The Learning Mindset: Winning in the Civilian Sector

“The Learning Mindset: Winning in the Civilian Sector” by Gunnar Counselman was originally published on

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The 1% and 99% are making headlines.  But I’m more worried about the 20%, the 50% and the 75%.  The 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan vets age 18-24 who are unemployed, the 50% who are underemployed, and 75% who don’t graduate from the programs of study that they start after they get out.
Here’s a bit of insight into the the employment market that may surprise you.
Employers are frustrated.  Despite record-high unemployment rates, they can’t find hardworking employees with the skills they need to be competitive internationally.  Fidelis has talked with hundreds of employers who want to hire military because they are tired of hiring lazy, entitled young kids right out of school who refuse to do what they need to do to get the job done.  That may sound harsh, but we’ve heard it enough to put it in black and white.
Employers want military folks because they think you’re great raw material.  But they know that you don’t have experience in their business and so need you to build specific skills so that you can hit the ground running.  Remember that it takes years to become an expert at military skills and it’s the same in the civilian sector.  General management is just that, general, and employers need expertise.
Employers need you to have a learning mindset.  That means that they need to see you as a intellectual sponge, who is eager to learn, who is humble and who is wiling to work as hard as you have to in order to get the job done.
Steve Jobs, rest in peace, is the most heralded CEO of his generation.  But if he showed up on a Submarine, or an Infantry Battalion, or a Comm. Regiment, or an Air Wing … he’d have been a liability.  He wouldn’t know the gear, he wouldn’t know the lingo, he wouldn’t knowhow we do things in our unit.  He’d have needed you to take care of him and keep him alive until he could learn.
It’s the same way for military folks joining a civilian industry.  We have a great base of leadership skills, team orientation, and we work harder than almost anyone.  But we need to learn their way of doing things.  We need to become masters of our new circumstance.  What worked in Iraq and Afghanistan won’t immediately work in Silicon Valley.  It won’t work in Green Tech.  It won’t work in Oil and Natural Gas or Automotive or Medical Devices.
But once we’ve learned how these industries do things, they’ll want to learn from us as well.  It happens all the time.  The vets who are humble, who listen, who learn, and who build a reputation for hard work and who get into the weeds and focus on the details and drudgery, those folks get on the fast track.
Every single business I know admires military leadership, training, and teamwork.  Employers will assume that you’ve got a great base.  But when you get your DD214, you become CEO of your own life.  We all need to act like it.  We all need to know where we’re going, what we’re learning, and why.
When you step in front of an employer, know that they want to find a reason to hire you.  You just have to sell them.  You are the product that you need to sell in order to get in the door.  Practice your pitch, find a dream, figure out the first step, then start building your skills, build a trusted referral network and use LinkedIn, and Facebook to maintain your contacts.  Always be able to answer the question “how can I help” — because most people will ask you.
It doesn’t happen immediately, but if you act like an entrepreneur, if you’re aggressive about selling yourself, and you think about other people’s interests first, you will find your niche.
There are 26 million veterans in the US.  It’s the world’s largest and most badass fraternity.  And it’s full of successful people who want to help the current generation.


Gunnar CounselmanGunnar Counselman is Founder and CEO of Fidelis, an end-to-end education solution for the military to civilian career transition. Gunnar is a former Marine HUMINT Officer who served in Iraq, Bosnia, and the Horn of Africa before attending the Havard Business School. While at HBS, Gunnar became fascinated with the potential of technology to lower costs and increase quality in education while performing initial research for the book Disrupting Class by Clay Christensen and Michael Horn. After HBS, Gunnar transitioned to the civilian world as a consultant with Bain and Company before starting an independent consulting practice focused on innovation and strategy in higher education.  Learn more at


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