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21407 Jen Causey: Leaving the Military Felt Like a Divorce

Leaving the Military Felt Like a Divorce

Article by 21407 Jen Causey

As a disclaimer, I’ve never been divorced, so perhaps my analogy is flawed. Nevertheless, I’ve opted to forge ahead. For all of the redeeming aspects of the military, and the fact that I am one of the quickest to defend it when someone speaks ill of it, I find that the glowing recommendation that I could give comes with a caveat. It’s kind of like if I had an ex-husband who is a great guy, but no longer the right man for me. His warts have been revealed to me. If you can live with his warts, then congratulations, you’ve got yourself a great man! Like my imaginary ex-husband, I reached a point where I realized that I couldn’t change the things I didn’t like about the military. Once again, I must also give credit to Adam Grant’s book, Originals, as there were several snippets within it that steered my thoughts in this direction. Specifically, it helped me to better understand my conflicting views on the military, why I chose to leave, why I feel that the military was unlikely to change, and was too contradictory in what it says, and what it reasonably can do. Allow me to explain a little about why.

In the military we have career managers who are responsible for postings, promotions, career course loading and various other elements, by rank and occupation. Each year they conduct a briefing for their target group. One career manager opened my eyes to my need for a change in career when he introduced Frederick Herzburg’s two factor Motivation-Hygiene Theory to the audience. In simple terms, Herzburg’s theory is that factors for job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction are different, and that dissatisfaction is not the opposite of satisfaction. Motivation factors, satisfiers, such as achievement, recognition, responsibility, are rooted in the job itself, and have intrinsic value to the employee. In the absence of them, you will not necessarily be dissatisfied, but nor will you be motivated. Hygiene factors, the dissatisfiers, such as company policies, salary, supervision, pertain more to the work environment. They do not serve to motivate the employee, but if they are neglected, or not properly addressed they contribute to job dissatisfaction. My career manager summed up that slide by saying, “If you’re only working for a paycheck, you’ll never be satisfied in the job.” It forced me to consider my situation carefully.

In the position I was filling at the time, I suffered low motivation, and when I saw what was on the horizon for me, it did not seem as if that was likely to improve substantially. More significantly, there were also several dissatisfiers present. There were things in my environment that I did not like. I could have accepted that had I felt that I could somehow influence the environment, but sadly, I knew that I would be fighting a losing battle given where I was in my career. That realization was a stark one for me, as I have never been one who readily admits defeat, but this felt sort of like that to me. I was giving up on something because I couldn’t change it. I compare it to an amicable divorce for irreconcilable differences. You had a great relationship at one point, but either you need to change to learn to live with the dissatisfiers, or the other half of the relationship needs to change so that the dissatisfiers are no longer present. As Grant says in his book, “To change the situation, exit and voice are the only viable alternatives.” I chose exit.

Perhaps I took the easy way out by exiting, but I also think I was realistic in my assessment of military’s ability to change. Aside from the fact that I absolutely lacked the positional and personal power to make real change, the military, by design, is resistant to meaningful change. The very thing that binds us, a culture of mission first, is at odds with change. What I was discovering was that, whether the military was aware of it or not, the words they said were at odds with the action they were taking. There were a couple of areas where I saw this as most prevalent: succession planning, diversity, and this sense of family the military espouses. Grant’s book, specifically the chapter where he summarizes some of the research conducted by sociologist James Barron, helped me to gain a better understanding of why I might be a little bit correct in my assessment of the military.

James Baron’s research led him to conclude that there are three different templates upon which businesses are founded – commitment, professional and star. The professional profile hires for specific skill set, whereas in star they hire for potential. Commitment places emphasis on cultural fit. The commitment profile also motivates their employees differently. While professional and star profiles motivate through challenging tasks, the commitment profile plays on the emotion. They create an emotional tie to the company, a belief in the mission that breeds loyalty and dedication and instills a willingness to put the team first. Baron’s research led him to conclude that those companies with the commitment blueprint are the ones that last. While Baron’s research was focused on the tech sector within Silicon Valley, without a question, the military follows the commitment template. Baron did find a down side to that template over time.

Grant quotes Baron in his book, “Commitment firms have greater difficulty attracting, retaining, or integrating a diverse workforce.” Baron pointed to psychologist Benjamin Schneider’s work to back up his own observations. Schneider found that organizations tend to become more homogeneous over time. They attract, select, socialize, and retain similar people, effectively weeding out diversity in thoughts and values. This portion of Grant’s book validated exactly what I had been lamenting over the tail end of my career, and it felt good to know that maybe there was some basis for me to feel some small measure of discord with an organization that said they supported diversity, but seemed designed to perpetuate hegemony through its personnel policies, either intentionally or through inherent biases that have been perpetuated over time.

