Koffee with Kevin

Kevin Switick, AVIAN

November 06, 2018

I retired from the Navy as Commander in 2006, after 20 years of service. My Naval career included missions flying attack helicopters in Desert Storm, serving as a Navy test pilot, instructing pilots and astronauts at the Navy Test Pilot School, and ultimately retiring from a position as an acquisition professional, responsible for purchasing a new fleet of attack helicopters. In that final role, I managed an $11B program and oversaw a staff of 250.

When I made the decision to retire and began interviewing for positions in the private sector, my experience made me very marketable. But while there was a lot of interest from many different companies, I received offers that I felt did not reflect my value as an employee. In fact, I felt they were insultingly low. I knew my experience was extremely unique; as a Commander, I had been doing the work of a higher rank at a much younger age than is standard—with notable success. But when it came time to assess my value in terms of salary, potential employers were making offers based on my rank, not my true value.

As this experience unfolded and I became increasingly frustrated, I sought out mentorship and advice from others who had made the transition from a military career. Surprisingly, I found others, even those I considered friends, were hesitant to offer insight—especially about salary and negotiation tactics.

Ultimately, the process led me to start my own business rather than work for a company that did not understand my worth. Together with a good friend and fellow veteran, I launched AVIAN, LLC, a defense contracting company providing support to government and commercial clients around the country.

As we transitioned from our military careers and built our company, my purpose became clear: take care of people and do what is right. Driven by this desire to be of service and act with integrity, I hired every single one of our first 120 employees myself, meeting each candidate for coffee at a local coffee shop. These conversations allowed me to connect and to share my passion. Often, these meetings resulted in the potential employee telling me that they wanted to be a part of what I was creating. But whether they became an AVIAN employee or not, my goal was always to offer guidance and support during our conversation, providing the mentorship I would have appreciated during my own job search.

Over time, my reputation grew in the local marketplace, and I found myself approached by friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers who were leaving the military and seeking career guidance. People started calling me out of the blue and telling me that someone had told them, “you need to have coffee with Kevin.”

Today, 13 years later, I am still meeting five-to-six people a month for “Koffee with Kevin.”

These conversations span a range of topics, but, generally, people are interested in the same essential questions I had when I left my long military career: Where do I go from here? What’s my value? How do I approach this process and negotiate for my worth? Sometimes, they are interested in starting their own company and are seeking advice in that realm. Whether they are launching their own venture or stepping into an existing company, I appreciate the opportunity to share my experience and insight.

My guidance for veterans stepping into private-sector roles is to keep in mind that though they may be wearing business apparel in place of a uniform, it actually takes about six months to take the uniform off. I make a point to have an early conversation with employees joining my company from military careers, during which I provide counsel to ease this transition. I share with them that here is generally one central challenge in this move: the need for efficiency generally trumps diplomacy in task completion in the military—not so in business. I share the power of shifting perspective to appreciate the role of influence and negotiation in their new role. I tell them: Instead of being angry with someone, be fascinated with someone; instead of saying “I have a concern,” say “I have a thought;” instead of having issues, start having ideas. I make sure they know that they can get a lot done out of uniform through influence with thoughts and ideas.

If, as an Evergreen leader, you have the opportunity to hire a veteran, know that you are bringing in a professional trained to think critically, solve problems, and get a job done, propelled by a deep commitment to efficiency and excellence. And, recognize that you are uniquely poised to enter into a productive, fulfilling relationship with an employee who will look to you for leadership. Because more than any other principle, military culture is fundamentally based upon People First leadership, upon the foundation of respect and taking care of your people.

My advice for helping these new employees transition: give them a task and let them go. The task will be completed fast and exactly the way you want it to be done. You don’t have to micromanage. In the Navy, we call it “Commander’s Intent”—give them your intent, and they will make it happen. And, if any task seems to be bogged down, just send an email with the following in the subject line: “Message to Garcia”—that’s military shorthand for "take the initiative and get the job done right." You won’t have to ask twice.

As I reflect on the now thousands of conversations I have had the honor to have with men and women transitioning from the military—both those who have become my employees and those who taken other paths—I am humbled. It makes me feel good, and it never hurts to have friends. But, maybe most important, it also allows me to tell my story and helps me to back up and remember why I did this, where my passion comes from, and feel gratitude for my own journey and for the ability to pay it forward. All those cups of coffee have been a gift to me, and I look forward to a lot more time in the coffee shop.

Kevin Switick is a co-owner and president of AVIAN, a defense contracting company providing support to government and commercial clients around the country.

If you enjoyed this article or talk, please share with your friends, colleagues and family.