How a Special Forces Soldier Deployed to Corporate America; Former Green Beret turned Management Consultant Herb Thompson and The Transition Mission

Episode 17 · December 2nd, 2020 · 26 mins 41 secs

About this Episode

When Herb Thompson was getting ready to retire from the Army, he had no idea what he would do next in his career. However, the uncertainty is something he was trained to deal with, and he used those skills to start planning his next mission to the civilian world.

He didn’t know much about LinkedIn, but he got on it and just reached to people asking for advice. The effort led to an astounding 2,000 informational phone calls where he just asked a lot of questions about career options. People were just generally willing to help.

Those conversations led him to consider a career as a management consultant. He narrowed down his “targets” to a few management consulting firms and went to work trying to land a job.

Here’s the thing: He submitted some 1,000 job applications and less than 1% led to interviews and zero job offers. He landed his first corporate gig through networking and relationship building.

Today, he’s turned to helping other veterans. He’s penned about his experience called The Transition Mission: A Green Beret’s approach to transition from military service (100% of the profits goes to charity).

Links:

Herb on LinkedIn
Herb on Instagram
_Inc. Magazine: _This True Story of a Harrowing Special Forces Combat Mission Teaches 11 Brilliant Lessons in Leadership

Transcript:

Frank:
... and welcome everybody to episode number 17 of The Boots About Business podcast. I am your host Frank Strong, and here with us today is Herb Thompson. He is a former green beret and today serves as a management consultant with Accenture. Here's an interesting story on transitioning, which actually led him to write and publish a book on the topic, it's called The Transition Mission, and we're going to get into that later in the show. Welcome to the show, sir.

Herb:
Hey Frank, appreciate you having me on, man. I'm happy to be here and look forward to put out some good info and have a good discussion.

Frank:
Glad to have you. So the first question I always ask people is the question about the uniforms, the uniting theme in the show, why did you join the service? And then what inspired you to go SF, special forces?

Herb:
Growing up in upstate New York, there wasn't a whole lot of options where I came from, and ever since I was little kid I wanted to join the military. The army was the first recruiter I went to and had they not come through, I would have been out of the Marine Corps. So thankfully the army recruiter came through and then the rest is history, there was not a huge family connection, I found out later my grandpa was in the Korean war, but I found that after I joined. And then I had two goals, to be a drill sergeant and earn my green beret. I had saw an article in National Geographic in the school library about it when I was a younger kid and that just made me want to be a green beret even before I knew really what it was just from that article. And fortunately, I was able to accomplish both of my goals in the military I've done my 20 years.

Frank:
So there's a lot of myths and maybe misinformation and Hollywood effication, if you will, of what the special forces are, what the green berets do, and it's now an opportunity we have a chance to talk to somebody that actually served in that capacity every day, so let me ask you, what is it that green berets do?

Herb:
Green berets are expert in unconventional warfare. That is what we do now. There's other things we do, but we are one of the few, if only force, especially in America that goes over and works by, with, and through a government force or indigenous force, whether that's government or non-government. So we don't have to send in 500 Americans from an infantry battalion of Marines or army, but you could send in 12 green berets, we're self-sustaining, we do our own thing there, come back out, it's just a numbers game. So mass producing, build rapport, really assimilate and learn a culture while doing that through accomplishing strategic missions.

Herb:
It comes in all shapes and form. A lot of in Iraq, people got into it with the kind of the Rambo as part of it, of door kicking and running and gunning, but really how I've always looked at is as a green beret, if you're shooting your weapon, either something's gone really wrong or you messed up, because you should be getting all these indigenous forces or somebody else to shoot for you and it's really by using your brain over the brawn.

Frank:
This even reminds me of a term that we see pop up in the business world nowadays, the idea of force multiplication or force multiplier.

Herb:
Yeah, that's what it is, force multiplier. The best pie of the best modern example or semi-modern is right after 9/11, the few green berets that went in there was a few other people on the ground from people that don't exist. But then those green berets, in about six weeks had Northern Afghanistan secure and that was by working through the Northern Alliance. So that is a model of what a green beret is supposed to do.

