“The Surprising Ways My Military Service Prepared Me for a Successful Career in the Private Sector”
In an exclusive interview, Todd Virgil reveals how just six years in the U.S. Air Force helped him build a 20+-year career in the private sector and become a top executive at a Fortune 1000 company.
When it was announced that Todd Virgil was named one of the 2021 Notable Veteran Executives by Crain’s Chicago, no one who knows him was surprised. Ecstatic! But not surprised.
To be honest, Todd has been doing notable work for years, both at Zebra and within the military veteran community. He has also been an avid volunteer with several local youth sports and music programs in the Chicagoland area.
Though he and I go way back, I realized we’ve never really spoken much about the details of his military service or his journey to Motorola Solutions and, eventually, Zebra. When I connected with him recently to learn about his time at the U.S. Air Force Academy and six years as an active duty officer, I was both amazed and impressed by what he did at such a young age. I was also intrigued by how his service influenced his career and life later on.
He was gracious enough to let me share some of our conversation with you. So, I hope you’ll take a few minutes this Veteran’s Day to read and share Todd’s story. His advice – both as a veteran and successful executive – is priceless…
Therese: I think you’re the first U.S. Air Force Academy grad I’ve ever known. So, I have to ask, what was it like to spend your college years in such a structured environment?
Todd: Long days (says with a smile). Service academies have a fairly structured philosophy around three pillars: academics, athletics, and military. They make a point to overload you across the three knowing you won’t achieve it all. It forced prioritizing, decision making, and accountability at an early age…a bit of a culture shock coming right out of high school.
Therese: Did you get to have some fun, too?
Todd: Our definition of “fun” was a bit different I suspect from normal colleges, but I was able to experience a number of things most might not, like flying planes, parachuting out of planes, and attending survival school. That said, living in Colorado we were able to take advantage of the local skiing, hiking, and all that Colorado offers.
Therese: What was your job after college, once you were fully commissioned?
Todd: I was assigned to a base that focused on what the Air Force calls command and control, which is basically using computer systems to manage the air campaign…things like aircraft mission planning, processing intelligence feeds, weather, etc. I led the projects division of a military IT systems integration and test facility where we combined these various systems to ensure interoperability.
Therese: Did you get to choose your career path?
Todd: In the military, you have some say regarding your overall career choice. For example, I was able to say, “I would like to be a program manager.” From there, you are a bit at the mercy of where they need you most. I was able to select Hanscom Air Force Base in the Boston area as my location, but it wasn’t until I showed up where I learned what I would be doing.
Therese: I heard through the grapevine you also served as a squadron commander at an Air Force research lab. That’s sci-fi level cool. I’m sure you learned a lot from that experience.
Todd: While at Hanscom Air Force base, I was selected to be a squadron commander at a geophysical research lab. The lab was a combination of civilian and military scientists focused on geophysical research, in essence everything from the ground to space and the layers in-between. It was a great experience. Our program was a joint Department of Defense project between the Air Force and Navy located in Gakona, Alaska. While there were some military applications, it was a big research program sponsored by an influential Alaskan senator who desired to make Alaska a worldwide geophysical powerhouse.
I oversaw the military personnel affairs for the 73 military members; very akin to what Zebra human resources (HR) does for all of us here at Zebra. Much of it was focused on talent and leadership development.
Therese: Though you stepped out of your active duty role over 20 years ago, I know you’re still a very active champion for the military community. What have you been up to lately to ensure service members and veterans feel supported?
Todd: I am fortunate to work with many proud veterans at Zebra and currently serve as the council chair of VETZ, Zebra’s Inclusion Network (employee resource group) for veterans and their allies. We have built up more than 170 members globally and participation has grown by 85% in the past two years. VETZ has three focus areas of veterans’ interests: internal awareness, which includes honoring veterans’ holidays; community outreach, including supporting local veterans’ organizations with philanthropy and volunteerism; and recruiting veterans who are transitioning from military service to civilian roles.
Most recently, we have been working inside Zebra to leverage the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes program to help a number of transitioning veterans get placed into Zebra roles.
Therese: I know many veterans struggle to find jobs after they leave the service. Some aren’t quite sure how their military skills translate into the private sector, while others experience culture shock. They’ve never had to write resumes or go through the interview process before. Even networking can be a challenge because their networks are often limited to the military community. What advice would you have for veterans who can relate to these challenges?
Todd: Don’t get frustrated. Transitioning from the military is a huge change. You are making a career change, which I know many of us have been through at some point, and you are really making a life change. Outprocessing from the structured military, often relocating your family, figuring out how your skills translate to the corporate world (remember, the military doesn’t manufacture or sell things), and learning new corporate cultures and lingos, usually within a 2-4-month timeframe, is a Herculean feat. Make a plan and know it will take time. Also leverage every contact you have.
Therese: Is there anything that helped you personally? How did you hook up with your first employer after you left the Air Force?
