We caught up with Brett McKenzie, ex-Navy Officer and now Senior Consultant at Synergy Group Australia, to chat about his time in the military and recent career transition.
Brett, congratulations on landing your new role! Before we delve into that; can you tell us about your military career?
I joined the Royal Australian Navy in 1999 as a Combat Systems Operator – Underwater (CSO-U). My training and the bulk of my subsequent 18 year career was specialised in sonar operations and anti-submarine warfare. As a CSO-U I served on 2 Adelaide Class frigates, 2 Anzac Class frigates and 3 Collins Class submarines.
I also was fortunate enough to become a Recruit Instructor at RAN Recruit School and was honoured to receive the Recruit Instructor of the Year 2008 and a subsequent Bronze Commendation for my efforts there. I deployed on a number of operations and exercises, with the highlight being a several month world tour on Operation Northern Trident ’09 which took me from Sydney through both the Suez and Panama Canals and back to Sydney with several stops along the way. I deployed to the MEAO in 2010 and returned in 2011.
Three weeks after returning from the Gulf, I started training at HMAS Creswell after having sought and being granted a Commission as an Officer, becoming a trainee Maritime Warfare Officer.
What made you decide to leave and seek civilian employment?
Anyone who knew me prior to 2017 would tell you that I was a lifer – my entire life was to be involve Navy in some way, some fashion until I was physically unable to do it anymore. However, like so many people, my own priorities changed and what I wanted from life and work no longer matched what Navy or the wider ADF could offer.
It was hard to make the decision to leave, but at no point did it feel wrong either. I knew I wanted more than what I had, especially stability, permanency and the opportunities to slow down and enjoy life rather than spend months planning the next posting, the next sea ride, the next course, the next promotion and so on.
How did you find the civilian HR process (job applications, interviews etc)?
I had taken up the opportunity to do some pre-separation training and put together a great resume that I thought translated my military career in a way that civilian recruiters and candidate assessors could understand. In the seven months between my last day in the military and first day of employment, I submitted 209 applications. I had two interviews come out of that. Feedback was scant and was usually “you didn’t fit our desired profile”. It became clear to me that even though great pains had been taken to translate my 18-year career into civilian-speak, the true value of those 18 years still didn’t filter through.
In my first interview I was asked why I had spent an average of less than two years in any one job. They didn’t understand that I was essentially in two jobs over 18 years (sailor and officer) but moved from posting to posting, base to base, ship to ship. They saw it as numerous separate jobs over 18 years and came to the opinion that I was uncommitted and wayward.
How did you hear about WithYouWithMe?
Some friends and contacts on LinkedIn had been involved with the team at WithYouWithMe in various forms, so I would see their comments and reactions from time to time. I looked into the program, afraid it was some scheme that would charge me thousands of dollars to get two diplomas or something, and came out very pleasantly surprised to find I wouldn’t be charged a cent.
What stood out in the WithYouWithMe program and really helped you personally?
From first opening the WithYouWithMe website, I knew I was looking into something very different. The concept of career pathways, of targeting your training and trajectory along one line, dedicated to a particular field was not something I had come across in other organisations or schemes. Naturally however, that left me with the question “what path DO I actually want?”.
I submitted all my military history and details and received a phone call that lasted 45 minutes where I was asked what I wanted to achieve, what I expected and where I wanted to go. After that chat, it was clear that my future lay somewhere in business and I embarked on the Business Analytics Pathway. That was the first stepping stone.
Then came training – real training, not a few PowerPoint slides with barely relevant information, but comprehensive, assessed training that required attention and thought. Every step along the way the WithYouWithMe program was a collaborative process, not some prefabricated mould I had to squeeze into.
Within a couple of months I had my second interview, and two weeks after that I had a $100k+ job in and my first step into a new career.
What sorts of careers were you considering and did you find that your military skills were transferable?
I knew I wanted something office based and business oriented. That led to consideration of perhaps IT, business administration, finance, HR and several other paths. I really didn’t think I was a natural fit for many of them – I was a submarine hunter for over 12 years and then a ship driver, what did I know about Python or anything else? Yet, when I started doing Sigma Six Green training, I was constantly thinking “oh, I’ve done that but we called it this” or “I remember when we went through that exact same process, I had no idea there was a name for it!”.
It was startling to realise just how much of my career and leadership training really translated well into the business analytics world.
What training did you complete through the WYWM Veteran Training Academy and was it helpful?
I took formal training in Sigma Six Green Belt, Intro to Business Analysis and a couple of other useful, business analyst related courses. It was intense for much of it, and yet was also all so relevant and worthwhile. That training directly led to my getting that interview and eventually an offer of employment.
Tell us about the new role you secured and the interview process.
I got a phone call from Thomas Mynott my candidate manager at WithYouWithMe telling me he thought I was an ideal candidate for this great position at Synergy Group Australia (Senior Consultant, Business Analytics). There was to be an interview, in Canberra, in about a weeks’ time. By this stage I had been on Centrelink benefits for a couple of months after my savings ran out, and I was living in Melbourne. I really wondered if it was worth flying to Canberra for a 30 minute interview with a mob I had never heard of but Thomas was keen and insistent that I would find it worthwhile. I trusted him and took a punt and am ever so glad I did.
The interview actually went from 0900 to 1600 and there were about a dozen of us in there – all veterans sent along by WYWM. It was a series of interviews, role playing, group discussions and one-on-one question and answer time. Synergy went to great lengths to really get to know us as candidates and provided a fantastic platform for us to interview them too, which I took to mean that they were very keen to get the right people and wanted to make the effort. It ended up being a fantastic assessment day and well worth the expense, even if I hadn’t been ultimately successful in securing the position.
What are you most looking forward to in your new career?
This will be a whole new world for me, but a world that I am interested in and have invested time and effort to understand and prepare for. I’m looking forward to the rewards that will come, not just from a great pay packet (though that is a bonus) but from doing work that is tangible with real, solid outcomes and results.
It sometimes felt, when I was in Navy, that all of our training and exercises and travelling and efforts didn’t really produce a viable product. There was nothing to look at and say, “I helped do that, it’s there because I helped put it there”. Very soon, I will be able to say that, and not just once, but several times as my career progresses. There are opportunities to expand and grow within the field too, different paths to take if you want. I’m looking forward to all of it.
Any advice for other veterans navigating the civilian job market?
My advice is please, do not do what I did for seven months! We don’t fit the mould of the ‘typical applicant’. Our backgrounds, training, experiences and discipline are an untapped goldmine for any industry, but we can’t demonstrate that fact through simply submitting resume and cover letter after resume and cover letter. We can’t do what a twenty-something straight out of uni can do. We need to approach the civilian job market on an oblique angle and get our foot in the door some other way.
The WithYouWithMe initial online transition course COMPAS provides so many tips on how to do that, right down to what to wear and what to say in given situations, plus how to interpret what the interviewer is really asking. Plus, the team will trains you, guides you and actively source and find the employers and open jobs that we should be applying for.
In short, my advice to other veterans seeking a civvie career is this; sign up to WithYouWithMe. It costs you nothing but dedication and hard work, and the results can be amazing.