Julia Gitis recently ended her first assignment at the Department of Defense. Read Part 1 here.
Surprise! 6 Reasons I love working with the US Military
People who know me are always surprised to hear me gush about how much I love my job. No one in my immediate family or friend circle has a military background, and let’s just say I went to college at UC Berkeley. Before I came to the Pentagon, I naively thought the military was a group of mean guys who killed people. Now I work on the Joint Staff, the entity that supports the top military adviser to the President. It didn’t take long for me to have a .mil email account before I realized how awesome working with military personnel really is. Here are six reasons why.
1. They work as a team.
Teamwork in the military has left the strongest impression on me. The sense of cohesion in our office is very strong (not having cubicles helps). I am consistently impressed by how quickly new employees feel like part of the group—and not just part of the group, but part of a family. The serious content of our work, juxtaposed with the camaraderie and humor of our office, strikes a great balance. My colleagues are kind, thoughtful individuals who are committed to helping and filling in where necessary. And the teamwork makes sense— military personnel frequently transition to new tours, roles, bases, and deployments. The ability to quickly form a sense of cohesion among the moving pieces contributes to their success.
2. They encourage professional development.
My bosses have been very encouraging of my learning experiences at the Pentagon. I have taken advantage of opportunities to attend high-level meetings, give senior-level briefings, go to conferences and even a week-long counterinsurgency training. One of the most touching moments I experienced occurred when I volunteered to help with a menial task— helping a colleague staple some packets together—when my boss pulled me away, asked others to fill in for me, and said “this isn’t how you should be spending your time- you’re here to learn.” He then whisked me off to an important meeting. As a young professional, I was touched by this demonstration of my boss’s commitment to my professional development. Later I asked some colleagues at the Department of Defense, “Why is everyone so supportive here?” Their response was simple: in the military, supervisors’ success is based on training and preparing the personnel who work for them. The military’s commitment to the training and development of their employees is remarkable.
3. They are smart.
The military personnel I work with are the number one reason I never want to leave my current job. The Joint Staff workplace consists of military personnel from all four services: Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines. The discussions and debates in our office are vibrant and dynamic. From the enlisted ranks to the officers, I have been consistently impressed by my military colleagues. For example, I didn’t realize that learning military history is a common requirement for personnel to move up in rank. Thus, my colleagues across the board have a nuanced understanding of history and politics that I have found to be more in-depth than the views held by many of my civilian colleagues and friends who hold degrees in Political Science or Public Policy. During the 24 hour news cycle that is always playing on the TV in our office, my military coworkers frequently place current events in a historical context and explain details that are important to understanding the full story. Education is a way to get promoted in the military, and it shows.
4. They reward good work.
Federal agencies are infamous for their challenge of recruiting and retaining talent. One of the reasons for this is their tendency not to reward good work or create incentives for employees to excel. Working for the military has been a complete 180 from my experience in other government jobs. In the last four months, I’ve attended promotion and award ceremonies for at least ten different people, as opposed to zero in the previous four months at a civilian agency. The military is structured around moving up in ranks, and recognition and awards are a way to get promoted. Seeing hard-working people who put in 110% get recognized for their efforts is both a good feeling and a motivating one. This is especially important for organizations trying to create a culture that retains young professionals. I have been touched by the military’s ability to bring out the best in people by working in a system that consistently rewards hard work.
5. They don’t bullshit.
The stereotype that the military uses a lot of PowerPoint slides is absolutely true. But what that means in a military workplace is a continuous focus on cutting out the fluff. I have worked in other state and federal agencies where the ability to bullshit is a good thing; in fact, I have been put on projects specifically to utilize my writing skills to add flowery language to documents such as memos, grant applications, and webpages. While the Department of Defense has its fair share of flowery language, I have found military personnel to be very unwelcoming toward extra fluff. This attitude is part of a culture of bluntness, of not sugarcoating things. How this frankness affects my experience as the only civilian woman in an all-male military office is the subject for my next post. For now, I’ll focus on the work: if I write a few pages, I’m told to condense it to a few slides; if I write a slide, I’m told to condense it to a few bullets. One of my favorite things about receiving emails or briefs in the military is that they all start out with a BLUF (bottom line up front). The attempt to be as concise as possible permeates the culture.
6. They hold diverse views.
On my first day of work, I walked past the protesters who line up every Monday morning in front of the Pentagon. During lunch that day, my coworkers shook their heads when I asked what they thought about the protesters’ anti-war signs. Sitting next to military personnel who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, I listened as they told me, “We’ve fought in war—we know what it’s like—there’s no one more anti-war than someone who’s fought in one.” From the first day, I learned that people in the military have unique perspectives on the wars we fight and hold diverse views across the political spectrum. Some of my colleagues think US operations cross a line and are open in expressing a desire for the military to end specific engagements. Of course, their personal opinions do not impede their ability to carry out their duties in support of the mission. Hearing my colleagues get into deep discussions about current US military policies has illuminated for me the diversity of views held by those who serve.
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As someone with a strong feminist outlook, I am keenly aware of the US military’s poor track record when it comes to women, such as the shocking statistic that one in three women in the armed forces are victims of sexual assault. But my unexpectedly amazing experience at the Pentagon has taught me that the cliché is true: you’ll be surprised what you can find outside your comfort zone, where you least expect it. The military is a large organization, and my excellent work environment is a model of organizational culture, not an answer to the military’s poor performance in other areas. The six aspects of work culture listed here are not specific to only military offices, though I will be challenged to find a civilian organization that shares all of these attributes. My experience working with the military has not only broadened my understanding of US foreign policy, but it has also opened my eyes to a work culture that sets a high bar for wherever I go next.