Military Book Reviews

From CO to CEO: A Practical Guide for Transitioning from Military to Industry Leadership

From CO to CEO: A Practical Guide for Transitioning from Military to Industry Leadership by Captain William Toti, USN (Ret.). (Forefront Books, April 5, 2022, 267 p)

You’ve served your country dutifully, and as a member of the US armed forces you’ve also developed a discipline, drive, and skillset admired the world over. Your success in the civilian job market after your military career ends is all but ensured, right? Well, if statistics and real-life reports from your predecessors are any indication, this transition is not always smooth sailing. More than 200,000 service members separate from the military each year. More than half of those surveyed about the process felt as if they had little to no help with the transition. That’s why William J. Toti, retired naval officer and CEO of Sparton Corporation, wrote From CO to CEO: A Practical Guide for Transitioning from Military to Industry Leadership. As someone who successfully progressed from captain of a nuclear submarine to a captain of industry, he knows what it takes to make the most of your military training and what more is needed to rise up the ranks in the C-suite. From CO to CEO aims to help you get the most out of your industry career, thinking through the kind of company and career track that is best for you. It provides a step-by-step guide to navigating the search, interview, and negotiation process and helps you acclimate to your new environment and to accelerate your climb to the top.

Everyone gets out of the military at some point. It’s a realization that comes for all service members, regardless of career trajectory. Most of us will tell ourselves we’re prepared to tackle a second career, despite the uncertainty, because we’ve been tested and have demonstrated leadership. Less than a page into Chapter 1 of From CO to CEO, Bill Toti throws much-needed cold water on that notion. As he says, “We fail to factor in the reality that different operating environments require us to draw from different skill buckets.” He explains, in no uncertain terms, the civilian working world is a completely different operating environment than the military. Therefore, those skills we have, or thought we had, are not 100% translatable. This is where the book’s subtitle looms larger than the promise of becoming a CEO: A Practical Guide for Transitioning from Military to Industry Leadership. The book does so with aplomb.

Captain Toti – excuse me, Bill (he’s very clear that rank means little in industry unless your stars equal Rolodex contacts), provides a very practical look at industry. In fact, he lined some of the most useful pages with definitions. I’m sure many of us have run into friends who’ve gotten out and are in “business development”. Bill (again, forcing myself to use first names) expands on that universe, and covers different areas of a business, defines different roles, and provides a better-than-beginner intro into the language of civilian industry. While focused primarily on his experiences in the defense sector, I have to imagine that these translate pretty readily to almost any business or organization one might work for post-service.

Toti handles one subject directly throughout the book but makes a great point: the business of business is business. These companies, staffed with patriots and many former compatriots who sincerely want to be of service, exist to make money. If the business does not turn a profit, employees with the knowledge to make what the military needs will be out of work, investors with the capital to drive innovation will take money elsewhere, and the “stuff” the military needs to fight, win, and give our people the advantage in combat doesn’t get made. The reality is, what a military needs depends on businesses that have bills to pay and must show viability to stay afloat. It’s a good lesson to put what often feels like “dirty contractors” in context to the various pulls they feel, between keeping the business afloat while giving the best products they can to the warfighters.

Just as not every O-1 will become a CO (Commanding Officer), not every transitioning military member will become a CEO (Chief Executive Officer). The pyramid gets smaller. That’s why the “practical” portion of the title makes this a very insightful read. It’s not a checklist on rising to the top; rather, it’s a primer on transitioning, about understanding one’s new role, and getting some baseline awareness of the new language we’ll have to learn. Perhaps one of the best ideas is his notion to resist the standard senior officer’s drive to fix the system and define their legacy on day one. It resonated with me when he said to approach it like a brand-new division officer. Recognize that while you have responsibilities, you are new not only to the unit you’re working with but also to the company, its culture, and the industry itself. Shut up, new guy; soak it up, learn, and adapt. You are once again the fresh-faced Ensign, and although the company hired you, you have ZERO experience in their world, and they’re taking a risk in hiring you. Past success in one industry (military) is no guarantee of success in another.

Industry wants separating members to help translate military needs and navigate the acquisition system. Recently transitioned, newly minted civilians need to adapt to the language and the culture of different priorities and incentives. This book is a must read prior to transitioning in order to understand a new world of opportunities, and to digest these new skill sets. Soak it in, if not solely for the definitions and insight into industry, then at least for the head-snapping wake-up call that transitioning service members need to begin anew the journey that led them to military success. And to become comfortable using first names.

Captain Dave Kurtz, USN has commanded as an O-5 and O-6, is a pretty decent writer, an uncompromising believer in the Oxford comma, (see!) and a so-so golfer.  All views are personal and do not reflect the position or endorsement of the Department of Defense, U.S. Navy, or any other entity or agency.

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