At Nonprofit HR, we value, support and thank those on our team who have served in the United States Armed Forces. Veterans Day is a time for us to pay our respects to those brave souls who have defended and protected our nation and this year we are recognizing three employees for their military service. In this interview, Atokatha Ashmond Brew (AAB), Managing Director of Marketing & Strategic Communication, sits down with Nonprofit HR colleagues to learn their stories of service and how their early career beginnings in the military providing human resources and talent acquisition support paved the way for their transition to serving the human resource needs of nonprofits.
AAB: How does HR for nonprofits align with your background?
Tameka: With my background coming from the military, and working with defense contractors post-military, one thing I will say is agility. Agility is a necessity for the nonprofit community and an internal Nonprofit HR shared value, and flexibility is my aim. In the military, there’s always something to be done, a characteristic to take on. I was able to bring that into my work with Nonprofit HR and specifically with different clients, learning their priorities, practices and procedures, in addition to Nonprofit HR’s. It has been a nice transition and directly aligns with what I was used to doing in the military.
Amanda: My experience is similar to what Tameka shared. In the military, working with different organizations on different priorities is part of the process. I’ve always appreciated working with different personalities and people that come from all different career levels, backgrounds and lifestyles. I learned early in my career how to navigate those personalities and those relationships, especially employee/supervisor relationships, or those I provided support to. At Nonprofit HR, we provide support to many different organizations and people at all different career levels. The process is quite similar, though the missions are entirely unique. In the military, we’re officially providing defense and protection services for the nation and our allies. At Nonprofit HR, we’re partnering with mission-driven organizations to support some of the most vulnerable populations around the country and world. Both are critically important. I was charged with providing exceptional customer service in the military, and I’ve maintained that same mindset as a Nonprofit HR employee.
Noelle: In addition to what Tameka and Amanda shared, my passion and love for serving people through HR developed during my time in the military. The Army assigned me as a Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Operations Specialist (NBC), but then the recruiting sector needed multilingual soldiers causing me to be transferred to recruiting. Luckily, I fell in love with it! I fell in love with strategic and tactical recruitment approaches, including marketing and analytics, market segmentation and later, I delved into policy and research. I still use it in most of my HR/recruitment planning today. It was easy for me to see how the nonprofit sector’s talent attraction needs and my background align perfectly. The military strengthened my managerial, HR, talent acquisition, diversity of thought and market research skill sets, enabling me to use my full potential and leverage my strengths. Both sectors allowed me to tap into passionate causes and network to help move the needle and perpetuate actionable change.
Amanda: Yeah, and to build upon that because you brought up a good point, I really got a lot more experience with cultural development, especially through working with leaders. As with any organization, there is always a desire to enhance the culture, and in the military I was able to assist with cultural shifts and change management initiatives which involved various levels of influence. The military exposed me to a lot of HR principles, some of them I am still realizing today.
Tameka: I would also like to add the camaraderie and collaboration. Something that’s core to any military experience is one team, one fight—meaning we are all brothers and sisters in arms. My early days of transitioning into Nonprofit HR showed me how everyone is so helpful, from the knowledge sharing to the buddy program we have that brings new employees forward. When I do not know something or need support, I am able to reach out to one of my consulting colleagues who are always willing to help me at the drop of a dime. Being at service together for a common and shared goal goes hand in hand with the military.
AAB: What about HR was most appealing to you?
Noelle: I have always been interested in human interaction and social services, but, as mentioned earlier, I fell in love with HR in the Army. I joined the military because of the unfortunate events on September 11, 2001. I’m not American-born, but that day I knew for certain that I was an American, and I wanted to support a country that provided my family and me with opportunities.
Personally, and before joining the Army, I prayed about my decision. I took the opportunity to serve seriously from day one. One reason is because as a recruiter, you are heavily involved in a person’s life-altering decision-making process. My aim was to help recruits navigate a career choice that could impact them positively or negatively. I had no other option but to be very sensitive to each of their experiences and overly transparent about the process, to ensure they were knowledgeable and confident in their decision making. I have a stack of thank you letters from recruits in basic training for being honest about the military’s expectations of them. I am honored and humbled to have had a positive influence on so many lives. Today’s job candidates I work with through our Impact Search Advisors practice deserve that same level of support and transparency, which made my experiences transferrable.