Todd: The power of networking and relationships. I transitioned from the Air Force to Motorola. My brother-in-law worked at Motorola at the time and helped get my resume in the door. I was fortunate as my resume landed across the desk of a good friend and mentor, Brian Pohlman, who now heads our Business Transformation Office here at Zebra. Brian knew of the military and the Air Force Academy from his brother, who also served. I was fortunate to get a meeting with him 21 years ago and he was familiar with the military and the skills veterans can bring to a company. We have kept in touch ever since.
Therese: What should companies be doing to better connect with veterans and help ease their transition?
Todd: I think there are a few things. First, companies should demonstrate a commitment to Inclusion & Diversity and hiring veterans. Several large companies do a great job of this for veterans and set the benchmark. It’s great to see Zebra moving in this direction, and VETZ is working with HR to help build this out.
Second, I mentioned it earlier, but this is a significant transition for these individuals – often a life-changing event. These individuals have a lot of uncertainty and change during these few months. Anything Zebra can do to help outline and document a process to provide those individuals transparency, and, ideally, stability will go a long way. We can’t promise a job, but we can be clear about the process, expectations for both sides, and the timeline.
Finally, we have taken a great initial step with “Hiring Our Heroes” and have demonstrated success with it in our Supply Chain/IT organizations. Multiple groups across our HR team did a great job documenting a process template for working with Hiring Our Heroes. Educating other parts of Zebra on Hiring Our Heroes and this blueprint template is the next step.
Therese: What do you say when either a company or a veteran says, “I don’t know the value of this particular skill set?” Do they just need to shift their perception of their defined skill set? Or should they completely redefine their skill sets to showcase capabilities that companies look for?
Todd: It’s a tough question. The military doesn’t manufacture anything themselves; they leverage companies like Zebra. They don’t sell or market like a traditional corporation. For a soldier who has been on the front lines carrying a weapon, or a sailor who was responsible for navigations or communications on a ship, translating skills can be a challenge.
What the military is very good at is assigning large amounts of responsibility and accountability early on. As a manager at Zebra, I want to tap in and leverage those skills they learned in the military: discipline, teamwork, leadership, working under pressure, etc. We can teach them the other things as they join Zebra.
I think it is important for hiring managers and HR team members to have an open mind when interviewing these individuals as the fit may not be obvious. As we have seen in Steve Williams’ Supply Chain and IT organization, where we have been using “Hiring our Heroes,” once these veterans secure positions at Zebra, they dazzle. And we figure out where they can best contribute.
Therese: Did you find your skill sets translated well into the private sector? Or did you have to reframe your strengths in the job hunting and hiring process?
Todd: I was fortunate as my military role focused a lot on project management, which is a very transferable skill. I still had to work hard to bridge the experiences and cultures, but project management was, and still is, a great backbone to have. I call it “connecting the dots.” I’ve used those program management skills in every role I’ve had since.
Therese: On paper, it looks like you’re doing a very different job now than you did in the Air Force. But I’m curious if you would agree with that. Did your career take a different trajectory once you left the service? Or would you consider your current role and career a continuation of your military career?
Todd: Yeah, I may be one of the more diverse individuals with respect to job roles as I have been in project management in research and development (R&D), product management, corporate mergers and acquisitions, and now sales and channels. The military believes “breadth of experience” over one’s career makes for a better leader. They used three-year job rotations as a means to round out one’s experiences. That is an adage I tried to carry over to my corporate career. While it isn’t always three years to a tee, I like the belief of three-year rotations: first year to learn, second year to build/implement, and third year to own the fruits of your labor. Years ago, I created my own career plan using this three-year rotation mentality and have since baked this into my Individual Development Plan.
When in the military, I never envisioned being in a sales organization. To some degree because I knew very little about sales and likened it to “selling cars.” The reality is, it’s one of the best roles I’ve had as it leans heavily on strategy, technology, and relationships, be it customer, partner, or internal Zebra. In an odd way, I guess I would call it a continuation. Leadership isn’t rocket science, it’s really the ability to create and empower diverse teams to get a job or mission done. People are always at the heart of that, so relationships are vital.
Therese: What’s the first thing veterans should do when job hunting, whether it’s their first job out of the service or they’re just trying to find a job that better suits their strengths?
Todd: Resources have improved over the years, especially as our country has dealt with more transitioning military members. There are some great veteran transition services out there, like the U.S Chamber of Commerce’s “Hiring Our Heroes” program Zebra is leveraging, to help veterans in career planning and searching.
To draw a military parallel for those transitioning…like any mission:
- Gain as much intel as possible on the role, the company, and the culture.
- Have a plan.
- Practice it.
- Most importantly, be flexible and ready to “adapt, improvise, and overcome.” I have been very fortunate over the past 20 years of my post-military career. I could have never predicted how it eventually played out but relying on some of these basic tenants over the years helped immensely.
You can also learn more about the Hiring Our Heroes program here.
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