Frank:
Great. And that was turned into a book, I believe it's called Ghost Soldiers.

Herb:
Horse Soldiers.

Frank:
Horse Soldiers, that's right, and then later a movie.

Herb:
The movie 12 Strong, which obviously they get into more of the shooting or the cool guy aspect of it. It's boring to go, "Oh wow, you went in there and you just talked to him, and he rode out a horse and then you called in some air strikes," it doesn't... it's not cool.

Frank:
That was amazing. So you personally, I imagine you've been to a lot of special places, is there one or two that stand out in your mind?

Herb:
Yeah. The current war zones where we've been, I spent all my time in Middle East. So just about every country in the Middle East, I've been to. I wouldn't say any of them stick out. The one that always sticks out is coming back to America and being happy when I hit boots on ground here, that's the one that sticks out to me, and why I did what I did. That was always this special moment, not that I didn't enjoy downrange and that's what I live for in a lot of ways, but getting back here is the special moment.

Frank:
I couldn't agree more, well said. This is a somber question, but I ask almost everybody that comes on the show, what was your worst day in uniform?

Herb:
Multiple ones. It's when you lose a buddy. When you lose a brother, a sister, however, pin on the listeners, that is the toughest days. When you sign up for combat arms, it's going to happen, or if you're in special operations, it's a threat, but a lot of times you don't believe it can happen to you or you accept it. But those are definitely the hardest days, those times, or even now that I'm out and I hear about something happening, even if I don't know him, I know of the person. So those are the tough days.

Frank:
For sure. And then the flip side of that question is what was your best day?

Herb:
I think of a couple of missions I had that were just awesome, doing what a green beret is supposed to do. Surrounded, fighting within ditch and no other care in the world and just happy. But I would actually say probably surprisingly, that was my last day. I didn't even have a uniform on, I left base, didn't look back in the rear view mirror and I was like, "All right, next chapter, the life let's go." So I will say that is what I look back now as the best day.

Frank:
Awesome. No doubt, a great day. Looking back, what do you think the service taught you that is applicable to your business world today?

Herb:
Everything, I use it every day. A little context, I joined straight out of high school at the age of 17. I had a little bit of job, but there was no... I was 17 years old when I joined, so everything I learned while I was in the army, I grew up, I became a man in the army and everything that has taught me I use it today. I will say, even now doing a graduate degree in Ivy League School, a lot, even what I'll move forward using is what I've learned in the military with just a little bit of tweaks and flares from what they added to my education.

Frank:
That's awesome. And since you mentioned it, where are you taking your graduate degree now?

Herb:
I'm doing an executive MBA at Cornell.

Frank:
Awesome.

Herb:
So again, will not go in there without my military experience, but more importantly, selling has shown the value of my military experience and what I would bring is same with the job.

Frank:
Do you think, this is an ad hoc question, but your experience in unconventional warfare is an asset as you pursue your graduate studies?

Herb:
It's huge, not just graduate studies and business, because it's all about people. How do you study a problem set? How do you study people? How do you get them to do what you want to do? How are you able to analyze problem sets and filter data? All that is the same for school, it's for business, so it definitely plays in big time.

Frank:
I don't want to dig into the transition part. And you mentioned one of your best days in uniforms really is leaving and never looking back, proud of a career but turning the page. So to speak, you have an interesting story, a project that you did as you transitioned, tell us about that, what happened and how did it unfold?

Herb:
Started two years out from my proposed retirement and I didn't have a clue. I knew I didn't know what I didn't know, and I knew I didn't know a lot. So I was like, "How am I going to do this?" And I knew I didn't want to become a statistic. I didn't have anything to go back home from where I grew up. So it was, "What do I know? I know how to plan missions. I know how to plan out conventional warfare."

Herb:
So I turned into a mission, said I'm going to deploy into the United States of America and the mission is to be going to business or join corporate America. And that's how I treated it, because that's what I knew, and that's really when I started breaking it down. Did I write out a full op order? No, but was I doing that in my head and going through military decision making process and planning where I wanted to go and facts and assumptions? Yeah, because that's all I knew. So I was like, "Why not use it?" It's worked to plan wars, and campaigns, and everything else, why won't it work for this?

