Discharging from 16 years in the regular army I didn’t have to worry about getting a new job on “civi street”. I took the skills I had acquired in the Special Forces and went back to Afghanistan to work at the Australian Embassy as a security contractor with my mates. It was an easy transition from Defence and to be honest, some would say, hardly a transition at all. While there were a few major differences in my work before and after the ADF, there were a lot of similarities. Regardless, I enjoyed the challenge of private security contracting and spent the next six years after discharging from the army doing my best to keep people safe in complex and dangerous environments.
The uncertainty and real transition for me came in 2016, when I finished working in Afghanistan.
After 14 years of working on and off in the war troubled country, I returned to Australia with the goal of starting an adventure travel business in Tasmania. It was then I learned the real difficulties of being a small player in an industry where you have to compete for every client. As a veteran, I was running a few adventure hikes for former military and first responders, taking them into the wilderness to show them how good the adventure and tranquility can be for their mindset. Around this time, I was asked to speak to a group of military veterans about my experience post army. I remember answering a question about useful skills the military teach by saying; “Most of the skills the military teach us are not useful once you get out of Defence.” I was referring to skills like sniping, proficiency with a machine gun, blowing things up and techniques for destroying an enemy.
A few years on, I now believe I answered the question poorly. At the time I wasn’t too different to a lot of other veterans (and society for that matter); I thought that getting out of Defence I needed to be totally retrained in order to fit back into normal society.
How wrong I was.
“What skills can we take from our military service that will help us in life on civi street. What skills do the military give us that make us better people. What skills should we never stop using. What skills make us more competitive in the job market and able to live a life full of passion, purpose and meaning. A life where we constantly improve and evolve?”
If asked the question again today, my answer would be very different.
The huge list of soft skills of course - the important skills in life.
I believe there are two main types of skills in the life. Hard Skills and Soft Skills. The military teaches both.
The strip and assemble of a belt feed general purpose machine gun or the best place to position your fire support in order to effectively suppress an enemy while you overwhelm them are hard skills. The more hard skills a soldier has, the more useful he is. Hard skills are the abilities and proficiencies that can be taught and trained. They are easy to recognise and test for competency.
The real gold dust however lies in the soft skills we develop in the military. The behaviours, traits and non-technical abilities that relate to how we view and do things.
For most people, having the marksmanship skills to hit an enemy in the chest at 800m loses its usefulness after military service. However, work ethic, flexibility, mental toughness, tenacity, patience and problem solving are key attributes that will see you succeed at whatever you choose to pursue post service.
The Australian Special Air Service Regiment's (SAS) selection course, at the time I did it was the only course in the ADF not designed to teach you anything. Its goal is purely to determine if soldiers are suitable for training, to identify those with the soft skills and attributes to become Special Forces operators. Knowing that anyone, from anywhere, in the ADF can apply for the SAS is evidence to the order of priority this high performing team of professional soldiers place on these skills. Senior instructors know they can teach you to shoot later but it is a lot harder to teach you to want to learn, to have a positive mindset when situations look grim and display mental fortitude when things get hard.
Likewise, in the civilian world today; it is why any human resource manager or selection panel worth their weight values these same skills when it comes to hiring new team members. They know it’s precisely these skills that will make you most successful in the workplace.
So what are the personal traits and attributes that make up those desirable soft skills?
The list is long, and examples include:
The million-dollar question is how do we improve our soft skills?
While it is quite easy to listen to a talk on leadership, it won’t instantly make you a good leader. Unlike hard skills that can be taught in a 40-minute lesson and cemented with practice over time; experience is the critical factor in soft skills. It is why there are thousands of highly educated yet poor leaders but also thousands of great leaders, communicators and problem solvers that have never taken a single class in it. Maybe their parents were good communicators or maybe they had a footy coach that was a great leader. Most likely they have just learned through experience what works and what doesn’t, how to get the best out of people and express their ideas, perfecting these skills over time since they were young.
The common saying “you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with” is also very relevant when it comes to soft skills. If your five closest friends tell you it is OK to hit the beers until late on a Sunday night making Monday’s performance at work sub-optimal; you will think the same. This in turn will likely erode other peoples (including your managers) perception of your personal traits, dedication for one. But if your close friends and work colleagues promote focus and the value of not letting the team down, you are more likely to have two beers then head home for a good night’s rest.
Self-awareness is key with soft skills. Some you will undoubtably already have to a good standard – identify these so that they can go down on your resumé and help you win that next promotion. Equally as important, is recognising any areas that could do with improvement.
A simple system of improving soft skills:
Improvement in your soft skills in life should be a steady and continuous cycle, one that never ends as they assist us in all aspects of life not just work. Good soft skills will assist us to live a purposeful life full of passion, meaning and unforgettable experiences. From the everyday moments in your family relationships, to the personal achievements and epic adventures you experience before your limited time comes to an end.
Written by Mark Direen, former Australian SAS Soldier, adventurer and personal safety consultant.