The first rays of sun could pinch the skin after a month or so under water. Not that it ever bothered lieutenant commander Sandeep Sharma, 35, when he came up for fresh air and sunshine after successful stealth missions on board naval submarines. These days, there’s a new challenge he’s proud that he’s overcome, getting used to a workplace with women.

Sharma is now head of operations for Mumbai at food-tech startup HungerBox, after spending 12 years in the Indian Navy. “I didn’t have to interact with women in the forces and felt constrained giving orders in the beginning," says Sharma. After eight months in his new job, Sharma has come to the conclusion that women are more punctual, follow processes perfectly, and connect better with clients. “I am thinking of bringing on board more women as area managers," says Sharma.

Carving out a second career is a long process of learning and unlearning for veterans like Sharma. Every year, 50,000 soldiers retire from the Armed Forces, says major general Deepak Sapra, managing director of Army Welfare Placement Organisation (AWPO). Less than 30% of them find jobs. Now, a few corporates, especially in the IT industry, are working with army welfare bodies to help veterans find new careers.

There are advantages to dipping into the pool of veterans. “Traditionally, firms focus on security, compliance and audit while employing veterans," says Swati Rustagi, director (HR), Amazon India Operations. But an officer who has been in charge of canteen stores understands supply chain and has negotiation skills. “It (canteen) is a marketplace, like running Big Bazaar. We can bring such people into procurement," she says. Officers who do engineering works could become site leads. Amazon has been hiring veterans across the board for three years.

Captain Raghu Raman transitioned in the late 1990s to a corporate career, and retired as president of risk, security and new ventures at Reliance Industries. He says most officers are highly educated to start with. “A typical officer would have spent two to three years in the Valley (Kashmir), the North East, and probably have done a UN mission too. So, if you are a bank looking to open a branch in the North East, an ex-serviceman will not have any compunction about moving," he says.

Those from Navy and Air Force come with sound technical training. When they retire after 10-12 years of short service commission (SSC), most officers do MBAs, subsidized by the government, to help make the transition.

TAKING THE PLUNGE

Arun Kumar Singh, general manager (operations), Amazon India, started planning a corporate career in 2010, eight years into his naval career. “When I joined the forces, the idea was to move from SSC to permanent commission," says Singh, who is from an Army family. Once government policies changed, he decided to quit when he finished 10 years. “I thought it was better to move out when I was in my early 30s so that I could adapt better," says Singh, who retired as lieutenant commander.

At the Indian Institute of Management-Lucknow, he was happy to learn more about operations as he came from a core operations background. When Amazon came to campus, Singh realized the work he had done as part of frontline squadrons in the Navy’s aviation cadre matched what the company was looking for.

In the forces, discipline is the backbone. One has large teams to manage, and careful plans go for a toss on first contact with the enemy. “The challenge is to continue to deliver," says Singh. At his new job as part of the company’s Mumbai launch operations, he realized some of the variables remained, like large teams, daily challenges, ambiguity, and the need to deliver continuously.

However, it wasn’t easy to move out of a deeply hierarchical world where juniors don’t get much say. “Here, it was much more open and I realized though my thinking was similar to my colleagues, my way of execution was different. I had to leave the uniform behind and wear the corporate leader’s hat," recalls Singh, 39.

His biggest fear was that people wouldn’t understand his viewpoint. It helped to have a veteran for a boss and seniors who had moved to the corporate world. “During the initial three months, they helped me learn the basics and my manager gave me a lot of feedback," he says.

Captain Raman says the emotional transitions are more difficult than functional ones. “After all, we are the ones who do flood rescue in Himachal Pradesh and earthquake relief in Angola without training," he says. When people complete 20 years in service, it becomes difficult to shed old habits along with the uniform, he says.

Lieutenant Colonel Harsh Vardhan Srivastava says he is aware of the challenges after 22 years in the Army. Srivastava, 43, senior sales manager at Schindler Group for the past six months, says the basics remain the same at the new workplace.

“I was a specialist in battle tank technology. Now am looking at elevators—only the equipment profile has changed as I continue to handle teams just as in the Army," he says. While he could connect with teammates over games or dinner in the Army, here he has to find new ways of bonding.

Sandipan Mitra, chief executive of HungerBox that helps digitize company cafeterias, says veterans are a straight fit for the startup’s operations. “We hired two veterans to head city teams last year. They bring the same rigour, passion and conviction to following SOPs and SLAs (service-level agreements) as in the forces. This is crucial to a food company. We now have about a dozen veterans heading operations in various cities," says Mitra.

More companies seem interested in employing veterans, says Major General Sapra. “But, the constraint is age. Firms are looking for a young profile which is against the pattern of retirement of ex-servicemen," he says.

Another hurdle is lack of awareness about corporate hiring processes. Companies like Amazon and Wells Fargo are trying to bridge the gap with Nasscom and AWPO. AWPO plans to reach out to CII and FICCI to do awareness drives among corporates. Major General Sapra says veterans are leveraging their administrative skills to get management jobs. “They are in demand in transportation, and risk management in industries and technology," he says.

Amazon’s Rustagi says efforts are on to educate veterans, both officers and frontline soldiers, about recruitment. “In the forces, they are trained to speak less, but it’s different in the corporate world," she says. “There are more talented veterans out there. The least we can do is to see that they have opportunities after they have served the nation."The writer is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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