Frank:
That's awesome. How to Deploy to Corporate America, that's going to be the title right there. One of the things that you did was just an astonishing 2,000 informational interviews. How did that come about? How did you get people on the phone? And this is over the two year mark prior to your separation and retirement.

Herb:
It was over two years, obviously more heavy towards the end, but one key was LinkedIn. I got in and I leveraged LinkedIn, because how else was I going to connect with so many people, especially if I was moving? In my case, I was at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, with Fifth Group, move into Washington, DC. I couldn't drive up there, fly up there all the time. So I knew how to leverage LinkedIn and then it really was this, "I'm a transitioning special forces leader, my name is Herb Thompson, could you tell me how you were successful in your business or in your industry or your company?"

Herb:
And I didn't know anything. I always say banking is the example is I knew there was tellers in a bank, and then there was somebody in a back office and I heard of this thing called Wall Street and I'd seen it on TV. So I talked to some bankers and I realized, I didn't want to do banking, but I wouldn't have known that unless I talked to people. So I just talked to people from every industry. Usually one conversation would lead to them connect me with another person. And it was just building a network and I kept doing that, and the more I talked to people, the more I realized, "Oh crap, I got a lot to learn and I got a lot to decide for myself, not just what they can tell me, but really what is it that I want to do? What do I want to do when I grow up?" Because I had two life goals and they're accomplished now, but I've got a lot more life to live, so hey, what am I going to do?

Herb:
And by talking with people I was able to eliminate things which really helped me focus on where I ended up landing in management consulting. But I would not have been able to do it without LinkedIn, and I would not recommend doing 2,000, it's ridiculous. There was times where I had eight phone calls lined up back to back and I wouldn't know who I was talking to until five minutes in. And some of these were CEOs of companies. So I was able to BS my way, if you will, for the first few minutes to figure it out, but you definitely don't need to do 2,000.

Frank:
How many should they do? What's a good approach for somebody that's transitioning and they're thinking about getting out? It's intimidating just to cold pitch people on LinkedIn, you'd never been on LinkedIn before, that's intimidating.

Herb:
I was more scared to do some of that stuff on LinkedIn than a couple months earlier when I was in a gunfight. Not scared at all, I'm bluffing. People are shooting at us, we're shooting back and I'm bluffing, and now I'm sitting here like, "Oh, how do I write a LinkedIn message?" And sweating, and I'm like, "Man, I'm an idiot, what the heck am I doing? Nobody's shooting at me, I'm not jumping out of a plane, let's figure this out."

Herb:
But I always say until you think you know what you're doing or you feel comfortable, plus one more. It doesn't hurt to do more, you never know when that key one is. And doing all of them 2,000, one of them happened to be a key person I talked to, five months later, let me know about the Accenture position, where I ended up in interviewing there. He didn't know five months earlier, I didn't know and he wasn't even with Accenture, and he was actually with a competitor. So you never know how it's going to work, but you just talk to people. It's gaining information, there's no S2 or the intel shop to get this info, you better go talk to people and get it or scan the ether webs.

Frank:
So you got some direction about what it is you thought you might want to do once you got out. There's got to be other lessons, you aggregated all of those and compiled them into a book. Tell us about your book.

Herb:
So really it was by accident, the whole LinkedIn thing happened by accident. I figured out where I was going, not that I didn't fail, I failed multiple times. I talk about it in the book, it's not all roses and unicorns. And I got a Ferrari and six supermodels outside waiting for me cheering, it's not reality, but I learned through it. And by doing that, I shared information shared by others and I had so many other veterans reaching out to me, senior, junior to me, people who had transitioned a few years before, then now people are going through it with me, people coming upon it, and I was like, "I need to do a book."

Herb:
And there was one call with this officer that had got out and was just, "Hey, I'm effing loss, man, I don't know what I'm doing." And I'm like, "Crap, I need to help more people." And that's how the book came across. But really, there's so many programs out there that can help out over 40,000 veterans service organizations, but nobody can tell you, "Hey Frank, what do you want to do? What makes you happy?" Nobody knows that.

