Military to Project Manager

NCO to PM: How the Military Prepares You as a Project Manager


January 23, 2023


Executive Summary  

I served five years in the United States Navy, and when I joined the Navy, it was to be a Sailor. That was my only intention, but the Navy gave me something far more valuable to apply to my civilian life; my service taught me to be a project manager and prepared me for a great project management career!

My Military Experience Started at Boot Camp

I was never put in a Project Management Institute certification course or given any formal lessons. Still, the well-structured environment centered around high-priority missions being divided into small tasks and delegated to lower levels served training and certification.

The only branch I served under was the United States Navy. However, the structure and experiences don’t vary much within each military branch regarding managing your projects. The more I advanced, and the higher I got with each badge of leadership, the more project management skills I learned.

Civilian to Navy Recruit

Civilian to Navy Recruit

My military experience started with the dreaded and often mystified “boot camp.” Every branch has a different structure and timeline for its basic training process. Most of it is going through the motions day-to-day. Still, it’s all done with the same goal: to turn individuals into a team and learn the basics of military bearing, discipline, and customs.

The individuals that lead boot camp (Recruit Division Commanders, RDCs, in the Navy, other branches have other names) are on this duty for years at a time, so the process of churning out recruits for the Navy is effective and streamlined.

Part of their Basic Training duty is to transform these Seamen Recruits into tomorrow’s leaders, assigning them roles that allow them to take on more responsibility to stand out from the other 50-80 people in their training group.

Our Boot Camp leaders assess our performance for future job assignments, often recognizing the responsible candidates and promoting the individuals who do a great job. Those who don’t perform their duties exceptionally are putting themselves in the spotlight to correct, in typical Boot Camp fashion, which includes lots of yelling. I, unfortunately, was in the latter category for most of the volunteer jobs I requested.

I wanted to increase my chances of an early promotion to set my career on track. I volunteered for as many roles as possible, and the rules allowed. I requested to be a division leader, cadence singer, physical training leader, mailman, laundry duty, and just about everything you could contemplate.

I didn’t get rewarded with some assignments, like cadence singer; my inability to sing or stay in rhythm may have had something to do with that. In other jobs I was posted to, I lost, like an athletic leader, because I could do 100 push-ups but couldn’t lead the pack on the run.

Some may say that requesting assignments when I couldn’t perform those duties might be foolish, but I knew I was helping myself in the long run by getting used to uncomfortable challenges. I also figured out my strengths and weaknesses.

A Future Project Manager is Born

The jobs I did successfully during this time were mailman and watch-bill coordinator. As a watch-bill coordinator, you assign who will stand which watch and what time of day they will stand it.

“Standing Watch” is a huge part of the Navy. A watch is essentially a guard duty. On Navy ships, you have a multitude of watches happening simultaneously. They vary from roaming around the ship’s perimeter with a rifle, being on the lookout for approaching enemy boarding vessels, to watching the pressure gauges on pipes to ensure they don’t burst and flood the ship.

These watches are 24/7 and vital to a well-functioning Navy. In boot camp, there are only two watches. One person roams around the room, keeping an eye on the general well-being of everyone in there. The other stands at the door and greets whoever walks into the room. They’re both simple watches but manning is required at all times.

As the coordinator, I assigned these watches with the least amount of scheduling conflict. Some people had jobs during the day, some had additional training they needed to do in the afternoons, and sometimes a person assigned to a watch would be sick or otherwise pulled away at the last minute.

I did my duties without too much thought that this coordinating was a project management function. It took a lot of communication between myself and everyone in the division to figure out their schedules and work around them. I also had to present the schedule to the RDCs for final approval. Looking back on these responsibilities, this was the first project I managed.

I ended up excelling at that job. I really enjoyed communicating with everyone and using problem-solving skills to fit the schedules efficiently for everyone. It was like piecing together an intricate puzzle. As I progressed in my career and advanced in the ranks, I continued seeking opportunities that demanded those skills.

My NCO Project Assignments Were My Project Management Training

I was promoted to a non-commissioned officer (NCO) very early. As an NCO, my project assignments varied and were more complex. One of those assignments I was awarded and put in charge of was designing and overseeing a few training programs.

My favorite program assignment was being the lead instructor for our ceremonial guard —one the oldest traditions of the Navy and I had to adhere to the strict guidelines. I maintained training plans, served as the leader for military funerals and retirement ceremonies, and assigned people to events.

I came up with goals and actions to achieve completion and accountability of those programs. By the end of my time in the military, I would say that I had managed well over 100 total people through different projects.

I had to deliver briefs to high-ranking officers and civilian government employees for my technical job assignments every morning. These briefs contained essential information to mission functions and, at times, national security. As a junior and less experienced service member, it was intimidating to talk about subjects with individuals who had been in service for almost as long as I had been alive.

Practice and confidence were critical factors in becoming more comfortable with that task. I learned everything I could about the mission and all the acronyms that superiors used and adapted my speaking style to match those I presented.

As a future project manager, this was the most valuable lesson I learned in the Navy. Being able to speak confidently to key stakeholders and have them understand and, more importantly, trust what you say is the backbone of project management.

After I decided to separate from the service, I began looking at what career path I would pursue after separation. While in the Navy, I never once said I was a project manager when people asked what I did; I never thought of myself as one. However, all the things I enjoyed doing in service, planning, procurement, execution, and completion of projects were the same responsibilities of project management positions.

Communicating with others and organizing a well-structured plan to complete milestones for a shared goal was what I had been doing for years. All those years I spent trying to become a Sailor accidentally made me into a project manager. Had I stayed in and advanced even further in rank, those PM responsibilities would have increased tenfold. However, I know very few service members that separate or retire and go into project management, which is baffling. It is a perfect opportunity for a transitioning military member to transition.

Your Military Experience Translates to Project Management

Military Skills Translate to Project Management Careers

Military Skills Translate to Project Management Careers

There is a giant knowledge gap between the people in the military that know what project management is and those that don’t. So many service members get caught up in their job titles and need help seeing other opportunities that utilize their soft skills. Most of my former colleagues assume, in fact, I work in construction when I tell them I was transiting into project management.

If you are a veteran or are about to leave the service, consider looking into a project management career. It may not be for some, and your project management experience may vary depending on your project management experience. Still, I feel that it is the closest civilian field that aligns with military leadership skills.

Any NCO or any other with similar rank responsibilities who had to manage projects and resources, meet deadlines, complete milestones, brief stakeholders, and ultimately accept responsibility for the success or failure of those tasks was performing command daily tasks, are project managers.   Your position of authority and responsibility has given you the skill set to become a project manager or project coordinator.

Your skills are wanted and needed. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of project management specialists is projected to grow 7 percent from 2021 to 2031. That’s about 70,400 openings for project management specialists project each year, on average, for over a decade.

Feel free to contact me on LinkedIn if you have any questions, and don’t forget to check out our careers page to learn if Kolme Group is the right fit for you!

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