Just another unemployed 40-year-old

 

Some of my clients were fairly influential.

The problem wasn’t getting a job; it was figuring out what type of job I wanted.  I had no shortage of opportunities for employment after the Air Force.  This was because of my personal connections to many defense contractors.  I’d never thought about types of jobs before.  The Air Force was my life.  The decision to retire consumed all my energy.  Now that I was “out,” what should I do?  After my epic fishing vacation to Pennsylvania, I settled into a routine of filling out job applications, attaching my resume and going on interviews.  One company was too big; another was too small.

Even more important, what did I want to do once I had a job?  I really didn’t know.  If I wanted a career, I’d have to compete against engineers who would have been with their company for fifteen to twenty years.  I’d be competing against folks who had over a decade of loyalty built up.  I wasn’t qualified for most engineering jobs and didn’t want them.  I also didn’t want to sell some company’s wares back to the government.  I hated those jobs as well.  My first observation was that the most distasteful jobs, like sales or detailed engineering, paid the most.  Oh, well.  Stay in school, build your house of bricks . . . blah, blah, blah.  

With the transition from the military over, I took a job with a system engineering company that specialized in technical support to the “A’s.”  You know the A’s:  DIA, NSA, and the CIA.  I lasted a little less than a year.  

I was highly paid, highly cleared, and highly miserable.  The work was challenging, and I got to see other programs and a different side of the Intelligence Community.  It wasn’t the work that I disliked, although some assignments were better than others.  Some customers were better than others as well.  The Defense Intelligence Agency seemed to be at war with itself.  I never could relate to their turf battles and office politics.  NSA was odd.  Just plain odd.  After driving from Virginia to Ft. Meade, Maryland, I’d sit in meetings for what seemed like days on end.  Nobody smiled, dared to laugh, or even make eye contact.  Thirty thousand government civilians worked at NSA, all of them eerily smart and deadly quiet.  Thirty thousand introverts.  Thirty thousand people who had memorized everyone else in the room’s shoe size.

By Air Force standards and certainly by Army standards, the CIA is a small organization.  More people work at the Pentagon alone than at the CIA.  Before 9/11, the Intelligence Community was trying to get along with itself.  The leaders knew that the different agencies needed to share information.  Horizontal integration and sharing information was the key to stopping the next terrorist attack.  Key for everyone but the CIA.  While the whole community was becoming kinder, gentler, and more sharing, the CIA dug their foxholes deeper.  “Vertical Cylinders of Excellence.”  That was the CIA.  But I liked their culture of getting hard things done.  I had built a good reputation as a results-oriented manager.  At my Air Force retirement ceremony, I remember commenting to Lillian; I know more people at Langley (CIA HQ) than I do at the Pentagon.  

I lasted less than a year with that private company.  I can’t remember the month, but it was performance review month.  Every employee needed a performance review in the same month.  I got mine.  It was the worse review I had ever received.  Now, everyone knows that the military inflates the word picture about the troops.  “Don’t believe what your paper says” was the advice from many a colonel.  Apparently, that’s not the case in the private sector.  Now, I should have been happy with my 4% raise.  After all, it was higher than most. But, when I received it, I couldn’t believe it!  Who the hell was this guy who signed my appraisal?  I didn’t know him.  He claimed to be my supervisor.  I’d never met him.  He wrote a word picture of me that damned me with faint praise.  

I requested an in-person interview.  Initially, he objected.  He couldn’t bill a government customer for this time.  He’d have to work late, on his own time.  I walked into his office, introduced myself and sat down.  For the past several months, I’d worked my ass off.  My DIA, NSA and CIA customers were happy with me.  Why the mediocre review?  I can’t remember what this company exec said.  In the end, it didn’t matter.  I looked around; he had a nice corner office in a downtown office complex.  He was happy for me to work my ass off.  Work my ass off and get a cost-of-living raise.  Work my ass off, so he could enjoy his nice corner office.  Then I saw it . . .  the rest of my life.  He had his office; I’d never get his office.  He wasn’t ever going to be reassigned.  I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.  I left the company one month later.

I was still forty years old, and I needed a job, — again.  What I’d learned in those nine months was that my skill set didn’t depend on a private company.  Plus, Lillian had a good job; I had free health care, courtesy of the military, so why not take a risk?  So I did. 

