and executes events across the country that are open to all veterans. I really encourage veterans to go to one of these events.