While completing the Joint Command and Staff Program, a graduate level program, I engaged in professional discussions, debates, and even dedicated a research paper to what I perceived as a systemic issue in the military – succession planning. I pointed out that we have homogeneous leadership at the top because “like promotes like.” Commanding Officer’s advocate the path they took as the path of choice to get to their position. Despite the fact that we say succession planning is about getting the right person in the right job at the right time, with the needs of the unit first, in practice it is more about what is the right job for the right person at the right time, with the unit’s needs secondary to it. The command centric approach that has dominated succession planning and career management hasn’t been challenged enough – there are other paths that can provide the same experience, and an expanded portfolio of experience at the top can be of benefit.

I’ve also lamented in the past about how the military says it values its people. It does…to the extent it reasonably can. I valued the men and women that worked for me. I cared for their welfare, and I was deeply affected by the loss of lives that I had experienced, be they peers, subordinates, or superiors. It is not uncommon to hear service men and women refer to their brothers or sisters in arms. That sense of family is instilled as a necessary component of the military ethos and establishing the will to fight, to give your life in protecting others. But that sense of family is almost in direct contradiction to another aspect of the military which we must have to be successful – redundancy. No person is irreplaceable. We intentionally outline what the succession in command will be in the event of loss of life. The military is purposefully designed to carry on as a big green machine in spite of who might be removed from it without notice. It also will put the needs of the military ahead of the needs of you and your family when absolutely required. It must, in order for it to achieve the mission.

“The system” supposedly valued me. I was assessed as having above average potential. I represent a demographic they could ill–afford to lose, yet my release was barely a blip on their radar. Rightfully so, if the military was being honest about what it is and what it is designed to do. My career, like a marriage, was good until the end. But there were irreconcilable differences and so a divorce was necessary. I learned a lot in the good years. Equally, I learned a lot through the rough patches. I harbor no ill-will towards my former “partner,” it has a lot of great things to offer. But I know what the military is ultimately designed and intended to do, and that aspects of it that make it effective in that capacity (a culture of commitment) make it resistant to any change beyond the superficial level, and unable to cater to my personal needs and therefore I needed to exit.

Previous Jen Causey e-Veritas articles:

Career Advice I Wish I Had Got

Organizational Culture, Leadership, and the Power of Being Yourself

Burden of Command

The Tale of Two Lieutenants

I Am Equal

The Importance of Team


  • Rory Kilburn

    November 19, 2018 at 12:12 pm

    An interesting take on the military, and not one without merit. I believe that the key to a satisfying career is removing oneself from the succession planning mindset, and taking action as your own career manager. Not without risk, but in my last two postings, I actually contacted personnel in a unit to apply for a position there. Successful application meant I had someone pulling me to the unit, instead of a career manager pushing me there. Your characterization of the military as an organization is correct. You just have to learn how to exist and grow on your terms within its rules. I did get there after being offered some unsatisfactory choices by a career manager. It is possible, but it takes a more entrepreneurial mindset than many have. You are correct in that one has to make a decision to stay or go based on the future; I just found a way to stay that suited my terms.

  • Robert Kompf

    November 19, 2018 at 2:53 pm

    The Military Life – 60 Years of Hindsight

    Career Manager(CM) vs. Career Mangler
    First Encounter – NOT! Unit visit by CM in which discussion was limited to Commanding Officer (CO) placing CO in God-like position. Alcoholic, curling CO smarmed by drinking, curling hopefuls. Religious leaning CO attracting hopefuls to suddenly take interest in teaching Sunday School.
    Later when face to face with CM was permitted, CM took objection when asked if he subscribed to “Sandbag Theory of Career Management (STCM)” which was described as follows. 5% rated at the top and 5% rated at the bottom MUST BE MANAGED CAREFULLY. The 90% in the middle are flung about as sandbags to plug leaks.
    Proofs of STCM:
    Training Command (Army Component) circa 1965. In a randomly assembled group, a surname beginning with “K” would likely be close to the middle of an alphabetical list, but revealingly was near the end.
    CFOCS, Chilliwack Initial Staffing. Schools were tasked to supply offsets matching positions lost to establish CFOCS. CMs were to select, from pool up for posting, the members best suited to staff CFOCS. With only one exception the (cast)offsets were posted to CFOCS. The exception was a senior RCSigs Major who wanted to retire in BC and replaced the RCSigs Major who had designed CFOCS. Perhaps the holus bolus action came from having only five weeks before the arrival of candidates at CFOCS to select and post staff who had to move with families, settle in. prepare training plans, course material and lesson plans, recce the training area and requisition support. Maybe STCM was the best response given the short time available.
    Language Training: When MLAT score in 90th percentile was attained, request for French Immersion was rejected because (words to the effect) “ with a surname like yours, it is unthinkable,”
    The Regimental Family: Do what “Dad” says or you are out! Compulsory attendance at weekly Saturday night Dine-Ins, three or four monthly Mess Dinners and weekly Happy Hours or be subjected to pointed inquiries about non-compliance.
    Higher Rank: It appeared that, in ranks above CO, consideration was given to promotion of self and “the troops” became increasingly faceless statistics. An idea that might have been helpful to counter this detachment would be to require Officers to maintain a daily diary for 20 years. After 20 years the requirement would be to read the diary with the hope that problems would be recalled, recognized and considered and remedies might be applied.