I believe that there is no in-between when it comes to recruiting; either you love it or hate it. I like to think of a recruiter as a career matchmaker. We research, find and engage with many people and personalities to find the proper pairing for a role. The Army taught me that to be successful in recruiting, you have to know the regulations and policies from cover to cover and keep up with the constant changes.
Amanda: Even though the majority of my career has been information technology (IT) in the military, I have completed the military HR educational program for Captains. I am transitioning to the HR (S1) section (department) because I wanted to help soldiers navigate their way in an organization with which they were set to spend the majority of their life. I have enjoyed working on initiatives that focused on employee engagement, performance management and the employee experience, which is unique for the military. While working in these areas, at least for the units that I worked with, I wanted to introduce some civilian workplace attributes into the military sector to increase efficiency.
AAB: Please share what roles you’ve held in your career—military and civilian.
Tameka: My branch was Navy and the military was my first job. I went into the military right after high school. I entered aviation and was supposed to work on an aircraft carrier and top deck with the aircrafts. I accidentally got put in an HR position, because I found an area of opportunity for my department in which I created an onboarding process.
Since then, the positions that I’ve held in the military are aviation, engineering, welding, and I even worked on restrooms, or what in the military we call “the head”, restoration. We put together the restrooms, showers, sinks, toilets and anything else in the lavatories. Of course, this means I am great at home projects! After that stint, I was able to go back into aviation because they needed someone who could handle the HR side. And so, that’s when I really got to get the bulk of experience in human resources.
AAB: Was the military a track you knew you wanted to pursue?
Noelle: Not for me. My entry into the Army was not as straight. I originally wanted to be a psychologist. While in college, I was very fortunate to have landed a fantastic job working directly under a lead psychologist writing behavior plans with a nonprofit healthcare organization advocating for the mentally/developmentally disabled population. When September 11 happened, something clicked, and I made the grave decision to join the military. Once enrolled, I took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB test), was assigned a military occupational specialty (MOS), and then was sent to basic training and advanced individual training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri as a (74D) Nuclear Biological Chemical Operations Specialist, later selected as an Active/Guard Reserve (79R) Recruiter, trained in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Good times!
With less than two years in the Army, I was selected for a promotion to Sergeant, then was transferred to New York City Recruiting Battalion at Fort Hamilton, New York, where I served as a non-commissioned officer (NCO) in charge of special missions recruiting. When I was reassigned to recruiting, I thought I would only recruit for high school students. My strategic recruiting approach and processes led me to recruit for mission-critical, highly specialized, hard to fill, senior-level roles. One of my recruits drafted the first Arabic recruitment pamphlet. Since then, I’ve had some exciting opportunities to work for fantastic companies across various industries, including the New York Stock Exchange, NIH, The Nature Conservancy and Nonprofit HR.
Amanda: Similar to Tameka, I started right out of high school. Today I am a Captain in the Army National Guard transitioning to the Army Reserves. I enlisted while in my senior year, and after I graduated I left for basic training in June. I did not necessarily want to go; that wasn’t my plan initially. I started out enlisted, doing wire and cable and then I moved on to what was called 35 Lima (wire and cable) at the time. I was in for five years by the time I went to Officer Candidate School (OCS), and I’ve been an officer now since 2010, and I’ve loved it. I’ve worked as a Platoon Leader which consists of 30 soldiers on average. I’ve worked as an Executive Officer. The Executive Officer works under the commander for a unit of 60-120 soldiers on average. I have worked as a Commander of 60 soldiers. I have also worked at a Brigade and Signal Command level. I’ve been on two deployments, one in Afghanistan and one that I just recently came back from in Kuwait. In my second most recent position I was the second person to assist with standing up a Theater wide entity utilized for over multiple different countries. Altogether, I’ve served for over 18 years.