Herb:
So for me, I went back and looked at, "Hey, what made me happy in the military, and how can I find that when I'm outside of the uniform?" And by talking to people I came to deduction, I think it's going to be management consulting and let me go this route. But again, I just planned it like a mission and used what I knew and then went through and used LinkedIn to talk with people, and then, same thing, I'm gaining intel, how do I interview? How do I do my resume and those factors?

Herb:
And then fortunately, there was three companies I targeted, I got interviews at all three companies as a test because I was helping other people out. Before I wrote the book, I applied over 1,000 jobs online and less than 1% offered me an interview, just cold, send off your resume. So not saying it doesn't happen, people don't get jobs that way, but the studies show somewhere 78% of jobs are through networking and that's different, and we didn't know that in the military.

Herb:
The platoon leader doesn't network to be a company commander, now they better be good, but you don't network for your next job and have to do that. People know you, your uniform shows your qualifications and that's not the case. So the networking part is really the critical thing that is foreign to us, but through networking, you figure out everything else, interviewing and resumes, maybe other options for what you want to do.

Frank:
So what I hear you saying, if I had to take away a back review here, one overall theme, it's that you can find a job by applying online and going through digital mechanisms, but nothing replaces networking and LinkedIn was just one way for you to open up those conversations.

Herb:
Exactly. You can get a job that way, it's just not likely to just apply online. But LinkedIn is the best professional networking platform. It's the best, it's the biggest. In the US I think it's 177 million of people on it, just in the US alone. So it's the place to do that, and it's known for that, that's where it's easy to go to. And then you can reach out to anywhere, especially if you're moving, because how do you connect with people in Texas if you're stationed up in Washington state? It's very hard to do, people don't have the Rolodex and we don't have the phone books as the old days of doing that, so you better reach out through online purposes, and LinkedIn is the best one for that.

Frank:
For sure. I guess even from a business perspective, they say that crisis and recessions don't cause trends, they accelerate trends that are already in progress. And this remote working trend was already in progress, and we've just solidified that. I think business leaders have realized it takes a little different effort, not extra effort to lead a team remotely in a business environment. So if you're on a base somewhere else, there's no reason why you can't connect and potentially land a job through transitioning. Speaking of jobs, you did land your target job. How did that happen?

Herb:
Through networking. It's not the fact that I knew that people who were interviewing me, got a voice system, because a lot of people think that. No, but it got me the interview point blank. Now, once you get the interview, it's on you. Your foot's in the door, and it's up to you to sound good or sound like an idiot, so go have at it.

Herb:
But the networking got me to the interview stage and I was able to show them, hey, this is how I can translate my value and show them, I'll just be real. Interesting factoid for you, hey, there's one guy in the history of the army to be a green beret and went army drill start of the year, you're listening to him right now. Guess what? My crappy cup of coffee at the gas station still costs two bucks just like yours does, just like anybody listen, nobody gives a care. It's cool, and "Oh thank you for your service," but nobody's giving you a job for that.

Herb:
So what I did was put all of my stories, and even now a story sounds like, "Oh, it's fake." But when I was articulating how I was going to bring my experience there, especially in the interviews, I used words they understood. So I talked about my clients, I talked about my key stakeholders, I talked about my customers, I talked about business processes.

Herb:
Now, everything I talked about was working with indigenous forces in combat operations for the most part. But I put it in terms they understood because they had to see me sitting next to them, not as like, "Oh, here's this crazy-looking green beret, but we need to see him as a consultant in this case." And I was able to do that. Here's how I've leveraged technology to do that. And fortunately, through the interview process series interviews, they were eating it up and then they offered me a position and I ended up taking it, because it's what I wanted.

Frank:
And is that the ability to translate your military parlance into terms that a civilian business world can understand, is something you learned over time through all the chats and networking that you did?

Herb:
Yes, usually most people in the military don't know that. So just like as a green beret, we similar to culture, learn language. I had to learn the language. When I say deploying into America, learn the language. And depending on your industry, the language could be different or the nuances, so learn it, but you only can do that by talking to people and then internet research.

