CPOs: Careers and the
Transition to the Private Sector


As a recently retired Master Chief, I’ve learned a great deal about the transition (or, return) to civilian life.  And, just as those who came before me helped me, I hope to help you make your “retirement” or transition an easy one.

There are many sources for transition advice.  I won’t just repeat the dozens of great tips that are presented, but I am going to replay a few that deserve more attention and discuss several others that I recommend for your consideration.

Remember, prior preparation prevents poor performance.









Transition Timeline



Which Military Skills are Most Valued
in the Civilian Sector

Ø    Your Navy and business contacts and your “system understanding.”  
Technically, this asset is called “Business Development.”

·    Typically, only Captains and Flag Officers, especially those retiring from the “civilian-military” commands (e.g., NAVSEA or NAVAIR), will be able to market this expertise.

·    Those working in the acquisition and logistics communities will be the most highly prized.

Ø    Your Technical Abilities, especially those “military-industrial complex” skills, since there is only one path for lateral transfer.

Ø    Your Security Clearance.  I estimate that a “premium clearance” adds $20K per year to a salary, based on a $100K approximate cost of a background check, deferred over a 5-year employment period.


CPO Strengths That
the Civilian Sector Values

In addition to the one or two valued skills above, the “CPO Reputation” will precede you.

Ø    Your Work Ethic.

·    You know “When to Show Up” and “When to Shut Up.”  Being where you need to be and making a good impression will get you through most any situation.

·    You know how to manage up and down the chain of command (read: Corporate Organization).  You’ve been taking care of Sailors and Division Officers for years and this is no different.

·    Your attitude.  Having a confident, winning attitude is very marketable.

Ø    Your Core Values: Honor, Courage, and Commitment.  You need to learn how to “translate” these for the civilian sector.

·    You know how to “Do the Right Thing” (Leadership) and how to “Do Things Right” (Management) and, most importantly, you know the difference between the two.

·    You know the power of being a good “influencer” (Deckplate Supervisor).

·    You know how to be a “Good Follower,” as well as being a good leader.  Your ability to follow will be more highly prized by your first civilian employer, at least, in the first few years.

Ø    You’re “Adaptable, Agile, and Responsive” and your future boss knows that CPOs know how to get the job done.  Those who have gone before us have left us a legacy of accomplishments.


Items You’ll Need

Ø    Hardware

·    A personal computer (MS Windows and Office Professional software) at home with Broadband Internet access.  You’ll also need a printer/scanner.

·    A Smart Phone with an Address Book & Voice Mail.  Also, you’re going to have to know how to use it (and if absolutely necessary, charge it) while on the road.  Keep it on “Vibrate,” because, if it rings, it will ring at the worst possible moment.

·    An answering machine for your home phone, with a professional sounding recording, and know how to play the messages from your cell phone.

Ø    Social Media

·    You need to sign up for LinkedIn ( http://www.linkedin.com/ ) and FaceBook ( http://www.facebook.com/ ), and have a ‘clean, professional presence’ on the Internet.

Ø    Business cards

·    Get these from a “professional printer.”

·    You’ll need these to hand out and exchange, especially at interviews.

·    They should simply have your name and contact information, including cell phone number.

·    You should have these with you at ALL TIMES.  I’ve heard numerous stories where candidates have bumped into their future employer at the oddest places.

Ø    Supplies

·    Go to Staples/Office Depot/Kinko’s and spend a few hours just walking around.  Make sure you know what’s available…  You’re going to need a lot of “stuff.”

·    Conservative “Thank You” cards.  Buy two dozen to start.

·    Address Labels for your printer.  You hand-write the note inside the card but you use your PC to print the envelope address and return labels.

·    A business card holder for your briefcase to file the business cards that you’ll accumulate from your contacts and meetings.

·    A small business card case to carry in your pocket (to hold your cards to hand out).


Wardrobe, etc.

Ø    Suits

·    The advice you’ll get in this area is fairly complete.

o    First, go to one of those large chain stores that specialize in suits and ask to speak with the manager.

o    Tell him or her your intentions and ask for the most experienced salesperson in the store.  The manager will appreciate your candor.

o    Men–buy only two-button suits (1 Navy and 1 Charcoal Gray) and shirts (3 white and 1 light blue) with a straight or spread collar.

o    Expect to spend about $1200 before you’re done on an interviewing wardrobe, including shoes, etc.

Ø    Casual clothes

·    Get three complete sets of “Business Casual” clothes that fit.

·    You should spend $300 to $400.

·    Admit it–most of the things in your closet don’t fit or are out of style.

Ø    Buy a leather briefcase, a leather portfolio, and a leather wallet.

Ø    Get a matching suitcase, garment bag, and shaving kit/cosmetic bag.

Ø    Find a good civilian barber/hair dresser.

Ø    Find a convenient dry cleaner.

·    Have your shirts/blouses laundered/dry cleaned (as recommended) by a professional.