AAB: What can nonprofits do to better understand and make space for veterans?
Amanda: Go to meetings. There are plenty of organizations that focus on employment law and host conferences as an opportunity to not only learn about military law and advocate but to allow other employers to ask questions, network, speak up and talk about things that they’re doing to help soldiers transition into civilian roles. I have found that there are some civilian employers that are not very supportive of soldiers in the workplace, at least in my experience and honestly, in a lot of my soldier’s experiences as well. I have seen some people come back from overseas that have been gone for nine months, and they come back home and lose their job. Immediately, their goal is to figure out how to take care of their family.
I encourage organizations to revisit their leave policies. Some soldiers would tell me that they were uncomfortable challenging civilian employers about leave policies because they feared they could lose their job. They’d share that the organization would simply come up with some other reasons to fire them. It is very beneficial for employers to take the time to understand the needs of soldiers transitioning to and from deployment. HR professionals who have or are serving in the military understand the level of skills and experience soldiers bring to an organization. If more organizations took the time to understand how these skills translate to the civilian work sector then they would find most of us to be overqualified for positions they have hired soldiers in and many could offer so much more.
Tameka: I would encourage organizations to connect with the local workforce department, many of them work with veterans. Also, understand the areas that are heavily veteran populated and that the individuals in the military have a unique set of skills that transition easily to many roles. I mean, military employees are taught leadership, collaboration and discipline. So, if individuals can recognize it, they would be able to maximize that expertise for the success of their organization. Personally, a lot of civilian organizations did not even count my military HR experience, because they felt that it wasn’t “real HR experience.” Military HR is HR and sometimes, a lot more.
Noelle: Organizations can learn more about the veteran community by registering with the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) or similar programs. ESGR assists in forging stronger bonds between an organization and veterans. Hiring veterans is a strategic way to become known as a veteran-friendly organization. It shows that the company is taking the initiative to make a difference and hire individuals in that demographic. Adding an affinity group for veterans and supporters can also serve as an information and support conduit for the entire workforce. It is wonderful that Nonprofit HR has an affinity group for employees with military experience.
Another way is to utilize various tools to help translate military credentials and experience into civilian skills and skill sets. Militaryonesource.mil is a great resource. There are multiple resources and accessible websites that could be utilized by military personnel and organizations alike. I have worked on similar initiatives in the past, providing the hiring manager the proper tools and resources when interviewing veterans. These tools are available to everyone.
Amanda: I want to piggyback off the cross from military HR to civilian HR. Like Noelle said, in the military, HR can be especially sensitive. In some roles, HR can function like a caregiver and in others, the resilient leader. The traumas service members go through make the level of HR support more demanding. Factoring this in and taking value in the military HR experience when hiring for a civilian HR role can be a game changer for talent management.
AAB: You all talked about different phases of your career, what was the actual transition out of the service like?
Noelle: I was fortunate enough to have had supportive friends, family and a church community to help me transition out of the Army. One of the most helpful resources I used when transitioning out of the Army was the Transition Assistance Program (TAP). At the time, they launched a new initiative to ensure the proper resources were accessible to all service members exiting all military branches. I needed all the support I could get because there’s a major adjustment period whether you were on active duty for two or 20 years. My entire world revolved around the military; I went from being provided with someone who managed my finances, housing and pay, and never having to worry about anything except defending and protecting to leaving the Army and taking ownership of those life-altering logistics.
My transition out of the military was a little smoother than most, but not by much. I got my first civilian job six months after my honorable discharge. Taking the TAP training was extremely beneficial; I also attended many other event types offered by the military, networked and engaged with various military-friendly organizations.