Herb:
A couple things, I know the nomenclature of the industry. So in consulting, you're always talking about clients, customers, stakeholders, and stuff. And one thing that sells across every industry is numbers. So if I say improved by 10%, save 25%, executed X million of dollars, expanded outreach by X%, numbers travel, people understand that.

Herb:
Now, we may have to figure out, what's some ways we can do numbers based off our career? Because we had a property book and it was valued at $1.5 million, big deal, what does that mean? But if we can put some numbers to what we've actually done, people understand numbers, they don't even have to think they understand, "Hey, improved by 25%, that's pretty good."

Frank:
I know a few guys that had a reduction in their property book and that wasn't good. You've been out of the service a while, I want to ask, how has time changed your perspective now that you've been out, what, three years or so?

Herb:
It's been a little over two years when I start my official retirement days only 18 months ago. I hit my 20 and then I was going through a med board. I considered all that time to like, "Hey, I wasn't doing crap." How's it changed? I think one thing that I ignored and I'll just be honest and I'm not proud to say it, but it's a fact, I've never voted. I ignored politics because I was doing a mission. Let's go overseas, help other people, and I got back here, so I ignored politics and not to get in, I don't care who you vote for, go out and vote, but I ignored it. So I pay attention more, probably some stuff that at the end of the day, you pay attention to what affects you.

Herb:
So when you're on a team or you're down at an infantry, battalion or company, you don't care about much else unless it's affecting you and your family. So now maybe I'm looking at stuff. I did almost all my time studying the Middle East, countries there, how are they operating? That's the only news I pretty much watched or read every day. And now I focus on the US because I'm like, "Wow, for 20 years I missed a whole lot going on here that I didn't know was..." In the military, even though I lived off base most of my career, after first couple of years, you're still sheltered because you're within that military community and a lot of stuff doesn't factor in. So that's really how it's changed for me.

Frank:
Well, I'm glad to hear that you're getting involved or you're going to vote. There's something ironic about a guy willing to risk his life to ensure Americans can vote and that doesn't vote himself. It's definitely important, so definitely get out there and vote. Although I think by the time this run, the election will have been decided.

Herb:
Good.

Frank:
But there'll be another one, so stay in tune. I want to ask you now that you've been out a little while, you're working in management consulting, which is a cerebral line of work, even in the business community, what would you say are the key benefits veterans generally bring to business?

Herb:
I'll just give a perfect example is especially green berets, but everybody, we've dealt with chaos, especially those that have deployed. We've dealt with hardship, we've dealt with chaos. And not that we're the only ones, we don't own that, we don't own leadership and everybody else doesn't, who's never served as a [inaudible 00:19:29] but we tend to bring a little bit of calming perspective.

Herb:
And I had my boss who's no longer my boss, we're getting ready to go into this briefing. She was going to brief 50 executives, so we'll say general officers, but they didn't know what she was talking about, but she was freaking out. And I'm like, "Hey, nobody's shooting us, let's relax." And she's like, "You don't understand, these are important people." I'm like, "They're not going to shoot us, it's okay."

Herb:
So I think we bring some of that of like first world problems. We've seen some real problems with some real hardships, nobody's losing their job today, nobody's dying, let's focus. Project management, how can you be in the military for a number of years and not have run a project or tons of projects? So obviously that comes into factor.

Herb:
I think being able to adjust. It's great, and many people can work when everything's going fine. What happens when the train derails? When something in the warehouse goes wrong, something in the office goes wrong, or the boss says, "Hey, we need this done today, not a month from now?" I think we're quicker to adapt to that. Not all, that's a general statement, but we went through a crucible of training and experience that just quite frankly, a lot of people that haven't served don't even come close to that.

Herb:
So that's some things that stick out to me as far as that. I think it's a double-edged sword to a veterans saying, "Oh, because we've done that, and everybody else sucks and they don't know anything," you can check your ego at the door because they'll still walk circles around you of like, "Hey, what's a P&L, petroleum lubricants. No, profit an loss, sorry buddy. There's stuff we may not have that we have to pick up on, but a lot of it translates and then we just keep learning.

