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Leaving the army to go corporate is a tough road to take. We asked 3 veterans how they survived and thrived.

Kwan Wei Kevin Tan   

Leaving the army to go corporate is a tough road to take. We asked 3 veterans how they survived and thrived.
  • Embarking on a major career switch can be extremely challenging.
  • And for veterans looking to leave their life in uniform behind, the transition can be rough.

Jianhui Tan, 33, spent a decade with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) when he thought it was high time for a career switch.

The decision, Tan told BI, came to him after his aunt died.

"That became a wake-up call to me," Tan said. "I realized I hadn't been spending enough time with my family. I worked very long hours and stayed in the camps most of the time."

But Tan's career transition was a lot harder than anticipated. Tan told BI that he left the SAF without any job offers and had to rely on his savings while job hunting.

And it wasn't just about money. Tan, who'd spent his entire working life in the army, said he didn't know what kind of role he wanted or his dream industry.

Tan wasn't alone in facing these challenges. Veterans BI spoke to faced similar challenges navigating the loss of identity when they left service or struggling to adapt to the rules of the corporate jungle.

But contextualizing the skills they'd picked up in the military and maintaining their resilience, the veterans told BI, was their key to success.

Leaving the military means losing a core part of your identity — and you'll have to find it again

For veterans like Tan, saying goodbye to a life in uniform felt akin to losing a core part of his identity.

Tan shared that his decision to pursue a military career was driven by the positive experience he had while fulfilling his national service obligations. As an officer, Tan said he was tasked with training the new recruits.

"I found purpose in what I was doing then. I got to interact with new soldiers and helped to make their training more interesting," Tan told BI. "That was when I fell in love with the career."

That was also the case for Jiahui Ong, 26, when she decided to call it quits with the army.

Ong told BI that she had mixed feelings when she decided to leave the military after serving for five years. She said it took her nearly three months to decide if she wanted to leave her comfort zone in the army.

"Being in the army and having to leave was very difficult. A lot of my identity, a lot of my self-worth, was actually built when I was in the force," Ong said.

But things were a lot different after they made the leap into the private sector. Ong, who took up a new career in banking, said working at DBS Bank was a full 180-degree change for her.

"One main difference I observed in the corporate world versus the army was that everyone in the military appears to be working toward the same agenda and objectives," Ong told BI.

"In the corporate world, everyone has their own agendas and personal goals," she continued. "I had to learn to be more discerning about whose agendas were more important."

Managing risky situations in the military could help you navigate the corporate jungle

That isn't to say that one's military experience isn't applicable in the private sector.

The soft skills she picked up in the army, Ong said, were beneficial to her when she went into banking.

"My transition to DBS wasn't super smooth, but I managed to bring in certain hard skills and soft skills from my past experiences," she told BI. The know-how she needed to manage stakeholders up and down the chain came naturally to her because of her time with the SAF, she added.

Kwong Weng Yap, 46, told BI he tapped into his military training when he went corporate. The former commando spent 13 years in the SAF. While in the army, he trained abroad in Australia and the US under the Navy SEALs training program.

"The SAF focuses greatly on efficiency, operational safety, and positive results and outcomes. That made me very mission-oriented and mission-driven," said Yap, who has since spent 11 years in the private sector.

When navigating the corporate jungle, Yap likened the experience to parachuting. Going corporate, he said, meant learning to enjoy the journey without losing sight of the mission.

"The gut feel. The ability to understand the wind conditions so that you can steer your parachute carefully to a safe landing. Those same principles apply to businesses as well," Yap said.

Some people think veterans can't cut it in the corporate world — and you'll have to prove them wrong

For military veterans like Tan, overcoming societal stereotypes was one of the biggest hurdles in their transition to the private sector.

Tan told BI that job hunting was difficult because he had trouble crafting his résumé. Tan said he couldn't talk about some of the projects he was involved in during his service because they were confidential.

And even if he did get called up for an interview, Tan said he had to battle the negative stereotypes recruiters might have toward former soldiers.

"The mental model that a lot of people have for military personnel is that they are very rigid, they do not have any relevant skill sets or experiences," Tan said, adding that he was fortunate that Euromonitor decided to take a chance on him.

Yap faced a similar experience. Before he landed his first corporate job, Yap said he sent out many resumes and talked to many different employers.

However, the former commando told BI that veterans could still rely on their military experience in the private sector. What's more important, Yap said, is knowing how to apply those experiences based on the business's goals and objectives.

"When you take principles from military life and apply them in a different context, like business operations, naturally, not all of them will be relevant," Yap said.

"There are times when you'll go with your gut and times when you need to think objectively about things. You just have to be very honest with yourself about what's working or not working," he added.

Making it as a veteran in the private sector is all about playing to your strengths, using your network, and being resilient

That said, the difficulty of one's transition does depend on one's prior role in the military, said Adrian Choo, CEO and cofounder of a career strategy consultancy, Career Agility International.

"If you are an airforce pilot, then one of the clearest transitions is joining an airline as a pilot. But what if you are an explosive expert or a naval diver? There aren't many jobs out there that are relevant for those skills," Choo said.

In terms of navigating biases like what Tan had faced, Choo suggested relying on one's network when job hunting.

"If you have difficulty going through the front door, try to find ways to slip in through the side door by asking someone to recommend you," Choo told BI. "A cold call is always more difficult than a warm call."

Nonetheless, Choo said that veterans needed to take things in their stride. Planning ahead and staying resilient, he said, would pay off in the long run.

"Any career transition is scary and painful," Choo said. "Don't wait till the last minute to decide what you want to do. Planning ahead by three or even five years will be very helpful."