·    Don’t do them at home–this is critical to looking sharp.


Skills for the Job Hunt

Ø    Get an Internet service that can handle large attachments and learn how to send and receive emails with attachments.

Ø    Know how to scan/print/email letters, resumes, and labels.

Ø    Become familiar with Internet job boards.

Ø    Keep your business cards with you at all times.

Ø    Always keep your briefcase with you (or in your parked car) and keep three copies of your resume in your briefcase at all times.

Ø    Know how to scan something at home and attach it to an email.

Ø    Find your nearest FedEx location, take home some envelopes and labels, and learn to print them (USPS “Overnight” is OK).

Ø    Learn how to “GOOGLE” companies and find out about them to prepare for an interview.

Ø    Get into a daily routine where you “work at home” to find a job.

·    Get dressed, be professional, and work regular hours.

·    Keep a journal and document all calls, emails, letters, job board applications–everything.

·    Record all expenses.

Ø    Make a two-inch binder with all “Master Information” to complete applications and to provide masters for copies of important papers.  Keep this in your briefcase.

·    Learn where the local copy store is and know how to make lots of copies.

Ø    Examine the two figures/tables/sidebars, below.

·    You need to plan a strategy on how you can adapt to your new environment–and you need to demonstrate to your interviewer that you’re ready for civilian life.


Differences Between Military & Civilian/Contractors





Delegated Chain Of Command and Authority

The Program Manager has 100% of the Contractual Responsibility and Authority


Take Care of your LPO/DO/DH With the Goal of Maximizing Effectiveness & Efficiency

Meeting Contract Requirements & Deliverables–With the Goal of Keeping the Contract


Personal Development and Career Growth

Please the Customer, Keep the Contract and Grow the Firm


Foster Independence

Make sure the Customer Always Chooses your Firm for the Contract


Get the Job Done

Know When There are “Bigger Fish to Fry”


Rate, Billet, and Qualifications

Time in the Company, your Position Description, and “the Contract”


Provide the Best “Product” ASAP

Provide the “Deliverable,” an Acceptable and Expected Product, “On Time and Budget”


·    You need to figure out how to “accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives.”

·    One of your competitors is a separating Junior Officer, who has certain advantages–you need to develop a game plan to level the playing field.


CPO Disadvantages / JO Advantages


CPO Disadvantages

JO Advantages


Possible College Degree–in a “Management” Field

Solid College Degree, Probably in Engineering–Still Relatively “Fresh”


“I Can Do Anything,” Resume Which Will Result in a, “Sorry, I Need Someone Who Can Do One Thing…” Rejection

Single Focus Career Working for One Person, Which will Result in a “Can Do One Thing and Do it Well,” Job Offer


Used to Being a Supervisor and Working 50 Hours a Week on His/Her Own Terms
(Read: “Untrainable”)

Used to Being a Worker, Junior Team Member, and Working a Department Head’s Schedule of 70-80 hours per Week
(Read: “Hired”)


45 Years Old

30 Years Old


·    For each of these, you need to develop a plan so that you can become competitive.

o    Get your bachelor’s degree, at a minimum.  If there are any certifications available, go the extra mile and get certified.

o    Make sure that your sea and shore assignments show an “in-rate” progression, suitable to a “career-long” work history.  Do not “jump around” in general shore duty assignments.  When ashore, make good use of your time…

o    Convince your interviewer/employer that you’re the type of worker who “gets the job done”; and then prove it, every day.

o    The longer you remain on active duty, the harder it may be to present yourself as a compelling candidate.


The Interview

Ø    Food and beverage tips

·    During the interview, say “No, thank you,” when asked if you would like something to drink.

·    If you find yourself going to lunch, your goals are to stay neat and present a professional attitude–not to eat.  Order iced tea and any small portion of food that you can eat without getting messy.

·    If possible, check out the menu online before you leave for the interview.

Ø    Listen for a “need.”  Find out what specifics are presented and then, sell yourself as the person who can fill that requirement or fix that problem.

Ø    Practice driving the route to the interview, including parking and finding the office (do this at least 48 hours before).  Be advised that if you practice on a Sunday for a Wednesday interview, you’ll have to do it all over again, because the travel times and parking arrangements will be different…

Ø    Plan to arrive about 45 minutes early.  Have the phone number, and point of contact information with you to confirm the interview 45 minutes prior to the interview.

Ø    Use the restroom after you’ve found the office.  

·    Check your appearance and gear one last time.

·    If you still use tobacco, consider brushing your teeth.

·    Practice your smile.

Ø    Write down the name of the receptionist, you’ll want to include him/her in your thank you note.  Write the thank you note as soon as you return home and mail it.

Ø    Ask to take notes during the interview. Be prepared to exchange business cards.

Ø    Don’t be the first to mention specific salary figures.

·    When the prospective employer is the first to mention the topic of “salary,” it doesn’t mean much.