Frank:
Definitely in a level of raw talent and enthusiasm. The types of things that you can't train. In the military, if you have it, you can train someone that's enthusiastic. It's the same thing in the business world too, but you can't train somebody to be enthusiastic about what they're doing.

Herb:
Frank, I'm a big believer in grit. We are the only ones that have it, but veterans have showed grit and demonstrated over countless, different countries, different instances here in the United States that's not always the case. So I think that grit is one of the big things that if you've got somebody of grit who's not going to give up, you can train them and make them successful. I believe you can't train somebody to be like, "Hey, you've quit your whole life, but you're 42 years old now, and I'm going to teach you to have grit." There's no magic grit potion for veterans that have honed.

Frank:
That's right, there's no pill. So we're getting a little bit towards the end here. I guess I'd ask, what final advice would you have for veterans that are getting out of the service and they're thinking about a career in business?

Herb:
I would say ask for help. That covers all spectrums. Because let's be real, you probably don't know a lot about business. In general, there are some people who run businesses on the side while they're in the military or while in the business, but you probably don't know, ask for help. What does my resume need to look like? How should I be? Do mock interviews. Don't be so full yourself and over-confident that you know what you're doing, that you ruin opportunities that you have. Leverage those opportunities, learn from it. You're going to have failure, it's okay because it's not failure if you learn from it and then you get better the next time.

Herb:
And then also, you're leaving an identity behind. I've always said, "Hey, I'm herb." I never identified, really this is why... Even in some extent, that was an identity I had and I'm leaving behind. Let's be real, two and a half years ago, a lot of people thought I was important. All the crap, you're a green beret, you're assigned during this classified mission down range. People I was sending reports to thought it was important work, and then one day you go out the gate and nobody cares anymore.

Herb:
So I think understanding what's my new identity going to be, how am I going to find that new purpose to drive me? Because now it's not for mom pie and apple pie, what am I going to do? I think sometimes talk on people and talk on yourself, but that self-reflection helps out with that. And also, it's okay to go seek help for that stuff. To me, it's a sign of strength. That is really what a strong character is, not "Oh, I'm going to figure it out until it's too late."

Herb:
There's no secret that we have a suicide problem amongst veterans, not just young ones, but young and old and it's sad, because it's like, wow, they can make it through so much and then get back here, and people don't understand what they've been through and they don't see any value with them, so it's very easy to go into negative town really quickly. Just stay positive and ask for help.

Frank:
That's a really interesting comment about identity. The military is such a consuming career. In the civilian world, you go to work and you come home, and you're home at night with your kids or whatever you got going on. When you're in the military, man, you're off on a post. And it's not that you're isolated or segregated, but there is some distance, there's a gate, you got to have an ID to get through it. And the days are long and especially when you're deployed somewhere, you're with those people 24/7 the way that you would be with a sibling. There is like this switch, this mental preparation about the identity you're going to leave behind.

Herb:
It's a way of life, that's what I always tell people. The military is not a job, it was a way of life, management consulting now is a job or a career, it's not a way of life. That to me is, you leave the military, you don't necessarily leave every job there is.

Frank:
I want to make sure we let folks know your book, your title again was-

Herb:
The Transition Mission. You can find on Amazon, I think it's like five or six bucks. Money goes to non-profit, I don't get anything from it. And then if you want to find me on LinkedIn, Herb Thompson SF to biz, same with Instagram, anything like that. I regularly share transition tidbits or insights of going into business, the process and I don't always focus on the stuff everybody talks about, it's hey, what's going on up here in the coconut and the head space and timing of, hey, what's some things are going on? Like we talked about identity. So that's usually a lot of the stuff I try to talk about because a lot of people just don't.

Frank:
That's awesome. Herb Thompson, thank you for your service, thank you for coming on the show and sharing your experience, all that you've done and are doing with your book and really evangelism to help other veterans.

Herb:
Thank you Frank, it was my privilege, I love what you're doing here and keep it up.