The Transition Test

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This article is part of the Defence Women’s Leadership Series.

An organisation’s characteristics are formed through its founding and its history, as it evolves over time (Casey 2018). Our military traditions and history shape our culture but it also shapes perceptions. Defence does a great job of building a strong culture through history, education, values and rituals. But is it so ingrained that it’s hard to transition back to the civilian workforce and is it a negative?

I transitioned from Air Force to Reserves in 2014 and worked as a consultant both privately and for one of the ‘Big 4’ consulting firms, so I’ve been in and out of many different organisations over the last 6 years. Since transitioning, I get a lot of questions about what it’s like from both my civilian and Defence colleagues. Interestingly, I find both sides tend to have misconceived perceptions about what it’s like transitioning from one to the other.

When I initially attended job interviews after leaving Defence, I was told that the military is backward, directive and stagnant – not like the fast paced corporate world. I had comments like “You won’t be able to just tell people what to do around here!” and “So you can shoot a gun but how does that help me?” (Actual quotes from job interviewsas if since I have been in Defence I must be purely authoritarian or all I know how to do is hold a weapon (and let’s be honest, being Air Force that’s certainly not my strong suit). 

Was there a culture shock leaving Defence? Did I struggle to adjust to the pressures of corporate life? My answer is ‘no’ for both. For the most part, military life set me up for success in my civilian life and the pressures of civilian life will never compare to the pressures of real-time military operations.

Rituals and Culture – The military is old-school traditional, authoritarian and stagnant

Far from the Hollywood Drill Sergeant imagined by the public, Air Force rituals like many organisational rituals can be one powerful strategy to improve our work lives— and help us act more like we aspire to be. They are practices that can bond people together, help us move through conflicts, amp us up to better performances, and assist us in adapting to change (Ozenc, Kursat, and Margaret Hagan 2019). In my opinion, Air Force does have an Adaptive Culture and fosters a continually changing environment.

With each unit we see micro cultures as different as one organisation to another, in the civilian world – any Air Force person will tell you, life in an Air Combat Group is vastly different to a Combat Support Group or Headquarters. With each posting we enter a new culture, most likely in a new state, with new supervisors; and we adapt. We learn to seamlessly transition from unit, job, location and rank. Change becomes the norm and not just on the individual level. Since 2012, Air Force Adaptive Culture has seen the organisation transform, with the delivery of 5th generation aircraft and the New Horizons cultural reform program. Very few organisations on a scale like Air Force could undergo such a dramatic transformation successfully. The military is not stagnant.

According to Harrison (2019) military culture generally promotes qualities such as unity, discipline, physical fitness, duty, and self-sacrifice (Grimell, 2015; Rahbek-Clemmensen et al., 2012). At the same time, military culture also has values that conventionally are not often associated with the military mind-set, values that seemingly clash with common idea of what the military stands for. Coll et al. (2011) posit that armed forces also value restraint, obedience, and peacefulness. We understand risk, planning and the need for decisiveness in leadership. As a Military Officer I have received comprehensive and continual leadership, management, history and strategic planning education. Some civilian organisations lack the time or resources to offer anywhere near the level of training and education provided by Defence, particularly in leadership. 

We are trained and kept up-to-date with the most current leadership and management theories, and for me this has created a learning mindset. Far from authoritarian leadership, as military leaders we are flexible, understanding and supportive – more so than some civilian organisations because we have a culture that focuses on the collective rather than the individual. 

What is my key take-away from my Defence career?

I became part of a community through shared challenges and experience; learnt to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, built resilience and adaptability.

And what have I got from my civilian career?

I have been able to let go of the self-sacrifice and focus on me and my family. I have learnt to value who I am as an individual and the contribution I can bring to the table. I have been able to grow as a leader and learn from a greater depth of experience.

Was transitioning out of the ADF challenging?

After all the organisations I have been in, some of the best leaders, I have seen have been in Defence. It seems that many people form their opinions of Defence people based on movies or media content. Disappointingly, media portrayal of the military veteran as mentally ill and physically broken, for instance, will negatively affect potential employers’ perceptions of military veterans (Harrison, 2019). But keep in mind that research shows most military service members do not experience major difficulties in their transition process (see Elnitsky, Fisher, & Blevins, 2017, for a comprehensive review). 

Yes, transitioning has a lot of challenges particularly as Veterans may experience discrimination when seeking employment in the civilian sector due to common misperceptions, associated stereotypes, or readjustment issues (Kleykamp, 2009Rudstam et al., 2012). Due to unfamiliarity with military service, civilian employers may struggle to understand the different roles and training of military service, thus making it hard to assess how a veterans’ military experience may be transferable to a civilian job (Carter, Schafer, Kidder, & Fagan, 2017). But stay determined, find a way to translate your skills and know your worth. 

For example Keeling et al (2019) suggests that an Executive Officer of an army unit, who is second-in-command reporting to the Commanding Officer, is responsible for the management of day-to-day activities. This role frees the commander to concentrate on strategy and planning a unit’s next move. In civilian terms, this job would translate to a chief of staff or operations manager role. The challenge is to translate military duties and experiences in terms understandable to civilian employers and relevant to the civilian job. As Defence members we have the agility to adjust to culture seamlessly, just like any other posting, but what we need to work on is communicating our value.


  • Casey, Andrea. Organizational Identity and Memory : A Multidisciplinary Approach, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central,
    Created from defenceau-ebooks on 2020-09-24 20:08:46.
  • Harrison, Kate. Military Veteran Reintegration : Approach, Management, and Assessment of Military Veterans Transitioning to Civilian Life, edited by Carl Castro, and Sanela Dursun, Elsevier Science & Technology, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central,
  • Ozenc, Kursat, and Margaret Hagan. Rituals for Work : 50 Ways to Create Engagement, Shared Purpose, and a Culture That Can Adapt to Change, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central,
    Created from defenceau-ebooks on 2020-09-24 20:22:17.
  • Mary Elizabeth Keeling, Sara M. Ozuna, Sara Kintzle, .Veterans’ Civilian Employment Experiences: Lessons Learnt From Focus Groups, Sage Journals, 2019 Volume: 46 issue: 6, page(s): 692-705

About the author

Amanda Van de Paverd is a Reservist (former full-time) Personnel Capability Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. She holds a post-graduate certificate in International Security and Counterterrorism and a Bronze Commendation for her contribution to the international campaign against terror. Amanda has worked as a consultant in the Middle East leading business transformation and working on international development activities. She is currently a consultant and maintains a focus on leadership, workforce optimisation and organisational transformation, as well as being a proud mummy to her 11 month old and 3 year old daughters.