The mission continues: former military personnel bring unique skill set to civilian life …and ABB

Colleagues in ABB’s US internal communications team held a panel discussion with five employees, all former (and one current) military.

It was live streamed on the internal web site and covered a number of topics mostly centered on the transition from military to civilian life.

The panelists are part of one of several Encompass groups at ABB—the other include women, young professionals, Black professionals, Hispanic-Latin X and Pride—that help reinforce the company’s diversity and inclusion ethos. They shared some interesting perspectives on the benefits and some of the challenges servicemembers face as they transition to civilian life.

One of the biggest hurdles these vets faced, for example, was adapting to an environment that is more focused on the individual versus the organization or the mission as a whole. Former military servicemembers tend to suffer from terminal modesty.

“Taking credit for what you’ve done is a challenge,” said Will Culbreath (USAF 1981-2009), HR Director for ABB’s Motion business in the US. “The training you receive in the military is some of the best in the world, but you have to explain it in civilian terms.”

Translating the military experience for a non-military audience was something echoed by all of the panelists, and it can be daunting. Robin Holdren (USN 1981-2001), Leadership Learning and Development Partner in ABB’s Industrial Automation business and co-president of the Military & Allies Encompass group, emphasized the importance of getting help.

“Don’t allow fear to overcome you,” she said. “Informal interviews can be very helpful to just have conversation and learn how to conduct a job search.”

The group agreed on one specific challenge in particular: wardrobe. “There are horror stories about former military people not knowing how to dress,” Will said.

It’s a relatively minor issue, but it’s indicative of the broader challenge of starting a civilian career after years—even decades—of military service.

Rony Ruiz (USMC 1996-2004), Plant Manager at ABB’s Mebane, NC facility attended college after leaving the Marine Corp and recalled how annoyed he was by students arriving late to class.

“I had to step back and learn how to adapt and overcome those pet peeves,” he said.

It’s fair to say that the level of discipline and structure required in the military is not the same as that in the corporate world, which comes with its own rules. People working together aren’t necessarily aligned in a single-minded focus on accomplishing the mission, and there may be ulterior motives, office politics or work culture differences that get in the way.

Bruce Matthews (US Army 1995-2004), Vice President Security and Crisis Management, advises vets entering the corporate world to be flexible.


“The cultural expectations are different,” he explained. “The jobs are different. Your career path may not be clearly defined, and you might need to take a step back on the career ladder to get started.”

There is a better understanding of—and support for—military experience in the corporate world these days, as evidenced by recruiting and development programs aimed specifically at vets entering the workforce and by employers’ willingness for reservists to take time out to fulfill their training obligations.

“I’m committed to serving up to 50 days a year,” said Mike Golden, Corporate Security Manager and Crisis Coordinator for ABB in Canada. Mike has served in the Canadian army’s active reserves since 1999 and despite the demands on his time, he has no plans to quit. “This is all I know,” he said.

If there was one common theme among all the panelists, it was the sense of common purpose, of being part of something larger than oneself, that comes from serving in the military.

“It’s a family,” said Bruce Matthews. “You have your fellow servicemembers, but you also have actual families living together, supporting one another. That’s hard to leave behind.”

It was clear after listening to these five veterans talk about their experience that the skills military service develops in people—resilience, determination, the ability to work effectively with different kinds of people—are inextricably linked to the culture of service, putting the success of the group ahead of oneself.

“There’s a saying,” observed Rony Ruiz, “that we fight not because we hate the ones in front of us but because we love the ones behind us.”

That sentiment fairly sums up the values and character that make veterans so valuable as employees and as leaders even after their time in the military is over—something that benefits ABB and other organizations that welcome vets into their ranks.

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About the author

Selenah Njoloma

Selenah Njoloma, SHRM-SCP has a background in engineering and works for ABB as the global diversity and inclusion manager for Electrification. Her goal is to help create an environment of inclusion, equity and belonging at ABB and retain a diverse talent pipeline of future leaders.
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