  • 11088 Howard Hisdal

    November 19, 2018 at 6:28 pm

    It felt like a divorce to me as well when I first left the Regular Force. After being out in the civilian world for 17 years I came back to the Canadian Forces to a Primary Reserve Unit or the “Mo” as we sometimes called ourselves when the Reg Force was not around. (“The Mo” is slang for the militia.) This was the military as a paid hobby and not as a career. Like many hobbyists, the reserve officers and NCOs that I worked with were quite dedicated and every training night and exercise they showed up for they were in effect volunteering again. My civilian work or “day job” meant that I stayed in the same area so I got to remain in the same Reserve Regiment for 18 years. No postings,and few promotions, but different jobs within the Regiment. There was real satisfaction in belonging to a unit that, for better or worse, but mainly for the better, was a Regimental family. I recruited and trained soldiers, some of whom became fellow officers and friends. Some of the soldiers, NCOs and officers I trained went off to Afghanistan. All of them came back and virtually all of them stayed in the Regiment upon their return. I served with the unit to the ripe old age of 60 which was the year our mission in Afghanistan ended. I never saw a career manager in my entire time in the Reserves. Frankly, a Career Manager was irrelevant to me as a Reservist. Now I go to the Regimental Council luncheons once a month and the the two annual mess dinners which I thoroughly enjoy. Jen might consider the Reserves sometime in the future. I joined the reserves at 41 in a different military specialty, armour instead of infantry, so I got to do the the armoured officer training which was a challenge. Like Rory Kilburn, who shared a room with me as a fellow officer cadet at CFOCS Chilliwack long ago in 1973, I found a way to be in the military that suited my terms.

  • David Fenoulhet

    November 20, 2018 at 8:50 am

    Very well written article. This was very much experience and did make the transition difficult because, as you put it, I felt like I was giving up or had been defeated.
    New challenges and a better fit ahead of me I know I made the right decision but this understanding of the organization as a whole is important to create that “amicable” separation possible. I have to admit some cynicism when I released. It is not possible to leave with a big middle finger up to the institution, they don’t care. They are not meant or designed to. So leaving to prove a point or get back at the very poor talent management system is shortsighted.
    Deep introspection and learning what you can and (arguably more importantly) cannot live with, is the only way to make a rational choice about the future of your career.
    Enjoyed reading your article and thanks for the interesting breakdown on organizational archetypes. Helped give me new perspective in this ongoing journey out of uniform.

  • Stephen M Davis, 9061, CF (Artillery) 1967-2003

    November 20, 2018 at 7:45 pm

    Very interesting comments about various career management systems and career managers. I was the Artillery NCM CM for two years (1982-1984)and the Artillery Officers’ CM from 1993-1999. As such, I believe I was the longest-serving CM ever in the CF. I am certainly not aware of anyone eclipsing my 8-plus years. What fantastic jobs. I had personal responsibility for many, many hundreds of careers and took that responsibility very seriously. I simply cannot fathom some of the comments above such as plugging holes and managing the top and bottom 5 per cents carefully. What a crock. You show me CMs who spoke like that and I will show you unprofessional CMs. There’s a time and a place for a sense of humour, but NEVER a time and place for such belittling comments. I was the secretary for at least forty Promotion Merit Boards, Staff College Selection Boards and Terms of Service Conversion Merit Boards and far too frequently had to take exception to disparaging comments made around a merit board table that had no business being made. As in a court room, it was very difficult to “un-ring the bell”. Officers seemed to have forgotten how to assess people properly and the system had to digress to a PER system based on percentage quotas, and eventually a system that de-emphasized performance, an objective assessment, and emphasized a subjective assessment called potential. I didn’t agree with it then, and I don’t agree with it now, if it still exists, but then no one ever really asked me. I’ve been retired now for fifteen years, and I sincerely hope the career management system hasn’t degenerated into an “old-boys network” ; it was certainly headed that way.

  • Damian Brooks

    November 26, 2018 at 12:40 pm

    I had a short and undistinguished military career. But as my first full-time job, undertaken at a formative point transitioning into adulthood, the experience had an outsized influence on my life. There are things I learned about myself – good and bad – that changed me. The exploration of leadership, friendship, teamwork, loyalty, determination, and other qualities are things I’ve taken with me throughout my life.

    I’m positive many of us who moved through the milcol system feel the same way – this is hardly a unique story. Whether we stay in uniform or not, the common experience we share is foundational for us all.

    Although the old CF advertising slogan has become cliched over the years, it’s still true: “It’s a great place to start.”