From “We” to “Me” – Why Military Leaders find it challenging to talk about their work

Air Force officials launch a United Launch Alliance Delta IV-Medium rocket carrying the fourth Wideband Global SATCOM satellite Jan. 19, 2012 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Wideband Global SATCOM provides anytime, anywhere communication for the warfighter through broadcast, multicast, and point to point connections. (U.S. Air Force photo/Patrick Corkery)
Air Force officials launch a United Launch Alliance Delta IV-Medium rocket carrying the fourth Wideband Global SATCOM satellite Jan. 19, 2012 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Wideband Global SATCOM provides anytime, anywhere communication for the warfighter through broadcast, multicast, and point to point connections. (U.S. Air Force photo/Patrick Corkery)

   Got an interesting tip from a webinar on interviewing from the Foster MBA Career Management team.  They advised against saying “we” too much in interviews, because you want the interviewer to know what your individual contribution was.  I had never considered this before, but it makes a lot of sense if I placed myself in the interviewer’s shoes.  I’m sure everyone has been part of a team (either in work or school) where one team member didn’t contribute as much as the others…but the end result was a success.  

   On the other hand, talking about yourself is a personal challenge because military leadership is all about the “we.”  It’s ingrained into our culture.  Enlisted personnel wear their ranks on their sleeves, because they do the work – Officers wear their ranks on their shoulders, because they have the burden of responsibility.  It’s an unwritten rule that Officers don’t wear their ribbons on their shirts; we accept medals and ribbons on behalf of the teams that we lead, not for any individual achievement.  Your people deserve the credit for the team’s success, and you shoulder the blame if the team fails.  I was taught that leaders always eat last in the chow line.  Imagine that you’ve been trained to act this way for your entire career – that you believe in it and that you attribute all your professional success to it.  I don’t think everyone in the military feels or acts the same way, but personally I find it really challenging to laud my individual accomplishments when everything I’ve done is on the hard work of other people.  

   It’s also tough because of my particular job in the Air Force.  Air Force Acquisitions Officers and Developmental Engineers provide oversight on defense programs and perform quality assurance and low-level contract management.  In other words, we watch other people work on products.  We don’t directly supervise these people (or do hands-on management functions), but we do get a say.  We don’t get early direct supervision/leadership experience like Maintenance Officers (immediate supervisory responsibility of 100+ young Airmen).  Unlike Pilots, we aren’t evaluated based on our personal technical ability.  It’s tough to find a tie between our work and the success of the product, when our work is so hands-off.  

   So how do I overcome this?  Know the impact your team had in the big picture but really think about how the day-to-day activities might have contributed to that success.  Major defense projects involve the contributions of thousands of people and perhaps millions of man-hours.  I think everyone involved in these programs has a challenge with tying in their work to the organization’s overall success.  I guess I’m pretty lucky to have put in so many hours in the job, so I have more activities to talk about…but I don’t know if any of that mattered (there’s no quantifiable effect on the outcome).  I think by effectively communicating the scope of the project, your individual contribution, your team’s contribution, and how it might have contributed to the impact/end result, you can then put your service in perspective.  From there, perhaps “we launched a $1 Billion satellite program” could become “as part of a 120-person team, over the course of 2 years, I did (stuff) which resulted in the launch of a $1 Billion satellite program.”

   If you’re a veteran, I hope you worked hard (and were effective) in your job so that you have a lot to talk about.  If you’re still in the service: work hard now!  

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