When U.S. Army veteran Diego Rubio was moving into civilian life after his return from Afghanistan in 2014, he wasn’t sure if a financial industry career was the right path for him.
But that was before he connected with the Veterans On Wall Street (VOWS) initiative in New York. Attending VOWS events gave him a chance to meet people in the industry, seek out advice and ultimately land a job with the advisory firm Ernst & Young (EY), just months after separating from military service.
“Without VOWS, I never would have made the connection to the financial industry, just because I wasn’t sure if it was a good fit,” he says now. “But through talking to other veterans and my mentor, I realized there were a lot of opportunities.”
Launched in 2011, VOWS is led by a consortium of financial services firms, with 89 firms now participating (a partial list of sponsor firms is here). The VOWS network hosts recruiting events and educational initiatives; conducts outreach to veterans; and connects potential hires with industry players in mentoring relationships, with the goal of bringing more veterans into financial services careers.
In recent interviews with Project Invested, Rubio and one of his EY colleagues, executive recruiter Ryan Jankowski, shared their insights about working with the VOWS network and why military service can be an excellent training ground for the financial industry.
A soldier’s progress ‘from green to suit’
Rubio’s path to a career at EY, where he works on the Financial Crimes Compliance Group, was decidedly unconventional. He had prepared for uniformed service from the start, graduating in 2009 from the Valley Forge Military Academy & College in Pennsylvania with a degree in political science and criminology.
His Army service eventually landed him in Afghanistan. As a junior grade officer trained in logistics and procurement, Rubio was attached to a cavalry unit helping to stand up Afghan forces. That may not be a typical path for a financial services career, but it gave him skills and experiences he says he wouldn’t have gotten in a typical office setting. His classroom was a combat zone.
“There’s a misconception sometimes that you need to have a finance degree to work in finance,” Rubio explains. “That’s not necessarily true, especially when it comes to military folks, because they come with experience that you’re never going to get in college or in a civilian job.”
Military service hones skills like clear communication, self-discipline and leadership, he says. Knowing how to apply those skills to build high-performing teams is a massive advantage that veterans bring ready-made to a civilian setting. It wouldn’t be unusual for a junior officer with five years of experience, for example, to find himself or herself in charge of a group of 150 troops—a level of responsibility unknown to most professionals in their 20s.
Despite those advantages, veterans can face pitfalls as they make the journey “from green [fatigues] to suit,” as Rubio describes it. The culture clash can be all too real when veterans step into a shared office environment with co-workers who are unfamiliar with the demands of the military world. But those encounters can also create opportunities for shared understanding. Veterans can take steps to ease the transition by working to bridge differences.
First, Rubio suggests veterans recognize they may be perceived as too “rigid,” a common stigma civilians have of service members. For example, the military practice of addressing superiors with a crisp “yes, sir” or “no, ma’am” can come off as formal and distancing in an office environment. Something as simple as addressing co-workers by their first names can help build trust.
“It’s one of those personal things, but it really helps to break that stigma that they think military folks are very rigid, which can be true,” he says. “So once you break that habit and soften up your people skills, it allows people to be more open to you.”
Another challenge veterans face is learning how to navigate a world with a less hierarchical structure, in which day-to-day objectives are not always spelled out clearly from above. Compared to the more tightly supervised world of the military, you’ll have to hold yourself accountable for your performance in an office environment, he says.
“You’ve got to understand in the civilian world, things aren’t as structured as they are in the military,” Rubio explains. “There’s no one to wake you up in the morning, there’s no one to necessarily tell you that ‘here’s what you’re doing tomorrow.’ You have to be accountable for yourself; when you come into the office, you need to be not only reactive but also proactive. You’re taught that in the military, but with a lot more structure. That’s where the self-discipline comes in.”
Most importantly, Rubio emphasizes, it’s all about the network. Veterans who succeed in the transition to the financial industry quickly learn they need to boost their networking skills to find opportunities in the private sector. This is a sharp contrast to the military, where career progress is marked by moving up in the hierarchy, rather than making connections within and across offices and firms.
To that end, Rubio encourages veterans to forge tighter connections with their peers, who in the long run may be a richer source of valuable information, referrals and introductions that lead to opportunities, compared to people above you in the chain.
The recruiter side
Ryan Jankowski heads EY’s recruiting team hiring professionals to work with financial services clients. While EY had long made a practice of hiring employees with military backgrounds, they began focusing on veterans without a financial services background as a targeted pool for recruiting around 2009, as they began to appreciate more fully the specific skills and values that veterans bring to the table.
