Helping Military Leaders Transition into Successful Business Leaders

At a recent Society of American Military Engineers conference, WSP USA’s Ed Chamberlayne explained the opportunities and challenges military veterans face when pursuing a career in private business.

Years of military training and experience can provide retiring service men and women with leadership skills and perspectives that are of significant value in the private sector.

But the transition from public to private industry isn’t always easy, and the adjustment requires patience and understanding from their managers, colleagues, clients – not to mention from themselves – before success is realized.

Ed Chamberlayne understands this challenge as well as anyone. As a former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers District Commander and a retired U.S. Army Colonel with 25 years of military service, the engineer arrived at WSP USA in 2018 as vice president of national security programs, with a background and leadership skills perfectly suited for his new civilian role.

“Coming from an organization where winning is the driving force – and often, the only option – it can be frustrating when you are thrust into a competitive business arena where you don’t always win,” Chamberlayne said. “Business development in private industry requires patience and a lot of time learning from your mistakes before you succeed on a consistent basis. It is certainly not a place where you should expect instant gratification.”

Former military personnel often bring a mindset and approach to a project that many seem unusual to colleagues without a military background. The trick is to adapt to this new world without sacrificing the skills that have proven effective throughout a successful military career.

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©2019 NANDLAL GEVARIA

Ed Chamberlayne (right) examines the work being carried out on the Monroe Street Bridge reconstruction project in Washington, D.C., where he served as project principal for WSP until its completion in October 2019.

'Organized Chaos'

Most companies don’t offer training classes to help veterans with the adjustment, so Chamberlayne regularly presents to military personnel who are considering a future in private industry on what to expect and how they can more seamlessly transition.

Most recently, he participated as a panelist on “Developing Executive Presence,” a session hosted in late May by the Society of Military Engineers (SAME) during its Joint Engineer Training Conference (JETC), held virtually.

Chamberlayne’s audience featured a mix of military, former military, government civilian and small and large business representatives – all of whom sought guidance to understand how military veterans can successfully adapt their leadership skills from the military to private industry.

“In the military, you are expected to follow and respect a commander who has earned that role through experience,” Chamberlayne said. “It’s different in the private business world, where respect can be earned – or lost – through reputation and interpersonal relationships.”

One area that is often new and unfamiliar to a military veteran is the matrix organizational structure of leadership in a private organization, where reporting relationships can be set up as a multi-layered grid rather than the top-to-bottom hierarchy that is common in a military structure.

“Some think that when they have commanded a unit, they basically served as that unit’s CEO,” he said. “I advise them that to not think that way, as there is a level of ‘organized chaos’ in a private organization that is not a part of the military experience and requires a change in that mindset. Military experience does not immediately translate into being a CEO.”

While retired military leaders are aware they need to resist treating employees like soldiers, making that adjustment can be easier said than done.

“Your leadership style now has to be less directive, and when leading a pursuit, the team approach is important,” Chamberlayne said. “Some employees may be apprehensive, so it can reduce anxiety if, from the start, you let them know that you see them as colleagues, not soldiers. Be open to suggestions that can improve your leadership performance.”

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©2020 PHOTO COURTESY OF ED CHAMBERLAYNE

Ed Chamberlayne (left) attends the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Monroe Street Bridge reconstruction project in Washington D.C. with (from left to right) Ali Shakeri, District Department of Transportation (DDOT); Ruben Raitelu, WSP USA; and Aidin Sarabi, DDOT.

Emphasize Empathy

One piece of advice that Chamberlayne offers: Empathize with employees.

“Whenever there is a challenge, you don’t need to tell them what they should be doing,” he said. “They may have the best solution already in mind. Instead, let them know that you understand and empathize with their situation, and work together to find that solution.”

A military background combined with empathy in the business world can serve as an advantage when collaborating with government- and military-based clients.

“Not too long ago I was the guy on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers side, working with private industry to help them understand my needs and requirements,” Chamberlayne said. “Now that I’m on the other side of the fence – I know their pains, their frustrations, their requirements, and can speak their language so that they know I understand their struggles and can assist with their mission. Communication can make all the difference.”

He also highlights three keys to success in business development: be accountable to clients, have a vision, and set a mission.

“You have to quickly get over thinking someone is going to work for you; if you’re not prepared, that can be a rude awaking for people coming out of the military,” Chamberlayne said. “Be an authentic leader, know when to talk, who to talk to, when not to talk, and when to listen. When you can do these things consistently, you will begin to translate that military experience into success in the private sector.”

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©2019 PHOTO COURTESY OF ED CHAMBERLAYNE

Representing WSP USA at a hiring fair in Washington, D.C. are (from left to right) John Nicolay, Fred Wenger, Allie Arwady and Ed Chamberlayne.

Reflections on a Virtual JETC

An active member of SAME, WSP was a gold sponsor of the JETC event. It’s first major conference to be held virtually, the event was a resounding success for SAME, garnering significant positive engagement in what could have been a difficult pivot.

During the conference, WSP hosted a virtual chat room and several sessions. In addition to Ed Chamberlayne’s presentation, John Nicolay, vice president for the industrial security program at WSP USA, moderated the Senior Enlisted Forum. The panel featured senior enlisted leaders from Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard discussing current topics and issues of interest to the enlisted force.

JETC is SAME’s annual conference that enables two-way industry - government engagement and educational tracks for military, government and industry partners. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the event was recast as a virtual event.

"This was the first time our Society had attempted a virtual conference of this size and scope," Chamberlayne said. "With several thousand in attendance across the U.S., many were able to join for a few sessions or all sessions from their home office, government office or business location. I was proud of how our society adapted and pivoted to a new reality of how to support our nation and members during COVID-19."

Additionally, Bill Haight, senior vice president of federal programs and logistics at WSP USA, was selected for induction into the SAME Academy of Fellows. The recognition honors his distinguished four-decade career in military and private engineering, and outstanding service to the organization.

“It’s nice to have the recognition,” Haight said of the honor. “It’s a recognition of capabilities and capacity to contribute, and of an added level of dedication to the organization and the engineering profession. SAME has been such a valuable source for me, even in my younger days in the military. I looked forward to organization events; they were opportunities to link up with my peers — military engineers from all over the world who I served with — and engage in solid, substation discussions.

“We recognized that much of the business of military engineering required the civilian sector and SAME offered that point of connection,” he continued. “That was a valuable opportunity and perspective on that side of the fence. Today, on this side of the fence, I try to keep that notion, that connection, alive in the minds of the military personnel I work with through SAME.”

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