Tameka: You know, I was very fortunate as well transitioning out. The program Noelle mentioned provides resources, such as how to dress for an interview, how to have a successful interview experience and more. I was very fortunate because while I was in, I went to nursing school and I was going to transition into an officer program as a nurse. I worked in the Veteran Affairs (VA) facility while I was in the military, in Hampton Roads, and then I realized I did not want to be a nurse. While I love the nursing profession and still support it when I can, I pursued other interests. Education has always been a priority for me and is one of the main reasons I went into the military, because my parents couldn’t afford to pay for my education. I went in for the education and pursued my studies, and then Cupid shot me while I was at service. That’s where I met my husband who also is in the military. This smoothened the transition process for me because he was still in. We still live in the Hampton Roads area where all branches are present and a lot of employers have prioritized prior military service with their talent attraction programs. In fact, many companies in our area are run by retired military. Yet, though I was very fortunate, some of my friends were struggling with that transition.
Amanda: I’ll speak to transitioning from a deployment and going into the workspace because that’s very similar, especially when you’re serving the National Guard or as a reservist. For example, if you’re not full-time in the National Guard or Reserve, you transition back and forth between military professions and civilian professions frequently over the years. I know a lot of soldiers who were not as successful in these transitions for a number of reasons which usually include lack of support from the civilian organization. Deployment transitions are hard and even when you transition well in the professional space, there’s the mental space that is not always an easy shift.
When I came home for the first time, it was very hard for me for a very long time. I think it took me over a year mentally to transition back into what was normal society. I tried to be more deliberate in my transition after my most recent deployment by not getting a job right away and giving myself time. As Noelle said, being in the military full-time most of your essential needs are taken care of by the military. Going from a deployment where I did not have to worry about cooking, cleaning, driving, grocery shopping, running errands, to going back into mommy and wife mode was emotionally and mentally overwhelming. Employers who prioritize wellness can help with that transition process. While the military offers great transition programs, in my opinion, it is important for the soldier to be in a good mental space to transition well, and to take advantage of the transition programs the military and civilian employers offer.
AAB: What is the bravest thing you’ve done?
Tameka: Well, I’ve jumped off the platform into the Persian Gulf. And because I’m from west Texas where there is no water, no hills, no trees and just flat land, that was a really brave move for me. I wouldn’t say I am a professional swimmer. Let’s just say I can stay afloat to save my life, but then here I am on this ship with 7,000 other people that I don’t know in the middle of the ocean. The ship is like a floating city. That’s what we’d call it, and it includes its own police department, fire department, stores and all on it. Today, I know that serving was the best thing I could have done in my life.
Amanda: The bravest thing I did was go on a deployment to Afghanistan. A lot of the bases were under attack often. Every time I was sitting in the bunker I would wonder if I was going to make it back to the States alive. Some of the soldiers became numb to this but I never could. It was an experience I never would have imagined living out before joining the military.
Noelle: I was never deployed, but one of the bravest things was learning how to speak up for myself and face challenges head-on to have a positive experience and promote self-advocacy. I focused on my faith, family, friends and those I was able to impact directly—that was it. The rewards earned from this self-realization included becoming the top recruiter in the country for special missions and being hand-picked to represent the U.S. Army at the New York Stock Exchange’s Closing Bell twice, in 2005 for the end of the year and in 2012 for the Army’s 238th birthday.
AAB: What are a few lessons that nonprofits can learn from the way that the U.S. Armed Forces function and operate?
Amanda: We lead with the mindset of serving, which is what nonprofits do. Soldiers serve every day and whether the soldier is Active Duty, National Guard, or Reserve, taking the time to understand just how much soldiers know how to serve while tapping into their skill sets can help nonprofits find better ways to serve. Also understand that soldiers are very flexible because most of us transfer units almost every two years. So, we are easily adaptable to different environments, cultures and personalities, and add significant value to collaboration teams. We also have much experience with change management and implementation, and nonprofits can look at that as they continue to grow and enhance where they are.
Tameka: Serve not only your communities but your employees. You have to have great leadership to stay afloat in the military because it can be mentally, emotionally and physically draining. Not only as you serve your communities and push your mission forward, but to make sure you’re doing it for your employees as well.
