Everyone thinks that because you retire as a Colonel and go to work for a Fortune 70 company and rise to COO of  a major segment you had it all planned out. That’s simply not true.” – Neil Mullaney, Colonel (Ret) USAF 

When Neil Mullaney realized it was time to retire from the military, he learned, like many of our veterans, that the transition was not easy. In our first installment, Neil discussed how he missed so many important family events while he was active duty and recognized he needed to make a change. He also knew once he retired from the U.S. Air Force, being near family was as important as the role he would assume. 

“Louisville Kentucky was my hometown and where my five brothers and sisters and parents live. I started looking for employment opportunities there, but it was not a simple transition,” says Neil. “You don’t know what you are looking for in civilian life.” 

The military trains for many skillsets that unfortunately do not easily translate to civilian workplaces. For those with specific skillsets like medical or mechanical, the transition can be easier. For Neil, who led a broad array of units, it was harder to align with the civilian sector. 

“I knew I didn’t want to help a corporation sell more pizzas. I was led to do something that allowed me to be of service” says Neil. “That led me to Humana as they run the eastern region of TRICARE, the military health system for the Department of Defense.” 

Neil was drawn to Humana because they are a U.S. homegrown company and they are heavily aligned with the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Veteran’s Administration (VA). He applied for a job as an individual contributor and was hired. He quickly learned, however, that there were difficulties he was not equipped to handle. 

Same Stress – Different Role 

“Transitioning from military leadership to working in a civilian industry took a lot of getting used to. There was a period of about 18 months where things were very hard for me,” Neil says.  

In spite of the fact that Humana had all types of transition programs for veterans and did their best to make it easy to transition from military to industry, the reality was it was still difficult. 

“They didn’t know what they didn’t know. There were some gaps, and I struggled to figure out expectations,” says Neil. “They were not clearly defined. I had to ask for my own one on one to get feedback.” 

In the military when you take on a new assignment there are all types of tools – continuity books, classes, and training. The military utilizes multiple years of intellectual property to develop curriculum. However, in corporate America, these types of support tools often do not exist, even in the most large, mature organizations. 

“It was frustrating and I seriously contemplated leaving. Fortunately, one individual saw I was struggling and made a point to reach out,” says Neil. “He made sure I knew things would be changing, he became my mentor and ultimately my boss.” 

Neil had to learn all the various industry terminology and industry nuances to become successful at Humana. Plus, he had to search for answers to his many questions since there was not a strong onboarding process.  Both Neil and Humana learned a great deal during this period.  

“Once the team at Humana realized they needed stronger leadership and better structure, I was able to find my place,” says Neil. “I realized I am most fulfilled when I’m leading teams, no matter the size.” 

Sharing Experiences for Positive Results 

Once Neil was able to find his focus, he began to move up the corporate ladder, first as the Director of Business and ultimately being selected as the segment’s Chief Operating Officer.  Though it was not instantaneous, Neil found his fit and Humana was willing to take a chance on Neil’s leadership abilities and not focus on his lack of Health Care experience. 

“The organization was looking at what they needed and realized they wanted someone who could align the structure of the organization properly for a government contract,” says Neil. “I have the right experience, and was able to make connections with commanders and others on the military side to support Humana’s needs. There was a shared experience that made the difference.” 

In spite of what it might have looked like on the outside, Neil’s transition to civilian life and industry was not easy. He learned a lot from working with Humana and was able to utilize his passion for leadership and service to his advantage. 

When asked, Neil has this advice for those transitioning into civilian industries: “Find an industry mentor that will help you navigate the halls. It will make a positive difference.” 

In our next installment of this three-part series, Neil will provide his vision for the future of Heroes on the Water. 

Heroes on the Water is a 501(c)3 that is dedicated to serving our U.S. military veterans, active-duty, law enforcement, first responders and their families. Our mission is to provide wellness and community to our heroes and their families through kayak fishing and the outdoors. We provide our kayak fishing experiences at no-charge to our participants, and are only able to do this through your generous donations. Please consider a gift to our heroes to support their bravery and sacrifice.  

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