“I’ve interviewed hundreds of military officers,” Jankowski said. “I had one guy, probably in his mid-20s, who had unbelievable experience running a top-secret fighter program, with oversight of a multibillion dollar budget. I told him, anything you do here will not be as exciting as that!”
The EY financial services arm is primarily a professional consulting organization that provides expert advice to other client firms on regulatory, compliance and technology matters, Jankowski explains. A great deal of that industry-specific expertise can be picked up and mastered through training and on-the-job learning. But the battle-tested skills of goal setting, collaboration, problem solving and team building that veterans have already acquired are much harder to develop.
“Regardless of what their role was, whether it was logistics or operations or leading infantry or being a platoon leader, the leadership skills they developed are transferable to everything we do in a team setting,” he said. “The hands-on leadership training that the military provides is second to none when it comes to their ability to lead a team, engage people on a mission, and holding people responsible for meeting their goals.
“Those are exceptional qualities for being successful in our business,” he continues. “And honestly, outside the military, there are very few programs that provide that kind of training.”
But bringing in veterans without prior private sector or financial services experience required different types of onboarding and training to navigate some of the key differences between military and civilian work culture.
One key challenge some veterans confront as new employees at EY, Jankowski says, is adjusting to a “flatter” organizational dynamic with more fluid lines of authority. Instead of the clearly delineated chain of command, EY employees could be working on multiple client project teams, with a shifting matrix of supervisors and direct reports, at any one time.
If you’re not accustomed to that working environment, it can cause some anxiety, Jankowski says, though it’s typically short-lived. He encourages veterans to embrace the sense of resiliency and adaptability they forged as military recruits and apply those lessons to the office.
He adds that the industry could do a better job of encouraging veterans to share more about their experiences. Many veterans, accustomed to being deferential to authority, may be slow to speak up to challenge their co-workers and superiors, Jankowski explains.
But once they do, they often have critical insights and fresh problem-solving ideas that boost efficiency and effectiveness. In the fast-changing and disruptive world of financial services, that kind of creative thinking is valuable, but sharing it doesn’t always come naturally to people trained in the military’s environment of top-down authority.
“It takes them a while, until they’re fully embedded in the private sector environment, until they feel that comfort,” he says. “When they do speak up, the results are fantastic. You think, why didn’t you tell us this a month ago? Organizations need to do better at proactively encouraging veterans to feel more comfortable sharing their experience and coming up with ways we can continue to do things better.”
VOWS and the future
The VOWS network, like other initiatives aimed at recruiting service personnel to the private sector, is aimed at helping veterans overcome all of those obstacles.
Since joining EY, Rubio has focused on giving back by devoting part of his time to volunteering with the VOWS network, working with transitioning veterans and connecting them with others who can offer support and advice. He wants to offer a helping hand, just as others did for him when he was getting started.
“Every time I go to a networking event, I hand out as many cards as I can, because I want those veterans who are trying to transition to contact me so I can connect them with the right people,” he says. “If it’s something they want to do in investment banking, I’ll connect them with investment bankers. If they want to talk about going to school before going to work, I’ll connect them with guys who went for an MBA for advice.”
Rubio is also a co-founder of Women Veterans on Wall Street, an affiliated initiative under the VOWS umbrella that works specifically with female veterans, who often experience unique challenges in making the transition to the financial sector. As if that weren’t enough, he’s kept up his military service as a member of the National Guard.
VOWS began in the financial center of New York City, and now has chapters in Boston, Dallas, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Jacksonville. For the future, he says, he hopes to see the network expand to other cities where there are substantial populations of veterans to be connected with VOWS partner firms. A strategic partnership with the Bob Woodruff Foundation, a New York based non-profit advocacy organization that provides support to military veterans and families, is aimed at strengthening VOWS’s impact as the network grows.
Veterans may not have the same kind of on-the-job experience that other candidates for financial positions bring, but they have untapped skills that are in demand in a changing industry. For many veterans, that begins with understanding their own strengths and not selling themselves short just because they lack a finance degree.
“Transitioning into civilian life has its own challenges, but the advice we often give is military veterans are much more equipped to be successful in the private sector than they realize,” Jankowski explains. “They understand that they don’t know what they don’t know. We tell them to trust what they’ve learned in the military and use that as an opportunity to build confidence.”