Noelle: In addition to what Tameka and Amanda said, nonprofits should recognize that military employees have the skills and credentials to get the job done with high precision. They may need the support to translate their strength into civilian verbiage, but who doesn’t need help when transitioning into a new position?
As far as what the military can learn from nonprofits, it’s transparency. In the nonprofit sector, transparency is necessary when discussing finances, efforts and needed support; in addition to transparency, self-expression is highly encouraged, which is different from the Army. Both environments make an impact that’s changing the world for future generations, the difference lies in their approach. Hopefully, there’s an opportunity for them to work together and push that forward in the future.
Amanda: I would say what the military can learn from nonprofits is proper employee management when it comes to really tapping into skills the Reserve and National Guard has. Most of them have skills from the civilian work which is as valuable as their military occupational specialty (MOS). I worked for a One Star General who had been on a mission overseas, where they were standing up some bases. One of the soldiers used to be a Mayor and they were looking for somebody with that skill set. This soldier’s background was put to great use. This is an example of using a soldier’s civilian experience to help support the military.
AAB: My final question to you all is more focused on career tracking. As three women of color, did you know early on that the military was a viable career option? How far back did you know that this was an option for you?
Noelle: Not discussing the military as a viable career option in education is a missed opportunity. The military teaches people about camaraderie, leadership, interpersonal, discipline, accountability and ownership skills. I believe that everyone should be afforded the chance to participate in the military for at least two years to obtain the aforementioned skill sets and standardize this career path (choice). I decided the Army was a career option on September 11. Could I have chosen that career path sooner, had I known about their structure and development earlier on? Possibly. Ultimately, I hope messaging about the Army and transitioning to civilian lifestyle changes for the better. The experience you get is one like no other and the skill sets attained are highly translatable to other industries, you just have to be intentional!
Tameka: I would say, when I was in elementary school, I saw a Navy commercial and I remember telling my friend, I think I’m going to go to the Navy. I didn’t really think much into it because I’m the first person in my family to join the military. Like I said, I’m from west Texas where the military wasn’t even on the radar. I just saw this one commercial. Then, later on, in high school, I saw the movie “Antwone Fisher” and I said, “Of course I’m going to the Navy.” Based on the movie and seeing him travel, I said, “Yeah, I’m traveling.” But, I will say that what the military can do is bring more awareness and exposure into diverse communities. Partnering with elementary school career programmers just to showcase different options that you can have in the military and how that relates to the civilian world is also a missed opportunity.
Amanda: I came in because my dad was military. I am proud to say that we have a lot of military people in my family. However, I didn’t have it in my head that this was viable until I became an officer. At that point, I started to understand the potential of making military service a career. Like Noelle said, I do think that everybody should at least be exposed to military service as a career option, and it would be great if employers prioritized service as well.
Note: Interview responses provided in this story were shared by each team member and represent their memories of serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. The views expressed are those of the interviewees and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Armed Forces or U.S. Government. For questions about this story, please email Atokatha Ashmond Brew at email@example.com.
More about our featured team members!
|Noelle Myriam Cherubim is Team Leader & Senior Consultant on Nonprofit HR’s Recruitment Outsourcing team. As Senior Consultant, Noelle will lead recruitment outsourcing engagements and work closely with client leaders and management to understand workforce planning needs and develop and execute strategies for high-volume recruitment outsourcing. Read Noelle’s full bio.|
|With over 9 years of experience working in HR, Tameka Lockhart-Spann works as an essential part of the Outsourcing team to interact with client POCs and employees handling day to day HR operational activities, programs and projects. This includes providing full spectrum HR support and assistance to employees, managers, HR team members, HR vendors and external agencies. Read Tameka’s full bio.|
|Amanda Waller is an Associate Consultant for the firm’s Outsourcing division. This includes providing day-to-day application of specified HR processes, policies, procedures and documentation to fulfill spectrum of HR general project task including but not limited to benefits, payroll, time-tracking, employee events (hire, termination, leave of absence), job changes, compensation actions, HR policies, learning/training, performance management and employee relations. Read Amanda’s full bio.|