The decision to form my own company was the best financial decision I ever made.  While I had a good salary, health care, and a 401k, I didn’t like having a contractor boss while I worked for a government client.  That was twice the oversight I was used to.  So, I fired my contractor bosses and declared Gary Inc. open for business.  A few of my Air Force friends who retired when I did, banded together and formed their own company.  I could have joined on the ground floor.  Today the company has hundreds of employees, and the founder, president and those early employees are multimillionaires.  But I choose to form a “party of one.”  I formed a business, hung out my shingle, and announced, “Consultant for Hire.”  For me, finding clients was never much of a problem.  Not because of some special skill or talent, but I did have a good reputation, and most of my clients knew me from my Air Force days.  It seemed like the ones I had fought with the most wanted to hire me now.

  • So, why did government clients hire me?  To get stuff done.  I was never hired to do a straightforward job.  I was hired to see around corners.  To fix problems and find a better way.  
  • So, why me and not someone better suited, educated, and capable?  Because I thought you wanted something done.  Resumes don’t fix problems; people do.  I do.
  • So, why should I hire you?  Because I’ll work harder than you, care more than you.  I won’t rest, take a day off, or sleep until you’re successful.

And so, my business model was formed.

This model served me well for twenty years.  My first company was J&J Enterprises.  Nobody ever asked what J&J meant.  I came up with this company name when Jennifer and Jason were going to college.  If any parent can’t remember why they’re working, then they don’t have children going to college.  My business had but one goal—children with a college degree and no debt.  Years later, when we moved to Maryland and the Eastern Shore, I consulted under the business name of Toucan Consulting.  In my twenty-year career as an independent consultant, I never had anyone care or even ask what my business name meant.  I also never bothered with anything more complicated than a sole proprietorship business model—no LLC, S Corp. or whatever.  Nobody was going to sue me as a consultant.  Why waste the time?  If I gave bad advice, I’d be fired but never sued.  Turns out, over twenty years, I gave plenty of bad advice.  I seldom hired an accountant, tax advisor, or financial consultant.  I just worked my ass off.  I was very successful.

The five things that made my twenty-year consulting career a success. 

  1. Lillian.  No, I don’t mean wifely encouragement.  Blah Blah Blah.  We all get that.  What I mean is that Lillian was now a senior vice president and had stock options.  I mean a lot of stock options.  With my consulting income, I could leverage her company stock.  In military terms, she and her career were a “force multiplier.”  
  1. My Master of Public Administration Degree.  With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union, the NRO had to retool, reorganize, and completely rethink its mission.  Unlike an MBA, my MPA degree was tailor-made for this transition.  My coursework was heavy on organizational development, strategic planning, government budgeting, and, you guessed it, analytical decision making.  These skills were critical to the NRO’s future.
  1. My Defense Acquisition Management College Diploma.  My formal training in the federal government’s acquisition process complemented my civilian curriculum vitae.  This formal training was supported by my twenty-plus years working in R&D, satellite and ground systems operation, and large-scale (billion with a B) program development.
  1. Only working for honorable clients.  During the years that the NRO was reorganizing, my specialty was helping to manage this confusion.  The NRO had multiple tribes.  I had worked on NRO programs managed by the CIA, Air Force and Navy.  Each of these tribes was highly suspicious of each other.  The new NRO would need to rebuild trust and live a more integrated life.  I was trusted and could walk among the tribes.  After most of the reorganizations happened, I was often the last one in the room as the program director faced difficult decisions.  Some of these senior executives or colonels/general officers were paranoid, arrogant and some were even downright rude.  But all were extremely capable, competent, and focused on inspiring their workforce to solve complex technological challenges.  At the end of my career, I was no longer hired for my advice but to listen to the difficult choices and help the manager “see around corners.”  I got to see good leadership up close.  I’d like to think I helped.
  1. Trust.  If having the trust of your government clients is important, having the trust and friendship of colleagues is even greater.  Nobody works alone.  Living at the center of a large complex organization made up of multiple tribes makes relationships critical.  In an organization spread around the globe, forming and maintaining relationships is extremely difficult.  I was blessed to work with a few folks who you could literally trust with your life.  Some of these folks worked with me in Northern Virginia, but most were scattered around the globe.  Each friend brought a unique skill set to the table.  Together, our bond helped the government manage a worldwide network of spy satellites and ground stations.  I’ll highlight some of these fine people in the upcoming chapters.

Until then . . .

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