·    But, the first one to put a dollar figure on the table loses the “game.”

·    I don’t know why this is true, but I can tell you that it is.

Ø    If you’re made an offer (with a salary figure), ask for 24 hours to discuss it with your (fill in the blank–spouse, parent, etc.).

·    You probably won’t have a written offer, so go over it one more time; write it down, and make sure that neither of you have any questions.

·    Note: You’ll live with the figure you agree to for the rest of your life.  If you think you’ll just start off low and “catch up later,” you’re wrong.

·    Future salaries are, to a large degree, based on present/past salaries…

Ø    The interviewer will discuss specific bullets in your resume that match the requirement that he or she is trying to fill.  The “Real Question” that the interviewer has is, “Will this applicant Fit In” with the other employees.

Ø    If the Interviewer shows you an organizational chart, consider yourself halfway home.  This is not the time to give in; play it tough.  Stick to your guns, you’re winning.


your FIRST Job’s “Do Not Do” Checklist
(for the 1ST 6 months)

Ø    No stories about how things worked so well on the USS CHIEF, etc.  They don’t want to hear about how you did it on the ship.

Ø    Don’t get frustrated or criticize others, especially when experiencing a “Bigger Fish to Fry” situation.  Prioritizing work is more than figuring out which task to complete first–it’s figuring out which tasks just won’t get done (not enough resources/funding), period.

Ø    Don’t take time off (“I’m going to go get my haircut, now…”) from work.

Ø    Don’t dress down (even on “dress down day”).  

Ø    Don’t tell them about your personal life.

·    The civilian sector isn’t an integrated personal/professional society.

·    Keep everything on a “professional and need to know” basis.


yOUR “To Do” Checklist
(for the 1ST 12-18 months)

Ø    “Fit In” and change anything you do that isn’t one of your “Values.”

·    How you send email and answer the phone.

·    How you prepare letters or file correspondence.

·    Change all the unimportant details in your work–do everything exactly like your supervisor.

Ø    Continue to hold fast to your “Values.”

·    Commitment to do a quality job.

·    Your work ethic.

·    Treating everyone with respect.

Ø    Listen continually, speak infrequently, and learn your job.

Ø    Arrive early and stay late.

Ø    Satisfy the customer, but make the boss ecstatic.


The Bottom Line

Ø    “The Navy” is going to promote a diverse career progression.

·    You could be that retired CPO who can do everything–one who has been advanced from deck plate technician to Instructor or Recruiter to the Department Master Chief.

·    But, you won’t have had any one job/function for more than 3 or 4 years.

·    When it comes time to get a “real job,” you’ll have to market yourself into a position where you’ve only got 3 or 4 years of relevant experience for the job description–and that was 10 to 15 years ago…

·    Remember, you’re entering the civilian job market at the senior First Class to junior CPO level.

o    You’re better off, in terms of “civilian transition,” by progressing within a single field.

o    Command Master Chiefs cannot rely on using their position as a base for their transition to the civilian sector–it just doesn’t translate to any requirement that can be filled “laterally,” from the outside.

Ø    Your new boss is not going to feel the need to hire someone who supervised 100 people and was responsible for a $20 Million annual budget.  

·    Your new boss isn’t looking for a peer (read: replacement).

·    He or she is looking for a competent workaholic.

Ø    This process is not about convincing a Vice President or a Program Manager that you’re a super project manager.  You need to think of yourself as that senior First or junior CPO–someone whom the Department Head is going to count on to “get the job done.”

Ø    You have only one year to make your last funded household goods shipment/move after you transfer to the Fleet Reserve.  If you’re going to move (to a new/different hometown), do it sooner, rather than later.

Ø    Taxes: You have to get your withholding under control.

·    I have my salary and retainer at “Single plus one” for Federal and State.

·    For my retainer, I withhold an additional 10% of my net job salary for federal taxes, and another 5% for state taxes.

·    You’ll have to have a plan…

Ø    Don’t lose your sense of humor–you’ll need it.  The best training aid you can find is Scott Adams’ “Dilbert” comic strip.  Your goal is not to “Be a Dilbert,” but instead to learn the “Way of the Weasel,” (online at www.dilbert.com/).

·    Laugh now–get it out of your system...  Two weeks after you begin your job, you’ll see this “office humor” in an entirely different light.

·    You should read over the following references several times; read them until you fully understand the subtleties of your new environment.

o    Study chapters 3, 4, and 5 of “The Dilbert Principle” (Business Communication, Great Lies of Management, and Machiavellian Methods, written by Dogbert).

o    Review chapters 8 and 10 of “The Dilbert Future, Thriving on Stupidity in the 21st Century” (The Future of Work, and Good and Bad Jobs of the Future).

·    Read the Dilbert comic strip every day before you leave home.

Ø    Remember, “Attitude is everything.”



    Curtis D. Haggard


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